1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney
English poet and soldier

SIR PHILIP SIDNEY (1554-1586), although killed at the early age of thirty-two, was one of the most conspicuous figures at the court of Elizabeth, was known to the leading statesmen of Europe as a soldier and statesman of the highest promise, took a permanent place in history and legend as a romantic hero, and in literature is distinguished as the author of the first important body of English sonnets and a writer whose works mark a distinct advance in English prose. He was born at Penshurst in Kent on 29th November 1554. His father was Sir Henry Sidney, famous in his time as an administrator of Ireland, his mother a Dudley, sister of Elizabeth's favourite, the earl of Leicester, and daughter of the duke of Northum-berland executed for high treason in the reign of Mary. Thus Sidney was of notable kindred on both sides—

'' Others, because of both sides I do take My blood from them who did excel in this, Think Nature me a man-at-arms did make."

He received his scholastic education at Shrewsbury school and at Christ Church, Oxford. He was entered at Shrewsbury on the same day with his lifelong friend and biographer Fulke Greville, afterwards Lord Brooke. In 1572 he set out with three years' leave of absence to com-plete his education by Continental travel; he was in Paris at the house of the English ambassador on the night of the massacre of St Bartholomew, and went thence to Frankfort, Vienna, and the chief cities of Italy. During these travels he associated with scholars and statesmen, making an earnest study of European politics, winning golden opinions for his youthful gravity and sagacity. From that time Hubert Languet, the Beformer, whom he met at Frankfort, maintained a constant correspondence with him. On his return he was introduced at court, won the favour of Elizabeth, who considered him " one of the jewels of her crown," and, in proof of the versatility which made him one of the wonders of his age, wrote a masque, The Lady of the May, for Leicester's great reception of the queen at Kenilworth, and distinguished himself in the tournament upon the same occasion. In 1577, at the age of twenty-two, being sent as ambassador in great state to congratulate and sound Kudolph II., the new emperor of Germany, he met William the Silent, who pronounced him one of the ripest statesmen in Europe. He returned in the following year, and from that time till the expedition to the Netherlands, in which he lost his life, he had no public employment, but lived partly at court, partly at his country seat at Penshurst in Kent. In 1583 he married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, who after his death became countess of Essex. His most memorable interference in state affairs was a bold letter of remonstrance to Elizabeth against her suspected policy of marrying the duke of Anjou. The queen's anger at his boldness drove him for a time into retirement. He was a strong advocate of in-tervention on the Protestant side, and in 1585 accom-panied Leicester in his expedition to the Netherlands, and was appointed governor of Flushing, one of the towns held by the queen as security. The historical truth of the famous incident at the battle of Zutphen (22d September 1586), when the wounded hero passed a cup of water to a dying soldier, has been questioned; but it is matter of fact that he owed his death to an impulse of romantic generosity. The lord marshal happening to enter the field of Zutphen without greaves, Sidney cast off his also, to put his life in the same peril, and thus exposed himself to the fatal shot. His death took place twenty-five days later, on 17th October 1586, at Arnheim.

No poet's death was ever so lamented by poets as Sidney's. Pastoral elegy was in fashion, and all the numerous poets and rhymesters of the time from Spenser to Davison hastened to lay their tribute of verse on the bier of this the darling of all the shepherds—

" With whom all joy and jolly merriment Is also deaded and in dolour drent."

That there was much more than the worship of his rank and his bright eager personality in this is shown by the lasting reputation of what he wrote during the two years of retirement, 1580-81, which he seems to have given mainly to literature. The truth is that Sidney transferred his own strong, radiant, graceful, and lovable character to his writings with a freshness and lidelity such as few finished artists have achieved, so that he really and literally lives in them to charm for ever. None of his writings were published during his lifetime, and the dates of composition are uncertain. But it would seem that Sidney's first attempt at verse was a metri-cal version of the Psalms, written in conjunction with his sister, the countess of Pembroke,—"Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother." The worth of these paraphrases, which have all Sidney's qualities of sincerity, directness, and sweetness of rhythm, has recently been recognized by Mr Ruskin, who has edited them under the title of llock Honeycomb in the second volume of his Bibliotheca Pastorum (1877). Sidney's famous prose romance, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, the "vain amatorious poem" with which Charles I. solaced his imprisonment, was also begun in 1580. It was pub-lished in 1590, and kept its popularity as long as that kind of high-flown sentiment and intricate adventure found readers. The buoyancy and freshness of Sidney's style give a certain air of reality even to the artificial scenes of the Arcadia, and many pretty songs are interspersed through the work. Sidney's greatest poetic achieve-ment, however, was the series of sonnets entitled Astrophel and Stella, the first important body of sonnets in the English language. The sonnets, 110 in number, are a chronicle of the poet's love for Penelope Devereux, sister of the earl of Essex, afterwards Lady Rich. He first met the lady when she was a child of twelve at one of the stages in Elizabeth's progress to Kenilworth in 1575. A match was apparently arranged between them by their families, but upon Leicester's disgrace it was broken off and Penelope was given .to Lord Rich. Sidney seems then to have discovered that he was in love with her. "Whether the passion was real or feigned for artistic purposes is of little consequence, although the reality of it has been hotly maintained; he writes as if it were real, and the verisimilitude of the story recorded in the sonnets, which express his varying moods towards her throughout the incidents of sub-sequent intercourse and the distractions of his public life, adds greatly to their interest. Very few of the sonnets will bear separa-tion from the context, though there is hardly one that does not contain some sweet ingenuity of fancy or casual felicity of phrase. Some of them were special favourites with Charles Lamb. Sidney's other work during this busy literary passage in his short life, the Apologie for Poctrie, has also established itself as a classic.

The best of the sonnets are selected by Mrs Ward in Ward's English Poets ; Mr Main also makes a good selection in his Treasury of English Sonnets. The sonnets were probably written in 1581; they were not published till 1591, when they formed the first in a brilliant series of volumes of sonnet literature (see " Elizabethan Sonneteers," in Minto's Characteristics of English Poets). The Apologie is included in Arber's reprints. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: William Minto, M.A., Professor of Logic, University of Aberdeen.

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