1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

Henry John Todd, in Works of Spenser (1805) 1:clxix-xxn.



In the Life of Spenser prefixed to the folio edition of his Works in 1679, in Hughes's Life of Spenser, and in the Life of Sidney given in the Biographia Britannica, it is asserted that Spenser's description of the Cave of Despair introduced him to Sir Philip; that the reading a few stanzas occasioned Sir Philip to order him a payment of fifty pounds; and that a continuation of the reading extended Sir Philip's bounty to two hundred pounds, which, however, he directed his steward to pay the poet immediately, lest he should bestow the whole of his estate to the writer of such verses. "To shame this idle tale," says the writer of the Life of Spenser in the Biographia Britannica, "we need only observe that the Faerie Queene may be said even to owe its birth to Sir Philip Sidney, who, quickly after his acquaintance with Spenser, discovered his genius to be formed for higher subjects than those lesser pieces which he had then written; and persuaded him for trumpet sterne to chaunge his oaten reedes." — I admit that the Faerie Queene owed its progress to the judicious encouragement of Sidney. But, although the pecuniary incident wears undoubtedly the appearance of an idle tale, I do not see why the description of the Cave of Despair might not have been one of the earliest poetical pieces which he had submitted to Sir Philip's inspection, as he had certainly begun the poem in 1579, and had received Harvey's opinion of it in 1580; and this passage is also in the first book; and thus, the very description, which is considered in an unqualified manner as an idle tale, might perhaps be one of those specimens of his genius by which Sir Philip was forcibly struck, and was induced to recommend him to sing no more his rural ditties, but to "build the loftiest rhyme." And Spenser, it seems, was "by Sidney's speeches won."