When we encounter someone with high levels of skills, learning, and accomplishment we may refer to them admiringly as a renaissance person. Sir Philip Sidney has been considered the epitome of renaissance ideals since, well the renaissance. Generation upon generation of western civilization’s finest have known his reputation and aspired to emulate him.
Sir Philip Sidney was an Elizabethan courtier, statesman, soldier, poet, and patron of scholars and poets.
He was famous as the ideal gentleman of his day and a model for subsequent generations until the twentieth century replaced classical education with industrial age expedience. He represents something of what we have lost in modern self-interest.
For three centuries, he was considered the most extraordinary man of the English Renaissance. But unfortunately, his legacy has faded from modern prominence. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to peer into the past and discover a singular person that our forbearers identified and aspired to as a worthy model for their behavior and inspiration.
For centuries he was considered a towering figure of impeccable character and represented the highest ideals of chivalry and intellectual and literary excellence. Now he is all but forgotten.
Although he was legendary for his overall life and grace, his three major literary works hold an important place in English literature’s most brilliantly creative era. His literary works are the best way to gain insight into this marvelous person. After Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella are considered the finest Elizabethan sonnet cycle. They preceded Shakespeare’s sonnets by twenty years and, as such, can be regarded as more important in bringing the form and idea of English poetry to fruition. These sonnets, witty and passionate, brought Elizabethan poetry at once of age.
The Defence of Poesie introduced the ideas of continental Renaissance theorists to England and was immensely influential on the development and flowering of the English Renaissance. In it, he insisted on the ethical value of art, which aims to lure people to “see the form of goodness, which seen they cannot but love ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries.” This essay on the value of art assured Sidney’s position in the history of literature.
And his Arcadia is considered the pinnacle of pastoral romance. During his lifetime, his works circulated only in manuscripts. His Arcadia was first printed in 1590. It combines elements from the pastoral tradition, heroic epic, and the romances of chivalry. The Arcadia is an extended mixture of prose and verse that summed up the heroic ideals that inspired Sidney’s life.
The Arcadia is remarkable for its complex plot, its earnest digressions on such topics as justice, atheism, virtue, honor, and friendship, and its elaborate style. The published version of 1590 was much amplified and elaborated compared with the first draft.
His literary production took place in a remarkably compact writing career. The brevity and intensity of Sidney’s writing career is astonishing. It lasted no more than seven or eight years, during which he worked simultaneously on different texts. 1579 through 1584 represent the peak years of Sidney’s literary activity.
Sir Philip Sidney is a person worth knowing and his legacy worth contemplating. However, what made him so popular was not what he did but who he was: the personification of the Elizabethan ideal of gentlemanly conduct.
Sir Phillip wrote for his amusement and for that of his close friends. True to the gentlemanly code of avoiding crass commercialism, he did not allow his writings to be published in his lifetime. But his writings were to be his most lasting accomplishment.
Sidney’s sequence Astrophel and Stella started the English vogue for sonnet sequences. The following two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Sidney’s best friend Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others.
His works include the well-known pastoral tale Arcadia, the sonnets Astrophel and Stella, and his Apologie for Poetry, afterwards renamed Defense of Poesie.
The Arcadia was originally composed for the entertainment of his sister, who later became the Countess of Pembroke, Ben Jonson’s “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.” It remained extremely popular for over a century after its debut.
Here is the epitaph poem for Sidney’s sister composed by Ben Johnson:
XV. — EPITAPH ON THE COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE.
Underneath this sable herse
Lies the subject of all verse,
SIDNEY’s sister, PEMBROKE’s mother ;
Death ! ere thou hast slain another,
Learn and fair, and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.
Philip Sidney was born November 30, 1554, at his family’s estate at Penshurst in Kent, England. Sidney began his education at the Shrewsbury School. He was a bright and ardent student who formed a lifelong bond with Fulke Greville (later Baron Brooke), who wrote Sidney’s first biography.
Sidney was known for his high-minded intelligence since his boyhood. At 13, Sidney transferred to the University of Oxford’s Christ Church College.
He frequently provided diplomatic service to Queen Elizabeth I as a Protestant political liaison. However, his opposition to her political marriage maneuvering earned her displeasure, and he later left the court. Thus began his writing of poetical works.
In September 1586, Sidney traveled to the Lowlands with his uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to defend the Protestants. Tragically, he was wounded in combat and died several weeks later, on October 17. Sidney, who was regarded as a national hero, was given a magnificent funeral. When his poetry was later released, he was hailed as one of the greatest Elizabethan writers.
In September 1586, Sidney was wounded by a musket shot that shattered his thighbone during a battle against the Spanish at Zutphen, the Netherlands. Twenty-two days later, he died of gangrene at 31.
Sir Philip Sidney lived a relatively short life. He was born in 1554, and he died in 1586. He was 31 years old. The impact he had echoed for the next three centuries. He was considered the model man of virtue. Every school child and scholar was familiar with his exceptional exploits. They were not exploits of macho heroism but kindness, wit, wisdom, and chivalry.
Adventurer and Explorer
Sir Philip was a proto venture capitalist. Sidney was among the few of his time interested in the newly discovered Americas, and he financially supported the maritime explorations of navigator Sir Martin Frobisher.
Richard Hakluyt, who published stories of English explorers’ adventures, dedicated his Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America to Sidney in 1582.
Later, Sidney grew interested in Sir Walter Raleigh’s ambition to build the American colony of Virginia. Finally, he intended to set out for the new world on an expedition with Sir Francis Drake against the Spaniards.
He had wide-ranging intellectual and artistic interests discussing art with the painter Nicholas Hilliard and chemistry with magus and alchemist John Dee.
In addition, Sidney was a generous supporter of intellectuals and writers. More than 40 books by English and European authors were dedicated to him, demonstrating the range of his interests in divinity, ancient and modern history, geography, military affairs, law, logic, medicine, and poetry.
Among the many writers who received his patronage were Edmund Spenser, Abraham France, and Thomas Lodge.
Brief Life and Lasting Glory
Sidney’s life represents an example of Achille’s choice of fate from the Illiad.
“Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies.”
Achille’s mother, the goddess Thetis, has told him that fate has given him two options: Live a brief but glorious life at Troy, or return to Phthia and die in obscurity in old age. When faced with this decision, the promise of gifts and plunder — cattle, plump lambs, stallions — doesn’t pique his interest. Such material awards can be traded or even taken away, as was the case with his prize Briseis. The genuinely valuable objects in the world, on the other hand, are those that cannot be purchased, sold, seized, or commoditized in any way. Glory is an example.
In this passage, Achilles must choose between fame and life; it is not simply a matter of accepting the presents or continuing to protest Agamemnon’s hubris. Achilles has chosen life above fame at this point in the epic, and he reveals that he intends to return to Phthia. The attraction of glory, however, becomes irresistible when he discovers a compelling reason for it — avenging the murder of his cherished buddy Patroclus.
Sidney, it would seem, chose glory over life, and his occasion for it came while soldiering in the lowlands.
Philip Sidney was immensely influential as a literary stylist but left an even more significant legacy as the model man of chivalry. For more than three hundred years, he was regarded as the exemplar of what a person could and should be. He is certainly worth knowing about for this reason. In addition, his literary works are incredibly pleasurable.
Sidney has always been considered as the archetypal example of English chivalry. His personal attributes of nobility and charity have contributed to his extraordinary reputation.
His first biography, authored by his best friend Fulke Greville, describes Sidney as exposed in combat because he had graciously loaned a portion of his armor to another knight. According to a popular legend, when lying wounded, he handed his water to another injured soldier, stating, “Thy necessity is even greater than mine.” This selfless act became one of the most famous stories about Sir Philip, illustrating his noble and gallant character.
He was honored with a state funeral. Sir Philip Sidney is buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England.
Sidney embodied all the aspects and qualities prized as a person in the Renaissance in his compacted life. He was the ideal of the Renaissance man.
Sidney adapted the Petrarchan sonnet in Astrophel and Stella to write the first-ever sonnet sequence in English.
His love for Penelope Devereux inspired him to compose the sonnet series containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. It includes the famous couplet at the outset when he is berating himself for not knowing what to write:
‘Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me; ‘look in thy heart and write.’
Penelope’s father’s fondest wish was for her to marry Sir Phillip. But, as is the case with star-crossed lovers, she married Lord Rich, and Sidney married Frances, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham.
Sidney ignited the English Renaissance. His poetry profoundly influenced and inspired Shakespeare. Edmund Spenser dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to Sir Philip and wrote an elegy for him entitled Astrophel.
The following is from Spenser’s dedication to Sidney from his The Sheppard’s Calendar:
TO THE NOBLE AND VIRTUOUS GENTLEMAN MOST WORTHY OF ALL TITLES BOTH OF LEARNING AND CHEVALRIE MAISTER PHILIP SIDNEY
None of Sidney’s poetry was published during his lifetime. His friend Sir Fulke Greville (1st Baron Brooke) arranged for the publishing of Arcadia in 1590. All his works were posthumously published including: The Lady of May (a short pastoral) and Defence of Poetry (an essay).
He is not held in the high regard that generations of our forbearers esteemed him mainly because he has been obscured. Nevertheless, it will do us all well to recall what they saw in his example.
Stephen Gosson, a playwright, dedicated his attack on the English stage, The School of Abuse, to Sidney in 1579. However laudatory the dedication was, Sidney resented being connected with a pamphlet that opened with a comprehensive denunciation of poets. But Gosson’s abuse of poets played a significant role in inducing Sidney to write his Apologie for Poetry, written around 1581. This manifesto of literary criticism was influential and set the tone of English poetry for the next three centuries.
Percy Shelley’s Defense of Poetry, written in 1821, was highly influenced by Sidney’s work. For example, it contains Shelley’s famous claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Among the learned and those aspiring to high ideals, Sidney’s example still resonates. Martin Luther King wrote on an index card this quote from Shelley’s work:
“Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconsistent wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”
Shelley Defence of Poetry
Sidney’s influence travels down to our own time, through the likes of Shelley and Martin Luther King.
I end this celebration of Sir Philip Sidney with this quote of his:
“If you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry … thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.”
— Sir Philip Sidney
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