Etext A Defence of Poesie and Poems, by Sidney

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A Defence of Poesie and Poems

by Philip Sidney

November, 1999 [Etext #1962]

Project Gutenberg Etext A Defence of Poesie and Poems, by Sidney
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Introduction by Henry Morley
A Defence of Poesie


Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst, in Kent, on the 29th of
November, 1554. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, had married Mary,
eldest daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and Philip
was the eldest of their family of three sons and four daughters.
Edmund Spenser and Walter Raleigh were of like age with Philip
Sidney, differing only by about a year, and when Elizabeth became
queen, on the 17th of November, 1558, they were children of four or
five years old.

In the year 1560 Sir Henry Sidney was made Lord President of Wales,
representing the Queen in Wales and the four adjacent western
counties, as a Lord Deputy represented her in Ireland. The official
residence of the Lord President was at Ludlow Castle, to which
Philip Sidney went with his family when a child of six. In the same
year his father was installed as a Knight of the Garter. When in
his tenth year Philip Sidney was sent from Ludlow to Shrewsbury
Grammar School, where he studied for three or four years, and had
among his schoolfellows Fulke Greville, afterwards Lord Brooke, who
remained until the end of Sidneys life one of his closest friends.
When he himself was dying he directed that he should be described
upon his tomb as Fulke Greville, servant to Queen Elizabeth,
counsellor to King James, and friend to Sir Philip Sidney. Even
Dr. Thomas Thornton, Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, under whom
Sidney was placed when he was entered to Christ Church in his
fourteenth year, at Midsummer, in 1568, had it afterwards recorded
on his tomb that he was the tutor of Sir Philip Sidney.

Sidney was in his eighteenth year in May, 1572, when he left the
University to continue his training for the service of the state, by
travel on the Continent. Licensed to travel with horses for himself
and three servants, Philip Sidney left London in the train of the
Earl of Lincoln, who was going out as ambassador to Charles IX., in
Paris. He was in Paris on the 24th of August in that year, which
was the day of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. He was sheltered
from the dangers of that day in the house of the English Ambassador,
Sir Francis Walsingham, whose daughter Fanny Sidney married twelve
years afterwards.

From Paris Sidney travelled on by way of Heidelberg to Frankfort,
where he lodged at a printers, and found a warm friend in Hubert
Languet, whose letters to him have been published. Sidney was
eighteen and Languet fifty-five, a French Huguenot, learned and
zealous for the Protestant cause, who had been Professor of Civil
Law in Padua, and who was acting as secret minister for the Elector
of Saxony when he first knew Sidney, and saw in him a future
statesman whose character and genius would give him weight in the
counsels of England, and make him a main hope of the Protestant
cause in Europe. Sidney travelled on with Hubert Languet from
Frankfort to Vienna, visited Hungary, then passed to Italy, making
for eight weeks Venice his head-quarters, and then giving six weeks
to Padua. He returned through Germany to England, and was in
attendance it the Court of Queen Elizabeth in July, 1575. Next
month his father was sent to Ireland as Lord Deputy, and Sidney
lived in London with his mother.

At this time the opposition of the Mayor and Corporation of the City
of London to the acting of plays by servants of Sidneys uncle, the
Earl of Leicester, who had obtained a patent for them, obliged the
actors to cease from hiring rooms or inn yards in the City, and
build themselves a house of their own a little way outside one of
the City gates, and wholly outside the Lord Mayors jurisdiction.
Thus the first theatre came to be built in England in the year 1576.
Shakespeare was then but twelve years old, and it was ten years
later that he came to London.

In February, 1577, Philip Sidney, not yet twenty-three years old,
was sent on a formal embassy of congratulation to Rudolph II. upon
his becoming Emperor of Germany, but under the duties of the formal
embassy was the charge of watching for opportunities of helping
forward a Protestant League among the princes of Germany. On his
way home through the Netherlands he was to convey Queen Elizabeths
congratulations to William of Orange on the birth of his first
child, and what impression he made upon that leader of men is shown
by a message William sent afterwards through Fulke Greville to Queen
Elizabeth. He said that if he could judge, her Majesty had one of
the ripest and greatest counsellors of State in Philip Sidney that
then lived in Europe; to the trial of which he was pleased to leave
his own credit engaged until her Majesty was pleased to employ this
gentleman, either amongst her friends or enemies.

Sidney returned from his embassy in June, 1577. At the time of his
departure, in the preceding February, his sister Mary, then twenty
years old, had become the third wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of
Pembroke, and her new home as Countess of Pembroke was in the great
house at Wilton, about three miles from Salisbury. She had a
measure of her brothers genius, and was of like noble strain.
Spenser described her as

The gentlest shepherdess that lives this day,
And most resembling, both in shape and spright,
Her brother dear.

Ben Jonson, long after her brother had passed from earth, wrote upon
her death the well-known epitaph:-

Underneath this sable herse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidneys sister, Pembrokes mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another,
Learnd, and fair, and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

Sidneys sister became Pembrokes mother in 1580, while her brother
Philip was staying with her at Wilton. He had early in the year
written a long argument to the Queen against the project of her
marriage with the Duke of Anjou, which she then found it politic to
seem to favour. She liked Sidney well, but resented, or appeared to
resent, his intrusion of advice; he also was discontented with what
seemed to be her policy, and he withdrew from Court for a time.
That time of seclusion, after the end of March, 1580, he spent with
his sister at Wilton. They versified psalms together; and he began
to write for her amusement when she had her baby first upon her
hands, his romance of Arcadia. It was never finished. Much was
written at Wilton in the summer of 1580, the rest in 1581, written,
as he said in a letter to her, only for you, only to you . . . for
severer eyes it is not, being but a trifle, triflingly handled.
Your dear self can best witness the manner, being done in loose
sheets of paper, most of it in your presence, the rest by sheets
sent unto you as fast as they were done. He never meant that it
should be published; indeed, when dying he asked that it should be
destroyed; but it belonged to a sister who prized the lightest word
of his, and after his death it was published in 1590 as The
Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia.

The book reprinted in this volume was written in 1581, while sheets
of the Arcadia were still being sent to Wilton. But it differs
wholly in style from the Arcadia. Sidneys Arcadia has literary
interest as the first important example of the union of pastoral
with heroic romance, out of which came presently, in France, a
distinct school of fiction. But the genius of its author was at
play, it followed designedly the fashions of the hour in verse and
prose, which tended to extravagance of ingenuity. The Defence of
Poesy has higher interest as the first important piece of literary
criticism in our literature. Here Sidney was in earnest. His style
is wholly free from the euphuistic extravagance in which readers of
his time delighted: it is clear, direct, and manly; not the less,
but the more, thoughtful and refined for its unaffected simplicity.
As criticism it is of the true sort; not captious or formal, still
less engaged, as nearly all bad criticism is, more or less, with
indirect suggestion of the critic himself as the one owl in a world
of mice. Philip Sidneys care is towards the end of good
literature. He looks for highest aims, and finds them in true work,
and hears Gods angel in the poets song.

The writing of this piece was probably suggested to him by the fact
that an earnest young student, Stephen Gosson, who came from his
university about the time when the first theatres were built, and
wrote plays, was turned by the bias of his mind into agreement with
the Puritan attacks made by the pulpit on the stage (arising chiefly
from the fact that plays were then acted on Sundays), and in 1579
transferred his pen from service of the players to attack on them,
in a piece which he called The School of Abuse, containing a
Pleasant Invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, and such
like Caterpillars of a Commonwealth; setting up the Flag of Defiance
to their mischievous exercise, and overthrowing their Bulwarks, by
Profane Writers, Natural Reason, and Common Experience: a Discourse
as pleasant for Gentlemen that favour Learning as profitable for all
that will follow Virtue. This Discourse Gosson dedicated To the
right noble Gentleman, Master Philip Sidney, Esquire. Sidney
himself wrote verse, he was companion with the poets, and counted
Edmund Spenser among his friends. Gossons pamphlet was only one
expression of the narrow form of Puritan opinion that had been
misled into attacks on poetry and music as feeders of idle appetite
that withdrew men from the life of duty. To show the fallacy in
such opinion, Philip Sidney wrote in 1581 this piece, which was
first printed in 1595, nine years after his death, as a separate
publication, entitled An Apologie for Poetrie. Three years
afterwards it was added, with other pieces, to the third edition of
his Arcadia, and then entitled The Defence of Poesie. In
sixteen subsequent editions it continued to appear as The Defence
of Poesie. The same title was used in the separate editions of
1752 and 1810. Professor Edward Arber re-issued in 1869 the text of
the first edition of 1595, and restored the original title, which
probably was that given to the piece by its author. One name is as
good as the other, but as the word apology has somewhat changed
its sense in current English, it may be well to go on calling the
work The Defence of Poesie.

In 1583 Sidney was knighted, and soon afterwards in the same year he
married Frances, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. Sonnets
written by him according to old fashion, and addressed to a lady in
accordance with a form of courtesy that in the same old fashion had
always been held to exclude personal suit--personal suit was
private, and not public--have led to grave misapprehension among
some critics. They supposed that he desired marriage with Penelope
Devereux, who was forced by her family in 1580--then eighteen years
old--into a hateful marriage with Lord Rich. It may be enough to
say that