Philip Sidney, 1554-1586

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Biographical note

Poet and romancist, son of Sir Henry Sidney, Deputy of Ireland, and Pres. of Wales, born at the family seat of Penshurst, and educated at Shrewsbury School and Oxford. He was at the French Court on the fateful August 24, 1572 — the massacre of St. Bartholomew — but left Paris soon thereafter and went to Germany and Italy. In 1576 he was with his father in Ireland, and the next year went on missions to the Elector Palatine and the Emperor Rudolf II. When his father’s Irish policy was called in question, he wrote an able defence of it. He became the friend of Spenser, who dedicated to him his Shepherd’s Calendar. In 1580 he lost the favour of the Queen by remonstrating against her proposed marriage with the Duke of Anjou. His own marriage with a daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham took place in 1583. In 1585 he was engaged in the war in the Low Countries, and met his death at Zutphen from a wound in the thigh. His death was commemorated by Spenser in his Astrophel. Sidney has always been considered as the type of English chivalry; and his extraordinary contemporary reputation rested on his personal qualities of nobility and generosity.

His writings consist of his famous pastoral romance of Arcadia, his sonnets Astrophel and Stella, and his Apologie for Poetrie, afterwards called Defence of Poesie. The Arcadia was originally written for the amusement of his sister, afterwards Countess of Pembroke, the “Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother,” of Ben Jonson. Though its interest now is chiefly historical, it enjoyed an extraordinary popularity for a century after its appearance, and had a marked influence on the immediately succeeding literature. It was written in 1580–81 but not published until 1590, and is a medley of poetical prose, full of conceits, with occasional verse interspersed. His Defence of Poesie, written in reply to Gosson, is in simple and vigorous English. Sidney also made a translation of the Psalms.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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