The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ and Elizabethan Politics 
by Blair Worden.
Yale, 406 pp., £40, October 1996, 0 300 06693 7
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Unlike 1588, the Armada Year, 1578 has not endured in the national memory. But to those alive at the time, and especially those in charge of affairs – committed, ‘forward’ Protestants – it was a critical moment of making or marring. If 1588 was 1940, 1578 was 1938; the Netherlands, in revolt against its rulers, Czechoslovakia; the Spanish tyrant, Nazi Germany. As for the response of England’s Queen to this crisis, it was a prevaricating kind of appeasement, rather than the bold interventionism which many of her advisers favoured. ‘Her majesty deals so coldly in these causes,’ wrote Sir Francis Walsingham, who did not believe in the likelihood of peace in his time.

In August 1578, frustrated in foreign policy, these Protestant politicians, including Walsingham and the Queen’s favourite of favourites, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, pulled off a small victory on the domestic front. They took the Queen off to East Anglia on a progress, where they stage-managed a local political revolution which threw out of office the leading Catholics of the region and delivered the richest counties in England into the hands of a reliable Protestant regime. The Reformation was made safe in Norfolk and Suffolk, if not so far in Europe. And then, at Norwich on 21 August, Elizabeth was for the first time publicly celebrated (by the poet Thomas Churchyard) as a Virgin Queen.

The significance of this little piece of provincial theatre, a proposal not to marry, relates to the master-card in the 1578 strategy of appeasement: a royal match with the French King’s brother, Francois, Duke of Anjou. It would be an inexpensive way of turning Anjou’s unpredictable and unprincipled cavortings in the French and Dutch religious wars to England’s advantage. Elizabeth’s prime minister, Lord Burghley, thought so. But ‘forward’ Protestants regarded the proposed marriage with profound distaste. Leaving aside certain personal and biological impediments, they believed that this mésalliance would mean a political regression to absolutism on the French model and the restoration of Catholicism. Moreover, by moving the English Queen to the opposite end of the international and ideological chessboard, a fatal blow would be dealt to the Protestant cause throughout Europe. Anjou was not only Catholic but French. Xenophobic public sentiment, led and orchestrated from above (Leicester), seems to have thwarted the Queen’s personal desires.

Part of the opposition to the match came from Leicester’s nephew and heir-apparent, Philip Sidney, who in 1577 had returned from a brilliant diplomatic mission to find himself unappreciated. The Queen suspected his impetuosity and was angered by the plan to marry him to the daughter of the hero of the Dutch resistance, William of Orange. Blair Worden puts it neatly: ‘Where Sidney’s plan to marry Orange’s daughter was a pledge of commitment to international Protestantism, Elizabeth’s negotiations with Anjou signalled her repudiation of it’. In the late summer of 1579, with things coming to a head, Sidney wrote an open letter to Elizabeth designed to sink the marriage. Elizabeth should ‘stand alone’, as Sidney professed to do in the writing of his letter, although Elizabeth would have known that he was acting as Leicester’s messenger. Decorous flattery – she was ‘the ornament of this age’ and he a courtier – could not disguise the bitterness of this pill. Sidney’s public career was effectively at an end. ‘My only service is speech and that is stopped.’ He retired into the country, where he completed the writing of an ambitious piece of imaginative and romantic fiction, Arcadia.

If Blair Worden is correct, nobody now reads the Arcadia, a prose romance punctuated with dazzlingly modish Italianate ‘songs’. So it is necessary to mention what happens in this favola intreccio. Arcadia, part of a vaguely defined Greek confederation, has for long been peacefully governed by Duke Basilius, who, misled by the Delphic oracle, goes against the advice of his trusty counsellor, Philamax, and abdicates (or takes a year’s pastoral sabbatical), while locking up his daughters, Pamela and Philoclea. This fails to protect the princesses from the attention of two princes errant, Musidorus and Pyrocles, who, running the inevitable and farcical risks attendant on assuming transsexual disguises, abduct the girls amid the confusion of a popular uprising. Complex plotting and counter-plotting lead to the apparent death of Basilius and a succession crisis. The princes are charged with regicide and rape. Euarchus, King of Macedon, a kind of deus ex machina, enters Arcadia, not to conquer but to restore order. He discovers that the princes are in fact his own son and nephew, but he confirms the just Arcadian sentence against them. However, Basilius returns to life and they are spared.

This, in two minutes, is the Old Arcadia, a text forgotten for more than three hundred years, on which this book mainly focuses. In the New Arcadia, a more didactic and less successful version, posthumously published by Sidney’s friend Fulke Greville in 1590, the plot is altered, evidently in response to an altered political climate. To complicate matters, there appeared in 1593 The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, a version overseen by Sidney’s sister, which conflates elements of the two Arcadias. All three are currently available to anyone determined to prove Worden wrong.

What has this epic romance to do with the politics of 1578-9? A crude summary of the argument of this important and skilful book would be ‘everything’. Although the political resonances of the Arcadia have never been a secret, the precision of Sidney’s political references has never before been explored in such depth. The novelty of Worden’s approach tells us something rather unflattering about literary and historical studies of Elizabethan England, and about the relations, or lack of relations, between these academic pursuits.

Worden avoids what Lauro Martines has called the besetting sin of many historically-minded critics: to read a Renaissance poem as if it were a prose document. (Arcadia in its entirety is ‘Poetry’, since, as Sidney himself wrote, ‘it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet.’) Like Martines, Worden is sensitive to the ‘tentacular possibilities’ of Renaissance poetry, which connects with the real world only indirectly. It follows that The Sound of Virtue consists of much more than the kind of crudely reductive ‘tail-chasing’ which deciphers for its own mindless sake allegories that the author had every reason to encode in the first place.

Although Basilius was a fictional creation and not literally Queen Elizabeth, it cannot be in question that the politics of the Arcadia refract the politics of Elizabethan England and, in a more general sense, of Sidney’s Europe. If Basilius is a mirror of monarchy, and of Elizabeth in 1578 specifically, Philanax reflects Walsingham and other ‘good’ counsellors. The new character of Cecropia in the New Arcadia is unmistakably Mary Queen of Scots. The intervention of Euarchus on behalf of the Greek confederation points to the dream of an effective anti-Habsburg league. More to the point, the Arcadia is saturated with the same moralistic language of politics which we find in Sidney’s letter to the Queen, and in much of the political correspondence of members of his circle and party.

Musidorus and Pyrocles are seekers after virtue and in some sense exemplars of it, virtue being (according to Cicero) an active quality. Basilius is a warning example of the opposite, ‘political idleness’, sunk in sleep and indifference, just as, in Sidney’s perception, the ‘superstitious princes’ of Europe were lost in ‘enchanted dreams’. Basilius is not a bad man, but he isn’t a good ruler. He is even a kind of tyrant, in that he puts his own private inclination and affection before the public good, moved by ‘will’ and emotion, not reason. This was effeminacy rather than the austere and manly attributes required of government, and it was what Sidney’s letter had presumed to censure in Elizabeth.

The problems of the Arcadian polity are the familiar problems of counsel endemic in Renaissance monarchy: bad, flattering counsel to which rulers are all too susceptible; good counsel to which they are deaf. The story indicts equally a ruling class and a nation which have failed their own tests of public virtue. Arcadia, like Elizabethan England, is in a perilous condition. The death or threatened death of the irresponsible ruler will lead to a violently disputed succession and civil war.

What is the political philosophy of the Arcadia? And what, if anything, is to be done? One of the strengths of this book is the author’s capacity to earth the text securely, not only in the politics but in the political discourse of its time. This was the moment when tyranny and the rights and wrongs of resistance to it were most widely discussed – the legacy of the St Bartholomew Massacre and other chilling events. 1579 saw the publication of both Buchanan’s De iure regni apud Scotos and Vindiciae contra tyrannos, in which Sidney’s mentor, the international Protestant statesman Hubert Languet (almost certainly), collaborated with Philippe du Plessis Mornay. But to look for a programme of political theory in a fiction like the Arcadia would be a mistake. And perhaps it is even a mistake to look for a resolved political programme in the mind of its author, for Sidney’s personality contained, rather than resolved, conflicting tendencies.

Many before Worden have wrestled with the enigmatic couplet which ends the pastoral song that Philisides, a gentleman poet, performs between the third and fourth books of the Arcadia – structurally the epicentre of the work. As a beast fable about the origins of monarchy and tyranny, couched in an old-fashioned rustic metre such as Sidney reprehended in Spenser, this is an odd kind of speech to make at a wedding:

And you, poor beasts, in patience bide your hell,
Or know your strengths, and then you shall do well.

There is scant evidence that Sidney favoured a republican alternative to the hell(?) of monarchy, whether along the lines of Athenian democracy or Spartan aristocracy; whereas there is a good deal to suggest that he may have approved of a limited form of monarchy. According to his friend Greville, who may have been back-projecting his own Jacobean preoccupations, Sidney had feared that the political consequence of the French marriage would have been ‘to metamorphose our moderate form of monarchy into a precipitate absoluteness’. Perhaps we may say that, in Sidney’s view, monarchy was too important a matter to be left to monarchs, or rather to most monarchs. For a virtuous monarchy, such as Euarchus exemplified in the fiction, or William of Orange in real life (or Sidney himself if it had ever come to that, or James I’s son Prince Henry, whom Sidney never knew), needed no limitation except its own inherent virtue. It is anachronistic to say so, but Sidney’s politics tended to the right as much as to the left.

What does ‘know your strengths’ mean? ‘Strength’ is not the same thing as force, and may imply only inner qualities of reason and virtue. Worden thinks, however, that in relation to the option of resistance, Sidney is at one with Languet (the only real person to appear in the Arcadia, in Philisides’ song) and the Vindiciae: an aristocratic resistance offered by inferior magistrates (rather than ‘private persons’) can be legitimate and may be called for to head off a tyranny, but not to overthrow a tyranny once established. Philisides’ fable is not a futile threnody for liberty but a suitably encoded call to act before it is too late. What happened in East Anglia in August 1578 was a pointer to the more dramatic role which Sidney’s uncle Leicester might have played if the Anjou marriage had happened; and would have had to play if Mary Queen of Scots had ever been in a position to claim her inheritance, or had anticipated it (the sinister scenario of the New Arcadia). Sidney’s letter to the Queen was another example of timely action, although, as a disapproving Languet pointed out, Sidney was more of a private than a public man and so acting somewhat out of turn.

In Arcadia, love is the main preoccupation. Is it a mere distraction? To reverse my earlier question, what are tales of passion and somewhat violent sex doing in a political allegory? Readers of Lauro Marlines will have learned to search for politics in non-political verse. ‘Renaissance love poetry often turns love into a metaphor for other things,’ especially the pastoral genre. But the eroticism of the Arcadia is more than a metaphor. It is a kind of politics in itself. The public and private worlds of Arcadia are not two but one. The lesson taught by the amorous adventures of the princes is that sexual excess, too, must be bridled by virtuous reason, just like the political excess entailed both in the wilful ambition to become a tyrant, or the indolent disposition to succumb to tyranny. Love can also lose its way amid idleness and self-absorption. The Arcadia is saturated with the language of political morality, but it also teems with references to a political pathology of the heart: ‘vehement love’, ‘torments’, ‘hellish agony’, ‘disease’. And here, too, we sense the divided state of Sidney’s own personality, torn between the reprehension of erotic love and the adolescent pleasure in it, which he invites us, voyeuristically, to share: Philoclea’s garment is light enough to arouse thoughts of ‘what was under it’.

Was Sidney’s Arcadia an escape or diversion from political action, or the pursuit of political ends by other means? And if the ends were political, what were the means? For whom was the book really intended? Insofar as there are answers to these questions, they lie in the not wholly reliable construction of Sidney in Greville’s so-called ‘Life’, and in the deliberate ambiguities and false antitheses of Sidney’s own Defence of Poetry, a companion text to Arcadia and surely written at about the same time. The Defence conducts a mock debate, in which Sidney only half-believes, between Philosophy, History and Poetry (which is to say, Fiction) as guides to public and private virtue. Poetry wins, the poet having made the rules. Philosophy is ‘too abstract and general’, History ‘tied not to what should be but to what is’, which is often not ‘doctrinable’. Only the poet, by imagining things which both delight and improve,’ giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter it’. ‘With a tale forsooth he cometh to you’, a tale such as Arcadia.

Did Sidney (and Worden demonstrates that his political judgment was informed at least as much by his wide reading in history as by ‘Poetry’) hope that what he called this ‘idle work’, a mere trifle ‘triflingly handled’, would do any good? If we are to believe the clergyman who heard some of Sidney’s last confessions, from that gangrenous bed on which he took such a time to die after Zutphen (and perhaps we should not), he repudiated his poetry and promised, if spared, to devote himself to higher things, presumably to Divinity, which hardly gets a look-in in the Defence. The critical Arcadian audience which heard Philisides’ song commented on ‘the right conceit of young men who think they speak wiseliest when they cannot understand themselves.’

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