From his early youth, Sir Philip Sidney, whose parents were companions to monarchs, demonstrated remarkable erudition and intellect. He was enrolled in Shrewsbury School where he studied under Thomas Ashton before entering Christ Church, Oxford. He perfected his knowledge of modern languages and rhetoric through two years of travel on the Continent, particularly Germany, Italy, and France. While in Paris, he witnessed the events culminating in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the slaughter of French Protestants, or Huguenots, that ensued after the attempted assassination of Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572), advisor to the Huguenot King Henry III of Navarre (1553-1610).
Upon his return to England, Sidney sought to use his knowledge of the Continent to good effect through political appointments by Elizabeth I. He eventually was chosen to lead an embassy ostensibly of condolence to the family of Maximilian II of Austria (1527- 1576) but actually of political intent to create a Protestant League in Europe. This intent continued upon his return to England during negotiations with William I of Orange (1533-1584). These political aspirations were frustrated by Elizabeth I’s defensive strategies of playing Spain off against France, a strategy that a Protestant League might upset. His estrangement from Elizabeth I and her court was further exacerbated by his publicly discouraging her possible marriage to the Catholic Duke of Anjou.
Turning away from politics, Sidney then turned his considerable talents to writing. As a poet, Sidney experimented in new metrics in his pastoral romances Old Arcadia (1581) and New Arcadia (1590) and the Petrarchan sonnet cycle in Astrophil and Stella (1591). This sonnet sequence is particularly Petrarchan in its conventional depiction of unrequited love, in its aloof Stella and suffering Astrophil. Sidney wrote his important work of literary criticism, The Defense of Poesy, probably in response to The School of Abuse (1579), a work by Stephen Gosson (1554-1624) that deplored the immorality fostered by poetry that was dedicated to Sidney. The Defense demonstrates Sidney’s extraordinary knowledge of the classics as well as modern authors, including Dante (c. 1265-1321), Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530)—whose humanist Arcadia (1504) directly influenced Sidney’s versions—Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), and Petrarch. And countering Gosson’s allegations against poetry, Sidney’s Defense takes up the gauntlet that Plato (c. 428-c. 348 BCE) threw down when he banished poets from the ideal Republic for their potential to lead citizens into immorality. Sidney shapes his Defense according to the seven-part classical structure: an introduction, proposition, division, examination, refutation, peroration, and digression. Thus, he not only demonstrates but also lauds poetry’s ability to teach, to give light to darkness through its beauty and sweet delight.
As the Defense asserts, right thought leads to right action. Sidney turned to action when Elizabeth I appointed him as governor of Vlissengen in the Netherlands, still in the throes of its rebellion against Catholic Spain. Sidney’s uncle Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the Governor-General of the Netherlands, supported the Dutch rebels. With an English army that included Sidney, Leicester besieged the town of Zutphen. During battle, Sidney received a leg wound that later turned gangrenous. Legend has it that when close to death Sidney—always the consummate courtly gentleman— refused a cup of water in favor of another wounded soldier, saying “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.” After his death, Mary (Sidney) Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, became Sidney’s literary executor and the many elegies for Sidney she encouraged, including Spenser’s and her own, give some sense of Sidney’s impact from his era up to our own.