1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Philip Sidney

Anonymous, in Review of Sidney, Miscellaneous Works, ed. Gray; Southern Review [Charleston] 5 (May 1830) 295-97.



The reputation of Sir Philip Sidney as a knight and a gentleman, is familiar to every body, and may be summed up in the following apostrophe to a Preux Chevalier, which is a perfect picture of that old-fashioned character. "And now I dare say," exclaims Sir Bohort in the Morte Arthur, "that Sir Launcelot there thou liest; thou were never matched of none earthly hands. And thou were the curtiest knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest freende to thy lover that ever bestrode horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among prece (press) of knyghtes. And thou were the meekest man and the gentillest that ever ate in hal among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe, that ever put spere in rest." But his renown as a scholar and a poet, though equally high among his contemporaries, has not proved so enduring; and many of our readers, we have no doubt, will be surprised to learn what immense literary honours have been showered down upon this rival of Bayard, and right worthy successor of Chandos and Du Gueselin. We are informed by his biographers that no fewer than two hundred authors have borne testimony to his merits. He had not attained his twentieth year when he was honoured with the friendship and the correspondence of Hubert Languet — then an old man, universally esteemed in Europe for his learning, integrity and political wisdom. The muse of Spenser, which he patronized, and the graver pen of Camden, united in eulogizing him. The two universities poured out three volumes of scholastic lamentation over his untimely grave. The "Royal Solomon," King James I. wrote his epitaph both in Latin and English. An elegant scholar would have no other inscription upon his own tomb-stone, save that he had been "tutor to Sir Philip Sidney;" and Lord Brooke — the well-known Fulke Greville — took the same means of perpetuating the memory of his intimacy with that accomplished person. Some, perhaps a considerable portion, of this popularity and renown, was, doubtless, owing to the favour of Elizabeth and the influence of Leicester. But long after these transient causes had ceased to operate, men of learning and taste spoke of his literary talents with high, and even with exalted Young characterizes the "Arcadia," as the "charm of ages." Johnson, in the preface to his Dictionary associates Sidney with Spenser, as an authority in our language — as a writer, in whose works all the richness, variety and compass of English poetic diction have been displayed. And what is still more extraordinary, the sober and elegant Sir William Temple, speaks of our author as "the greatest poet and the noblest genius of any that have left writings [subaudi, of a certain sort] behind them, or published in ours or any other language — a person born capable not only of forming the greatest idea, but leaving the noblest example, if the length of his life had been equal to the excellence of his wit and his virtues."

It is, on the other hand, quite amusing to contrast with these high-flown panegyrics, the dogmatical and contemptuous criticism of Horace Walpole, who treats the reputation of Sidney as a hum of the first magnitude. The remarks of this Iconoclast by profession — this wayward and opinionated sceptic, whose perverse delight it was to doubt where others believed, and decry what all the world admired — may be found in his Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors in the notice of Fulke Greville. It is due to him, however, to state that some of our contemporaries have shewn themselves inclined to the same way of thinking. This wide diversity of opinion as to the merits of a person, in every point of view so interesting, is calculated to awaken the liveliest curiosity, and will, no doubt, supersede the necessity of an apology for troubling our readers with a few remarks suggested by the volume under review.