1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:111-113.



All hail to Sidney! — the pink of chivalry — the hero of Zutphen — the author of the Arcadia, — the gifted, courteous, genial and noble-minded man! He was born November 29, 1554, at Penshurst, Kent. His father's name was Henry. He studied at Shrewsbury, at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at Christ Church, Oxford. At the age of eighteen he set out on his travels, and, in the course of three years, visited France, Flanders, Germany, Hungary, and Italy. On his return he was introduced at Court, and became a favourite with Queen Elizabeth, who sent him on an embassy to Germany. He returned home, and shortly after had a quarrel at a tournament with Lord Oxford. But for the interference of the Queen, a duel would have taken place. Sidney was displeased at the issue of the affair, and retired, in 1580, to Wilton, in Wiltshire, where he wrote his famous Arcadia, — that true prose-poem, and a work which, with all its faults, no mere sulky and spoiled child (as some have called him in the matter of this retreat) could ever have produced. This production, written as an outflow of his mind in its self-sought solitude, was never meant for publication, and did not appear till after its author's death. As it was written partly for his sister's amusement, he entitled it The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. In 1581, Sidney reappeared in Court, and distinguished himself in the jousts and tournaments celebrated in honour of the Duke of Anjou; and on the return of that prince to the Continent, he accompanied him to Antwerp. In 1583 he received the honour of knighthood. He published about this time a tract entitled The Defence of Poesy, which abounds in the element the praise of which it celebrates, and which is, besides, distinguished by acuteness of argument and felicity of expression. In 1585 he was named one of the candidates for the crown of Poland; but Queen Elizabeth, afraid of "losing the jewel of her times," prevented him from accepting this honour, and prevented him also from accompanying Sir Francis Drake on an expedition against the Spanish settlements in America. In the same year, however, she made him Governor of Flushing, and subsequently General of the Cavalry, under his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, who commanded the troops sent to assist the oppressed Dutch Protestants against the Spaniards. Here our hero greatly distinguished himself, particularly when capturing, in 1586, the town of Axel. His career, however, was destined to be short. On the 22d of September of the same year he accidentally encountered a convoy of the enemy marching toward Zutphen. In the engagement which followed, his party triumphed; but their brave commander received a shot in the thigh, which shattered the bone. As he was carried from the field, overcome with thirst, he called for water, but while about to apply it to his lips, he saw a wounded soldier carried by who was eagerly eyeing the cup. Sidney, perceiving this, instantly delivered to him the water, saying, in words which would have made an ordinary man immortal, but which give Sir Philip a twofold immortality, "Thy necessity is greater than mine." He was carried to Arnheim, and lingered on till October 17, when he died. He was only thirty-two years of age. His death was an earthquake at home. All England wore mourning for him. Queen Elizabeth ordered his remains to be carried to London, and to receive a public funeral in St. Paul's. He was identified with the land's Poetry, Politeness, and Protestantism; and all who admired any of the three, sorrowed for Sidney.

Sidney's Sonnets and other Poems contain much that is quaint, but also much that is beautiful and true; yet they are the least poetical of his works. His Arcadia is a glorious unfinished and unpolished wilderness of fancy. It is a vineyard the scattered clusters of which are so heavy, that, like the grape of Eshcol of old, they must be carried on a staff. Here is one of those rich clusters:—

"There were hills, which garnished their proud heights with stately trees; humble valleys, whose base estate seemed comforted with refreshing of silver rivers; meadows, enamelled, with all sorts of eye pleasing flowers; thickets, which, being lined with most pleasant shade were witnessed so, too, by the cheerful disposition of many well-tuned birds each pasture stored with sheep, feeding with sober security while the pretty lambs, with bleating oratory, craved the dams' comfort; 'here a shepherd's boy, piping as though he should never be old;' there a young shepherdess, knitting and withal singing, and it seemed that her voice comforted her hands to work, and her hands kept time to her voice-music."

From The Defence of Poesy we could cull, did space permit, a hundred passages even superior to the above, full of dexterous reasoning, splendid rhetoric, and subtle fancy, and substantiating all that has been said in favour of Sir Philip Sidney's accomplishments, chivalric earnestness, and richly-endowed genius.