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.

Once you pass through the heavy curtains of preliminary apologetics, however, the nearly four hundred letters collected in these volumes are of absorbing interest. They cast an intriguing light on the fractured and volatile state of late 16th-century Europe, and the erratic progress of Sidney’s brief political career before his death at Zutphen in 1586, aged 31. But they need to be read with a constant awareness of what they don’t explicitly say, what they glancingly concede, and what they fail altogether to tell us about Sidney’s character. Among the most obvious gaps in this plump epistolary corpus are letters to or from women, in whose company, as Katherine Duncan-Jones has convincingly argued, Sidney seems always to have been most happy, productive and at ease. There are no surviving exchanges with his wife, Frances, or with his sister, Mary, and no letters relating to his time at Wilton House in Wiltshire, where his most important writing was done. Apart from a single letter from Philip to his young brother, Robert, in Oxford, urging him to keep up his studies and promising to send him part of ‘my toyfull Booke’ (the ‘Old’ Arcadia, then in progress), there’s little indication in these letters of Sidney’s devotion to poetry, or music, or storytelling, or the visual arts. Languet is delighted when Sidney casually mentions that he’ll ask Veronese or Tintoretto to paint his portrait and send it to him, but the delight is principally because the picture by ‘one Paul of Verona’, when it finally arrives, reminds Languet of what Sidney looks like, not on account of any artistic qualities the portrait may have possessed. Languet attaches the picture to a board, and gazes at it while writing to Sidney, as in a primitive form of Skype.

Languet, diplomatic agent for the Elector of Saxony, indefatigable gatherer and transmitter of political news and gossip, ardent advocate of a united Protestant Europe, is the dominant presence in the early part of this correspondence. Fussy, effusive, shrewd, and clearly besotted by the talented English youth whose fortunes he has chosen to direct, Languet sends Sidney dispatches of astonishing length and scope about current political stirrings and whisperings across Europe and beyond. In a characteristically detailed letter from Prague on 13 August 1575 Languet reports on the recent invasion of Transylvania, and the varying responses of the Hungarians, Germans, Poles, Turks and Spaniards; on happenings in Vienna and Silesia; on news just received from Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Rascia and Bosnia; on recent happenings in Poland, and how they’ve been received in Lithuania; what he’s lately heard from Egypt and what’s come in from Constantinople. A bulletin of news from Transylvania, just arrived, is appended in a lengthy postscript. ‘I have added this at nightfall,’ he notes, ‘and would not stop writing if there were any more time.’ ‘In your letters,’ Sidney writes back gratefully, ‘it is as if I am seeing the very picture of our times, which now, like a bow too long stretched, must be loosened or break.’

Sidney and Languet probably first met in Paris in the politically charged year of 1572. Sidney, then 17, had travelled there with Edward Fiennes de Clinton’s delegation for the signing of the Treaty of Blois, by which France and England agreed to set aside their traditional differences and join forces against Spain. Languet, who was then 54, had been sent by the Elector of Saxony to congratulate Charles IX on the peace of Saint-Germain, which, in granting concessions to the Huguenots, marked a brief pause in the French wars of religion. Protestant hopes in Europe rode high, but by August of that year were dashed by the events of St Bartholomew’s Day. The Huguenot leader Admiral de Coligny, who in June had entertained Sidney at a supper party in honour of the English delegation, was shot at in the street, then, two days later, killed in his lodgings, his body thrown from an upper window and decapitated by those waiting below. In the bloodbath that followed, two thousand Protestants were slaughtered in Paris and another three thousand in provincial France. The humanist scholar Peter Ramus, a convert to Protestantism whom Sidney had recently met at the residence of the English ambassador Francis Walsingham, took shelter for some days at a bookshop in rue St Jacques, then returned to his lodgings where he was murdered while at prayer. Sidney must have witnessed many horrific scenes, but none of his letters from this period survives; indeed there are no letters from the first year of his Continental travels. As it happens, there aren’t any extant letters from Walsingham that describe these scenes, or relate the help Walsingham gave to Sidney and Languet and other terror-stricken Protestants in Paris. Perhaps, as John Cooper conjectured in his 2011 Life of Walsingham, such scenes were literally indescribable in diplomatic correspondence, their details committed instead for maximum security to the memory of couriers who conveyed the news to London. While the events of St Bartholomew’s Day must have had a profound impact on Sidney’s imagination and the shape of his political career, their effect can only be glimpsed indirectly, retrospectively, and with a measure of guesswork from other evidence, and from later letters in these volumes.

Walsingham could probably have smuggled Sidney back to England, where he’d already dispatched his pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter, Frances – Sidney’s future wife. He might have foreseen that on receipt of the news from Paris the Privy Council would insist, as it did, that Sidney return at once to London; yet he would also have known the political value of Sidney’s remaining in Europe as a roving and privileged observer. By the time the Privy Council’s letter arrived in Paris demanding Sidney’s return, Sidney had already slipped out of the city and across France to Germany, probably with Walsingham’s aid and collusion. In Frankfurt he was reunited with Languet, who had also fled. For the next two and a half years Sidney travelled the length and breadth of Europe, generally on horseback, seeking (as his passport officially declared) to attain ‘to the knowledge of forrayn Languages’, but more important meeting Protestant princes, scholars and military leaders, for many of whom he must have appeared a figure of glamour and destiny, a potential figurehead. In his regular, detailed, anxiety-laden dispatches, Languet directed Sidney’s peregrinations as best he could. Sidney’s responses are intermittent and at times evasive. His passport stated that he must not ‘haunt nor repaire into the Territories or Countreis of any Prince or potentate not being with us in Amitie or League’, a clear prohibition on visiting Spain or Italy. Yet to Languet’s consternation, Sidney ignored this order, crossing the Alps into Italy, visiting Genoa and Florence in direct contravention of Languet’s advice, and living for some months in Venice. Languet wrote to him in alarm, warning of the dangers of Rome, with its popish snares and delusions: ‘For free minds nothing is more pernicious than those arts which soften their masculine virtue and prepare their spirits for servitude: for the reward of such arts is servitude, as the Italians themselves know, to their considerable harm.’

Sidney’s replies maintain a prudent silence about the many pleasures Italy – and in particular, Venice – offered: civic festival, religious pageantry, theatrical performance, architectural splendour, new forms of writing both in prose and in verse. He says nothing to Languet about the republican system of government in Venice, whose ‘good Lawes & Customes’ he mentions to his brother Robert. He avoids any mention of the writer whom Languet ironically calls ‘your friend Machiavelli’ and ranks among ‘the authors and creators of all the evil arts’, though elsewhere Sidney quietly commends The Art of War to his friend Edward Denny, as he prepares for service in Ireland. Later letters to Sidney from friends such as Wolfgang Zünderlin and François Perrot de Mézières, who lingered in Italy after he returned to northern Europe, gossip entertainingly about recent mishaps in the Vatican – a topic too risky for Sidney to broach, even in jest, with Languet. A golden hammer bearing images of St Peter and St Paul and said to be worth twenty thousand gold pieces, they gleefully report, had been prepared for the pope to make a ceremonial entry into the Vatican through a concealed doorway to inaugurate the jubilee year; but the pope mistimed his blow to the door, knocking St Paul off the hammer and striking ‘his fingers so hard that it drew blood and gave his Holiness a little pain’: an act of ill omen, the locals superstitiously murmured. Sidney’s letters are seldom so free, seldom so relaxed as the letters of these friends. He had learned the arts not just of epistolary elegance but also of epistolary discretion. While preparing some years later for service in the Low Countries, he wrote to Elizabeth ‘most humbly to present such a cypher as little leysure coold afoord me. if there come any matter to my knowledg the importance wherof shall deseru to be so masked I will not fail … to your own handes to recommend it.’ Masking, not just through the use of cypher, was a skill Sidney had developed in his correspondence from his earliest years.

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Sidney’s charisma, intelligence and learning were evident to all who met him during his travels, as was his readiness for political and military action. As Leicester’s heir and later as Walsingham’s son-in-law, he had privileged access, it seemed, to the innermost circles of Elizabeth’s government. Elizabeth herself described her young courtier to Johann Casimir – a former suitor, and a key figure in the Protestant league – as ‘le plus accompli gentilhomme de l’Europe’, yet was slow to grant political favours either to him or to his brother. The knighthood she bestowed on Philip allowed him to serve as proxy for Casimir when he was admitted in absentia to the Order of the Garter, but only obliquely conceded Sidney’s personal qualities and achievements. The frank advice he offered the queen on her projected marriage with the duc d’Alençon may or may not have been welcome; his long-running quarrel with the Earl of Oxford and his coolness towards the Earl of Ormond certainly were not. Sidney’s closeness to Leicester, as the years passed, became more of a hindrance than an asset; both men, in the queen’s view, were too eager for engagement with Spain. Gifted though he was, Sidney may also have seemed to Elizabeth too moody and impulsive, too prone to fits of anger and frustration, to be entrusted with high office. While these qualities are rarely evident in Sidney’s more considered letters, they are dramatically apparent in one of the briefest and most stinging of his notes, sent to his father’s secretary, Edmond Molyneux, whom he suspected (incorrectly, as it turned out) of intercepting his letters to his father.

Mr Mollineax

Few wordes are beste. My lettres to my Father have come to the eys of some. Neither can I condemne any but yow for it. If it be so yow have plaide the very knave with me; and so I will make yow know if I have good proofe of it. But that for so muche as is past. For that is to come, I assure yow before God that if ever I know yow do so muche as reede any lettre I wryte to my father, without his commaundement, or my consents, I will thruste my dagger into yow. And truste to it, for I speake it in earnest. In the meane time farwell. From Courte this laste of May 1578

By me

Philippe Sidney

Sidney waited disconsolately at court, hoping for signs of royal favour, then retreated to Wilton to study and to write. From time to time he made elaborate gestures of submission to the queen, presenting her with a diamond-studded whip in the new year exchange of gifts in 1581. Lacking any real source of employment or remuneration, he watched his finances dwindle alarmingly, and wrote repeatedly to the queen’s trusted adviser Sir Christopher Hatton to complain of ‘this comber of debtes’ from which he needed urgently to be extricated. His commission to serve under Leicester in the Low Countries, when it finally arrived in 1586, came as an excitement and a relief. Sidney’s letters from these campaigns are numerous, brisk and spirited. Though shocked to find the companies he had been sent to command ‘very sikkly and miserable’ and Elizabeth’s entire enterprise in the Low Countries fatally underfunded, he writes stirringly to his uncle soon after arrival at Bergen-op-Zoom about his military ambitions, vowing to win back Steenbergen from the Spanish: ‘I will vndertake vppon my lyfe either to win it or make the enemy rais his seeg … And it shall be done in the sight of the world which is most honourable and profitable.’

On the day he received his death wound at Zutphen, 22 September 1586, Sidney dispatched a letter to Walsingham in London, requesting ‘favor and help’ for the bearer, one ‘Richard Smythe, hir Maiesties old servant’, now fallen on hard times. Three weeks later, when the bullet wound in his thigh had turned gangrenous, he died in Arnhem with a touching but still unsent letter by his bedside, addressed in Latin to his friend the celebrated physician Johann Weyer.

Mi Weiere veni veni, de vita periclitor et te cùpio – & nec viùùs nec mortùùs ero ingratus plura. non possùm sed obnixe oro vt festines. uale

Arnemi

Tuus Ph. Sidney

Weyer, mine, come, come, I am slipping away from life and I want you. Neither alive nor dead will I be ungrateful. I cannot write more but beg you urgently to hurry. Farewell.

Arnhem.

Yours

Ph. Sidney

The letters collected in these volumes are in the languages Sidney spoke and wrote with fluent ease: Latin, French, Italian and English. There is occasional material in Dutch, and one letter, addressed ‘To master george bucquhannane pedagog to the Kingis Maiestie’, survives in the Scots English into which it was translated, presumably at Holyrood, for the benefit of James VI’s learned tutor (‘gif my esteat did weill suffer it I haif nocht bene without desire to see you, and kiss the hand of the young king, in quhome mony haue layd thair hoipes’ etc). Sidney’s correspondence with Languet, who spoke little English, is entirely in Latin. The two must have conversed in French, but Sidney resisted Languet’s exhortations to learn German, a language he found too ‘harsh’. Even when corresponding with his countrymen, Sidney occasionally wrote in Latin: his letters to and from Robert Dorsett, his brother’s tutor at Christ Church, are couched in the common language of academic instruction. Roger Kuin’s handling of this diverse, scattered and highly allusive correspondence is outstanding. His technical descriptions of the letters are meticulous, his translations lucid, his pursuit of contextual detail often little short of astonishing. If the letters don’t provide a clear window into the heart of Philip Sidney, they at least afford, thanks to Kuin’s exceptional labours, a remarkable glimpse into Sidney’s skills and achievements, and the perilous times in which he lived.