Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Pitts Duffield (1869–1938)
“WHEN I was a boy nine years old,” says Aubrey the antiquary, “I was with my father at one Mr. Singleton’s, an alderman and woollen draper, in Gloucester, who had in his parlour over the chimney the whole description of Sir Philip Sidney’s funerall, engraved and printed on papers pasted together, which at length was, I believe, the length of the room at least. But he had contrived it to be twined upon two pinnes, that turning one of them made the figures march all in order. It did make such a strong impression on my young tender phantasy that I remember it as if it were but yesterday.” The pageantry of Sir Philip Sidney’s life and death is still potent to impress the tender fancy, young or old; it cannot be forgotten by anybody who to-day would meddle with the estimate put upon him by his contemporaries. That he was the embodied ideal of all the Elizabethan world held noble in life and art, there is an almost inconceivable amount of tribute to testify. All England and most of Europe went into mourning at his death; and while he lived, the name of Astrophel was one that poets conjured with. Bruno the philosopher, Languet the Huguenot, enshrined him in their affections; and Sir Fulke Greville the thinker, in the never-to-be-forgotten epitaph, was proud to remember that besides having been servant to Queen Elizabeth and counselor to King James, he had been also Sir Philip Sidney’s friend.  1
  The extraordinary charm of this celebrated personality is hardly to be accounted for completely by the flavor of high romance about him, or by attributing to him what nowadays has been called personal magnetism. Something of temperamental magic there must have been, to be sure; but even in his short life there was something also of distinct purpose and achievement. When in his thirty-second year—for he was born November 29th, 1554, and died October 5th, 1586—he received his death wound at the siege of Zutphen, he had already gained the reputation of more than ordinary promise in statesmanship, and had made himself an authority in questions of letters. The results of modern scholarship seem to show, on the whole, that his renown was more richly deserved than subsequent opinion has always been willing to admit.  2
  In the first place, Sidney’s devotion to art was steadfast and sincere. Throughout his travels on the Continent, whether in the midst of the terrors of St. Bartholomew in Paris, or of the degenerative Italy,—which for its manifold temptations old Roger Ascham declared a Circe’s court of vice,—he held a high-spirited philosophy which kept him alike from evil and from bigotry. Dante and Petrarch more than any fleshly following were his companions in Italy. On the grand tour or in his foreign missions, as his writings always show, he was ever the true observer. In the splendors of Elizabeth’s court—such as, for instance, the Kenilworth progress, which his uncle the Earl of Leicester devised for the gratification of the Queen’s Majesty—he had always an eye for the romantic aspects of things, and a thought for the significance of them. The beautiful face in the Warwick Castle portrait—lofty with the truth of a soul that derives itself from Plato—cannot have been the visage of a nature careless of its intellectual powers or its fame; but of one most serious, as his friend Fulke Greville testifies, and strenuous in his public duty. The celebrated romance of ‘Arcadia’—which he wrote for his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke, in retirement at Penshurst, his birthplace, after his courageous letter of remonstrance to the Queen concerning the French match—is entirely the outcome of a mind that did its own thinking, and made even its idle thoughts suggestive in the study of the literature.  3
  At first sight the Countess of Pembroke’s ‘Arcadia’ may seem, indeed, but the “vain amatorious poem” which Milton condemned Charles I. for using upon the scaffold. Sidney himself might have called it a poem: for “it is not rhyming and versing,” he says, “that maketh a poet; but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by:” and he did call it, in his dedication, “an idle work,”—“a trifle and trifling handled.” But it is to be noted that what Charles used of it was a prayer put originally in the mouth of Pamela, and that Dr. Johnson declared his use of it was innocent. Pamela also, in spite of the trifling diversions of Philip and his sister the Countess, has a way of pretty often growing eloquent on serious matters. “You say yesterday was as to-day,” she exclaims. “O foolish woman, and most miserably foolish since wit makes you foolish, what does that argue but that there is a constancy in the everlasting governor?” And Pamela’s exposition of her faith, in Book iii., is more theology than many a trifler would care to read or write to-day. Altogether this elaborate compound of Spanish, Italian, and Greek pastoral, and romantic incident, has its fair share of the moral element which the English nature inevitably craves.  4
  Another element in it, less peculiar to the Saxon race, but always characteristic of Sidney, is its strong instinctive art. In form, of course,—though Sidney had a leaning toward the unities,—it is purely romantic. Its art is to be found in the most distinctive characteristic of the Elizabethans,—the art of putting together canorous words and phrases. When Sidney retired to Penshurst in 1580, the whole world was reading John Lyly’s ‘Euphues’; in which the love of elaborate language found vent in complicated systems of alliteration, antitheses, and similes borrowed from an artificial natural history. Sidney, though like Shakespeare after him he did not entirely escape this craze, was not slow to transmute the rather mechanical system of Lyly into something more really musical. His style shows traces also of the foreign models he set himself; but in the end, like the matter he borrowed, it resolves itself into something individual, in its persistent aim in saying what it has to say simply (according to his lights) and beautifully. More specifically, its verse contains also many experiments in the classic metres, which Harvey, Spenser, and other literary men of the day hoped to introduce into English; but Sidney, whatever were his failures, never held anything but the loftiest estimate of the real poet or worker in words. His eloquent defense of “poesie,” written soon after the Arcadia, and before England had produced more than a very few of the works for which her literature is now famous, is a marvel of prophetic sympathy. In spite of his sometimes academic judgments, the very fact of his criticism shows that he had an interest in the then unfashionable and sordid theatre; and more than any of the criticising pamphleteers of his time, he had an ear for the poetry of the common people. “Certainly,” he says, in the famous passage in the ‘Defense of Poesie,’ “I must confess mine own barbarousness: I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style,—which being so evilly appareled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?”  5
  It is with this notion of Sidney as a literary man of wide sympathy and high thoughts, if of a somewhat too bookish Muse, that we can most easily apprehend his last and perhaps greatest work,—the series of sonnets and poems called ‘Astrophel and Stella.’ Literary gossip and scholarship are still busy with the question whether the Stella of the Sonnets, Penelope Devereux, was already Lady Rich, and so a married woman, when Astrophel made his poetical love to her. The important thing to-day is that there was a Stella at all. Lady Rich, married against her will to an unworthy spouse, remains true to him, in the Sonnets at least; and Sidney in the end, having pledged his hand to Frances Walsingham, the daughter of his friend Sir Francis Walsingham, transcends his earthly love in a love of eternal and spiritual things. “The argument cruel Chastity,” says Thomas Nash, his first editor; “the prologue Hope, the epilogue Despair.” “My theory of the love which it portrays,” says Mr. Symonds, one of his recent biographers, “is that this was latent up to the time of her betrothal, and that the consciousness of the irrevocable at that moment made it break into the kind of regretful passion which is peculiarly suited for poetic treatment.” Certainly it was not the mere amatorious element in the poems which made the name of Astrophel dear to men like Jonson, Crashaw, Wither, and stately Sir Thomas Browne; nor is it the artificial element that need concern the reader in these days. Without either of these, there is plenty of lettered charm, searching thought into the relations of the body and the soul, high and beautiful speculation on the conditions of earthly life, expressed everywhere in the spirit of one who, as Wotton says, was “the very essence of congruity.”  6

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.