Friend to Sir Philip Sidney

Blair Worden

  • The Prose Works of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke edited by John Gouws
    Oxford, 279 pp, £40.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 19 812746 4

Four hundred years ago, on 17 October 1586, Sir Philip Sidney died at the age of 31 of a wound sustained in a skirmish at Zutphen, where his forces had fought for the Dutch cause against Spanish domination of the Netherlands. It was one of the great deaths of English history. His early biographers – or hagiographers – wrought a tale of battlefield heroism and deathbed stoicism that helped the myth of Sidney to become more powerful than the man had ever been. The funeral procession in London, arranged at the crippling expense of his father-in-law Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth, and preserved in the public imagination by Thomas Lant’s pictorial roll, was the grandest accorded to an English subject before Nelson: a determined show of strength by the forward Protestant party to which Sidney had belonged and in whose cause he became a martyr. Poets wrote elegies which answered to a widespread sense of waste and desolation. They were to be echoed a quarter of a century later upon a no less memorable early death, that of Henry Prince of Wales, the heir not only to the throne but to Sidney’s role of lost Protestant leader.

No one mourned Sidney’s passing more profoundly than the best qualified and most influential of those imaginative early biographers, Fulke Greville, whose life of Sidney is the more substantial of the two treatises edited by John Gouws as The Prose Works of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke – the other being A Letter to an Honourable Lady, where the lifelong bachelor Greville offered a mistreated wife (now unidentifiable, and perhaps imaginary) the questionable benefit of his advice and consolation. Sidney and Greville had been born in the same year, 1554; and from the day they entered Shrewsbury School together in 1564 their destinies were barely separable. In the mid-1570s they entered Elizabeth’s court under the tutelage of Sidney’s father. With Edward Dyer the young friends formed that ‘happy trinity’ of poets, Sidney

Striving with my mates in song,
Mixing mirth our songs among.

In 1577, the all too early peak of Sidney’s political career, Greville accompanied him on a mission to strengthen the co-operation of Europe’s Protestants, a journey which introduced Greville to Sidney’s mentor Hubert Languet and to his most powerful Continental champions, John Casimir and William of Orange. The years which followed produced disappointment and frustration. Sidney and Greville found their progress at court, and their plans for military service in Europe and exploration in the New World, blocked by a queen who could not be won to the aggressive foreign policy of their party.

After Sidney’s death Greville lost his way. The news of it plunged him into months of sickness and melancholy. ‘Divide me not from him,’ he implored a common friend, ‘but love his memory, and me in it.’ That memory remained ‘ever in my eyes’ as a yardstick both of his own and of his country’s loss of direction. Even when the Queen, having curbed Greville’s overseas ambitions and taught him to ‘bound my prospect within the safe limits of duty in such home services as were acceptable to my sovereign’, began to smile upon him, he knew that Sidney’s friendship had ‘carried me above my worth’. Most of Greville’s surviving works were written after Sidney’s death, but when he compared them with Sidney’s he found them laboured and prosaic. In 1615 he planned an opulent tomb in St Paul’s, where he would lie next to his friend and where a monument to Sidney would overlook ‘a more humble one’ to himself. Instead Greville was buried in St Mary’s Warwick, close to his home of Warwick Castle, a plain inscription remembering him as ‘Servant to Queen Elizabeth, Councillor to King James, and Friend to Sir Philip Sidney’.

Greville’s life of Sidney, written in the earlier part of James’s reign, is a study in failure. ‘He never was magistrate, nor possessed of any fit stage for eminence to act upon.’ For ‘want of clear vent’ his ‘extraordinary greatness lay concealed’. Like other members of the Sidney-Dudley network, Philip was persistently mistrusted by Elizabeth, whom Walsingham thought ‘very apt upon any light occasion to find fault with him’. Sidney’s Arcadia abounds in pointed allusions to the exclusion of men of merit and virtue from high office by misguided rulers, and the poems of Sidney and Greville hint at the same preoccupation. Even Sidney’s death has an air of failure, for when he was at last allowed to fight in the Netherlands he had come to believe – so Greville tells us – that the English intervention there was a futile substitute for war in the Mediterranean and the Americas. A suspicion of military and medical incompetence hovers over the story of the fatal wound at Zutphen. And it may also be doubted whether the chivalric behaviour hymned by Sidney’s biographers was appropriate to the conditions of guerrilla warfare.

Greville commends Sidney less for what he did, which in politics was so little, than for what he was. But what was he? Greville wrote on classical principles, according to which biography is concerned not to record ephemeral detail but to select and heighten the hero’s merits for the edification and imitation of posterity. Sidney thus becomes ‘a pattern in the practice of real virtue’. Down the centuries the pattern has had its influence. Yet the truth behind the plaster exterior is hard to reach. Fulsome as the tributes paid to Sidney in his lifetime were, they were singularly imprecise, and we must wonder about their motives. Often they came from Continental Protestants who knew that he was the heir of his uncle the Earl of Leicester. Noting his conformity from an early age to the beliefs and policies of his patrons, his Continental admirers saw him as a future Privy Councillor who would steer England into a Continental Protestant league. The habits of praise were doubtless strengthened by his way of dispensing invitations to co-religionists he met on the Continent to visit him in England, and by the patronage given by ‘that great Maecenas’ to scholars and poets. Not all those poets, to judge by the elegies on his death, knew much about his career or his writings.

The idealisation of Sidney by Greville and others is not to be scoffed at. It was untruthful in a sense which only an age of laundry-list biography finds reprehensible. Idealised public praise was held to be a principal means of incitement to virtue. We know from Sidney’s writings that the strenuous pursuit of virtue was to him the purpose of living; his understanding of virtue was close enough to Greville’s; and a whole dimension of Elizabethan politics and society is missed by historians who neglect – or plunder – the literature in which the ideals of virtue found expression. The tricks played by Greville’s didactic purpose on his memory of events are of small moment. But between an ideal and a reality, as Greville and Sidney well knew, the distance may be large. When C.S. Lewis, in the Oxford History of English Literature, called Sidney ‘that rare thing, the aristocrat in whom the aristocratic ideal is really embodied’, he provided unwitting testimony to the success of Greville’s legend. It is only recently that the gap between man and myth has become an area of fruitful inquiry, and that the inability of Sidney’s Aristotelian ethical system to meet the complexities of his experience has come to seem a source of creative tension in Arcadia.

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