Philip Sidney portrait

Posthumous portrait of Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), attributed to Hieronimo Custodis (1589–1598 fl.), circa 1590. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Philip Sidney (30 November 1554 - 17 October 1586) was an English poet, courtier, and soldier, remembered as a prominent figure of the Elizabethan era.



Sidney, son of Sir Henry Sidney, deputy of Ireland, and president of Wales, was born at the family seat of Penshurst, and educated at Shrewsbury School and Oxford. He was at the French Court on the fateful August 24, 1572 (the massacre of St. Bartholomew) but left Paris soon thereafter and went to Germany and Italy. In 1576 he was with his father in Ireland, and the next year went on missions to the Elector Palatine and the Emperor Rudolf II. When his father's Irish policy was called in question, he wrote an able defense of it. He became the friend of Spenser, who dedicated to him his Shepherd's Calendar. In 1580 he lost the favor of the Queen by remonstrating against her proposed marriage with the Duke of Anjou. His own marriage with a daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham took place in 1583. In 1585 he was engaged in the war in the Low Countries, and met his death at Zutphen from a wound in the thigh. His death was commemorated by Spenser in his Astrophel. Sidney has always been considered as the type of English chivalry; and his extraordinary contemporary reputation rested on his personal qualities of nobility and generosity. His writings consist of his famous pastoral romance of Arcadia, his sonnets Astrophel and Stella, and his Apologie for Poetrie, afterwards called Defence of Poesie. The Arcadia was originally written for the amusement of his sister, afterwards Countess of Pembroke, the "Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother," of Ben Jonson. Though its interest now is chiefly historical, it enjoyed an extraordinary popularity for a century after its appearance, and had a marked influence on the immediately succeeding literature. It was written in 1580-1581 but not published until 1590, and is a medley of poetical prose, full of conceits, with occasional verse interspersed. His Defence of Poesie, written in reply to Gosson, is in simple and vigorous English. Sidney also made a translation of the Psalms.[1]


2012-03-09-images-sidney ma409 4 engraving

Sir Philip and Sir Robert Sidney. Portrait by Mark Garrard (1561-1635).

Sidney, the eldest son of Mary (Dudley) and Sir Henry Sidney, was born at Penshurst on 20 November 1554. Sir Henry Sidney (1529-1586), was 3 times lord deputy of Ireland, and in 1560 became lord president of Wales.[2]

Philip Sidney's childhood was spent at Penshurst. Before he had completed his 10th year he was nominated by his father lay rector of Whitford, Flintshire. A deputy was appointed, and Philip enjoyed the revenue of the benefice for the rest of his life.[2]

On 17 of October 1564 he was entered at Shrewsbury school, not far from his father's official residence at Ludlow Castle, on the same day with his life-long friend and 1st biographer, Fulke Greville. An affectionate letter of advice from his father and mother, written about 1565, was preserved and printed in 1591 (A Very Godly Letter...).[2]

In 1568 Sidney was sent to Christ Church, Oxford, where he formed lasting friendships with Richard Hakluyt and William Camden. But his chief companion was Greville, who had gone to Broadgates Hall (Pembroke College). Greville describes Philip Sidney when a schoolboy as characterized by

such staidness of mind, lovely and familiar gravity, which carried grace and reverence far above greater years.... Though I lived with him, and knew him from a child, yet I never knew him other than a man.[2]

Sir Henry Sidney was already anxious to arrange an advantageous marriage for his son, who was at that time heir to his uncle, the earl of Leicester; and Sir William Cecil agreed to a betrothal with his daughter Anne. But in 1571 the match was broken off, and Anne Cecil married Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. In that year Philip left Oxford, and, after some months spent chiefly at court, received the queen's leave in 1572 to travel abroad "for his attaining the knowledge of foreign languages."[2]

Continental tourEdit

He was attached to the suite of the earl of Lincoln, who was sent to Paris in that year to negotiate a marriage between Queen Elizabeth and the due d'Alencon. He was in the house of Sir Francis Walsingham in Paris during the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, and the events he witnessed no doubt intensified his always militant Protestantism. In France he formed close connections with the Huguenot leaders.[2]

In the charge of Dr. Watson, dean, and afterwards bishop, of Winchester, he left Paris for Lorraine, and in March of the next year had arrived in Frankfort on the Main. He lodged there in the house of the learned printer Andrew Wechel, among whose guests was also Hubert Languet. Languet, who was an ardent supporter of the Protestant cause, conceived a great affection for the Sidney, and traveled in his company to Vienna.[2]

In October Sidney left for Italy, having entered into a compact with his friend to write every week. This arrangement was not strictly observed, but the extant letters, more numerous on Languet's side than on Sidney's, afford a considerable insight into Sidney's moral and political development. Languet's letters abound with sensible and affectionate advice on his studies and his affairs generally.[2]

Sidney settled for some time in Venice, and in February 1574 he sat to Paolo Veronese for a portrait, destined for Languet. His friends seem to have feared that his zeal for Protestantism might be corrupted by his stay in Italy, and Languet exacted from him a promise that he would not go to Rome. In July he was seriously ill, and immediately on his recovery started for Vienna. From there he accompanied Languet to Poland, where he is said to have been asked to become a candidate for the vacant crown.[2]

On his return to Vienna he fulfilled vague diplomatic duties at the imperial court, perfecting himself meanwhile, in company with Edward Wotton, in the art of horsemanship under John Pietro Pugliano, whose skill and wit he celebrates in the opening paragraph of the Defence of Poesie. He addressed a letter from Vienna on the state of affairs to Lord Burghley, in December 1574. In the spring of 1575 he followed the court to Prague, where he received a summons to return home, apparently because Sir Francis Walsingham, who was now secretary of state, feared that Sidney had leanings to Catholicism.[2]


His sister, Mary Sidney, was now at court, and he had an influential patron in his uncle, the earl of Leicester. He accompanied the queen on one of her royal progresses to Kenilworth, and afterwards to Chartley Castle, the seat of Walter Devereux, earl of Essex. There he met Penelope Devereux, the "Stella" of the sonnets, then a child of 12.[2]

Essex went to Ireland in 1576 to fill his office as earl marshal, and in September occurred his mysterious death. Philip Sidney was in Ireland with his father at the time. Essex on his deathbed had desired a match between.Sidney and his daughter Penelope. Sidney was often harassed with debt, and seems to have given no serious thought to the question for some time, but Edward Waterhouse, an agent of Sir Henry Sidney, writing in November 1576, mentions "the treaty between Mr Philip and my Lady Penelope" (Sidney Papers, i. 147).[2]

In the spring of 1577 Sidney was sent to congratulate Louis, the new elector Palatine, and Rudolf II, who had become emperor of Germany. He received also general instructions to discuss with various princes the advancement of the Protestant cause. After meeting Don John of Austria at Louvain, March 1577, he proceeded to Heidelberg and Prague. He persuaded the elector's brother, John Casimir, to consider proposals for a league of Protestant princes, and also for a conference among the Protestant churches. At Prague he ventured on a harangue to the emperor, advocating a general league against Spain and Rome. This address naturally produced no effect, but does not seem to have been resented as much as might have been expected. On the return journey he visited William of Orange, who formed a high opinion of Sidney.[2]

In April 1577 Mary Sidney married Henry Herbert, 2nd earl of Pembroke, and in the summer Philip paid the 1st of many visits to her at her new home at Wilton. But later in the year he was at court defending his father's interests, particularly against the earl of Ormonde, who was doing all he could to prejudice Elizabeth against the lord deputy.[2]

Sidney drew up a detailed defense of his father's Irish government, to be presented to the queen. A rough draft of 4 of the 7 sections of this treatise is preserved in the British Museum (Cotton MS., Titus B, xii. pp. 557-559), and even in its fragmentary condition it justifies the high estimate formed of it by Edward Waterhouse (Sidney Papers, 228). Sidney watched with interest the development of affairs in the Netherlands, but was fully occupied in defending his father's interests at court.[3]

He came also in close contact with many men of letters. In 1578 he met Edmund Spenser, who in the next year dedicated to him his Shepherdes Calendar. With Sir Edward Dyer he was a member of the Areopagus, a society which sought to introduce classical meters into English verse, and many strange experiments were the result.[3]

In 1578 the earl of Leicester entertained Elizabeth at Wanstead, Essex, with a masque, The Lady of the May, written for the occasion by Philip Sidney. But though Sidney enjoyed a high measure of the queen's favor, he was not permitted to gratify his desire for active employment. He was already more or less involved in the disgrace of his uncle Leicester, following on that nobleman's marriage with Lettice, countess of Essex, when, in 1579, he had a quarrel on the tennis-court at Whitehall with the earl of Oxford. Sidney proposed a duel, which was forbidden by Elizabeth.[3]

There was more in the quarrel than appeared on the surface. Oxford was one of the chief supporters of the queen's proposed marriage with Alencon, now due d'Anjou, and Sidney, in giving the lie to Oxford, affronted the leader of the French party. In January 1580 he went further in his opposition to the match, addressing to Elizabeth a long letter in which the arguments against the alliance were elaborately set forth. This letter (Sidney Papers, 287-292), in spite of some judicious compliments, was regarded, not unnaturally, by the queen as an intrusion. Sidney was compelled to retire from court, and some of his friends feared for his personal safety. A letter from Languet shows that he had written to Elizabeth at the instigation of "those whom he was bound to obey," probably Leicester and Walsingham.[3]

Sidney retired to Wilton, or the neighboring village of Ivychurch, where he joined his sister in writing a paraphrase of the Psalms. Here too he began his Arcadia, for his sister's amusement and pleasure. In October 1580 he addressed a long letter of advice, not without affectionate and colloquial interruptions, to his brother Robert, then about to start on his continental tour. This letter (Sidney Papers, 283) was printed in Profitable Instructions for Travellers (1633).[3]

It seems that a promise was exacted from him not to repeat his indiscretions in the matter of the French marriage, and he returned to court. He prosecuted his duties as a courtier and as member for Kent in parliament. On 15 and 16 May 1581 he was one of the 4 challengers in a tournament arranged in honor of the visit of the duke of Anjou.[3]

In 1579 Stephen Gosson had dedicated to Sidney his School of Abuse, an attack on the stage, and incidentally on poetry. Sidney was probably moved by this treatise to write his own Apologie for Poetrie, dating from about 1581. In 1583 he was knighted in order that he might act as proxy for Prince John Casimir, who was to be installed as Knight of the Garter, and in the autumn of that year he married Frances, daughter of his friend and patron Sir Francis Walsingham, a girl of 14 or 15. In 1584 he met Giordano Bruno at the house of his friend Fulke Greville, and 2 of the philosopher's books are dedicated to him.[3]

Sidney was employed about this time in the translation from the French of his friend Du Plessis Mornay's treatise on the Christian religion. He still desired active service and took an eager interest in the enterprises of Martin Frobisher, Richard Hakluyt and Walter Raleigh. In 1584 he was sent to France to condole with Henry III on the death of his brother, the duke of Anjou, but the king was at Lyons, and unable to receive the embassy.[3]

Sidney's interest in the struggle of the Protestant princes against Spain never relaxed. He recommended that Elizabeth should attack Philip II in Spain itself. So keen an interest did he take in this policy that he was at Plymouth about to sail with Francis Drake's fleet in its expedition against the Spanish coast (1585) when he was recalled by the queen's orders. He was, however, given a command in the Netherlands, where he was made governor of Flushing.[3]


Arrived at his post, he constantly urged resolute action on his commander, the earl of Leicester, but with small result. In July 1586 he made a successful raid on Axel, near Flushing, and in September he joined the force of Sir John Norris, who was operating against Zutphen. On 22 September he joined a small force sent out to intercept a convoy of provisions. During the fight that ensued he was struck in the thigh by a bullet. He succeeded in riding back to the camp. The often-told story that he refused a cup of water in favor of a dying soldier, with the words, "Thy need is greater than mine," is in keeping with his character.[3]

He owed his death to a quixotic impulse. Sir William Pelham happening to set out for the fight without greaves, Sidney also cast off his leg-armour, which would have defended him from the fatal wound. He died 25 days later at Arnheim, on 17 October 1586. The Dutch desired to have the honor of his funeral, but the body was taken to England, and, after some delay due to the demands of Sidney's creditors, received a public funeral in St Paul's Cathedral on 16 February 1587.[3]

In the bare enumeration of Sidney's achievements there seems little to justify the passionate admiration he excited. So calm an observer as William of Orange desired Greville to give Elizabeth "his knowledge and opinion of a fellow-servant of his, that (as he heard) lived unemployed under her.... If he could judge, her Majesty had one of the ripest and greatest counsellors of estate in Sir Philip Sidney, that this day lived in Europe" (Fulke Greville, Life of Sidney, ed. 1816, 21). His fame was due first of all to his strong, radiant and lovable character.[3]

Sidney left a daughter Frances (born 1584), who married Roger Manners, earl of Rutland. His widow, who, in spite of the strictures of some writers, was evidently sincerely attached to him, married in 1590 Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, and, after his death in 1601, Richard de Burgh, earl of Clanricarde.[3]


Sidney's writings were not published during his lifetime. A Worke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion, translated from the French of Du Plessis Mornay, was completed and published by Arthur Golding in 1587.[3]

The Countess of Pembroke's ArcadiaEdit

Main article: Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia

The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia written by Philippe Sidnei (1590), in quarto, is the earliest edition of Sidney's famous romance.[1] A folio edition, issued in 1503, is stated to have been revised and rearranged by the countess of Pembroke, for whose delectation the romance was written. She was charged to destroy the work sheet by sheet as it was sent to her.[3]

The circumstances of its composition partly explain the difference between its intricate sentences, full of far-fetched conceits, repetition and antithesis, and the simple and dignified phrase of the Apologie for Poetrie. The style is a concession to the fashionable taste in literature which the countess may reasonably be supposed to have shared; but Sidney himself, although he was no friend to euphuism, was evidently indulging his own mood in this highly decorative prose.[4]

The Arcadia, by far Sidney's most ambitious work, was as significant in its own way as his sonnets. The work is a romance that combines pastoral elements with a mood derived from the Hellenistic model of[Heliodorus. In the work, that is, a highly idealized version of the shepherd's life adjoins (not always naturally) with stories of jousts, political treachery, kidnappings, battles, and rapes.[5]

As published in the 16th century, the narrative follows the Greek model: stories are nested within each other, and different storylines are intertwined.[5] The loose framework of the romance admits of descriptions of tournaments, Elizabethan palaces and gardens and numerous fine speeches. It also contains some lyrics of much beauty.[4]

The main thread of the story relates how the princes Musidorus and Pyrocles, the latter disguised as a woman, Zelmane, woo the princesses Pamela and Philoclea, daughters of Basilius and Gynaecia, king and queen of Arcady. The shepherds and shepherdesses occupy a humble place in the story. Sidney used a pastoral setting for a romance of chivalry complicated by the elaborate intrigue of Spanish writers. Nor are these intrigues of a purely innocent and pastoral nature. Sidney described the passion of love under many aspects, and the guilty queen Gynaecia is a genuine tragic heroine.[4]

Arcadia exists in 2 significantly different versions. Sidney wrote an early version (The Old Arcadia) during a stay at Mary Herbert's house; this version is narrated in a straightforward, sequential manner. Later, Sidney began to revise the work on a more ambitious plan, with much more backstory about the princes, and a much more complicated story line, with many more characters (The New Arcadia). He completed most of the opening 3 books, but the project was unfinished at the time of his death - the 3rd book breaks off in the middle of a swordfight. There were several early editions of the book.[5]

Greville published the revised version alone, in 1590. The Countess of Pembroke, Sidney's sister, published a version in 1593, which pasted the last 2 books of the Old Arcadia onto the 3 completed books of the New Arcadia. In the 1621 version, Sir William Alexander provided a bridge to bring the 2 stories back into agreement.<Evans, 12-13> The book was known in this cobbled-together fashion until the discovery, in the early 20th century, of the complete Old Arcadia.[5]

Milton reproached Sidney in the Eikonoklastes with having "borrowed to a Christian use prayers offered to a heathen god ... and that in no serious book, but in the vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia." Professor Courthope {History of English Poetry, i. 215) points out that the tragedy of Sidney's life, the divorce between his ideals of a nobly active life and the enforced idleness of a courtier's existence, is intimately connected with his position as a pioneer in fiction, in which the life represented is tacitly recognized as being contrary to the order of existence.[4]

Sidney's wide acquaintance with European literature is reflected in this book, but he was especially indebted to the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro, and still more to George Montemayor's imitation of Sannazaro, the Diana Enamorada.

The artistic defects of the Arcadia in no way detracted from its popularity. Both Shakespeare and Spenser were evidently acquainted with it. John Day's He of Guls, and the plots of Beaumont and Fletcher's Cupid's Revenge, and of James Shirley's Arcadia, were derived from it. Charles I recited and copied out shortly before his death Pamela's prayer, which is printed in the Eikon Basilike. The book had more than 1 supplement; Gervase Markham, Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, and Richard Beling wrote continuations.[4]

Astrophel and StellaEdit

Main article: Astrophel and Stella

The earliest of the famous English sonnet sequences, Astrophel and Stella was probably composed in the early 1580s. The sonnets were well-circulated in manuscript before the 1st (apparently pirated) edition was printed.[5]

The sonnets were printed in 1591 as Sir P.S.: His Astrophel and Stella; by Thomas Newman, with an introductory epistle by T. Nash, and some sonnets by other writers. In the same year Newman issued another edition with many changes in the text and without Nash's preface. His 1st edition was (probably later) reprinted by Matthew Lownes.[4]

Only in 1598 did an authorized edition reach the press;[5] the sonnets were reprinted in the folio edition of Sidney's works (entitled from its most considerable item The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia) edited by Lady Pembroke, with considerable additions. The songs are placed in their proper position among the sonnets, instead of being grouped at the end, and 2 of the most personal poems (possibly suppressed earlier out of consideration for Lady Rich), which afford the best key to the interpretation of the series, appear for the 1st time.[4]

In view of the silence of contemporary authority, it is hardly possible to assign definite dates to the sonnets of Astrophel and Stella. Penelope Devereux was married against her will to Robert, Lord Rich, in 1581, probably very soon after the letter from Penelope's guardian, the earl of Huntingdon, desiring the queen's consent. The earlier sonnets are not indicative of overwhelming passion, and it is a reasonable assumption that Sidney's liking for Penelope only developed into passion when he found that she was passing beyond his grasp. A.W. Pollard assigns the magnificent sequence beginning with No. 33 —

I might! unhappy word — O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my blisse, —

to the period following on Stella's reappearance at court as Lady Rich.[3]

It has been argued that the whole tenor of Philip's life and character was opposed to an overmastering passion, and that there is no ground for attaching biographical value to these sonnets, which were merely Petrarchan exercises. That Sidney was, like his contemporaries, a careful and imitative student of French and Italian sonnets is patent. He himself confesses in the 1st of the series that he "sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe," by "oft turning others' leaves" before he obeyed the command of his muse to "look in his heart and write." The account of his passion is, however, too circumstantial to be lightly regarded as fiction.[3]

Pollard sees in the sonnets a description of a spiritual struggle between his sense of a high political mission and a disturbing passion calculated to lessen his efforts in a larger sphere. It seems certain, at any rate, that he was not solely preoccupied with scruples against his love for Stella because she was already married. He had probably been writing sonnets to Stella for a year or more before her marriage, and he seems to have continued to address her after his own marriage. Thomas Nashe defined the general argument epigrammatically as "cruel chastity — the prologue Hope, the epilogue Despair." But after Stella's final refusal Sidney recovered his earlier serenity, and the sonnet placed by Pollard at the end of the series — "Leave me, O Love, which readiest but to dust" — expresses the triumph of the spirit.[3]

The sequence was a watershed in English Renaissance poetry. In it, Sidney partially nativized the key features of his Italian model, Petrarch: variation of emotion from poem to poem, with the attendant sense of an ongoing, but partly obscure, narrative; the philosophical trappings; the musings on the act of poetic creation itself.[5]

His experiments with rhyme scheme were no less notable; they served to free the English sonnet from the strict rhyming requirements of the Italian form.[5] Sidney's sonnets adhere more closely to French than to Italian models. The octave is generally fairly regular on 2 rhymes, but the sestet usually terminates with a couplet.[4]

An Apology for PoetryEdit

Main article: Defence of Poesie

The Apologie for Poetrie was printed with the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1598), where it is entitled "The Defence of Poesie." It 1st appeared separately in 1594 (unique copy in the Rowfant Library, reprint 1904, Cambridge University Press). Sidney takes the word "poetry" in the wide sense of any imaginative work, and deals with its various divisions. Apart from the subject matter, which is interesting enough, the book has a great value for the simple, direct and musical prose in which it is written.[4]

The Apology (also known as A Defence of Poesie and The Defence of Poetrywas written before 1583. It is generally believed that Sidney was at least partly motivated by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright who dedicated his attack on the English stage, The School of Abuse, to Sidney in 1579; but Sidney primarily addresses more general objections to poetry, such as those of Plato. In his essay, Sidney integrates a number of classical and Italian precepts on fiction. The essence of his defense is that poetry, by combining the liveliness of history with the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy in rousing its readers to virtue. The work also offers important comments on Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethan stage.[5]


The Lady of the May is one of Sidney's lesser-known works, a masque written and performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1578.[3]

The Psalmes of David, the paraphrase in which he collaborated with his sister, remained in MS. until 1823, when it was edited by S.W. Singer. A translation of part of the Divine Sepmaine of G. Salluste du Bartas is lost. There are 2 pastorals by Sidney in Davison's A Poetical Rhapsody (1602).[4]

Letters and Memorials of State... (1746) is the title of an invaluable collection of letters and documents relating to the Sidney family, transcribed from originals at Penshurst and elsewhere by Arthur Collins. The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet was translated from the Latin and published with a memoir by Steuart A. Pears (1845).[4]

Critical appreciation is available in J.A. Symonds's Sir Philip Sidney (1886), in the 'English Men of Letters' series; in J.J.A. Jusserand's English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare (1890). See also a collection of Sidneiana printed for the Roxburghe Club in 1837, a notice by Mrs Humphry Ward in Ward's English Poets, L 341 seq., and a dissertation by Dr K. Brunhuber, Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia und ihre Nachldufer (Nurnberg, 1903).[4]

Among modern editions of Sidney's works may be mentioned A.W. Pollard's edition (1888) of Astrophel and Stella, Arber's reprint (1868) of An Apologie for Poetrie, and Sidney Lee's "Elizabethan Sonnets" (1904) in the re-issue of Arber's English Garner, where the sources of Sidney's sonnets are fully discussed.[4]

Critical introductionEdit

by Mary Augusta Ward

The extraordinary effect produced by Sidney’s personality upon English imagination has been in many respects very little weakened by time. His name is almost as suggestive now as it was to his own generation of a typical brilliancy and charm, clouded by premature death and scarcely to be matched again. This unique impression however with which the figure of ‘Astrophel’ is still charged, is to a large extent independent of the causes for it which influenced his contemporaries. We are for the most part moved by Sidney’s life, by the romance of it or its political and historical interest. His youth, his love-story, his death,—these are what affect us far more than his books; what he did and was, infinitely beyond what he wrote.

‘Death, courage, honour, make thy soul to live;
Thy soul to live in heaven, thy name in tongues of men!’

His own time approached him somewhat differently. Browne’s praise of him, which puts the "deep quintessence" of his wit in the forefront of his merits, before it turns to dwell upon his "honour, virtue, valour, excellence," represents the general Elizabethan feeling about him better than the fine lines from Constable just quoted. His literary influence, coming as he did in the early Elizabethan days, while his great rivals to be were still for the most part undiscovered, was no doubt heightened by his personal story, but was at bottom a distinct and independent force. So much is clear from that astonishing mass of elegiac prose and verse heaped upon his grave, in itself a phenomenon in English literary history; and as the Elizabethan time unfolds, the effect of Sidney’s writing and of his special qualities of thought and style become more and more evident.

Upon the generation which grew up after him, and during the first half of the seventeenth century, his influence remained undiminished. From Constable, Ben Jonson, Browne, Wither, Crashaw, Waller, out of a much wider circle, a string of passages could be quoted to prove the extraordinary spell of Sidney as a poet, above all as the poet of Stella, upon his successors. The mere name of Astrophel seems to have thrilled the literary circle around him, and that immediately following him, as no other name had power to thrill them.

A reputation so romantic, and so dependent on the exceptional correspondence between Sidney’s personality and powers and the young, quick-witted, passionate, Elizabethan spirit speaking through them, could scarcely hope to pass through Puritanism and the eighteenth century unchallenged. Milton’s well-known protest against the use made by Charles I on the scaffold of "that vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia," "not to be read at any time without good caution," is significant of decline in one direction, while in another we are brought up against some curious eighteenth-century judgments which show not only the complete distaste of a classical age for Sidney’s literary performance, and the oblivion into which his best work had fallen, but even impatience of his romantic personal fame. "When we come to enquire into the why and the wherefore of this astonishing effect upon his contemporaries," writes Horace Walpole, who had never read a line of Astrophel and Stella, and had to be reminded by a friend of the existence of The Apology for Poetry, "what do we find? Great valour? But it was an age of heroes! In full of all other talents, we have a tedious, lamentable, pedantic, pastoral romance which the patience of a young virgin in love cannot now wade through; and some absurd attempts to fetter English verse in Roman chains." There could scarcely be a better specimen of the jugement saugrenu.

Happily the antiquarian revival of the 19th century affected Sidney among others, so that such pure ignorance of his place in literary history is no longer possible. But it may well be questioned whether Sidney has yet regained that currency among us as a poet which he deserves. Thanks to the labor which has been spent upon him since 1800, his prose is better known and more truly classed than it used to be; but not even the best of his poems can be said to have recovered any real hold upon English feeling.

The truth is, perhaps, that the general air of Sidney’s verse, so to speak, does it injustice. Even the Astrophel and Stella sonnets have at 1st sight, as one turns over the pages, a barren, over-elaborate look, which is apt to lead to the classing of some of the most genuine and passionate of English poems with the undeniably dry and artificial verse of the Arcadia.

Then again, his main subject is forbidding, his range is limited, and his note, to modern thinking, monotonous. We are some time in discovering in Sidney that sensitiveness to the great human problems, to the wider questions of life and thought in which the best English poetry is invariably steeped, and it is easy to put his work down as ranking with all the other second-rate love poetry of the time, neither much better nor worse than the verse of Constable or Thomas Watson. His own time, however, judged rightly in separating it widely from such performances.

Sidney died at 32, and his poetry is throughout the poetry of a young man, in love with art, with beauty, with ingenuity in all shapes, a courtier in the days when the court was a reality, a lover at a time when love was still bound to speak a conventional tongue and to express itself by certain outward conventional signs. The marring influence upon much of it of the theories of Gabriel Harvey’s Areopagus marks the difference in circumstance between himself and Spenser, his friend and temporary colleague in that whimsical scheme for bending English verse to classical shapes. In a few years Spenser was ridiculing the Areopagus, and the "passing singular odd" poems produced under its rules. Time sobered down the momentary extravagance, and the familiar ways of English verse reclaimed their master.

Spenser’s hexameters are mere literary curiosities, buried in the shadow of The Fairy Queen. Sidney’s "Roman feet" are one of the most prominent features of his best-known work, and were regarded as characteristic of him in days when the poems to Stella were forgotten. The freaks of the Areopagus’ had no more real relation to his genius than they had to Spenser’s; but life left him no time to undo mistakes. Into what final mould his powers might have run is matter for speculation. The important point to notice is that death stepped in between him and that slow-coming maturity which belongs to all such rich and complex natures. His youth asserts itself in all he wrote. His best work is liable to youth’s unripeness and inequality.

But the greatness of his gift is not to be doubted. As a series of sonnets the Astrophel and Stella poems are 2nd only to Shakespeare’s; as a series of love-poems they are perhaps unsurpassed. Other writers are sweeter, more sonorous; no other love-poet of the time is so real. The poems to Stella are steeped throughout in a certain keen and pungent individuality which leaves a haunting impression behind it. They represent, not a mere isolated mood, whether half-real like Daniel’s passion for Delia, or wholly artificial like the mood of Thomas Watson’s Passions, but a whole passage in a genuine life. Here is no question of the pastoral landscape with its conventional pair of figures. Sidney’s every-day life as a courtier and politician, mingling with the pageantries and touching the great interests of his time, his personal character with its serious and Puritan bias, his hopes and fears for his own prospects and career,—these are the facts of solid and human reality which deepen and vary the music of his passion for Stella, like rocks in the current of a stream.

Not that Astrophel and Stella is without its make-believes. It has its conceits, its pieces of pure word-play, in the common Elizabethan manner. No writer in the full tide of literary fashion like Sidney could afford to neglect these. But it would be scarcely fanciful to say that even in the most clearly marked of what one may call his conceited sonnets, the true Sidneian note to a reader who has learnt to catch it is almost always discernible, a note of youth and eagerness easily felt but hard to be described....

The chronology of these sonnets is now scarcely to be determined. They were not published till after Sidney’s death, when they were either printed from completed MSS., in which the order had been slightly disarranged by Sidney himself, for the purpose of masking to some extent their autobiographical character, or were put together by his friends in carelessness or ignorance of the dates of many among them. The main thread however is still discernible, and a close sifting of the allusions to contemporary history in them, as well as a comparison of them with the correspondence between Languet and Sidney of 1580–81, might enable a more clear-headed editor than has yet arisen to handle Sidney, to explain much that is now obscure. There are three distinct stages in the series: the first representing a period of impetuous passion, when Sidney is wooing in hot eagerness, bending all the power of his genius to the glorification of Stella and the scorning of his supplanter Lord Rich, and yet dogged perpetually by returns upon himself, by outbursts of moral sensitiveness eminently characteristic; the second a period of partial relenting on Stella’s part and of joy on Sidney’s:—

‘Gone is the winter of my misery!
My spring appears: O see what here doth grow,
For Stella hath, with words where faith doth shine,
Of her high heart given me the monarchy.’

And the third, a period of widening separation, when the lover, ‘forced by Stella’s laws of duty to depart,’ sinks deeper and deeper into depression and discouragement. Joy, hope, delight, even tears, have forgotten him:—

‘Only true sighs you do not go away:
Thank may you have for such a thankful part;
— Thankworthiest yet when you shall break my heart!’

Last of all, we may imagine, comes a sudden call to action, perhaps connected with the schemes of colonisation which we know to have been occupying his mind in 1582, and Sidney writes the 107th sonnet, the last but one in the series as printed, probably the true conclusion of the whole according to Sidney’s plan.

  ‘Sweet for a while give respite to my heart,
Which pants as though it still should leap to thee,
And on my thoughts give thy lieutenancy
To this great cause, which needs both use and art.
And as a queen who from her presence sends
Whom she employs, dismiss from thee my wit,
Till it have wrought what thy own will attends—
  O let not fools in me thy works reprove,
And scorning say, ‘See what it is to love!’

Scattered up and down these three divisions as the sonnets stand now, are sonnets which have no special fitness to one or other division, and others again that are clearly misplaced. Still, in the main, the story of the poems runs on unbroken, a living continuous whole growing step by step more real and more tragic.

With very few exceptions, the Astrophel and Stella sonnets cannot be fairly judged apart from their context. Each sonnet depends upon those before and after it, and it is in the cumulative effect of the whole that Sidney’s genius is most clearly felt. Other contemporary series of sonnets will bear unstringing without injury. A stray sonnet taken at random from Delia or Lodge’s Phillis or from Drummond’s love-sonnets will often compare favourably with one taken at random from Astrophel and Stella. But the weak sonnets in Sidney are like the weak places in some of Wordsworth’s finest work, descents to commonplace which taken alone would be intolerable, but which in their proper context rather heighten than detract from the realistic and passionate effect of the whole....

The 2 sonnets beginning ‘Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,’ and ‘Leave me, O Love which reachest but to dust,’ which a recent editor has arbitrarily placed for the first time at the end of Astrophel and Stella, have been here carefully distinguished from that series. In some ways, in spite of their grand flow of verse and phrase, they are inferior to the majority of the Astrophel and Stella sonnets in workmanship, and also slightly different from them in plan. Sidney was probably not inclined to assign to them finally so conspicuous a place, and they were first published with other miscellaneous sonnets in the Arcadia of 1598. But that they were written towards the close of the Stella episode, perhaps about the time of the poet’s marriage with Frances Walsingham, is certainly very likely, and their consonance with all that we know of that philosophical and high-minded Sidney in whom Elizabeth found an unwelcome counsellor, and Languet saw the hope of the Protestant cause in Europe, makes it justifiable to regard them as fit successors to any selection from Astrophel and Stella, and especially as closely connected with the 107th sonnet.

Of the rest of Sidney’s poetry it is not necessary to say very much. The Stella poems brought him his contemporary fame, and upon them and the Apology for Poetry his claim to live in English letters must always rest. His other poems have the youthful faults which mar even Astrophel and Stella, only in far greater abundance. Mere "thin diet of dainty words," ingenuity unrelieved by a single touch of true feeling, the stock phrases and themes common to the hundred-and-one second-rate rhymers of the day, this is all that the voluminous verse of the Arcadia, with the exception of a few passages here and there, has to offer.

The 2 songs quoted from the Certain Sonnets — never before printed,’ of 1595, belong to the great lyrical growth of the time, and are specimens of Sidney’s freest and most spontaneous manner. One of them, the passionate dirge beginning ‘Ring out ye bells, let mourning shews be spread,’ has a swing and force which ought long ago to have rescued it from oblivion.[6]


Funeral procession of Sir Philip Sidney 1587 Theodor de Bry pallbearers

The funeral of Sir Philip Sidney, 1586. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sidney was knighted in 1583.[3]

Already during his own lifetime, but even more after his death, Sidney became for many English people the very epitome of a courtier: learned and politic, but at the same time generous, brave, and impulsive.[5] His death was a personal grief to people of all classes. Some 200 elegies were produced in his honor. Of all these tributes the most famous is "Astrophel: A pastoral elegie," added to Edmund Spenser's Colin Clout's Come Home Again (1595). Spenser wrote the opening poem; other contributors are Sidney's sister (countess of Pembroke), Lodowick Bryskett, and Matthew Roydon.[3]

Shelley placed him in Adonais among the "inheritors of unfulfilled renown," as "sublimely mild, a spirit without spot."[3]

An early biography of Sidney was written by his friend and schoolfellow, Fulke Greville. Greville's Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney is a panegyric dealing chiefly with his public policy. The best biography is A Memoir of Sir Philip Sidney by H.R. Fox Bourne (1862). A revised life by the same author is included in the 'Heroes of the Nations' series (1891).[4]

In Zutphen, the Netherlands, a street has been named after Sir Philip. A statue for him can be found in the park at the Coehoornsingel, where in the harsh winter of 1795 English and Hanoverian soldiers were buried who had died while on retreat for advancing French troops.[7] A memorial at the location where he was mortally wounded by the Spanish can be found at the entrance of a footpath at the Warnsveldseweg, southeast of the Catholic cemetery.




  • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia [The New Arcadia]. London: Printed for William Ponsonby, 1590.
    • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Now Since the First Edition Augmented and Ended [composite version of the New and Old Arcadias]. London: Printed by J. Windet for William Ponsonby, 1593.
    • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Now for the Third Time Published, with Sundry New Additions of the Author. London: Printed by R. Field for William Ponsonby, 1598. (includes The Lady of May and Certain Sonnets).
  • Syr P.S. His Astrophel and Stella. To the End of Which Are Added, Sundry Other Rare Sonnets of Diuers Gentlemen. London: Printed by J. Charlewood for T. Newman, 1591
    • revised as Syr P.S. His Astrophel and Stella. Wherein the Excellence of Sweete Poesie Is Concluded . London: Printed by J. Danter for T. Newman, 1591.
  • The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (edited by John Drinkwater). London: Routledge / New York: E.P. Dutton, 1922.[8]
  • Sonnets (edited by John Gray). London: Ballantyne Press, 1898.[9]


Collected editionsEdit

  • The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney (edited by Albert Feuillerat). (4 volumes), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1912-1926.
  • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia [The Old Arcadia] (edited by Albert Feuillerat). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1926.
  • The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (edited by William A. Ringler Jr.) Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1962.
  • An Apology for Poetry; or, The Defence of Poetry (edited by Geoffrey Shepherd). London: Thomas Nelson, 1965.
  • A Defence of Poetry (edited by Jan van Dorsten). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (edited by Maurice Evans). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973.
  • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia: The Old Arcadia (edited by Jean Robertson). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney (edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
  • The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia [The New Arcadia] (edited by Victor Skretkowicz). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
    • Sir Philip Sidney (Selections) (edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989.


  • The Psalmes of David. Chiswick, UK: C. Whittingham for R. Triphook, 1823.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[11]

See alsoEdit

Ring Out Your Bells by Sir Philip Sidney

Ring Out Your Bells by Sir Philip Sidney

Astrophel And Stella Iii (Sir Philip Sidney Poem)

Astrophel And Stella Iii (Sir Philip Sidney Poem)


  • PD-icon.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Sidney, Sir Philip". Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 43-45. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 1, 2018.
  • Alexander, Gavin. Writing After Sidney: the literary response to Sir Philip Sidney 1586-1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Craig, D. H. "A Hybrid Growth: Sidney's Theory of Poetry in An Apology for Poetry." Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney. Hamden: Archon Books, 1986.
  • Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Frye, Northrup. Words With Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992.
  • Garrett, Martin. Ed. Sidney: the Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Greville, Fulke.Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney. London, 1652.
  • Kimbrough, Robert. Sir Philip Sidney. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.
  • Leitch, Vincent B., Ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
  • Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.
  • Robertson, Jean. "Philip Sidney." In The Spenser Encyclopedia. eds. A. C. Hamilton et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defence of Poetry." In Shelley's Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. 2nd ed. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
  • The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910.


  1. John William Cousin, "Sidney, Sir Philip," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 344. Wikisource, Web, Feb. 28, 2018.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 Britannica 1911, 25, 43.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 Britannica 1911, 25, 44.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 Britannica 1911, 25, 45.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Philip Sidney, Wikipedia, January 31, 2018. Web, Mar. 1, 2018.
  6. from Mary Augusta Ward, "Critical Introduction: Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 4, 2016.
  7. Bert Fermin en Michel Groothedde: 'De Lunetten van Van Coehoorn', Zutphense Archeologische Publicaties 34, 2007, page 7
  8. Search results = au:John Drinkwater, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Apr. 20, 2014.
  9. Sonnets, Internet Archive. Web, Jan. 10, 2015.
  10. Search results = au:John Churton Collins, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 5, 2015.
  11. Philip Sidney 1554-1586, Poetry Foundation. Web, Dec. 4, 2012.

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