The Lesser Life
Alan Stewart, Philip Sidney: A Double Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2001)
Imagine a biography of Anthony Trollope that concentrated on his political aspirations or one of Benjamin Disraeli that devoted 90 percent of its space to his novels, and you will have an analog to Alan Stewart’s life of Sir Philip Sidney, the most talented and influential of the Elizabethan courtier-poets. Sidney died young, killed in cavalry raid that went awry during England’s ill-fated intervention in the Netherlands, and was thereafter apotheosized as a national hero and paragon of chivalry. His funeral was a gigantic public occasion. Philip Sidney: A Double Life opens with a description of the appropriately gigantic mural, 38 feet long, that was commissioned to record and preserve every detail.
The spirit of debunking has long since overtaken Sir Philip’s extra-poetic reputation. The conventional view today is that he was a brilliant litterateur but otherwise a nonentity, one of the well-born but unimpressive young men who hung about the fringes of Elizabeth’s court, pestered the Queen for employment, invested in get-rich-quick schemes and generally led idle, reckless lives. Dr. Stewart disagrees. His book is a brief for his subject’s stature as a “prime mover” in European politics who was unjustly relegated to a secondary position in his own country because of Elizabeth’s unreasonable suspicion and jealousy. The “double life” of the title does not refer, as one might think, to Sidney’s dual vocations as a poet and a courtier but to the contrast between his political obscurity in England and his (supposedly) leading role on the continent.
The case for Sidney’s political importance is founded on his numerous French, German and Italian acquaintances, most of whom he met during a prolonged tour of the continent that took him from Paris (where he witnessed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre) to Poland. Many of these men were politically active. Some of them corresponded with Sidney, dedicated books to him and fulsomely praised his abilities. The most regular of these correspondents was Hubert Languet, a French Huguenot in the service of the Duke of Saxony and other German Protestant princes. Mr. Stewart quotes his letters at length. If one takes them at face value, the beleaguered Protestants of Europe looked to Philip Sidney as one of their foremost champions.
How seriously, though, can one take Renaissance flattery? So far as one can discern, Sidney was the passive recipient of others’ praise. He did not plot Protestant strategy, propagandize for “the Religion”, intrigue on its behalf or even diligently answer his mail. Languet and others cultivated him not because he was an active partisan of their cause but in the hope that he would use his family connections in England to work in their behalf. Unluckily for them, Sidney had neither the influence nor, it seems, the desire to render much assistance.
Thus we come to Mr. Stewart’s second overriding theme: the Elizabethan government’s failure to give so well-thought-of a subject his due share of offices and honors. In this account, the Queen is almost obsessed with humiliating Sidney by assigning him tasks that are either trivial or else repellent to his fundamental convictions. Certainly it is significant that a man so well-connected - his father served as viceroy of Wales and Ireland; Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester, was his uncle; he was heir presumptive to two earldoms - received no appointments beyond minor embassies and, at the end of his life, a subordinate military command. But royal spite is not a very plausible explanation. Elizabeth was an acute judge of talent. Perhaps she had weighed Sir Henry Sidney’s son and found him wanting, just as she spurned Lord Burghley’s flashy son-in-law the Earl of Oxford and was wary of giving her dear friend Leicester responsibility beyond his limited capacity.
Whether the Queen was right or wrong in her evaluation, the fact is that Sidney was allowed no noteworthy political career at home and did not forge one for himself abroad. In the maelstrom of Reformation Europe, he was a bystander. Dr. Stewart’s narrative is made up largely of great events in which his hero did not quite participate. Many of those events were interesting and important, and looking at them from the fringes is not a useless exercise. The unusual perspective is not, however, sufficient to repay the author’s commendably extensive research or justify, save to the closest student of 16th Century international relations, a volume of 400 pages.
What does justify writing at length about Sidney is his contribution to English literature. Arcadia, The Defence of Poesie and Astrophil and Stella all remain in print to this day and attract a continuing readership. It would not be overbold to assert that, after Shakespeare and Spenser, Sidney is the finest writer of our language’s greatest era. Unfortunately, those achievements are of almost no interest to Dr. Stewart. He deals with when and where the works were written and speculates about covert political implications, but has nothing to say about their literary qualities. He is also silent about Sidney’s legacy to other writers. Questions about the nature of the “Sidney circle” and the extent of its influence are neither asked nor answered.
Another major lacuna is Sidney’s private life. It doesn’t matter that Dr. Stewart has little to say about Penelope Rich and no opinion on how much real-life intimacy existed between “Stella” and “Astrophil”. On the other hand, it would be illuminating to have more insight into Sidney’s personality, his relationships with other figures at court and especially his religious convictions. Facts about these matters are strewn here and there through the book, but they are often contradictory. Sidney’s closest associations were with firm Calvinists, yet he also befriended Edmund Campion in Vienna and was listed as a Catholic sympathizer by the usually well-informed Spanish ambassador to London. The evidence may in fact be irreconcilable, but the author seems uninterested in making the attempt.
Dr. Stewart clearly gives politics a far higher priority than poetics. That is his right, but what, one wonders, moved him to undertake the biography of a man whose most interesting achievements were literary? And why did he fancy that anyone who wanted to read the life of Sir Philip Sidney would want to read this life? No one can cavil at the scholarship and labor that have gone into this work; they have, alas, been sadly misdirected.
Letter of Comment: W. Ron Hess (10/7/03)