Sir Philip Sidney

Mary A. Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:341-47.

The extraordinary effect produced by Sidney's personality upon English imagination has been in many respects very little weakened by time. His name is almost as suggestive now as it was to his own generation of a typical brilliancy and charm, clouded by premature death and scarcely to be matched again. This unique impression however with which the figure of Astrophel is still charged, is to a large extent independent of the causes for it which influenced his contemporaries. We are for the most part moved by Sidney's life, by the romance of it or its political and historical interest. His youth, his love-story, his death, — these are what affect us far more than his books; what he did and was, infinitely beyond what he wrote.

Death, courage, honour, make thy soul to live;

Thy soul to live in heaven, thy name in tongues of men!

His own time approached him somewhat differently. Browne's praise of him, which puts the "deep quintessence" of his wit in the forefront of his merits, before it turns to dwell upon his "honour, virtue, valour, excellence," represents the general Elizabethan feeling about him better than the fine lines from Constable just quoted. His literary influence, coming as he did in the early Elizabethan days, while his great rivals to be were still for the most part undiscovered, was no doubt heightened by his personal story, but was at bottom a distinct and independent force. So much is clear from that astonishing mass of elegiac prose and verse heaped upon his grave, in itself a phenomenon in English literary history; and as the Elizabethan time unfolds, the effect of Sidney's writing and of his special qualities of thought and style become more and more evident. Upon the generation which grew up after him, and during the first half of the seventeenth century, his influence remained undiminished. From Constable, Ben Jonson, Browne, Wither, Crashaw, Waller, out of a much wider circle, a string of passages could be quoted to prove the extraordinary spell of Sidney as a poet, above all as the poet of Stella, upon his successors. The mere name of Astrophel seems to have thrilled the literary circle around him, and that immediately following him, as no other name had power to thrill them. A reputation so romantic, and so dependent on the exceptional correspondence between Sidney's personality and powers and the young, quick-witted, passionate, Elizabethan spirit speaking through them, could scarcely hope to pass through Puritanism and the eighteenth century unchallenged. Milton's well-known protest against the use made by Charles I. on the scaffold of "that vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, not to be read at any time without good caution," is significant of decline in one direction, while in another we are brought up against some curious eighteenth-century judgments which show not only the complete distaste of a classical age for Sidney's literary performance, and the oblivion into which his best work had fallen, but even impatience of his romantic personal fame. "When we come to enquire into the why and the wherefore of this astonishing effect upon his contemporaries," writes Horace Walpole, who had never read a line of Astrophel and Stella, and had to be reminded by a friend of the existence of The Apology for Poetry, "what do we find? Great valour? But it was an age of heroes! In full of all other talents, we have a tedious, lamentable, pedantic, pastoral romance which the patience of a young virgin in love cannot now wade through; and some absurd attempts to fetter English verse in Roman chains."

There could scarcely be a better specimen of the "jugement saugrenu." Happily the antiquarian revival of the present century has so far affected Sidney among others, that such pure ignorance of his place in literary history is no longer possible. But it may well be questioned whether Sidney has yet regained that currency among us as a poet which he deserves. Thanks to the labour which has been spent upon him since 1800, his prose is better known and more truly classed than it used to be; but not even the best of his poems can be said to have recovered any real hold upon English feeling. The truth is, perhaps, that the general air of Sidney's verse, so to speak, does it injustice. Even the Astrophel and Stella sonnets have at first sight, as one turns over the pages, a barren, over-elaborate look, which is apt to lead to the classing of some of the most genuine and passionate of English poems with the undeniably dry and artificial verse of the Arcadia. Then again, his main subject is forbidding, his range is limited, and his note, to modern thinking, monotonous. We are some time in discovering in Sidney that sensitiveness to the great human problems, to the wider questions of life and thought in which the best English poetry is invariably steeped, and it is easy to put his work down as ranking with all the other second-rate love poetry of the time, neither much better nor worse than the verse of Constable or Thomas Watson.

His own time, however, judged rightly in separating it widely from such performances. Sidney died at thirty-two, and his poetry is throughout the poetry of a young man, in love with art, with beauty, with ingenuity in all shapes, a courtier in the days when the court was a reality, a lover at a time when love was still bound to speak a conventional tongue and so express itself by certain outward conventional signs. The marring influence upon much of it of the theories of Gabriel Harvey's "Areopagus" marks the difference in circumstance between himself and Spenser, his friend and temporary colleague in that whimsical scheme for bending English verse to classical shapes. In a few years Spenser was ridiculing the "Areopagus," and the "passing singular odd" poems produced under its rule. Time sobered down the momentary extravagance, and the familiar ways of English verse reclaimed their master. Spenser's hexameters are mere literary curiosities, buried in the shadow of The Fairy Queen. Sidney's "Roman feet" are one of the most prominent features of his best-known work, and were regarded as characteristic of him in days when the poems so Stella were forgotten. The freaks of the "Areopagus" had no more real relation so his genius than they had to Spenser's; but life left him no time to undo mistakes. Into what final mould his powers might have run is matter for speculation. The important point to notice is this death stepped in between him and that slow-coming maturity which belongs to all such rich and complex natures. His youth asserts itself in all he wrote. His best work is liable to youth's unripeness and inequality.

But the greatness of his gift is not to be doubted. As a series of sonnets the Astrophel and Stella poems are second only to Shakespeare's; as a series of love-poems they are perhaps unsurpassed. Other writers are sweeter, more sonorous; no other love-poet of the time is so real. The poems so Stella are steeped throughout in a certain keen and pungent individuality which leaves a haunting impression behind it. They represent, not a mere isolated mood, whether half-real like Daniel's passion for Delia, or wholly artificial like the mood of Thomas Watson's Passions, but a whole passage in a genuine life. Here is no question of the pastoral landscape with its conventional pair of figures. Sidney's every-day life as a courtier and politician, mingling with the pageantries and touching the great interest, of his time, his personal character with its serious and Puritan bias, his hopes and fears for his own prospects and career, — these are the facts of solid and human reality a which deepen and vary the music of his passion for Stella, like rocks to the current of a stream. Not that Astrophel and Stella is without its make-believe. It has its "conceits," its pieces of pure word-play, in the common Elizabethan manner. No writer in the full tide of literary fashion like Sidney could afford to neglect these. But it would be scarcely fanciful so say that even in the most clearly marked of what one may call his conceited sonnets, the true Sidneian note to a reader who has learnt to catch it is almost always discernible, a note of youth and eagerness easily felt but hard to be .described.

As is well known, Astrophel and Stella contains the records of Sidney's love for Penelope Devereux, daughter of the first Earl of Essex and sister to Elizabeth's favourite. They first met at Chartley in 1575, during the Kenilworth progress, when Sidney was twenty-one and Penelope a child of twelve, and in the years between 1576 and 1580 were commonly supposed to be destined for one another. Sidney however does not appear to have prosecuted his suit with much ardour — there are several allusions to this early blindness of his in Astrophel and Stella — and in 1580 his prospects had suddenly become so clouded by his own and Leicester's temporary disgrace, that it seems to have been thought prudent that Stella should look elsewhere. At any rate, when Sidney returned to court in the autumn of 1580, he found Penelope Devereux either married (there is a doubt about the date of the marriage) or pledged to Lord Rich. Disappointment and a sharp sense of injury, expressed with plain bitterness in one of his miscellaneous poems (see p. 362), shook his former liking into love, and during the following year, as far as dates can now be recovered, after Stella's marriage at any rate, as well as possibly before it, the Astrophel and Stella sonnets were written.

The chronology of these sonnets is now scarcely to be determined. They were not published till after Sidney's death, when they were either printed from completed MSS., in which the order had been slightly disarranged by Sidney himself; for the purpose of masking to some extent their autobiographical character, or were put together by his friends in carelessness or ignorance of the dates of many among them. The main thread however is still discernible, and a close sifting of the allusions to contemporary history in them, as well as a comparison of them with the correspondence between Languet and Sidney of 1580-81, might enable a more clear-headed editor than has yet arisen to handle Sidney, to explain much that is now obscure. There are three distinct stages in the series the first representing a period of impetuous passion, when Sidney is wooing in hot eagerness, bending all the power of his genius to the glorification of Stella and the scorning of his supplanter Lord Rich, and yet dogged perpetually by returns upon himself; by outbursts of moral sensitiveness eminently characteristic; the second a period of partial relenting on Stella's part and of joy on Sidney's:—

Gone is the winter of my misery!
My spring appears: O see what here doth grow,
For Stella hath, with words where faith doth shine,
Of her high heart given me the monarchy.

And the third, a period of widening separation, when the lover, "forced by Stella's laws of duty to depart," sinks deeper and deeper into depression and discouragement. Joy, hope, delight, even tears, have forgotten him:—

Only true sighs you do not go away:
Thank may you have fur such a thankful part;
—Thankworthiest yet when you shall break my heart!

Last of all, we may imagine, comes a sudden call to action, perhaps connected with the schemes of colonisation which we know to have been occupying his mind in 1582, and Sidney writes the 107th sonnet, the last but one in the series as printed, probably the true conclusion of the whole according to Sidney's plan.

Sweet for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap so thee,
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art.
And as a queen who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends—
O let not fools in me thy works reprove.
And scorning say, "See what it is to love!"

Scattered up and down these three divisions as the sonnets stand now, are sonnets which have no special fitness so one or other division, and others again that are clearly misplaced. Still, in the main, the story of the poems runs on unbroken, a living continuous whole growing step by step more real and more tragic. With very few exceptions, the Astrophel and Stella sonnets cannot be fairly judged apart from their context. Each sonnet depends upon those before and after it, and it is in the cumulative effect of the whole that Sidney's genius is most clearly felt. Other contemporary series of sonnets will bear unstringing without injury. A stray sonnet taken at random from Delia or Lodge's Phillis or from Drummond's love-sonnets will often compare favourably with one taken at random from Astrophel and Stella. But the weak sonnets in Sidney are like the weak places in some of Wordsworth's finest work, descents to commonplace which taken alone would be intolerable, but which in their proper context rather heighten than detract from the realistic and passionate effect of the whole. In order to preserve this general effect as much as possible, the plan of the present selection has been to take from each period a certain number of representative sonnets, which reproduce the original whole at least in outline, adding to these two specimens from the Astrophel and Stella songs, eleven in number, which were originally printed after the sonnets, but were interspersed among them in the Arcadia of 1598. The two sonnets beginning "Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare," and "Leave me, O Love which reachest but to dust," which a recent editor has arbitrarily placed for the first time at the end of Astrophel and Stella, have been here carefully distinguished from that series. In some ways, in spite of their grand flow of verse and phrase, they are inferior to the majority of the Astrophel and Stella sonnets in workmanship, and also slightly different from them in plan. Sidney was probably not inclined to assign to them finally so conspicuous a place, and they were first published with other miscellaneous sonnets in the Arcadia of 1598. But that they were written towards the close of the Stella episode, perhaps about the time of the poet's marriage with Frances Walsingham, is certainly very likely, and their consonance with all that we know of that philosophical and high-minded Sidney in whom Elizabeth found an unwelcome counsellor, and Languet saw the hope of the Protestant cause in Europe, makes it justifiable to regard them as fit successors to any selection from Astrophel and Stella, and especially as closely connected with the 107th sonnet.

Of the rest of Sidney's poetry it is not necessary to say very much. The Stella poems brought him his contemporary fame, and upon them and the Apology for Poetry his claim to live in English letters must always rest. His other poems have the youthful faults which mar even Astrophel and Stella, only in far greater abundance. Mere "thin diet of dainty words," ingenuity unrelieved by a single touch of true feeling, the stock phrases and themes common to the hundred-and-one second-rate rhymers of the day, this is all that the voluminous verse of the Arcadia, with the exception of a few passages here and there, has to offer. The two songs quoted below from the Certain Sonnets — never before printed, of 1595, belong so the great lyrical growth of the time, and we specimens of Sidney's freest and most spontaneous manner. One of them, the passionate dirge beginning "Ring out ye bells, let mourning shews be spread," has a swing and force which ought long ago to have rescued it from oblivion.