1687 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

William Winstanley, Lives of the Most Famous English Poets (1687) 79-86.



Sir Philip Sidney, the glory of the English Nation in his time, and pattern of true Nobility, in whom the Graces and Muses had their domestical habitations, equally addicted both to Arts and Arms, though more fortunate in the one than in the other. Son to Sir Henry Sidney, thrice Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Sisters Son to Robert, Earl of Leicester; Bred in Christ's Church in Oxford, (Cambridge being nevertheless so happy to have a Colledge of his name) where he so profited in the Arts and Liberal Sciences, that after an incredible proficiency in all the Species of Learning, he left the Academical Life, for that of the Court, invited thither by his Uncle, the Earl of Leicester, that great Favourite of Queen Elizabeth. Here he so profited, that he became the glorious Star of his Family, a lively Pattern of Vertue, and the lovely Joy of all the learned sort. These his Parts so indeared him to Queen Elizabeth, that she sent him upon an Embassy to the Emperor of Germany at Vienna, which he discharged to his own Honour, and her Approbation. Yea, his Fame was so renowned throughout all Christendom, that (as it is commonly reported) he was in election for the Kingdom of Poland, though the Author of his Life, printed before his Arcadia, doth doubt of the truth of it, however it was not above his deserts.

During his abode at the Court, at his spare hours he composed that incomparable Romance, entituled, The Arcadia, which he dedicated to his Sister the Countess of Pembroke. A Book (saith Dr. Heylin) which, besides its excellent Language, rare Contrivances, and delectable Stories, hath in it all the strains of Poesie, comprehendeth the whole art of speaking, and to them who can discern and will observe, affordeth notable Rules of Demeanour, both private and publick, and though some men, sharp-witted only in speaking evil, have depraved the Book, as the occasion that many precious hours are spent no better, they consider not that the ready way to make the minds of Youth grow awry, is to lace them too hard, by denying them just and due liberty. Surely (saith one) the Soul deprived of lawful delights, will, in way of revenge, (to enlarge its self out of prison) invade and attempt unlawful pleasures. Let such be condemned always to eat their meat with no other sawce, but their own appetite, who deprive themselves and others of those sallies into lawful Recreations, whereof no less plenty than variety is afforded in this Arcadia.

One writes, that Sir Philip Sidney in the extream agony of his wounds, so terrible the fence of death is, requested the dearest friend he had, to burn his Arcadia; what promise his friend returned herein is uncertain; but if he brake his word to be faithful to the publick good, posterity herein hath less cause to censure him for being guilty of such a meritorious offence, wherewith he hath obliged so many ages. Hereupon thus writeth the British Epigramatist.

Ispe tuam morient sede conjuge teste jubebas,
Arcadium saevis ingnibus esse cibum;
Si meruit mortem, quia flammam accendit amoris
Mergi, non uri debuit iste liber.
In Librum quaecunque cadat sententia nulla,
Debuit ingenium morte perire tuum.

In serious thoughts of Death 'twas thy desire
This sportful Book should be condemn'd with Fire:
If so, because it doth intend Love-matters,
It rather should be quench'd or drown'd i'th waters.
However doom'd the Book, the memory
Of thy immortal Wit will never die.

He wrote also besides his Arcadia, several other Works; namely, A Defence of Poesie, a Book entituled Astrophel and Stella, with divers Songs and Sonnets in praise of his Lady, whom he celebrated under that bright Name; whom afterwards he married, that Paragon of Nature, Sir Francis Walsingham's Daughter, who impoverished himself to enrich the State; from whom he expected no more than what was above all Portions, a beautiful Wife, and a virtuous Daughter.

He also translated part of that excellent Treatise of Philip Morney du Plessis, of the Truth of Religion; and no doubt had written many other excellent Works, had not the Lamp of his Life been extinguish'd too soon; the manner whereof take as followeth:

His Unkle Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester (a man almost as much hated as his Nephew was loved,) was sent over into the Low-Countries, with a well appointed Army, and large Commission, to defend the United Provinces against the Spanish Cruelty. Under him went Sir Philip Sidney, who had the Command of the cautionary Town of Flushing, and Castle of Ramekius, a Trust which he so faithfully discharged, that he turned the Envy of the Dutch Townsmen into Affection, and Admiration. Not long after, some Service was to be performed nigh Zutphen in Gueilderland, where the English, through false intelligence, were mistaken in the strength of the Enemy. Sir Philip is employed next to the Chief in that Expedition; which he so discharged, that it is questionable whether his Wisdom, Industry or Valour may challenge to it self the greatest praise of the Action. And now when the triumphant Lawrels were ready to Crown his Brows, the English so near the Victory, that they touched it, ready to lay hold upon, he was unfortunately shot in the Thigh, which is the Rendez-vous of Nerves and Sinews, which caused a Feaver, that proved so mortal, that five and twenty days after he died of the same; the Night of whose Death was the Noon of his Age, and the exceeding loss of Christendom.

His Body was conveyed into England, and most honourably interred in the Church of St. Paul in London, over which was fixed this Epitaph:

England, Netherland, the Heavens, and the Arts,
All Souldiers, and the World have made six parts
Of the Noble Sidney; for none will suppose
That a small heap of Stones can Sidney enclose:
England hath his Body, for she it bred;
Netherland his Blood, in her defence shed;
The Heavens his Soul, the Arts his Fame;
All Soldiers the Grief, the World his good Name.

To recite the Commendations given him by several Authors, would of it self require a Volume; to rehearse some few not unpleasing to the Reader. The reverend Cambden writes thus; This is that Sidney, whom, as God's will was, he should be therefore born into the world even to shew unto our Age a Sample of ancient Virtues. Doctor Heylin in his Cosmography calleth him, That gallant Gentleman of whom he cannot but make honourable mention. Mr. Fuller in his Worthies thus writes of him, His homebred Abilities perfected by Travel with foreign accomplishments, and sweet Nature, set a gloss upon both. Stow in his Annals, calleth him, a most valiant and towardly Gentleman. Speed in his Chronicle, That worthy Gentleman in whom were compleat all Virtues and Valours that could be expected to reside in man: And Sir Richard Baker gives him this Character, A man of so many excellent parts of Art and Nature, of Valour and Learning, of Wit and Magnanimity, that as he had equalled all those of former Ages, so the future will hardly be able to equal him.

Nor was this Poet forgotten by the Poets; who offered whole Hecatombs of Verses in his praise. Hear first that Kingly Poet, or Poetical King, King James the first, late Monarch of Great Britain, who thus writes,

Armipotent cui jus in fortia pectora Mavors,
Tu Dea quae cerebrum perrumpere digna totantis,
Tuque adeo biiugae proles Latonia rupis
Gloria, deciduae cingunt quam collibus artes,
Duc tecum, & querla Sidnaei funera voce
Pangite; nam vester fuerat Sidnaeus alumnus,
Quid genus, & proavos, & spem, floremque juventae,
Immaturo obitu raptum sine fine retexo?
Heu frustra queror? heu rapuit Mors omnia secum,
Et nihil ex tanto nunc est Heore superstes,
Praeterquam Decums & Nomen virtute paratum,
Doctaque Sidneas testantia Carmina laudes.

Thus translated by the said King:

Thou mighty Mars, the Lord of Soldiers brave,
And thou Minerve, that dost in wit excel,
And thou Apollo, who dost knowledge have
Of every Art that from Parnassus fell,
With all your Sister's that thereon do dwell,
Lament for him who duly serv'd you all:
Whom in you wisely all your Arts did mell,
Bewail (I say) his unexpected fall,
I need not in remembrance for to call
His Race, his Youth, the hope had of him ay,
Since that in him doth cruel Death appall
Both Manhood, Wit and Learning every way:
But yet he doth in bed of Honour rest,
And evermore of him shall live the best.

And in another place thus;

When Venus sad saw Philip Sidney slain,
She wept, supposing Mars that he had been,
From Fingers Rings, and from her Neck the Chain
She pluckt away, as if Mars ne'er again
She meant to please, in that form he was in,
Dead, end yet could a Goddess thus beguile,
What had he done if he had liv'd this while ?

These Commendations given him by so learned a Prince, made Mr. Alexander Nevil thus to write;

Harps others Praise, a Scepter his doth sing,
Of Crowned Poet, and of Laureat King.

Divine Du Bartas, speaking of the most Learned of the English Nation, reckoneth him as one of the chief, in these words;

And (world mourn'd) Sidney, warbling to the Thames,
His Swan-like Tunes, so courts her coy proud Streams,

That (all with child with Fame) his Fame they bear
To Thetis Lap, and Thetis every where.

Sir John Harrington in his Epigrams thus;

If that be true the latter Proverb says,
Laudari a Laudatis is most Praise,
Sidney, thy Works in Fames Books are enroll'd,
By Princes Pens, which have thy Works extoll'd,
Whereby thy Name shall dure to endless days.

Mr. Owen, the Brittish Epigrammatist, thus sets him forth:

Thou writ'st things worthy reading, and didst do
Things worthy writing too.
Thy Arts thy Valour show,
And by thy Works we do thy Learning know.

I shall conclude all with these excellent Verses made by himself a little before his Death;

It is not I that die, I do but leave an Inn,
Where harbour'd was with me all filthy Sin:
It is not I that die, I do but now begin
Into eternal Joy by Faith to enter in,
Why mourn you then my Parents, Friends and Kin?
Lament you when I lose, not when I win.