As a poet, Sir Philip Sidney is now scarcely at all known, nor, indeed, do his productions in this department entitle him to any very lofty station on the English Parnassus, although, were we to take our notions of him from the high-flown and unbounded panegyrics of his contemporaries, we might be induced to believe that in this, as in every other quality, he was unequalled and inimitable. Take, for instance, as a specimen, the following extract from Gabriel Harvey's "Pierce's Supererogation," a very rare old tract, published in 1593, seven years after Sir Philip's death.—
"Lord, what would himself have proved in fine, that was the gentleman of courtesy, the esquire of industry, and the knight of valour, at those years? (he died at the age of thirty-two). Live ever, sweet book! the silver image of his gentle wit, and the golden pillar of his noble courage; and ever notify unto the world, that thy writer was the secretary of eloquence, — the breath of the Muses; — the honey-bee of the daintiest flowers of wit and art; — the pith of moral and intellectual virtues; — the arm of Bellona in the field; — the tongue of Suada in the chamber; — the spirit of practice in esse; — and the paragon of excellency in print."
And even the great Sir William Temple, the grandson of his secretary, influenced, probably, by hereditary gratitude to the patron of his ancestor, declares him to be, "the greatest poet, and the noblest genius, of any that have left writings in our own, or any modern, language."
Although, however, it must be owned, that his writings fall short of his traditional glory, and that his martial exploits were not of the very highest importance, there is no necessity for supposing that the impression which he made upon his contemporaries was either illusive or exaggerated. Traits of character, which must have been obvious to them, although hidden from our view, no doubt, distinguished this great man, independently of his pen and of his sword. Some of these, indeed, have descended to us; but among these, that which marked his closing scene shines most conspicuous, and presents as noble and affecting an instance of chivalrous generosity, or, rather, of true Christian charity, as is to be met with in history.
Sir Philip Sidney, in July, 1586, accompanied by the young prince Maurice, 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 their gallant leader. 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.
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."