See another country, learn another language: advice as old as the Greeks. In May 1572, a very young man left England, in the words of his passport, ‘for his attaining to the knowledge of foreign languages’, but attached to a diplomatic mission, something more serious than a mere Grand Tour. He was a participant in the often menacing jollifications which accompanied the finalisation of an Anglo-French treaty and a marriage alliance with the house of Navarre. In early August the French King made him a gentleman of his bedchamber, which carried the title of baron. But by the end of the month he was caught up in the Massacre of St Bartholomew, a cowering refugee in the English Embassy; whence he was rescued by a French nobleman who thought it amusing to take him with other voyeurs to inspect the mangled corpse of Admiral Coligny, lying where it had fallen on the cobbles.
By this time he had made the acquaintance of some remarkable intellectuals, who would map out his future itineraries. They included the logician and rhetorician Pierre de la Ramée (Ramus), who was about to join the other bodies floating down the Seine; but more fruitfully, a French diplomat employed by a German government, Hubert Languet. Escaping from the Parisian charnel house, he passed through Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Strasbourg and Vienna, where the friendship with Languet ripened. After a brief jaunt to Hungary, our young traveller set out with more serious intent for Italy. In the autumn of 1574, he took off for Poland, which was without a king at the time. Later, a story was invented that he had been offered the Polish crown: absurd, but can there be smoke without any fire whatsoever? In May 1575, Philip Sidney returned to Little England. If England was small beer, so was he, no baron but plain Mr Sidney. He was 20 years of age.
Sidney’s career makes a bizarre episode in that endless saga which is Britain-in-Europe. To understand why so much was made, still more expected, of such a youth, it is necessary to know about English and European politics in an age of religious wars, both hot and cold. It is this considerable challenge to which Alan Stewart responds in only the second biography of Philip Sidney in almost fifty years. Stewart draws on foreign archives, as well as on the Languet-Sidney correspondence and other letters secured by the private scholar James Osborn and published in his Young Philip Sidney (1972).
Sidney’s life was a warp of virtue woven onto the woof of fortune. It was one of history’s ironies that Philip II of Spain was his godfather, and gave him his name. His fortune was to be a Sidney, a well-connected courtly family, but even more a Dudley, grandson of the ill-fated Duke of Northumberland and nephew of his sons Robert, Elizabeth’s Earl of Leicester, and Ambrose, Earl of Warwick. Ambrose was childless and, for as many years as Queen Elizabeth neither married Robert nor released him to marry anyone else, he was the presumed heir of both uncles. His father told him: ‘Remember, my son, the noble blood you are descended of, by your mother’s side.’ Sir Henry Sidney was President of the Council in the Marches, in effect governor of Wales, an office he retained when Elizabeth sent him to Ireland as Lord Deputy. Continentals addressed Philip as ‘son of England’s president over all Wales’, son of the ‘viceroy of Ireland’ (which lent a kind of princely status). In writing to the man running Poland, Languet drew attention not only to Sidney’s Dudley connections, but to the fact that his aunts were married to the Earls of Sussex and Huntingdon. All these noblemen had placed their hopes ‘on this one person’, ‘and him have they decided to advance to honour after his return’. But in England there was but one fount of honour, Elizabeth Tudor.
Sidney’s virtues might have been read out of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. They included good looks, an excellent mind (or ‘wit’), and a propensity for impulsive action which frequently alarmed those who believed that they were in charge of him. It was easy to fall under his spell. Ramus’s editor wrote: ‘I well remember the first time I saw you, when I contemplated with wonder your unusual endowments of mind and body.’ The scholar and printer Henri Estienne wrote from Strasbourg: ‘Somehow or other every time I see you and enjoy your company I feel more and more affection towards you.’ It is not too much to say that Languet fell in love with what he called this ‘extraordinary young man’. Sidney had presented him with a now lost portrait by Veronese: ‘For as long as I enjoyed the sight of you I thought little of the portrait you gave me ... When I returned from Frankfurt, I was led by longing for you, to frame it and hang it in full view. Then it struck me as so beautiful, and to resemble you so strongly, that I value nothing else I own more highly.’
Those who declared their admiration, even love, for Sidney were also using him, however. Languet revealed another side of his nature when he advised his young protégé to cultivate the Queen’s prime minister, Lord Burghley, by befriending his children, ‘or at least by pretending to do so’. What made Sidney such a valuable commodity was the predicament in which Elizabeth’s conservative instincts, in religion and policy, placed both the more ‘forward’ of her servants, to use contemporary jargon, and the international Protestant community. These were increasingly desperate times, with the French Huguenots and Dutch rebels confronting what was widely believed to be a grand Catholic conspiracy to wipe them out. Could Elizabeth’s England be persuaded to intervene? This was the world which Languet inhabited and tried to manipulate.
Prominent among Elizabeth’s ‘forward’ servants were Sidney’s uncle, Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham, who had provided shelter in his Embassy in Paris in 1572 and went on to be Secretary of State, as well as becoming Sidney’s father-in-law. But Leicester was shackled, emotionally and politically the Queen’s prisoner, and Sidney on his Continental travels was his representative. Of this, little direct evidence survives. But what does is suggestive. In March 1573, the 18-year-old Sidney reported to his uncle that he had met the younger brother of the Dutch rebel leader, the Prince of Orange, ‘whose honourable usage was such towards me, and such goodwill he seems to bear unto your lordship’. (A year later, Count Louis of Nassau was killed in action, fighting the Spaniards.)
Sidney found his role ideologically congenial. He had been educated at Shrewsbury, then the largest school in England, where the ethos was one of patriotic Protestantism. In 1581, its 360 boys would march ‘bravely’ in battle order, with their own generals, captains, drums, trumpets and ensigns, declaring ‘how valiantly they would fight and defend their country’. He had gone on to Oxford, where his uncle Leicester was chancellor, and to one of its more reformed houses, Christ Church. Sidney’s eclectic and variously stocked mind was anchored in religion. It was more than mere convention on his part to say, in his Defence of Poetry, that ‘the chief poets, both in antiquity and excellency, were they that did imitate the unconceivable excellencies of God.’ What, exactly, his own religion consisted of is not easy to say, however. He remained on good terms with many English Catholics, especially during his time in Padua; they included Edmund Campion, whom he met and perhaps heard preach in Prague. And there was a meeting of minds with the arch-heretic Giordano Bruno, who whatever he was was not a Protestant. Uncle Leicester, too, was liberal in his religious favours, fond of Italian and Spanish evangelicals who in Calvinist terms were anything but orthodox. But there is no doubting the public commitment of both men to ‘the religion’, as an ideology and cause.
In 1577, Sidney set out for Europe for a second time, now heading an embassy with the ostensible purpose of offering condolences to the new Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf, and to the Elector Palatine and his brother Count Johann Casimir, following the death in Heidelberg of the Elector Frederick. Behind the diplomatic formalities there was serious work to be done. These deaths and successions signalled a lurch to the right in European affairs. Rudolf might as well have been Spanish, the new Elector was a Lutheran, and on the German scene, only the Calvinist but hard-drinking Casimir offered any hope. The real purpose of Sidney’s mission, a pipe dream as it turned out, was to work towards an Anglo-German Protestant League. But the most important encounter of the tour happened as Sidney was on his way back to England. He met William of Orange, stood in for his uncle Leicester at a baptism, and even found himself being vetted as William’s son-in-law, again perhaps as a surrogate for Leicester. It was through Sidney that William now proposed the close military alliance with England which was to materialise slowly in coming years, in spite of Elizabeth’s reluctance: the great intervention on which Leicester set his heart and which was to cost Sidney his life.
Sidney left behind a chorus of neo-Latin acclaim. Pietro Bizari wrote of his ‘heroic spirit’ and thought these but ‘the rude beginnings of greater events’. Elizabeth, however, soon made clear her profound objection to a mere son of her Lord Deputy conspiring with a foreign party to withdraw from their due allegiance the Dutch subjects of the King of Spain. Sidney was now to be denied an active, military role in the Low Countries and to be cold-shouldered at home. While he went through the necessary motions of playing the courtier, pursuing the politics of intervention through his courtly masque, The Lady of May, he found a country bolt-hole and even a Cave of Adullam at Wilton, the new home of his sister Mary, who had married the Earl of Pembroke. The frustration felt by a young man whose thwarted thirst for virtuous action could easily turn to undisciplined violence is expressed in the letter he wrote at this time to his father’s Irish secretary, whom he suspected of sabotaging his correspondence: ‘Few words are best ... If ever I know you do so much as read any letter I write to my father ... I will thrust my dagger into you.’
In the first months of 1579, the split in the Elizabethan polity was dramatised when England was visited, almost simultaneously, by Casimir, accompanied by Languet (this was the last time that Sidney and Languet met), and by Jean Simier, the envoy of the Duke of Anjou, the French King’s younger brother, who was proposing himself in marriage to Elizabeth. Anjou himself followed later in the year. The Anjou match was an alternative strategy to the virtuous enterprise of direct English intervention in the Dutch wars, but in the eyes of its critics it was an ungodly, injudicious scheme. Sidney’s feelings were expressed in a potentially violent and polarising quarrel over a game of tennis with the Earl of Oxford, and in a more or less open letter to the Queen, directly opposing the marriage, which contained his only recorded reference to the events of August 1572: ‘The very common people will know’ that Anjou ‘is the son of that Jezebel of our age; that his brother made oblation of his sister’s marriage, the easier to make massacre of all sexes’. In the words of a worried Languet, who could hardly approve, Sidney had been ‘ordered to write as you did by those whom you were bound to obey’ – Leicester and the Leicestrians. Later, in his ‘Dedication to Sir Philip Sidney’, his lifelong friend Fulke Greville would weave these two incidents, the tennis court quarrel and the letter, into a myth of sturdy Whig resistance to overweening rank and arbitrary monarchy, a lesson for the Stuart age. Stewart doubts whether the letter did Sidney much harm, pointing out that he continued to make himself agreeable at court, from which he withdrew only when strapped for cash. But Elizabeth’s anger sometimes had a long fuse. By writing as he did, Sidney probably destroyed what promise his career still offered.
It would be absurdly reductionist to say that Sidney was driven to poetry by political frustration and failure. For all we know, he had always written poetry. In that age, almost all leisured persons did, although few, with Sidney no exception, presumed to publish what they wrote. He was certainly already versifying in the Italianate, Petrarchan mode, although it was the correspondence of Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey which partly invented the legend of his rigorously didactic originality, censor of ‘the rules and precepts of art’ and critic of Spenser’s rusticity. It is reasonable, on the other hand, to regard his epic romantic fiction The Arcadia, which he completed at Wilton in the summer of 1580, as a sublimation, a substitute for virtuous action, and as a spin-off from the Anjou affair.
Blair Worden has demonstrated in The Sound of Virtue (1996) the extent to which Sidney’s fiction was saturated in the urgent political concerns of the time. Buried near its heart (in the middle of a wedding!) is a song sung by the shepherd Philisides (Sidney) on the shores of the Danube (‘Ister Bank’), in which the deliberate solecism is perpetrated of naming a real person: Languet, the source of the poem. Languet’s song is a beast fable, a story of a world of animals who, having chosen the lion to be their king, find that they have submitted to a tyrant. This is transparently a parable about the current loss of liberty in France and the Netherlands. The final lines, ‘you, poor beasts, in patience bide your hell,/Or know your strengths, and then you shall do well’, are a riddle, much debated. Do they advocate resistance, or caution against it? They are not good evidence that Sidney was an anti-monarchical republican. But monarchy was too serious a matter to be left to monarchs, certainly to monarchs like Elizabeth Tudor, who is only thinly disguised in the indolent Arcadian duke Basilius.
In case we should think that The Arcadia was only meant to entertain, written, as Stewart points out, ‘in woman’s space’, and ostensibly intended for his sister’s ‘idle hours’, Sidney contends in his Defence of Poetry that such fictions are more ‘doctrinable’ than either philosophy or history. ‘With a tale forsooth’ the poet intended to win the mind from wickedness to virtue. But the lessons of The Arcadia are anything but straightforward. If they were it would not have been art. Stewart wisely remarks: ‘The Arcadia was written to provoke questions, not necessarily to answer them’; and when Sidney came to rewrite the book, not only the plot but the questions were altered.
If the Anjou match helped to provoke The Arcadia, the disappointment of the marriage of Penelope Devereux to Lord Rich was what Stewart calls the ‘necessary inspiration’ for the love-lorn sonnets, Astrophil and Stella. In 1583, Sidney married Walsingham’s daughter (who as a young widow would later marry the Earl of Essex). He continued to be given small jobs to do, and use was made of his famed diplomatic talents, but in missions whose vacuity could only have been a source of further frustration. A huge discrepancy persisted between Sidney’s extraordinary and inflated reputation in progressive circles on the Continent, even after Languet’s death, and his evaluation at home. When he was knighted this was not any indication of royal favour but a mere formality, enabling him to represent Casimir at a Garter ceremony.
In 1585 everything changed. The decision was taken to intervene directly in the Netherlands: the assassination of Orange left little choice, and the universal expectation was that Sidney would have a leading role to play in the expedition to be led by Leicester. In one of history’s more tantalising might-have-beens, he almost took off in the opposite direction with Sir Francis Drake, but was summoned back from Plymouth with the assurance of ‘instant employment under his uncle, then going General into the Low Countries’. Sidney became governor of Flushing, one of the ‘cautionary’ towns placed in English hands under the terms reached with the Dutch.
This was no desk-bound job, and there were many opportunities for the active service which ended with the fatal thigh wound sustained at Zutphen on 22 September 1586. The myths surrounding Sidney’s chivalrous end, which every schoolboy used to know, sometimes obscure the fact that it took him more than three weeks to die. Is the preacher George Gifford to be believed when he tells us that Sidney in that time renounced the ‘vanities’ for which he remains ever famous and ordered his Arcadia to be burned? His last writing was a frightened scrawl, written to a doctor: ‘Come, come, I am in danger of my life and I want you.’ England would not see such another funeral or enshrine such another legend until the death of Princess Diana at a rather greater age than Sidney, who was not quite 32. It is not possible to make total sense of the careers of the Earl of Essex, or of James I’s son Prince Henry, or of much besides in the 17th-century imagination, without reference to that gilded legend of life and death.
Alan Stewart has written a very straight, almost entirely political narrative. No more than half a dozen pages out of more than three hundred address Sidney as one of the two arch-poets of the English Renaissance. (It was Spenser who was actually accorded the title of ‘arch-poet’ in the Works of 1611.) And The Defence of Poetry is hardly mentioned. There is certainly room for a life of this kind, emphasising much that is missing from more literary studies. But it is strange that it should have been written not by a historian but by a literary scholar who teaches Renaissance Studies. Only two years ago, Stewart joined Lisa Jardine in doing something similar with Francis Bacon: hundreds of pages on the snakes and ladders of Bacon’s political career, but very little on the contents of his extraordinary mind.
There is no cause for serious complaint. In an age when historical biography is increasingly left to gifted and not so gifted amateurs, there are few professional historians who could have improved on what Stewart has done. And there are only a few egregious errors for pedants to pick on. (Kenilworth is not in Staffordshire. Not even Queen Elizabeth was in a position to call a General Council of the Church. More seriously, Stewart is far too trustful of things reported by the Spanish Ambassador, de Quadra. And why should Elizabeth ‘as a Protestant’ be ‘opposed to the rule of the Valois family in France, tout court’?)
It is perhaps to be regretted that Stewart shows so much of the restraint in penetrating the inner life of Sidney which, before the coming of various kinds of ‘new history’, we once associated with historians. The late Bill Ringler, who spent his life editing Sidney, remarked that tracing his sources was more difficult than in any other Elizabethan poet, since he wrote not from source books but from ‘a mind well stored with reading that he had thoroughly assimilated and made his own’. That is not a problem which Stewart shares with his readers. Much has been written on the strength of the letter which Sidney as a schoolboy received from his ‘loving father, so long as you live in the fear of God’, full of stern expectations; and about the suppressed rebelliousness of his relations with other older men, especially Languet. In Richard McCoy’s Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia (1979), the conflict between self-assertion and submission is made the leitmotiv of the whole life, a story of ‘guilt, ambivalence and ideological confusion’. Stewart discusses Sir Robert Sidney’s letter as if Freud had never been, but with a good sense that Sidney père wrote within a familiar generic convention later parodied by Shakespeare in Polonius. And even though he is the author of an admired study of homoeroticism in the Renaissance, Stewart will not allow himself to speculate too freely about the nature of Languet’s feelings for his young friend, suggesting that comments on his good looks were related to his supposed prospects on the marriage market.
I suppose we should be grateful. And yet the student who needs to explore more than superficially the complex connections between Sidney’s life and his art (the aspiration of various kinds of new and not so new historicism) will need to look elsewhere. Five pages on The Arcadia and a page on Astrophil and Stella cannot adequately serve that purpose.