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The Elizabethan sonnet: Philip Sidney

Most people know that Shakespeare wrote sonnets; but he wasn't the only Elizabethan to do so. Some notion of the sonnet's fashionableness may be gathered from the fact that during the sixteenth century, so it has been calculated, there were more than 300,000 sonnets produced in Western Europe. These sonnets, particularly those of an amorous nature, were often gathered into collections or "sequences" and were dubbed with the poetic pseudonyms of their supposed inspirers, and who were, in fact, often saluted by their adorers as so many tenth muses.

Even the most celebrated sonnets were often not published during the lifetime of the poet. For instance, Sir Philip Sidney, (born in 1554) died in 1586, and his poems were only published in 1591. The publication is said to have been surreptitious by Thomas Nash: Daniel, who published his "Sonnets to Delia" in the following year, complained that "a greedy printer had published some of his sonnets along with those of Sir Philip Sidney"; and a corrected and authentic edition of Sidney's sonnets was issued before the close of 1591.

For several years, the gallant, dashing, and well-traveled young Sidney, who was greatly admired on the Continent and at home, waited for an opportunity to serve his Queen in some capacity commensurate with his abilities, but no such opportunity came -- perhaps because his volatile temperament could not safely be employed in the temporizing style of government she required to ensure stability.

Sidney described in his sonnets a romantic passion for Penelope Devereux - the Stella of Astrophel and Stella. Lady Penelope was the sister of the unfortunate Earl of Essex, and some nine years younger than her distinguished admirer. Her father had formed a high opinion of Sir Philip's promise, and on his deathbed expressed a wish for their union.

But her guardians were in favour of a wealthier match, and two or three years after the old Earl's death, she was married at the age of seventeen, much against her own wishes, to an unattractive young nobleman, Lord Rich. This event may have been hastened by Sidney's attitude before the marriage. If his own sonnets are any indication, he was undecided and vacillating in his advances. He was not lacking in self-esteem and his natural impulses were obstructed by the grandiose fancy that love was unworthy of a great thinker like himself.

When the lady was married out of his reach, his love as described in the poems became more ardent, and he courted her favours in a long series of sonnets. Seeing that he very soon after married another lady--a daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham - it might with some reason be inferred that there was in Sidney's as in other sonnets not a little make-believe passion, and that his delight as an ambitious young poet at finding such an amount of literary capital was quite as strong as the pain of the disappointment.

Whereas Shakespeare's sonnets often strike modern readers as contemporary and relevant, other Elizabethan sonnets often strike the modern reader as artificial and contrived. For instance, read the following example from Philip Sidney.:

    Phoebus was judge between Jove, Mars, and Love,
    Of those three gods whose arms the fairest were
    Jove's golden shield did eagles sable bear,
    Whose talons held young Ganymede above:
    But in vert field Mars bore a golden spear,
    Which through a bleeding heart his point did shove.
    Each had his crest; Mars carried Venus' glove,
    Jove on his helm the thunder-bolt did rear.
    Cupid then smiles: see! on his crest there lies
    Stella's fair hair; her face he makes his shield,
    Whose roses gules are borne in silver field.
    Phoebus drew wide the curtains of the skies
    To blaze these last, and sware devoutly then
    The first thus match'd, were scantly gentlemen.

Admirers of Sidney find this "ingenious and delicately wrought" and "enlivened by a sportive breath of tender humor:"

Many modern readers are more likely to find it tedious and artificial. Sidney often seems to be as much in love with himself and his own poems, as he is with Stella.

A fondness for the full range of Elizabethan sonnets is likely to remain in modern times an esoteric and rarely acquired taste.

See Stephen Denning, Sonnets 2000 (iUniverse, October 2000)

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