Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)
 
[Sir Philip Sidney, born at Penshurst on 29th November 1554, was the son of Sir Henry Sidney, subsequently Lord Deputy in Ireland, and of his wife Mary, eldest daughter of the ill-fated Duke of Northumberland. He was educated at Shrewsbury and Christ Church, but left Oxford very young, in order to travel abroad. At the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, he was an inmate of Walsingham’s house at Paris. Of his travels, which extended to Germany, Italy, and other European countries, and occupied something like four years, the most interesting memorial is his Latin correspondence with his companion during part of them, the celebrated Huguenot Hubert Languet. In 1576–7 he was again abroad, on a mission of ceremony to the Emperor Rudolf II. His withdrawal to Penshurst in the summer of 1580, which enabled him to write both The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (in his sister’s honour), and The Defence of Poësy, must have been in some measure due to the very open part he had taken in opposing the marriage-project between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou. But on the renewal of negotiations to this end in 1581 Sidney was conspicuous in doing honour to the French Embassy; and in the following year he was knighted by the Queen. She is said to have afterwards prevented his joining Drake in an American expedition, and to have interfered against his being offered the Polish Crown. But, not less fatally, she in 1585 appointed him Governor of the cautionary town of Flushing. During the siege of Zutphen, having volunteered his aid to an attempt at intercepting a Spanish convoy, he was mortally wounded, and died 17th October 1586. Sidney in 1583 married a daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham; the Stella of his verse was Penelope Devereux, married in 1581 to Lord Rich.]  1
 
THE INEVITABLE application to Sidney of the phrase, “the Marcellus of English literature,” is misleading, if not altogether meaningless. When his noble life had been sacrificed to the attractions of a futile coup de Balaclava, he was mourned at home in England, not only for what had been hoped from him, but for what he had already achieved. Still, it would be idle to deny that never has gallant warrior, true knight, or illustrious writer, been more fortunate than he in the opportunity of his death. To begin with, mutual sympathies were as yet stronger than antipathies in the small but expanding world of English literature; and thus, although the Queen herself had honoured the good courtier she had lost, although English nobles were his pall-bearers, while his loss was lamented by the Seven Provinces which he had helped to protect, and acknowledged even by the archfoe whose name he bore, he had no mourners more justly in earnest than the scholars and poets that claimed him as one of themselves. For the soldier who had fallen on the field of honour, the statesman whom his own Sovereign had trusted and whom the Republic of a foreign kingdom had summoned to its throne,—he too had been a citizen of that Arcadia where Imagination holds supreme sway; he too had not only taken joy in that Art of Poesy for which he had entered the lists, but had as a true student found in it compensation for the disappointments of life and love.  2
  But if Sidney’s death thus fitly called forth the tears of the Muses and of their professed votaries, among them of the poet whose praise was in itself a pledge of literary immortality, neither should its coincidence with the beginning of a new era in our literary as well as our political history be overlooked. The year following on that of Sidney’s death ended the tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots; its successor in turn witnessed the catastrophe of the Spanish Armada. During these few years Spenser was already at work upon his masterpiece; in their course were published the first productions of nearly all his chief contemporaries among our epic and lyric poets; and to the same wonderful years belong the earlier plays of the most prominent among the immediate predecessors or older contemporaries of Shakespeare. How then could it have been otherwise than that the sudden extinction at such an epoch of a light which had shone forth with so brilliant a promise, should be lamented in strains appropriate to a truly national loss?  3
  Yet, apart from all adventitious circumstances of date, who shall deny that in Sir Philip Sidney, a fit “pride of shepherds’ praise” was lost to the vocal Arcady around him? Concerning his verse it must suffice to say that the lyrical form introduced into English poetry by Surrey, and domesticated in it by Sidney and Spenser, would hardly have made so speedy and so sure a settlement but for the fact that neither the one nor the other scorned to pour his own golden soul into the alien literary mould.  4
  Nor was it far otherwise with the more imposing of the two prose works which, even more decisively than Astrophel and Stella, have secured to their author the unchallengeable rank of a national classic. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, written by Sidney at his sister’s house as a rough draft for her diversion, some time in the years 1580 and 1581, although not printed till after his death in 1590, forms, of course, a mere link in the connected chain of modern pastoral literature. That chain may, without injustice to Politian, be said to begin with Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1502), and to reach down through a series of successors to and beyond the name-sake works of Sidney and Lope de Vega. In their most salient features all these productions resemble one another. They seek alike to give prominence to those emotions which humanise and soften life in the midst of the very conflicts and troubles provided in part by themselves, and thus their effect is to exalt friendship and love, but the latter most conspicuously, as absorbing the sentiments of the personages within their range, together with most of the life they lead and of the time they kill. Hence the sameness and monotony characteristic of modern in a far greater measure than of ancient pastoral. Conversely, modern pastoral almost imperceptibly substituted its own ineffable artificiality of style for the naïveté (conscious only to the extent in which the play of children is such) of the Sicilian Muses. Vergil is as simple and natural as it is possible for an imitator to remain. In Sannazaro there lingers at least the pretence of a rustic tone; in Tasso and Guarini simplicity has become delicacy; the Spaniards refine upon the Italians, and in Sidney the pastoral dress has become a mere accepted costume. Indeed his shepherds are in the main confessedly nothing more than courtiers in retreat—“princely shepherds,” as he calls them—in their way hardly less conventional than their latest Louis Quinze successors. With the conventionalities of scenery and costume those of incident and character become permanently associated; we recognise as inevitable the disconsolate shepherd, the coy shepherdess, and the clown whose feats and feelings burlesque those of his superiors, although he “will stumble sometimes upon some songs that might become a better brain.” Nor are we spared well-known stage tricks for setting off the stage figures, above all the familiar device of Echo repeating in moans and in puns the final syllables of lines of verse uttered among the rocks or trees.  5
  If in these respects Sidney’s Arcadia must perforce be pronounced the reverse of original, neither is it possible to ignore the Euphuistic element in the style of the book, or the degree in which its initial success was due to this particular cause. Euphues, it must be remembered, had appeared in 1579, only a year before Sir Philip Sidney temporarily withdrew from the Court where no figure had shone more conspicuously than his own; and the Arcadia, though not printed till eleven years afterwards, was written under the influence of an extremely fashionable and easily imitable model. Probably what seemed choicest in the style of Sidney’s work to its early admirers was what most closely resembled Euphues. “Oh,” cries Master Fastidious Brisk in Every Man out of his Humour, when eulogising the “harmonious and musical strain of wit” in a great lady, “it flows from her like nectar … as I am an honest man, would I might never stir, sir, but she does observe as pure a phrase, and use as choice figures in her ordinary conferences, as may be in the Arcadia.” And in the same play Fungoso, who “follows the fashion afar off, like a spy,” says that, while waiting for his new suit of clothes, he will “sit in his old suit, or else lie a-bed, and read the Arcadia.” Of the significant characteristics of Euphuism hardly one, unless it be a certain monotony of cadence quite out of keeping with the superior versatility of Sidney’s literary genius, is altogether missing in his book. Although he is expressly praised by Drayton for disburdening our tongue of Lyly’s favourite similes from natural history, or supposed natural history, yet “this word, Lover, did no less pierce poor Pyrocles, than the right tune of music toucheth him that is sick of the Tarantula”; and the Forsaken Knight bears as his impresa, or device, “a Catoblepas, which so long lies dead as the moon, whereto it hath so natural a sympathy, wants her light.” Nor was the author of the Arcadia proof against the seduction of mere tricks of sound, quite apart from the metrical experiments which furnish so moderate an enjoyment to his latter-day readers, and which need not be discussed here. Above all, full play is allowed to his intolerable fondness for puns, which a famous American historian calls “the only blemish in his character”; on the very first page of the romance, the very first Arcadian having used the adverb last regrets “that the word last should so long last.” Nor can it be denied that notwithstanding the coherency and consequent interest as narratives of some of the interwoven episodes, such as that borrowed by Shakespeare for King Lear, the Arcadia in the general texture of its argument marks no material advance from the point of view of construction upon Euphues and its direct progeny of love-pamphlets.  6
  But although as late as the days of Sir Walter Scott’s Monastery, the conception of “perfect Arcadia” as a kind of diction cherished by the “precious,” necessarily included an unmistakeable admixture of affectation, and although this affectation was mainly imitative, yet Sidney was, to begin with, as he says in one of the most charming of his Sonnets,
        “No pick-purse of another’s wit;”
Nor indeed is this, unless at a very early stage of their literary lives, a common crime with those who can boast so splendid an endowment of their own. If his Arcadia remains to this day interesting,—an epithet which few members of the public that reads to please itself, would be likely to apply to Lyly’s Euphues,—the reason is not far to seek. After all, the Arcadia is self-confessedly a romance of chivalry in the approved pastoral form; and as such it is animated with vivifying power by the spirit of Sir Calidore. This spirit is recognisable in the martial and often very sanguinary adventures which form part of the main argument, dim and discursive though this latter must be allowed to be, albeit used by one most capable dramatist (Shirley) as the plot of one of his plays. It shows itself in the love of manly exercises and diversions, of games and bouts of all kinds, and in the minute interest in the qualities and points of horses and hounds, to which divers passages of the Arcadia bear witness. It displays itself not less in a sincere enjoyment of well-ordered pomp and magnificence, of tournaments and pageants, of brave habiliments and gorgeous drapery. Above all it finds expression in a passionate devotion to the service of fair women, and an ecstatic enthusiasm in the detailed extolling of their charms. Philoclea is but another name for “Stella ever dear”; Pamela, if she represents any actual woman, typifies a more august, and a more self-restrained, mistress. Nor is it, in this connexion, to be overlooked that in addition to the desire for chivalrous action, whereby, as Musidorus says, man “not only betters himself but benefits others,” and to the tenderness which filled Sidney’s soul, the Arcadia reflects something of the national political sentiment of which its author was in so many ways a typical representative. This more than anything, except certain descriptive passages to which in the Arcadia, as in the Faerie Queen, our native English scenery may prefer an exclusive claim, makes Sidney’s work distinctively English, and connects it organically with the great national age to which it belonged. St. Marc-Girardin has pointed out political touches, which are at the same time delicate flatteries, and which, as he says, denote the courtier. But although we may smile to find that the virtues and the beauties of Urania (Elizabeth)—in Euphuistic phrase her “sweetest fairness and fairest sweetness”—cannot be kept even out of Arcadia, yet we remember that the courtier who ushers them in is the good courtier of Spenser’s beautiful adaptation; and that to him his sovereign is the incarnation of the purposes for which in camp and court life is worth living.
  7
  The style of such a writer can hardly lack individuality; and in Sidney’s prose this master-quality has no difficulty in asserting itself in the face of more or less adventitious influences. Thus the Euphuism of the Arcadia, though here and there marked enough, cannot be described as a quality of the style of the book at large; as such, its place is taken by something new and individual, although perhaps something not very easy to define. In a celebrated passage extracted below, Philoclea is described as “so humble, that she would put all pride out of countenance.” A page or two later, the high-minded Philanax from his sick-bed demands of his master, discouraged by an oracle, why he should “deprive himself of government, for fear of losing his government, like one that should kill himself for fear of death.” In such passages as these, and in many more of the same kind, the antithesis no longer owes much of its effect to sound or cadence; and the point of their wit goes home the more truly, because it has been dipped in moral sentiment. Moreover, the effort is not, as in the master, painfully elaborated; playful touches of convincing simplicity are not uncommon, such as “No is no negative in a woman’s mouth”; elsewhere the author knows how to stop short, with his Pyrocles, “like a man unsatisfied in himself, though his wit might well have served to satisfy another.”  8
  Much more might be said concerning the style of the Arcadia, of which there is no reason for assuming that Sidney would have refused, had occasion offered, to lop many of the extravagances. Of these there is beyond doubt too luxuriant an underwood, but not enough to choke the nobler growths, or to hide the play of the sunlight between them. If Sidney’s humour in the Arcadia must on the whole be called conventional, while his pathos is not economised, as pathos should be if it is to become effective, he on the other hand constantly shows (the distinction will be obvious) a feeling which proves him an artist of a very high order. His descriptive touches, often conveyed in exquisite figures—night stretching forth her black arms to part combatants; a maiden’s cheeks blushing “and withal, when she was spoken unto, a little smiling, like roses, when their leaves are with a little breath stirred”—added a fresh charm to English prose, and one which over-matched the more pretentious efforts in the same direction of earlier Elizabethan verse. Nor are such spontaneous beauties out of keeping with frequent bursts of a noble rhetoric, the result, may be, of conscious training, but not the dictation of another man’s mind, and at times consecrated, as in one of the extracts given below, to the loftiest of themes. Thus the freshness, the flexibility, the essential originality and intrinsic nobility of Sidney’s genius reflect themselves in the style of the most notable prose-work, taken as a whole, of an era without parallel in our literature.  9
  The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia resembles a beautiful and elaborate headgear such as Sidney’s sister might have worn at Court while witnessing his prowess at the barriers—a product of nature interspersed with a hundred quaint artifices of wreaths and bugles and ouches and rings. The Defence of Poësy, which he wrote about the same time as the longer work, or but little later, is like a single gem in a simple but exquisitely appropriate setting of its own. The introduction, with Attic lightness and gracefulness, enables the author without effort or flourish to enter upon his theme, the defence of his favourite art—“having, I know not by what mischance, in these my old years and ildlest times, slipped into the title of a poet.” The subject is treated with both fulness and thoroughness, no care being spared in definition and classification; but even in the earlier part of the essay we are inspirited as we touch the hand of our eager guide by the contagion of his own generous enthusiasm. More especially in his review of the different kinds or species of poetry are to be found passages of inimitable freshness as well as aptitude, among them, the famous figure as to the effect of “the old song of Percy and Douglas”; although, to tell the truth, it is rather disappointing to be asked directly afterwards, what this lyric would work, were it “trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar.”  10
  Naturally our poet-critic moves with greater freedom as he proceeds to refute the cavils of the [Greek], and permits himself in the interests of the dignity of his art, to digress into a lively and combative little diatribe on the stage-plays of his day. Yet nowhere is he so perfectly felicitous as in his peroration, where he has very skilfully allowed a wave of humour to mingle in the current of his eloquence, and parts from his reader with the courteous and pleasant tone in which the essay opened.  11
  Thus the Defence of Poësy is not only typical of a species of critical essays which were soon to become common in our literature, and which of course are as significant of the tastes of the public as of those of their writers. It is likewise typical, in choice of subject and in style, of the idiosyncrasy of its author, so modest in his self-estimate, so generous in his judgment of others; so bent upon fancies pure and noble, and yet in the utterance of them so pleasantly abounding in the humour proper to gentle minds.  12
 
 
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