My Dagger into Yow

Ian Donaldson

  • The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney edited by Roger Kuin
    Oxford, 1381 pp, £250.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 955822 3

Letters, Robert Lovelace remarks in Clarissa, are a way of ‘writing from the heart’. A brilliant letter-writer though a terrible etymologist, Lovelace finds warrant for this belief in the word correspondence: letters (so he thinks) touch the core, the coeur, of their senders’ being, revealing their innermost thoughts and sensations, showing their essential character. Letters in the pre-modern period didn’t always work quite like this, however, as both Lovelace and his creator had reason to know. They rarely came straight from the heart, and were seldom free of what Lovelace calls ‘the fetters prescribed by method or study’. At school, children were exposed from an early age to the letters of Cicero and other classical masters. Those nervous or incapable of writing like this, could, as Richardson had discovered to his profit early in his publishing career, purchase volumes of model letters in English, replete with flourishes and sentiments often alien to the sender, but part nevertheless of the rhetorical currency required for any respectable courtship or commercial transaction.

As a boy, Philip Sidney – whose works Richardson was later to publish, and to study with attention – was carefully trained in the art of letter writing. His bedroom, according to his early biographer Thomas Moffet, ‘overflowed with elegant epistles’ which he had painstakingly written. The opening letter in Roger Kuin’s superb new edition of his correspondence, addressed to the 12-year-old Philip by his father, Sir Henry, urges him ‘to exercise that practise’ in letter writing, ‘for it will stand you in most steed in that profession of lyfe that you are borne to liue in.’ Some years later, when he was setting off on an extended tour of Europe, Philip was repeatedly reminded by his watchful Burgundian mentor, Hubert Languet, to ‘diligently practise writing while you are away from your country’, and hone the epistolary skills so essential to diplomacy and the cultivation of friendship. He should read and reread the letters of Cicero, translate them into another language, then back into Latin, then check how close he had come to the original. He should study the letters of stylish contemporaries such as Languet’s friend the historian and spy Pietro Bizzarri, a sample letter from whom (in Italian) Languet sent Sidney in November 1573, hoping that ‘in admiring it you may perpetually gaze upon his eloquence and keep it before you as an example.’ ‘I have thoroughly read the delightful letter,’ Sidney responded dutifully (in Latin), ‘and picked some flowers from it, which I have imitated as I cannot easily better them.’ His tone is impeccably polite, but it’s possible to imagine some faint weariness on Sidney’s part as he picked those flowers. This is not ‘writing from the heart’ as Lovelace imagines it; not quite an unmediated revelation of the young poet’s character; not quite the easy and energetic style that Sidney would soon develop in the Arcadia and The Defence of Poesy. Failing to receive a prompt reply, Languet wonders if the fault lies with some lack of writerly elegance on his own part: ‘Please do not show the unpolished letters I write you to anyone,’ he writes to Sidney, seemingly worried as much about stylistic failings as about the security of the information he is imparting.

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