Sir Philip Sidney (1554 - 1586)

K. Curse to myself my prayer is, the morning; e
My fire is more than can be made with forests; c
My state is more base than are the basest valleys; b
I wish no evenings more to see, each evening; f
Shamed, I hate myself in sight of mountains, a
And stop mine ears lest I grow mad with music. d

S. For she, whose parts maintained a perfect music, d
Whose beauties shined more than the blushing morning, e
Who much did pass in state the stately mountains, a
In straightness passed the cedars of the forests, c
Hath cast me, wretch, into eternal evening, f
By taking her two suns from these dark valleys. b

K. For she, with whom compared the Alps are valleys, b
She, whose least word brings from the spheres their music, d
At whose approach the sun rase in the evening, f
Who, where she went, bare in her forehead morning, e
Is gone, is gone from these our spoiled forests, c
Turning to deserts our best pastured mountains. a

S. These mountains witness shall, so shall these valleys, ab
K. These forests eke, made wretched by our music, cd
Our morning hymn this is, and song at evening. ef

The Defence of Poesy (extracts)

Sidney starts by referring to the ancient roles of the poet:

Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet. . . so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. . . .

And may not I presume a little further, to show the reasonableness of this word vates, and say that the holy David's Psalms are a divine poem? If I do, I shall not do it without the testimony of great learned men, both ancient and modern. . . . principally, his handling his prophecy, which is merely poetical: for what else is the awaking his musical instruments, the often and free changing of persons, his notable prosopopoeias (personifications), when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in his majesty, his telling of the beasts' joyfulness and hills leaping, but a heavenly poesy, wherein almost (indeed) he showeth himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith. But truly now having named him, I fear me I seem to profane that holy name, applying it to poetry, which is among us thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation. But they that with quiet judgements will look a little deeper into it, shall find the end and working of it such as, being rightly applied, deserveth not to be scourged out of the Church of God.

But now let us see how the Greeks named it, and how they deemed of it. The Greeks called him a "poet," which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It cometh of this word poiein, which is, to make: wherin, I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him a "maker": which name, how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences than by any partial allegation.
There is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principle object, without which they (the arts) could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth.

(This he illustrates by referring to astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, music, etc.). . .

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigiods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goes hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

But let those things alone, and go to man--for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is employed--and know whether she have brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes, so constant a friend as Pylades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a prince as Xenophon's Cyrus, so excellent a man in every way as Virgil's Aeneas. Neither let this be jestingly conceived, because the works of the one be essential, the other in imitation or fiction, for any understanding knoweth the skill of each artificer standeth in that idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he had imagined them. Which delivering forth is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.

This last paragraph contains the germ of one of Sidney's main ideas: that the lives created (or re-created) by the literary author make such a deep impression on the readers that they find themselves impelled to try to live like the characters they read about. This teaching is done by example, not by precept, and here Sidney is confronted with a problem. How is it that people can create imaginary characters far more virtuous than the ordinary run of mortals in real life?

Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance (compare) the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of nature; but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man in His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second (physical) nature: which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry, when with the force of a divine breath (inspiration) he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings--with no small arguments to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam, since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it. But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted. This much (I hope) will be given me, that the Greeks with some probability of reason gave him the name above all names of learning. (. . .)

Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis--that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture--with this end, to teach and delight.

Sidney goes on to propose various categories of poet, the religious first, with David's Psalms as the highest example; then philosophical and historical poems where the subject-matter is not in itself poetical although the prosody is verse. The third groups are those whom he terms "right poets":

. . . they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be; but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be. These be they that, as the first and most noble sort (the religious poets) may justly be termed vates, so these are waited on in the excellentest languages and best understandings with the fore-described name of poets (makers). For these indeed do merely (only) make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach; and delight, to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would flee as from a stranger; and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved--which being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed, yet want there not idle tongues to bark at them.

These be subdivided into sundry more special denominations. The most notable be the heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, iambic, elegaic, pastoral (. . . .) But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by; although indeed the senate of poets hath chosen verse as their fittest raiment, meaning, as in matter they passed all in all, so in manner to go beyond them: not speaking, table- talk fashion or like men in a dream, words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peising (weighing) each syllable of each word by just proportion according to the dignity of the subject.

The other very significant section of the Defence comes when Sidney later turns to the poor state of poetry in England:

But since I have run so long a career in this matter, methinks, before I give my pen a full stop, it shall be but a little more lost time to inquire why England, the mother of excellent minds, should be grown so hard a stepmother to poets, who certainly in wit ought to pass all other, since all only proceedeth from their wit, being indeed makers of themselves, not takers of others.

(. . .)

But I that, before ever I durst aspire unto the dignity, am admitted into the company of the paper-blurrers, do find the very true cause of our wanting (lacking) estimation is want of desert- -taking upon us to be poets in despite of Pallas (Wisdom).

Now, wherein we want desert were a thankworthy labour to express; but if I knew, I should have mended (corrected) myself. But I, as I never desired the title, so have I neglected the means to come by it. Only, overmastered by some thoughts, I yielded an inky tribute unto them. Marry, they that delight in poesy itself should seek to know what they do, and how they do it; and especially look themselves in an unflattering glass of reason, if they be inclinable unto it. For poesy must not be drawn by the ears; it must be gently led, or rather it must lead- -which was partly the cause that made the ancient-learned affirm it was a divine gift, and no human skill: since all other knowledges lie ready for any that hath strength of wit. A poet no industry can make, if his own genius be not carried into it; and therefore it is an old proverb, orator fit, poeta nascitur (an orator is made, a poet is born).

(. . .)

Chaucer , undoubtedly, did excellently in his Troilus and Criseyde; of whom, truly, I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age go so stumblingly after him. Yet had he great wants, fit to be forgiven in so reverent an antiquity. I account the Mirror of Magistrates meetly furnished of beautiful parts, and in the Earl of Surrey's lyrics many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble mind. The Shepherd's Calendar hath much poesy in his eclogues, indeed worthy the reading, if I be not deceived. (That same framing of his style to an old rustic language I dare not allow, since neither Theocritus in Greek, Virgil in Latin, nor Sannazzaro in Italian did affect it.) Besides these I do not remember to have seen but few (to speak boldly) printed that have poetical sinews in them; for proof whereof, let but most of the verses be put in prose, and then ask the meaning, and it will be found that one verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first what should be at the last; which becomes a confused mass of words, with a tingling sound of rhyme, barely accompanied with reason.

This is followed by a surprisingly long discussion of English drama, of which Sidney had no very high opinion. He concludes:

Other sort of poetry almost have we none, but that lyrical kind of songs and sonnets: which, Lord, if He gave us so good minds, how well it might be employed, and with how heavenly fruit, both private and public, in singing the praises of the immortal beauty: the immortal goodness of that God who giveth us hands to write and wits to conceive; of which we might well want words, but never matter; of which we could turn our eyes to nothing, but we should ever have new-budding occasions. But truly many of such writings as come under the banner of unresistible love, if I were a mistress, would never persuade me they were in love: so coldly they apply fiery speeches, as men that had rather read lovers' writings--and so caught up certain swelling phrases which hang together like a man that once told my father that the wind was at northwest and by south, because he would be sure to name winds enough--than that in truth they feel those passions, which easily (as I think) may be bewrayed by that same forcibleness or energia (as the Greeks call it) of the writer.1
The final paragraph of the work sums up its main arguments and at the same time highlights in a particularly witty manner the polemic that it is designed to sustain:

So that since the ever-praiseworthy Poesy is full of virtue- breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honour poesy, and to be honoured by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverent title of a rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecians' divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were the first bringers-in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosophers' precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly Deity, by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and quid non? (all the rest); to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landino, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury; lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.

Thus doing, your name shall flourish in the printers' shops; thus doing, you shall be of kin to many a poetical preface; thus doing, you shall be most fair, most rich, most wise, most all, you shall dwell upon superlatives; thus doing, though you be libertino patre natus (born of a freed slave father), you shall suddenly grow Herculea proles (descendant of Hercules), Si quid mea carmina possunt (if my songs have any power); thus doing your soul shall be placed with Dante's Beatrice, or Virgil's Anchises.

But if (fie of such a but) you be born so near the dull- making (deafening) cataract of Nilus that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a mome (fool) as to be a Momus (critic) of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass's ears of Midas, not to be driven by a poet's verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; yet thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

Astrophel and Stella (extracts)

Sonnet 1.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the Dear She might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn'd brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame Study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my trewand pen, beating myself for spite--
'Fool,' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'

Sonnet 2.

Not at first sight, nor with a dribbed (random) shot
Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed,
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw and liked, I liked, but loved not,
I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed;
At length to Love's decrees I, forc'd, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe, that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.

Sonnet 5

It is most true that eyes are formed to serve
The inward light, and that the heavenly part
Ought to be king, from whose rules who do swerve,
Rebels to nature, strive for their own smart.
It is most true, what we call Cupid's dart
An image is, which for ourselves we carve
And, fools, adore in temple of our heart,
Till that good god make church and churchman starve.
True, that true beauty virtue is indeed,
Wherof this beauty can be but a shade,
Which elements with mortal mixture breed;
True, that on earth we are but pilgrims made
And should in soul up to our country move;
True, and yet true that I must Stella love.

Sonnet 15

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows,
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near therabout, into your poesy wring;
You that do dictionary's method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch's long-deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing;
You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length stolen goods do come to light;
But if (both for your love and skill) your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.

Sonnet 37

My mouth doth water, and my breast doth swell,
My tongue doth itch, my thoughts in labour be;
Listen then, lordings, with good ear to me,
For of my life I must a riddle tell.
Towards Aurora's court, a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man's eye can see,
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excell:
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown,
Rich in the riches of a royal heart,
Rich in those gifts which give the eternal crown;
Who though most rich in these and every part,
Which make the patents of true worldly bliss,
Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is.

Sonnet 45

Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Nor though thereof the cause herself she know;
Yet hearing late a fable which did show
Of lovers never known, a grievous case,
Pity thereof gate in her breast such place
That, from that sea derived, tears' spring did flow.
Alas, if fancy, drawn by imagined things,
Though false, yet with free scope more grace doth breed
Than servant's wrack, where new doubts honour brings,
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lovers' ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of me.

Sonnet 47

What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
Or want I sense to feel my misery?
Or sprite, disdain of such disdain to have?
Who for long faith, though daily help I crave,
May get no alms but scorn of beggary.
Virtue, awake! Beauty but beauty is.
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! Soft! But here she comes! Go to:
'Unkind, I love you not!' O me! That eye
Doth make my heart give to my tongue the lie.

Sonnet 69

O joy, too high for my low style to show!
O bliss, fit for a nobler state than me!
Envy, put out thine eyes, lest thou do see
What oceans of delight in me do flow.
My friend, that oft saw through all masks my woe,
Come, come, and let me pour myself on thee:
Gone is the winter of my misery,
My spring appears; O see what here doth grow.
For Stella hath, with words where faith doth shine,
Of her high heart given me the monarchy;
I, I, O I may say that she is mine!
And though she give but thus conditionally
This realm of bliss while virtuous course I take,
No kings be crowned but they some covenants make.

Sonnet 71

Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How Virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines, which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices' overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of Reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be Perfection's heir
Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair.
So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good;
'But ah!' Desire still cries, 'give me some food!'

Sonnet 72

Desire, though thou my old companion art
And oft so clings to my pure love, that I
One from the other scarcely can descry,
While each doth blow the fire of my heart,
Now from thy fellowship I needs must part.
Venus is taught with Dian's wings to fly;
I must no more in thy sweet passions lie;
Virtue's gold now must head my Cupid's dart.
Service and honour, wonder with delight,
Fear to offend, will worthy to appear,
Care shining in my eyes, faith in my sprite;
These things are left me by my only dear;
But thou, Desire, because thou wouldst have all,
Now banished art: but yet, alas, how shall?

Second Song

Have I caught my heav'nly jewel
Teaching sleep most fair to be?
Now will I teach her that she,
When she wakes, is too too cruel.

Since sweet sleep her eyes hath charmed,
The two only darts of Love:
Now will I with that boy prove
Some play, while he is disarmed.

Her tongue waking still refuseth,
Giving frankly niggard No:
Now will I attempt to know,
What No her tongue sleeping useth.

See the hand which waking guardeth,
Sleeping, grants a free resort:
Now will I invade the fort;
Cowards Love with loss rewardeth.

But o fool, think of the danger,
Of her just and high disdain:
Now will I alas refrain,
Love fears nothing else but anger.

Yet those lips so sweetly swelling,
Do invite a stealing kiss:
Now will I but venture this,
Who will read must first learn spelling.

Oh sweet kiss, but ah she is waking,
Lowring beauty chastens me:
Now will I away hence flee:
Fool, more fool, for no more taking.

Sonnet 74

I never drank of Aganippe well,
Nor ever did in shade of Tempe sit;
And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit.
Some do I hear of Poets' fury tell,
But God wot, wot not what they mean by it;
And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,
I am no pick-purse of another's wit.
How falls it then that with so smooth an ease
My thoughts I speak, and what I speak doth flow
In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?
Guess we the cause: 'What, is it thus?' Fie no.
'Or so?' Much less. 'How then?' Sure thus it is:
My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella's kiss.

Sonnet 91

Stella, while now by honour's cruel might
I am from you, light of my life, mis-led,
And that fair you, my Sun, thus overspread
With absence' veil, I live in Sorrow's night.
If this dark place yet shew, like candle light,
Some beauty's piece, as amber-coloured head,
Milk hands, rose cheeks, or lips more sweet, more red,
Or seeing jets, black, but in blackness bright,
They please, I do confess, they please mine eyes;
But why? Because of you they models be;
Models such be wood-globes of glistering skies.
Dear, therefore be not jealous over me,
If you hear that they seem my heart to move,
Not them, O no, but you in them I love.

Sonnet 108

When Sorrow (using mine own fire's might)
Melts down his lead into my boiling breast,
Through that dark furnace to my heart oppressed
There shines a joy from thee, my only light;
But soon as thought of thee breeds my delight,
And my young soul flutters to thee, his nest,
Most rude Despair, my daily unbidden guest,
Clips straight my wings, straight wraps me in his night,
And makes me then bow down my head, and say,
'Ah, what doth Phoebus' gold that wretch avail,
Whom iron doors do keep from use of day?'
So strangely (alas) thy works in me prevail
That in my woes for thee thou art my joy,
And in my joys for thee my only annoy.

From Certain sonnets

Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy's scum, and dregs of scattered thought,
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care,
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought--

Desire, desire! I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware;
Too long, too long asleep thou hast me brought,
Who should my mind to higher things prepare.

But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought;
In vain thou madst me to vain things aspire;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire;

For Virtue hath this better lesson taught--
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.

From the New Arcadia

Characteristic of the tone and material of the new Arcadia, is the episode from the tenth chapter of the Second Book, the story of the Paphlagonian king, which gave Shakespeare much of the material for his revision of the story of King Lear:

It was in the kingdom of Galacia, the season being (as in the depth of winter) very cold, and as then suddenly grown to so extreme and foul a storm, that never any winter (I think) brought forth a fouler child, so that the Princes were even compelled by the hail that the pride of the wind blew into their faces, to seek some shrouding place within a certain hollow rock offering it unto them, they made it their shield against the tempest's fury. And so staying there, till the violence thereof was passed, they heard the speech of a couple, who not perceiving them (being hid within that rude canopy) held a strange and pitiful disputation which made them step out, yet in such sort, as they might see unseen. There they perceived an aged man and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorly arrayed, extremely weather-beaten; the old man blind, the young man leading him; and yet through all those miseries, in both these seemed to appear a kind of nobleness not suitable to that affliction. But the first words they heard were these of the old man:

"Well Leonatus (said he), since I cannot persuade thee to lead me to that which should end my grief and thy trouble, let me now entreat thee to leave me: fear not, my misery cannot be greater than it is, and nothing doth become me but misery; fear not the danger of my blind steps, I cannot fall worse than I am. And do not, I pray thee, do not obstinately continue to infect thee with my wretchedness. But fly, fly from this region, only worthy of me."
"Dear father (answered he), do not take away from me the only remnant of my happiness; while I have power to do you some service, I am not wholly miserable."

(The Princes ask who they are, the son replies)

"This old man whom I lead was lately rightful Prince of this country of Paphlagonia, by the hard-hearted ungratefulness of a son of his, deprived not only of his kingdom (wherof no foreign forces were ever able to spoil him) but of his sight, the riches which Nature grants to the poorest creatures. Wherby, and by other his unnatural dealings, he hath been driven to such grief as even now he would have had me to have led him to the top of this rock, thence to cast himself headlong to death: and so would have made me (who received my life of him) to be the worker of his destruction. . . ."

(The father then continues the story)

". . . I was carried by a bastard son of mine (if at least I be bound to believe the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, this son undeserving destruction."

(. . .)

". . . drunk in my affection to that unlawful and unnatural son of mine I suffered myself so to be governed by him that all favours and punishments passed by him, all offices, and places of importance, distributed to his favourites; so that ere I was aware, I had left myself nothing but the name of a King: which he shortly weary of too, with many indignities threw me out of my seat, and put out my eyes; and then (proud in his tyranny) let me go, neither imprisoning nor killing me, but rather delighting to make me feel my misery."