English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

Sir Philip Sidney

SIR PHILIP SIDNEY, for three centuries the type of the English gentleman, was the son of Sir Henry Sidney, lord deputy of Ireland under Queen Elizabeth, and Lady Mary Dudley, daughter of the Duke of Northumberland. He was born at Penshurst, Kent, November 30, 1554, and was named after his godfather, Philip II of Spain, then consort of Queen Mary. He was sent to Oxford at fourteen, where he was noted as a good student; and on leaving the university he obtained the Queen’s leave to travel on the Continent. He went to Paris in the train of the ambassador to France, saw much of court society there, and was in the city at the time of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Proceeding to Germany he met, at Frankfort, the Protestant scholar Hubert Languet, with whom, though Languet was thrice his age, he formed an intimate and profitable friendship. He went on to Vienna, Hungary, Italy, and back by the Low Countries, returning to England at the age of twenty, an accomplished and courtly gentleman, with some experience of practical diplomacy, and a first-hand knowledge of the politics of the Continent.

Sidney’s introduction to the court of Elizabeth took place in 1575, and within two years he was sent back to the Continent on a number of diplomatic commissions, when he used every opportunity for the furthering of the interests of Protestantism. He seems everywhere to have made the most favorable impression by both his character and his abilities. During the years between 1578 and 1585 he was chiefly at court and in Parliament, and to this period belong most of his writings. In 1585 he left England to assume the office of Governor of Flushing, and in the next year he was mortally wounded at the battle of Zutphen, dying on October 17, 1586. All England went into mourning, and the impression left by his brilliant and fascinating personality has never passed away.

Sidney’s literary work was all published after his death, some of it against his express desire. The “Arcadia,” an elaborate pastoral romance written in a highly ornate prose mingled with verse, was composed for the entertainment of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. The collection of sonnets, “Astrophel and Stella,” was called forth by Sidney’s relation to Penelope Devereux, daughter of the Earl of Essex. While they were both little more than children, there had been some talk of a marriage between them; but evidence of any warmth of feeling appears chiefly after Penelope’s unhappy marriage to Lord Rich. There has been much controversy over the question of the sincerity of these remarkable poems, and over the precise nature of Sidney’s sentiments toward the lady who inspired them, some regarding them as undisguised outpourings of a genuine passion, others as mere conventional literary exercises. The more recent opinion is that they express a platonic devotion such as was common in the courtly society of the day, and which was allowed by contemporary opinion to be compatible with the marriage of both parties.

In 1579 Stephen Gosson published a violent attack on the arts, called “The School of Abuse,” and dedicated it without permission to Sidney. It was in answer to this that Sidney composed his “Defense of Poesy,” an eloquent apology for imaginative literature, not unmingled with humor. The esthetic theories it contains are largely borrowed from Italian sources, but it is thoroughly infused with Sidney’s own personality; and it may be regarded as the beginning of literary criticism in England.