1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:232-33.



SIR PHILIP SIDNEY was born, in 1554, at Penshurst, in Kent; and during his studies at Shrewsbury, Oxford, and Cambridge, displayed remarkable acuteness of intellect and craving for knowledge. After spending three years on the continent, he returned to England in 1575, and became one of the brightest ornaments of the court of Elizabeth, in whose favour he stood very high. In the year 1580, his mind having been ruffled in a quarrel with the Earl of Oxford, he retired in search of tranquillity to the seat of his brother-in-law, the Earl of Pembroke, at Wilton, and there occasionally employed himself in composing this work above-mentioned, a heroic romance, to which, as it was written chiefly for his sister's amusement, he gave the title of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

This production was never finished, and, not having been intended for the press, appeared only after the author's death. His next work was a tract, entitled The Defence of Poesy, where he has repelled the objections brought by the Puritans of his age against the poetic art, the professors of which they contemptuously denominated "caterpillars of the commonwealth." This production, though written with the partiality of a poet, has been deservedly admired for the beauty of its style and general soundness of its reasoning. In 1584, the character of his uncle, the celebrated Earl of Leicester, having been attacked in a publication called Leicester's Commonwealth, Sidney wrote a reply, in which, although the heaviest accusations were passed over in silence, he did not scruple to address his opponent in such terms as the following: — "But to thee I say, thou therein liest in thy throat, which I will be ready to justify upon thee in any place of Europe, where thou wilt assign me a free place of coming, as within three months after the publishing hereof I may understand thy mind." This performance seems to have proved unsatisfactory to Leicester and his friends, as it was not printed till near the middle of the eighteenth century. Desirous of active employment, Sidney next contemplated an expedition, with Sir Francis Drake, against the Spanish settlements in America; but this intention was frustrated by a peremptory mandate from the queen. In 1585, it is said, he was named one of this candidates for the crown of Poland, at that time vacant; on which occasion Elizabeth again threw obstacles in the way, being afraid "to lose the jewel of her times." He was not, however, long permitted to remain unemployed; for, in the same year, Elizabeth having determined to send military assistance to the Protestant inhabitants of the Netherlands, then groaning beneath the oppressive measures of the Spaniards, he was appointed governor of Flushing, one of the towns ceded to the English in return for this aid. Soon afterwards, the Earl of Leicester, with an army of six thousand men, went over to the Netherlands, where he was joined by Sir Philip, as general of the horse. The conduct of the earl in this war was highly imprudent, and such as to call forth repeated expressions of dissatisfaction from his nephew Philip. The military exploits of the latter were highly honourable to him; in particular, he succeeded in taking the town of Axel in 1586. His career, however, was destined to be short; for having, in September of the same year, accidentally encountered a detachment of the Spanish army at Zutphen, he received a wound, which in a few weeks proved mortal. As he was carried from the field, a well-known incident occurred, by which the generosity of his nature was strongly displayed. Being overcome with thirst from excessive bleeding and fatigue, he called for water, which was accordingly brought to him. At the moment he was lifting it to his mouth, a poor soldier was carried by, desperately, wounded, who fixed his eyes eagerly on the cup. Sidney, observing this, instantly delivered the beverage to him, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine." His deaths, which took place on the 19th of October 1586, at the early age of thirty-two, was deeply and extensively lamented, both at home and abroad. His bravery and chivalrous magnanimity — his grace and polish of manner — the purity of his morals — his learning and refinement of taste — had procured for him love and esteem wherever he was known. By the direction of Elizabeth, his remains were conveyed to London, and honoured with a public funeral its the cathedral of St Paul's.

Of the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney we have spoken in a former page. It is almost exclusively as a prose writer that he deserves to be prominently mentioned in a history of English Literature; and in judging of his merits, we ought to bear in mind the early age at which he was cut off. His "Arcadia," on which the chief portion of his fame undoubtedly rests, was so universally read and admired in the reigns of Elizabeth and her successor, that, in 1633, it had reached an eighth edition. Subsequently, however, it fell into comparative neglect, in which, during the last century, the contemptuous terms in which it was spoken of by Horace Walpole contributed not a little to keep it. By that writer it is characterised as "a tedious, lamentable, pedantic, pastoral romance, which the patience of a young virgin in love cannot now wade through." And the judgment more recently pronounced by Dr Drake, and Mr. Hazlitt, is almost equally unfavourable. On the other hand, Sidney has found a fervent admirer in another modern writer, who highly extols the "Arcadia" in the second volume of the Retrospective Review. A middle course is steered by Dr. Zouch, who, in his memoirs of Sidney, published in 1808, while he admits that changes in taste, manners, and opinions, have rendered the "Arcadia" unsuitable to modern readers, maintains that "there are passages in this work exquisitely beautiful — useful observations on life and manners — a variety and accurate discrimination of characters — fine sentiments, expressed in strong and adequate terms — animated descriptions, equal to any that occur in the ancient or modern poets — sage lessens of morality, and judicious reflections on government and policy. A reader," he continues, "who takes up the volume, may be compared to a traveller who has a long and dreary road to pass. The objects that successively meet his eye may not in general be very pleasing, but occasionally he is charmed with a more beautiful prospect — with the verdure of a rich valley — with a meadow enamelled with flowers — with a murmur of a rivulet — the swelling grove — the hanging rock — the splendid villa. These charming objects abundantly compensate for the joyless regions he has traversed. They fill him with delight, exhilarate his drooping spirits — and at the decline of day, he reposes with complacency and satisfaction." This representation we are inclined to regard as doing at least ample justice to the "Arcadia," the former high popularity of which is, doubtless, in some degree attributable to the personal fame of its author, and to the scarcity of works of fiction in the days of Elizabeth. But to whatever causes the admiration with which it was received may be ascribed, there can hardly, we think, be a question, that a work so extensively perused must have contributed not a little to fix the English tongue, and to form that vigorous and imaginative style which characterises the literature of the beginning and middle of the seventeenth century. Notwithstanding the occasional over-inflation and pedantry of his style, Sidney may justly be regarded as the best prose writer of his time. He was, in truth, what Cowper felicitously calls him, a "warbler of poetic prose."

In his personal character, Sidney, like most men of high sensibility and poetical feeling, showed a disposition to melancholy and solitude. His chief fault seems to have been impetuosity of temper, an illustration of which has already been quoted from his reply to "Leicester's Commonwealth." The same trait appears in the following letter (containing what proved to be a groundless accusation), which he wrote in 1578 to the secretary of his father, then lord deputy of Ireland.

"Mr. Molyneux — Few words are best. My letters to my father have come to the eyes of some. Neither can I condemn any but you for it. If it be so, you have played the very knave with me; and so I will make you know, if I have good proof of it. But that for so much as is past. For that is to come, I assure you before God, that if ever I know you do so much as read any letter I write to my father, without his commandment, or my consent, I will thrust my dagger into you. And trust to it, for I speak it in earnest. In the mean time, farewell."

Of the following extracts, three are from Sidney's "Arcadia," and the fourth from his "Defence of Poesy."