Sir Philip Sidney (November 30, 1554 – October 17, 1586) became one of the Elizabethan Age's most prominent figures. Famous in his day in England as a poet, courtier and soldier, he remains known as the author of Astrophil and Stella (1581, pub. 1591), The Defence of Poetry (or An Apology for Poetry, 1581, pub. 1595), and The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1580, pub. 1590).
Life and Family
Born at Penshurst, Kent, he was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley. His mother was the daughter of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and the sister of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. His younger sister, Mary Sidney, married Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Mary Sidney was important as a translator and as a patron of poetry; Sidney dedicated his longest work, the Arcadia, to her.
Philip was educated at Shrewsbury School and Christ Church, Oxford. He was much travelled and highly learned. In 1572, he travelled to France as part of the embassy to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth I and the Duc D'Alençon. He spent the next several years in Europe, moving through Germany, Italy, Poland, and Austria. On these travels, he met a number of prominent European intellectuals and politicians.
Returning to England in 1575, Sidney met Penelope Devereaux, the future Penelope Blount; though much younger, she would inspire his famous sonnet sequence of the 1580s, Astrophel and Stella. Her father, the Earl of Essex, is said to have planned to marry his daughter to Sidney, but he died in 1576. In England, Sidney occupied himself with politics and art. He defended his father's administration of Ireland in a lengthy document. More seriously, he quarrelled with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, probably because of Sidney's opposition to the French marriage, which de Vere championed. In the aftermath of this episode, Sidney challenged de Vere to a duel, which Elizabeth forbade. He then wrote a lengthy letter to the Queen detailing the foolishness of the French marriage. Characteristically, Elizabeth bristled at his presumption, and Sidney prudently retired from court.
His artistic contacts were more peaceful and more significant for his lasting fame. During his absence from court, he wrote the Arcadia and, probably, The Defense of Poesy. Somewhat earlier, he had met Edmund Spenser, who dedicated the Shepheardes Calendar to him. Other literary contacts included membership of the (possibly fictitious) 'Areopagus', a humanist endeavour to classicise English verse, and his friendship with his sister who, after his death, completed the verse translation of the Psalms that he had begun.
Sidney had returned to court by the middle of 1581. That same year Penelope Devereaux was married, apparently against her will, to Lord Rich. Sidney was knighted in 1583. An early arrangement to marry Anne Cecil, daughter of Sir William Cecil and eventual wife of de Vere, had fallen through in 1571. In 1583, he married Frances, teenage daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. The next year, he met Giordano Bruno who subsequently dedicated two books to Sidney.
Both through his family heritage and his personal experience (he was in Walsingham's house in Paris during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre), Sidney was a keenly militant Protestant. In the 1570s, he had persuaded John Casimir to consider proposals for a united Protestant effort against the Roman Catholic Church and Spain. In the early 1580s, he argued unsuccessfully for an assault on Spain itself. In 1585, his enthusiasm for the Protestant struggle was given a free rein when he was appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, he consistently urged boldness on his superior, his uncle the Earl of Leicester. He conducted a successful raid on Spanish forces near Axel in July, 1586.
Later that year, he joined Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen. During the siege, he was shot in the thigh and died twenty-six days later. According to story, while lying wounded he gave his water-bottle to another wounded soldier, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine". This became possibly the most famous story about Sir Phillip, intended to illustrate his noble character.
Sidney's body was returned to London and interred in St. Paul's Cathedral on 16 February 1587. Already during his own lifetime, but even more after his death, he had become for many English people the very epitome of a courtier: learned and politic, but at the same time generous, brave, and impulsive. Never more than a marginal figure in the politics of his time, he was memorialised as the flower of English manhood in Edmund Spenser's Astrophel, one of the greatest English Renaissance elegies.
An early biography of Sidney was written by his friend and schoolfellow, Fulke Greville.
The Rye House conspirator, Algernon Sydney, was Sir Philip's great-nephew.
Astrophil and Stella — The first of the famous English sonnet sequences, Astrophil and Stella was probably composed in the early 1580s. The sonnets were well-circulated in manuscript before the first (apparently pirated) edition was printed in 1591; only in 1598 did an authorised edition reach the press. The sequence was a watershed in English Renaissance poetry. In it, Sidney partially nativised the key features of his Italian model, Petrarch: variation of emotion from poem to poem, with the attendant sense of an ongoing, but partly obscure, narrative; the philosophical trappings; the musings on the act of poetic creation itself. His experiments with rhyme scheme were no less notable; they served to free the English sonnet from the strict rhyming requirements of the Italian form.
The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia — The Arcadia, by far Sidney's most ambitious work, was as significant in its own way as his sonnets. The work is a romance that combines pastoral elements with a mood derived from the Hellenistic model of Heliodorus. In the work, that is, a highly idealized version of the shepherd's life adjoins (not always naturally) with stories of jousts, political treachery, kidnappings, battles, and rapes. As published in the sixteenth century, the narrative follows the Greek model: stories are nested within each other, and different story-lines are intertwined. The work enjoyed great popularity for more than a century after its publication. William Shakespeare borrowed from it for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear; parts of it were also dramatized by John Day and James Shirley. According to a widely-told story, King Charles I quoted lines from the book as he mounted the scaffold to be executed; Samuel Richardson named the heroine of his first novel after Sidney's Pamela. Arcadia exists in two significantly different versions. Sidney wrote an early version during a stay at Mary Herbert's house; this version is narrated in a straightforward, sequential manner. Later, Sidney began to revise the work on a more ambitious plan. He completed most of the first three books, but the project was unfinished at the time of his death. After a publication of the first three books (1590) sparked interest, the extant version was fleshed out with material from the first version (1593).
An Apology for Poetry (also known as The Defence of Poesy) — Sidney wrote the Defence before 1583. It is generally believed that he was at least partly motivated by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright who dedicated his attack on the English stage, The School of Abuse, to Sidney in 1579, but Sidney primarily addresses more general objections to poetry, such as those of Plato. In his essay, Sidney integrates a number of classical and Italian precepts on fiction. The essence of his defense is that poetry, by combining the liveliness of history with the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy in rousing its readers to virtue. The work also offers important comments on Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethan stage.
In pop culture
Supt. Harold Gaskell of the Metropolitan Police Vice Squad is repeatedly mistaken for Sir Philip Sidney in a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch.
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