Sir Philip Sidney

Often compared to William Shakespeare, English poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) is considered one of the most important poets of the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). Sidney wrote 108 love sonnets, an intricate prose piece featuring pastoral romance, and a passionate defense of the genre of poetry, among other works. Ever the 16th-century gentleman, Sidney forbade his poetry from being published before his death and was more well known during his lifetime as a courtier and soldier than he was a poet. 

Sir Philip Sidney Sir Philip Sidney

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Table of contents

    Sir Philip Sidney's Biography

    Philip Sidney was born to an aristocratic family at Penshurst Place, Kent, in 1554. He was his parents' firstborn and the godson of King Philip II of Spain. When Elizabeth I took the throne as England's queen, Sidney's father was appointed the lord president of Wales, and his uncle became one of her closest advisors.

    Sidney was enrolled in Shrewsbury School at the age of nine. There he met his lifelong friend and fellow poet, Fulke Greville. Sidney excelled academically. He then attended Christ Church, Oxford but left without obtaining a degree, as was common for men of his status.

    In 1572, Sidney was elected to Parliament for Shrewsbury. Only 18, Sidney spent his time traveling throughout Europe instead of remaining in England. He first traveled to Paris, where he witnessed the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Shortly after the massacre, he left for Germany and then went on to Italy, Poland, the Kingdom of Hungary, and Austria. He developed connections with many powerful and important politicians and intellectuals during these travels.

    The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre occurred on August 24, 1572. King Charles IX was a Catholic king, and France was bitterly divided by religious ties. The king's mother convinced him that the Protestant Huguenots were planning to rebel against him.

    The king, fearful of losing his throne, ordered Huguenot leaders to be killed. The Huguenots had gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of their leader to the king's sister. They were beaten and murdered as riotous Catholics gathered in mobs. The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre was an important day in France's religious civil war.

    Philip Sidney, Europe on a globe, StudySmarter

    As a young man, Sidney traveled the European continent, mastering multiple languages and making powerful connections, pixabay

    Upon his return to England in 1575, Queen Elizabeth appointed Sidney the prestigious position of cupbearer. That same year, he met Penelope Devereux, who became the "Stella" in his Astrophil and Stella love sonnets.

    He was sent to Germany in 1577 as an ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, sending the queen's condolences to the emperor's family after the death of Maximilian II of Austria and Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate. During this trip, Sidney was also secretly discerning how the German princes would feel about a Protestant league to combat Spain's Catholicism.

    Like most of England at the time, Sidney was a devoted Protestant. Politics and religion were intricately intertwined, leading to power struggles and religious feuds. Sidney was strict in his ideals, arguing that Queen Elizabeth should not marry the heir to the French throne, mostly because he was Catholic. Sidney was also interested in forming a Protestant league with nearby countries to protect England from their rival, the predominately Catholic Spain.

    Catholicism was popular throughout England until the early 1500s, when King Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church after the Pope refused to annul his first marriage. The king's advisors argued that he should not be restricted by the Pope's power; thus began the English Reformation. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, making the king the Supreme Head of the Church of England and formally breaking away from the Catholic Church.

    For years, the two religious factions fought for dominance. When Elizabeth I assumed the throne, the nation was still suffering from religious divisions. She established the Church of England in 1559 with the hope that it would finally bring peace to her country.

    Upon his return to England, Sidney became a patron of the arts and began his own writing career. In 1579, Sidney challenged Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, to a duel. The two were rivals largely because de Vere wanted Queen Elizabeth to marry the Catholic heir to the French throne, a union that Sidney was strictly opposed to. The queen herself forbade the duel, and Sidney wrote her an open letter, urging her not to accept François, Duke of Alençon's marriage proposal.

    In the early 1580s, Sidney was elected as a Member of Parliament for Kent. He was both knighted and married in 1583. Sometime between 1579 and 1584, Sidney wrote Astrophel and Stella (1591), The Defence of Poesy (1595), and his first draft of The Arcadia (edited by his sister and published as The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia in 1593). As was common at the time, Sidney did not allow any of his works to be published until after his death.

    Philip Sidney, Man being knighted by queen, StudySmarter

    Sidney was knighted in 1583, pixabay

    Sidney was appointed governor of Flushing, a Dutch town, in 1585. A staunch Protestant, he fought against the Spanish in the Battle of Zutphen. He was shot in the thigh during the battle and died of gangrene a few weeks later, on October 17, 1586. His funeral procession was elaborate and expensive, which was rare for someone of his status at the time.

    Sir Philip Sidney's Famous Works

    Sidney is famous for Astrophel and Stella (1595), The Defence of Poesy (1595), and The Arcadia (1593).

    Astrophel and Stella (1595)

    Sidney's famous sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, was written about Penelope Devereux. Although it is unclear if Sidney and the young Devereux were in love or had an affair, she inspired the cycle of 108 sonnets. Some scholars credit Astrophel and Stella as the first Elizabethan sonnet cycle. The sonnets detail a courtier's experiences with and struggles against love. The poems usually follow the Petrarchan octave in form. Penelope Devereux was forced to marry Lord Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick. Sidney dedicated Astrophel and Stella to his wife, Frances.

    Petrarchan octave form is a poem with 14 lines divided into two stanzas. The first is an eight-line stanza (octave), which rhymes ABBAABBA. The second is a six-line stanza, which rhymes CDCDCD or CDECDE. This form was named after the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch.

    The Defence of Poesy (1595)

    The Defence of Poesy, sometimes referred to as The Defence of Poetry or An Apology for Poetry, was likely a direct response to Stephen Gosson's 1579 satirical piece, School of Abuse. Gosson's piece, dedicated to Sidney, rebuffs poetry, arguing that poetry is a waste of time, a source of lies, a corrupting force, and that Plato banished poets from his ideal state. Sidney defends poetry in Defense of Poesy by meticulously refuting each charge made against poetry. He says that poetry is an avenue to virtue, that poets are not liars, that bad poets can not be used to represent the whole of poetry, and that Plato sought to banish amoral poets in his time, not the whole of poetry. Sidney also wrote that he believed poetry was an effective method of communication and that poetry could be used as a way to influence human affairs.

    Philip Sidney, Fountain pen and paper, StudySmarter

    Sidney defended the value of poetry against critics who claimed that it was dishonest and a waste of time, unsplash

    The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1593)

    Originally entitled The Arcadia, Sidney began writing this pastoral romance as a gift for his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke. The first edition of The Arcadia was finished around 1580, but Sidney later went back and majorly edited the long prose piece, making it significantly longer than the original. Sidney died before he finished The Arcadia, and his sister edited and finished the story herself. She published it as The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia in 1593. Sidney's friend Fulke Greville also published his own edited version of the story in 1590. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia influenced Shakespeare's King Lear, Hamlet, and The Winter's Tale.

    Pastoral literature romanticizes the lifestyle of shepherds as idyllic and pure, free from the city's corruption. Pastoral romances, originating in Italy, combined the simplicity of pastoral poems with fictional prose. The final product was a lyrical, descriptive depiction of life in the quiet countryside.

    Sir Philip Sidney's Poems

    Two of Sidney's poems include "Thou Blind Man's Mark" and Sonnet 1: "Loving in truth."

    "Thou Blind Man's Mark"

    In "Thou Blind Man's Mark," the speaker expresses how desire torments him. He calls it the "Band of all evils" (line 3) and states that it ensnares fools who are foolish enough to want it. The speaker states that his mind, which once thought of more important things, has been ruined and can now only think of his trivial desire.No matter what he does, his efforts to get rid of desire are in vain. So, the speaker has decided that he must kill the desire within himself.

    "Sonnet 1 Loving in truth"

    "Sonnet 1" begins Sidney's collection of 108 sonnets, Astrophil and Stella. In this sonnet, the speaker wonders if writing poetry would be an effective way to express his feelings for Stella and emotionally move her. He rationalizes that if she reads his words, then she might know how he truly feels about her. And if she knows how he feels, then she may feel pity which could turn into grace. Then she might realize that everything he has written has been for her entertainment. But the speaker hesitates because he can't think of any words to write. He feels helpless and hates himself for it. Then his muse tells him he must simply write from his heart.

    Philip Sidney, Pen with roses and candle, StudySmarter

    The speaker's muse tells him he must write from the heart if he wants to win over the woman he loves, pixabay

    Sir Philip Sidney's Writing Style

    In both his writing style and his life, Sidney embodied the ideal of the 16th-century gentleman. He held the expected positions of courtier, soldier, poet, and patron of the arts. He wrote mostly for amusement and was so critical of commercialism that he would not publish any of his own works in his lifetime. He used poetry as a means of communicating his intimate thoughts with the outside world but also used it to connect with his friends and family.

    Sidney's writing style is personal, passionate, and intricate in each of his various works. He flawlessly combines archaic language with his modern 16th-century sensibilities. The love sonnets are emotional and passionate, while his The Defence of Poesy zealously defends poetry in the face of its critics. Poetry seems to have been the one place where Sidney was openly vulnerable and did not fear deep connection.

    Sir Philip Sidney's Quotes

    Below are two of Sidney's famous quotes taken from his famous works.

    'Fool,' said my muse to me; 'look in thy heart, and write.'"

    This quote is the final line in "Sonnet 1 Loving in truth." It speaks to the vulnerability that Sidney believed was necessary for successful poetry. In this poem, the speaker is worried that he won't be able to write something meaningful enough to tell the woman he's interested in that he loves her. But when he really thinks about what will be the most effective, he realizes that the words won't come from his brain but rather his heart. Sidney the poet, also tended to be emotionally vulnerable in his poetry and write from the heart, especially in his sonnets., I say, the most divine striker of the senses..."

    This quote comes from Sidney's The Defence of Poesy. In this section, Sidney argues that poetry is the only written word that can be put to music. And given that music is divine, poetry, by association, is also powerful and moving. Sidney is directly refuting the claim that poetry is a waste of time, saying it is a divine source that has the ability to touch our senses and minds.

    Sir Philip Sidney - Key takeaways

    • Sir Philip Sidney was born in England in 1554.
    • Although he did not come from nobility, Sidney's family was closely associated with Queen Elizabeth I, and Sidney was a courtier in her court.
    • Sidney was a staunch Protestant, even more so after he witnessed the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre while visiting Paris.
    • Sidney refused to publish his works during his lifetime; all were published after his death.
    • His most famous works include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy, and The Arcadia.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sir Philip Sidney

    What was Sir Philip Sidney known for?

    Sir Philip Sidney was known as a courtier in Elizabeth I's court, a soldier, and a poet. 

    Who is Sir Philip Sidney?

    Sir Philip Sidney was a 16th century English poet. 

    What is the contribution of Philip Sidney to English literature?

    Sidney contributed several major works to the Elizabethan era. Some scholars believe he wrote the first Elizabethan sonnet cycle.  

    What is Sir Philip Sidney's views about poetry?

    Sidney believed that poetry was an effective method of communication and that poetry could be used as way to influence human affairs. 

    How does Philip Sidney defend poetry?

    Sidney defends poetry in Defense of Poesy (also called An Apology for Poetry), by meticulously refuting each charge made against poetry. He says that poetry is an avenue to virtue, that poets are not liars, that bad poets can not be used to represent the whole of poetry, and that Plato sought to banish amoral poets in his time, not the whole of poetry.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What impactful historical event did Philip Sidney witness in Paris? 

    What was Sidney's relationship to the queen? 

    True or false: Sidney's family was NOT noble?


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