1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 27:502-12.



PHILIP SIDNEY, a very accomplished English gentleman, and one of the greatest ornaments of the court of queen Elizabeth, was born Nov. 29, 1554, at Penshurst in Kent. He was the grandson of sir William Sidney, knight banneret, and chamberlain and steward of the household to Henry VIII. His father, Henry Sidney, was from his infancy the companion and bosom friend of Edward VI., who conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, constituted him ambassador to France, and afterwards promoted him to several appointments near his person. He was at this time universally beloved and admired, as the most accomplished gentleman in the court of the youthful monarch, who expired in his arms. Sir Henry, after this melancholy event, retired to his seat at Penshurst. He afterwards enjoyed the favour of queen Mary, and gave his son the name of Philip, in compliment to her husband the king of Spain. In Elizabeth's reign his abilities were more immediately called forth, and proved him a brave soldier, a consummate general, an able counsellor, and a wise legislator, while in private life he was no less estimable as a husband, father, and a friend; firmly attached to the church of England, and adorning his Christian profession by his temperance and exemplary piety. He was lord president of Wales, and for the space of eleven years discharged the administration of lord deputy of Ireland, with extraordinary justice and probity, and left to provincial governors an example of integrity, moderation, and wisdom, which was never surpassed. The mother of Philip Sidney, was Mary, the eldest daughter of the unfortunate duke of Northumberland, a lady no less illustrious and amiable than her husband.

Mr. Sidney was placed at a school at Shrewsbury, where, at the age of twelve, he addressed two letters, one in Latin, and the other in French, to his father, which produced in answer a valuable compendium of instruction, the original of which was found among the MSS. at Penshurst, and is inserted by Dr. Zouch in the life of sir Philip. From this school Mr. Sidney was removed to Christ church, Oxford, in 1569, where his tutors were Dr. Thomas Thornton and Mr. Robert Dorsett. During his residence here, he performed a scholastic exercise, by holding a public disputation with Carew, the author of the Survey of Cornwall, then a gentleman commoner of Christ-church. Sidney was at this time only fourteen years old, and yet of three years standing, and his disputation took place in the presence of several of the nobility, and particularly of his two uncles, the earls of Warwick and Leicester, which last was at this time chancellor of the university. He also appears to have pursued his studies for some time at Cambridge, probably at Trinity college, where he had an opportunity of cultivating and improving that friendship, which he had already contracted with Mr. Fulke Greville his relation, and his companion at school. During these years his proficiency was very uncommon: he cultivated the whole circle of arts and sciences, his comprehensive mind aspiring to preeminence in every part of knowledge attainable by human genius or industry. He acquired, in particular, a complete knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages, and nothing could equal the diligence with which he explored the stores of ancient literature, which had been recently imported into Europe; and hence at a more advanced season of his life, he was highly esteemed by the universities at home and abroad.

Having inured himself to habits of regularity, he put off his gown, and left the university with an intention to travel, in order to obtain a knowledge of the affairs, manners, laws, and learning of other nations, that he might become the more serviceable to his own. Having, in May 1572, obtained from the queen a license for travelling, for two years, he set out for Paris; and on his arrival there, the French king, Charles IX. appeared to be highly gratified with his ingenuous manners and conversation, and gave him an early proof of his royal favour, by advancing him to the office of gentleman ordinary of his chamber; but this promotion has been generally considered, not so much indication of real regard, as an unworthy and insidious artifice to conceal the design which was then formed, of destroying the protestants. Accordingly he had not held this above a fortnight, when he became a spectator of that hideous and savage massacre of the Huguenots, which filled all Europe with indignation, amazement, and terror.

During this massacre, Mr. Sidney preserved his life, by taking refuge with several of his countrymen, in the house of sir Francis Walsingham, the English ambassador and when the danger was over, proceeded on his travels, under the tutorage of Dr. John Watson, then dean, and afterwards bishop of Winchester, to whom sir Francis Walsingham recommended him. Having left Paris, he pursued his journey through Lorraine, by Strasburgh and Heidelberg, to Francfort. At the latter place, he lodged at the house of Andrew Wechel, the celebrated printer, and here was honoured with the friendship of Hubert Languet (See LANGUET), who was then a resident from the elector of Saxony; and to him he was principally indebted for his extensive knowledge of the customs and usages of nations, their interests, governments, and laws, and nothing could be more honourable to a youth of the age of nineteen, than the choice of such a companion and guide. Sidney has gratefully commemorated Languet to some lines in the third book of his "Arcadia." When they were separated, Languet renewed in his letters the strongest assurances of his regard, intermixed with the most useful and most endearing lessons of advice.

At Vienna, where Mr. Sidney appears to have arrived in 1573, he learned horsemanship, the use of arms, and all those manly and martial exercises which were suitable to his youth and nobleness of birth. He excelled at tilt or tournament, in managing all sorts of weapons, in playing at tennis, in diversions of trial and skill, in music, in all the exercises that suited a noble cavalier, while his person, his aspect, his discourse, his every gesture were embellished with dignity and grace. In 1574, he was at Venice, where his sacred adherence to the precepts of youth guarded hint against its dissipations. His biographer thinks it probable that he was not unknown to the celebrated Paul Sarpi. In June 1574, Sidney left Venice and came to Padua, where he applied himself with his accustomed diligence to geometry and astronomy, and here he met with the illustrious Tasso, which his biographer conceives was one of his motives for visiting Padua. On his return to Venice in 1574, Mr. Sidney derived great pleasure and instruction from a free and undisguised conversation on topics of learning with persons who professed the religion of the church of Rome. This circumstance gave rise to a suspicion among his friends in England, that he as inclined to become a member of that church; but against this he appears to have been sufficiently guarded by his friend Languet, and it was by his persuasion that he desisted from visiting Rome.

In the mean time, Sidney went on with his studies, and by Languet's direction read Cicero's Epistles, Plutarch, &c. All Languet's advices appear to have been as salutary as they were affectionate. On one occasion only, he suggested to his pupil to affect more attachment than he felt to Cecil, the great favourite of Elizabeth; but it does not appear that Sidney was inclined to observe this lesson of perverted wisdom, which was in itself contrary to the whole tenour of Languet's instructions. After three years travel, Sidney returned to England in May 1575.

To his attainments in Greek and Latin, he had now added a knowledge of the French, Spanish, and Italian languages. On his return he became the delight and admiration of the English court, by his dignified and majestical address, the urbanity of his manners, and the sweet complacency of his whole deportment. The queen treated him with peculiar kindness, calling him "her Philip,'' in opposition, it is said, to Philip of Spain, her sister's husband. When she was on a visit at Wanstead, Sidney composed a masque to amuse her majesty, called "The Lady of May," which was performed before her. In this dramatic composition he betrayed some proficiency in the school of courtly adulation, by the frequent allusions he has made to Elizabeth's beauty.

He had not been long at home before what may be termed his political life commenced, by his being appointed in 1576, ambassador to the court of Vienna, to condole with the emperor Rodolph, on the death of his father Maximilian II. The queen's own penetration and discernment had promoted him to this appointment, but it was not intended to be confined to the mere ceremonial mentioned above. It had in view the union of all the protestant states in defence of their common cause against the ruin that menaced them from the popish powers, from the superstition of Rome, and the tyranny of Spain. Sidney succeeded in this attempt: and they were induced to conclude a religious league with England, with that country which was then justly acknowledged to be the firm support and the invincible bulwark of the reformation. He was directed at the same time to visit the court of John Casimir, count palatine of the Rhine, to whom he was earnestly and affectionately recommended by his uncle lord Leicester. His other transactions belong to history, but he managed them all with so much of the sagacity and discretion of an able and experienced statesman, that it was justly said, that "from a child he started into a man, without ever being a youth." When entrusted with these negociations of so much importance, he had scarcely reached his twenty-fifth year.

Among other eminent persons with whom he formed an intimacy during this last embassy, were Don John of Austria, and the great William prince of Orange, with the latter of whom he afterwards carried on a correspondence. Notwithstanding his services on this occasion, he passed some years at home, admired indeed, but unrewarded by any higher promotion than that of cup-bearer to the queen. On some emergencies he betrayed a spirit too warmly indignant, but not uncommon in those days; and a letter of his is extant to Mr. Molineux, his father's secretary, whom he suspected of divulging his father's letters, in which he threatens him with his dagger, in language which his biographer allows is extremely indecorous, and admits no excuse.

His spirit and sense were afterwards displayed in a manner which reflects high honour upon his character. When in 1579, queen Elizabeth seemed inclined to accede to the proposal of a marriage with the duke of Anjou, which might have endangered the prosperity, religion, and liberty of the nation, Mr. Sidney addressed a letter to her against such a connection, written with unusual elegance of expression as well as force of reasoning, and with uncommon freedom. The delicacy of the subject, and the difficulty of discussing it without offending the queen, he was perfectly aware of, yet his zeal for the welfare of his country, and particularly the protestant religion, would not permit him to be silent; and it is supposed that by this letter he had the honour of averting the mischiefs that would have attended the marriage. Nor did he lose her majesty's favour, although others who interfered, were treated with the utmost rigour, particularly Stubbs, a gentleman of Lincoln's Inn, and Page a printer, whose right hands were cut, the one for writing, and the other for printing a pamphlet against the match. Camden, the historian, was present at the execution of this savage sentence, one of the greatest blemishes in the reign of Elizabeth.

Among the fashionable amusements in the court of Elizabeth, tournaments were most in vogue. In 1580, Philip earl of Arundel, and sir William Drury his assistant, challenged all comers to try their feats of arms in those exercises. This challenge was given in the genuine spirit of chivalry in honour of the queen. Among those who gallantly offered themselves as defenders, were Edward Vere, earl of Oxford, lord Windsor, Mr. Philip Sidney, and fourteen others. The victory was adjudged by her majesty to the earl of Oxford. With this earl of Oxford Sidney had afterwards a serious quarrel, having received a personal insult from him. The queen interposed to prevent a duel, with which Sidney was much dissatisfied, and to compose his mind retired to Wilton, the seat of his brother-in-law the earl of Pembroke. In this seat of rural beauty (and not at Houghton-house, as asserted in Gough's Camden, which was not built until after his death) he planned the design of the "Arcadia." It has been conjectured that the Ethiopic history of Heliodorus, which had been recently translated into English prose by Thomas Underdowne, suggested that new mode of writing romance which is pursued in this work; but it seems more probable that he derived the plan of his work from the "Arcadia" of Sannazarius, a complete edition of which was printed at Milan in 1504. The persons introduced by the Italian author are shepherds, and their language, manners, and sentiments are such as suit only the innocence and simplicity of pastoral life. This species of composition may be considered as forming the second stage of romance-writing. The heroism and the gallantry, the moral and virtuous turn of the chivalry-romance, were still preserved; but the dragons, the necromancers, the enchanted castles were banished, and some small resemblance to human nature was admitted. Still, however, there was too much of the marvellous in them to please an age which aspired to refinement. The characters were discerned to be strained, the style swollen, the adventures incredible, and the books themselves were voluminous and tedious. With respect to the "Arcadia," Sidney formed a just estimate when he characterized it as "an idle composition, as a trifle, and triflingly handled." He appears indeed to have written chiefly for his sister's amusement, to whom he sent it in portions as it came from his pen. He never completed the third book, nor was any part of the work printed during his life. It is said lie intended to arrange the whole anew, and to have changed the subject by celebrating the prowess and military deeds of king Arthur. The whole, imperfect as he left it, was corrected by his sister's pen, and carefully perused by others under her direction, so that it was very properly called "The countess of Pembroke's Arcadia." It now lies neglected on the shelf, and has almost sunk into oblivion; yet the reception it obtained from the public, having gone through fourteen impressions, and having been translated into the French, Dutch, and other European languages, clearly evinces that it was once held in very high estimation. "There are," says his biographer, "passages in this work exquisitely beautiful, and 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 lessons of morality, and judicious reflexions on government and policy."

In 1581 we find Mr. Sidney one of the knights in parliament for the county of Kent, and one of the committee for enacting "such laws as would secure the kingdom against the pope and his adherents." Still, however, addicted to a studious life, he produced his "Defence of Poesy," which has been pronounced the first piece of criticism in the English language worthy of our attention. It shews at once the erudition, judgment, and taste of the author, and describes the laws of the drama with singular precision and exactness.

In 1583 he married Frances, the only surviving daughter and heir of sir Francis Walsingham, a young lady of great beauty and worth, who is said to have endeared herself to him by those lovely qualities which embellish and improve the female character; and about the same time the queen conferred on him the honour of knighthood. She also gave him a sinecure in Wales of the yearly value of £120, but at what time is uncertain. About 1584 several plots and conspiracies formed against the queen's person, both at borne and abroad, greatly alarmed her. To remove her fears of danger, the nobility and gentry, and indeed men of all degrees and conditions, instituted an association under the direction of the earl of Leicester, binding themselves under the most solemn obligations to prosecute even to death those enemies of their country who should attempt any thing against their sovereign. Of the zeal of sir Philip Sidney at this momentous crisis no doubt can be entertained. While the efforts of Leicester exposed him to the rude censures and severe aspersions of anonymous writers, his nephew took up the pen to vindicate his fame. With this view he composed an answer to a publication, entitled "Leicester's Commonwealth," the reputed author of which was Parsons the noted Jesuit; but sir Philip's production has not been thought conclusive as to the chief points in dispute, and it remained in MS. until the publication of the Sidney papers in 1746.

About this time sir Philip formed, along with sir Fulke Greville, a design of accompanying sir Francis Drake in a voyage of discovery to America; and this he projected with the greatest secrecy, and with more of a romantic turn than his friends could have wished. The secret, however, transpired, and the queen issued peremptory orders to restrain him from his purpose, which in all probability would have ended in disappointment, or, if successful, would have left a stain on his hitherto spotless character. In 1585 a very remarkable honour seemed to be within his reach. He was named among the competitors for the elective kingdom of Poland, vacant by the death of Stephen Bathori, prince of Transylvania. Queen Elizabeth, however, was averse from the measure, "refusing," says sir Robert Naunton, "to further his advancement, not only out of emulation, but out of fear to lose the jewel of her times." According to Fuller he declined the dignity, preferring rather to be "a subject to queen Elizabeth than a sovereign beyond the seas."

The protestant inhabitants of the Netherlands being grievously oppressed by the cruelties of the duke of Alva, implored the assistance of queen Elizabeth, who promised to send a military force to their relief, and on this occasion indulged the martial disposition of sir Philip Sidney, who was now a privy counsellor, by appointing him governor of Flushing, one of the most important places in the Netherlands. Sir Philip, who entered heartily into the cause of the protestant religion, prepared himself cheerfully to sacrifice his life and fortune in this service, and on his arrival at Flushing, Nov. 18, 1585, was immediately appointed colonel of all the Dutch regiments, and captain of a small band of English soldiers amounting to 300 horse and foot. Not long after, the earl of Leicester was sent, with an army of 5000 foot and 1000 horse, to the United Provinces, as general of the English auxiliaries, and sir Philip, promoted to the office of general of the horse under his uncle, joined himself to this army. It would be foreign to our purpose to recount the different causes which obstructed the success of the auxiliaries, or the mischief which arose from dissentions among the commanders. Sir Philip, we are told, attempted by wise counsels to reconcile them. In July 1586, accompanied by the young prince Maurice, he took Axell, a town in Flanders, without the loss of a single man; but on September 22, 1586, having engaged with a convoy sent by the enemy to Zutphen, a strong town in Guelderland, then besieged by the Spaniards, the English troops, far inferior in number to those of the enemy, though they gained a decisive victory, sustained an irreparable loss by the death of sir Philip Sidney. Having one horse shot under him, he mounted a second, and seeing lord Willoughby surrounded by the enemy, and in imminent danger, he rushed forward to rescue him. Having accomplished his purpose, he continued the fight with great spirit, until he received a bullet in the left thigh, which proved fatal.

The concluding period of life not seldom presents us with the most prominent features of genuine goodness; and it may be truly said that history does not afford an incident more noble or affecting than the following. As sir Philip was returning from the field of battle, pale, languid, and thirsty with excess of bleeding, he asked for water to quench his thirst. The water was brought, and had no sooner approached his lips, than he instantly resigned it to a dying soldier, whose ghastly countenance attracted his notice, speaking these memorable words: "This man's necessity is still greater than mine." He languished until Oct. 17, when he expired in the arms of his secretary and friend Mr. William Temple. He had just arrived at the age of thirty-two years, and had attained in that short period, more fame, more esteem, more admiration, both at home and throughout Europe, than any man of the sixteenth century, and for many years after employed more pens to celebrate his excellent qualities of head and heart. In England a general mourning was observed among those of highest rank, "no gentleman, for many months, appearing in a gay or gaudy dress, either in the city or the court." His body being brought to England, was interred, with great pomp, in St. Paul's cathedral. No memorial, however, was erected to him, except a tablet with some very indifferent lines, but his fame did not require aid from brass or marble. For the many testimonies to his uncommon worth and excellence, both by his contemporaries and their successors, we must refer to Dr. Zouch's elaborate "Memoirs of the Life and Writings of sir Philip Sidney." There also the petty objections of lord Orford to this illustrious character are fully answered. Both the universities of England lamented the death of sir Philip Sidney in three volumes of elegiac poems, in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Italian. His widow afterwards married Robert Devereux, earl of Essex; and after his death, she married Richard de Burgh, the fourth earl of Clanrickard in the kingdom of Ireland. She became a convert to popery after the death of her second husband, the earl of Essex. There seems little that is very estimable in the marriages and conversion of this lady, and certainly nothing respectful to the memory of her first husband.

The works of sir Philip Sidney, which we shall but briefly notice, are, 1. The "Arcadia" already mentioned. 2. "Astrophel and Stella," with sonnets of various noblemen and gentlemen, 1591, 4to. 3. "The Defence of Poesy," 1595, 4to, afterwards usually printed with the "Arcadia." In 1787 Dr. Joseph Warton printed an edition, with "Observations on Poetry and Eloquence from Ben Jonson's Discoveries," 8vo. 4. "Sonets," several of which appeared in Constable's "Diana," 1594, but were afterwards annexed to the "Arcadia," with " Astrophel and Stella." 5. "A remedie for Love." 6. "The Lady of May, a masque," both generally printed with the "Arcadia." 7. "Valour anatomized in a fancie," 1581, printed at the end of "Cottoni Posthuma," 1672. 8. Various songs and sonnets in "England's Helicon," and other collections. 9. "English Version of the Psalms of David," a MS. 10. A translation of Du Plessis' true use of the Christian religion, begun by sir Philip, and finished at his request by Arthur Golding, 1587 and 1592, 1604 and 1617. Dr. Zouch is of opinion that the greatest part of it was by sir Philip. It is pleasing to reflect, adds this biographer, that the most accomplished gentleman and the most complete scholar of his age, was deeply impressed with a sense of religion, that he delighted in contemplating the doctrines of revelation, the existence of one supreme being, the creation of the world by him, and his providential government of it, the immortality of the soul of man, the prospect of future blessedness, the redemption of mankind by the Messiah, who was promised to the Jews for the salvation of the whole world.