Far from this maddened crowd, Sidney rode serenely to an even earlier end. Facing us still in the National Portrait Gallery of London, he seems too delicate for a man: slender of face, with auburn hair, and “not a morsel too much of health,” said Languet;15“extremely beautiful,” said Aubrey,16 “not masculine enough, yet … of great courage.” Some grumblers thought him a bit pompous17 and felt that he carried perfection to excess; only his heroic end won him pardon for his virtues.
But who would not be proud to have had for his mother Lady Mary Dudley, daughter of that Duke of Northumberland who had ruled England under Edward VI; and to have had for his father Sir Henry Sidney, Lord President of Wales and thrice Lord Deputy of Ireland; and to have received his Christian name from King Philip II of Spain as his godfather? Part of his fleeting life was lived in spacious Penshurst Place, whose oak-beam ceilings, picture walls, and crystal chandelier are among the fairest relics of that time. At the age of nine he was appointed lay rector to a church benefice, which brought him sixty pounds a year. At ten he entered Shrewsbury School, which was not too far from Ludlow Castle, his father’s residence as Lord President of Wales. To the boy of eleven Sir Henry wrote loving words of wisdom.18
Philip learned these lessons well and became a favorite with his uncle Leicester and his father’s friend William Cecil. After three years at Oxford he was sent to Paris as a minor member of an English mission. He was received at the court of Charles IX and witnessed the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. He traveled leisurely in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy. At Frankfurt he began a lifelong friendship with Hubert Languet, one of the intellectual leaders of the Huguenots; at Venice he had his portrait painted by Paolo Veronese; at Padua he imbibed the traditions of the Petrarchan sonnet. Back in England, he was welcomed at court and for almost two years danced attendance on the Queen, but he forfeited her favor for a time by opposing her prospective marriage with the Duke of Alençon. He had all the knightly qualities—pride of bearing, skill and bravery in tournament, courtesy in court, honor in all dealings, and eloquence in love. He studied Castiglione’s Courtier and tried to model his conduct on that gentle philosopher’s ideal of a gentleman, and others modeled themselves on Sidney. Spenser called him “the President of Noblesse and of Chivalry.”
It was a mark of the times that the aristocracy, which had once scorned literacy, now wrote poetry and suffered poets to come to them. Sidney, though not rich, became the most active literary patron of his generation. He helped Camden, Hakluyt, Nash, Harvey, Donne, Daniel, Jonson, and, above all, Spenser, who thanked him as “the hope of all learned men and the patron of my young muse.”19 It was quite out of order that Stephen Gosson should dedicate to Sidney his Schoole of Abuse (1579), whose title page described it as “a pleasant invective against poets, pipers, players, jesters, and such like caterpillars of the commonwealth.” Sidney took up the gauntlet and wrote the first of the Elizabethan classics—The Defence of Poesy.
Taking a lead from Aristotle and Italian critics, he defined poetry as “an art of imitation … representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth … a speaking picture” designed “to teach and delight.”20 Placing morals far above art, he justified art as teaching morality by pictured examples:
The philosopher … and the historian … would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both, not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, setting down with thorny arguments the bare rule [of morals], is so hard of utterance, and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade in him till he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and the general that happy is that man that may understand him … On the other side the historian, wanting the precept, is tied, not to what should be but to what is … that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine.
Now doth the peerless poet perform both, for whatsoever the philosopher said should be done, he gives a perfect picture of it by some one by whom he supposeth it was done, so as he completed! the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture, I say, for he yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as that other doth.21
Poetry, therefore, in Sidney’s view, includes all imaginative literature—drama, verse, and imaginative prose. “It is not rhyming and versifying that maketh poetry. One may be a poet without versifying, a versifier without poetry.”
He added example to precept. In the same year 1580 that produced the Defence, he began to write The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. This Countess, his sister, was one of the best-flattered ladies of the century. Born in 1561 and therefore seven years younger than Philip, she received all the education she could stand, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but her charm survived. She became a member of Elizabeth’s household and accompanied the Queen on the royal progresses. Her uncle Leicester advanced part of the dowry that enabled her to marry Henry, Earl of Pembroke. “She was very salacious,” according to Aubrey, and took some lovers to supplement her husband; but this did not deter Philip from adoring her and writing the Arcadia at her request.
Following the example of Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1504), Sidney imagined, at length and ease, a world of brave princes, exquisite princesses, knightly combats, mystifying disguises, and fascinating scenery. “The loveliness of Urania is the greatest thing the world can show, but the least that may be praised in her”;22 and Palladius had “a piercing wit quite devoid of ostentation, high erected thoughts seated in a heart of courtesy, an eloquence as sweet in the uttering as slow to be uttering, a behavior so noble as gave majesty to adversity”;23 clearly Sidney had read Euphues. The story is an amorous maze: Pyrocles disguises himself as a woman to be near the fair Philoclea; she frustrates him by loving him as a sister; her father falls in love with him, thinking him a woman; her mother falls in love with him, perceiving him to be a man; however, everything ends according to the Ten Commandments. Sidney did not take the tale very seriously; he never corrected the sheets he had dashed off for his sister; on his deathbed he ordered them burned. They were preserved, edited, and published (1590), and were for a decade the most admired work in Elizabethan prose.
While writing this romance and the Defence, and amid his life as diplomat and soldier, Sidney composed a sonnet sequence that paved the way for Shakespeare’s. For this he needed some unsuccessful love. He found it in Penelope Devereux, daughter of the first Earl of Essex; she welcomed his sighs and rhymes as lawful game, but married Baron Rich (1581); Sidney continued to address sonnets to her, even after his own marriage to Frances Walsingham. Few Elizabethans were shocked by this poetic license; no one expected a man to write sonnets to his own wife, whose generosity stilled the muse. The sequence was published (1591) after Sidney’s death under the title of Astrophel and Stella—star lover and star. It followed the style of Petrarch, whose Laura had strangely anticipated the eyes, hair, brow, cheeks, skin, and lips of Penelope. Sidney was quite aware that his passion was a poetic mechanism; he himself had written: “If I were a mistress, [sonneteers] would never persuade me they were in love.”24 Once accepted as fair play, these sonnets are England’s best before Shakespeare’s. Even the moon is sick with love:
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou clim’st the skies,
How silently, and with how mean a face!
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy Archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case,
I read it in thy looks, thy languish’d grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?25
In 1585 Sidney was sent by Elizabeth to aid the Netherland rebels against Spain. Though not yet thirty-one, he was made governor of Flushing. He displeased the pinching Queen by asking for more supplies and better wages for his soldiers, who were being paid in debased currency.26 He led his men to the capture of Axel (July 6, 1586) and fought in the front of the action. But in the battle of Zutphen (September 22) he was too brave. His horse having been killed in a charge, Sidney leaped upon another and fought his way into the enemy’s ranks. A musket ball entered his thigh. His horse, out of control, fled back to Leicester’s camp.I Thence Sidney was taken to a private home in Arnhem. For twenty-five days he suffered under incompetent surgeons. Gangrene set in, and on October 17 the “wonder of our age” (so Spenser mourned him) welcomed death. “I would not change my joy,” he said on that last day, “for the empire of the world.”28 When his corpse was brought to London it received such a funeral as England would not see again before Nelson’s death.