Sir Philip Sidney, Author of the Finest Love Poems in English Before Shakespeare

Sir Philip Sidney was born at Penhurst, Kent on 30 November 1554. He was the first child of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Mary, née Dudley. Present at the birth were his royal Spanish godfather and his maternal grandmother, whose husband, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and son Guildford had been beheaded in 1553 following the failure of the Northumberland plan to place Guildford’s wife, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. His father was often from home for Queen Elizabeth had appointed Sir Henry lord president of the Marches of Wales, a post that required him to spend months at a time away from home.

“The dominance of women in the poet’s early life was doubtless formative. Sidney’s skill in portraying female characters, from the bewitching, multifarious Stella of Astrophil and Stella (1591) to Philoclea and Pamela, the bold, beautiful, and articulate princesses of the Old Arcadia (written circa 1581) and the New Arcadia (1590; written circa 1583-1584) is, as C. S. Lewis notes in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954), without equal before William Shakespeare. The two versions of the Arcadia, Sidney’s most ambitious works, were written under the guiding spirit and often in the presence of Mary Sidney Herbert, his “dear Lady and sister, the Countess of Pembroke,” herself a great patron of writers, to whom the two versions of the Arcadia are dedicated. Mary went on to serve as Sidney’s literary executor after his death.” (Poetry Foundation)

Young Philip began his education at the Shrewsbury School, where he proved an apt and eager student and forged a lifelong friendship with Fulke Greville (later Baron Brooke), who would write a laudatory epitaph and biography of his bosom buddy. At the age of 13, Sidney transferred to the University of Oxford’s Christ Church College. Sir Philip attended Oxford and from 1572-1577 was successively in the suite of the Earl of Lincoln, Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Charles IX, at Heidelburg, Frankfort, in Vienna, in Italy, Prague, Dresdaen, in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, and on an embassy to Germany.  Sidney was the grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and heir presumptive to the Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Warwick. Sidney spent little time in the Elizabethan court until his appointment as governor of Flushing in 1585.

“From his youth, Sidney was respected for his high-minded intelligence, and frequently provided diplomatic service to Queen Elizabeth I as a Protestant political liaison. His opposition to her French marriage earned her displeasure, however, and he later left court and began writing his poetical works. In 1586, Sidney accompanied his uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to the Lowlands to defend the Protestants and was wounded in battle, dying a few weeks later, on October 17. Considered a national hero, Sidney was given a lavish funeral. When his poetry was subsequently published, he became lauded as one of the great Elizabethan writers.” (

In 1579, a heated fracas known as the “tennis-court quarrel” between Sidney and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was ostensibly about rank and the rights of play, but beneath the facade were tensions between factions for and against the queen’s marriage. (The two had also been rivals for the hand of Anne Cecil—William Cecil, Baron Burghley’s daughter—and Oxford had married her.)

“Viewed in his own age as the best hope for the establishment of a Protestant League in Europe, he was nevertheless a godson of Philip II of Spain, spent nearly a year in Italy, and sought out the company of such eminent Catholics as the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion. Widely regarded, in the words of his late editor William A. Ringler, Jr., as ‘the model of perfect courtesy,’ Sidney was in fact hot-tempered and could be surprisingly impetuous. Considered the epitome of the English gentleman-soldier, he saw little military action before a wound in the left thigh, received 23 September 1586 during an ill-conceived and insignificant skirmish in the Netherlands outside Zutphen, led to his death on 17 October, at Arnhem. Even his literary career bears the stamp of paradox: Sidney did not think of himself as primarily a writer, and surprisingly little of his life was devoted to writing.” (Poetry Foundation)

Songs of Arcadia The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, also known simply as the Arcadia, is a long prose work by Sidney written towards the end of the 16th century. Having finished one version of his text, Sidney later significantly expanded and revised his work. Scholars today often refer to these two major versions as the Old Arcadia and theNew Arcadia. The Arcadia is Sidney’s most ambitious literary work by far, and as significant in its own way as his sonnets.The poet begs to be delivered from women who treat lovers scornfully. The poet cries, “Love is dead./ His death-bed, peacock’s folly/ His winding sheet is shame.” Finally, the poet decides that his song is not true after all. Love is merely sleeping. “Therefore from so vile fancy,/ To call such wit a frenzy/ Who love can temper thus,/ Good Lord, deliver us.” 

Sidney’s manuscripts of the Old Arcadia were not published until the 20th century. The New Arcadia, however, was published in two different editions during the 16th century, and enjoyed great popularity for more than a hundred years afterwards. William Shakespeare borrowed from it for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear; traces of the work’s influence may also be found in Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale. Other dramatizations also occurred: Samuel Daniel’s The Queen’s Arcadia,  John Day’s The Isle of Gulls, Beaumont and Fletcher’s Cupid’s Revenge, the anonymous Mucedorus, a play of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and most overtly, in James Shirley’s The Arcadia. 

Astrophel and Stella -Probably composed in the 1580s, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. The name derives from the two Greek words, ‘aster’ (star) and ‘phil’ (lover), and the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star. Thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star. Sidney partly nativized the key features of his Italian model Petarch, including an ongoing but partly obscure narrative, the philosophical trappings of the poet in relation to love and desire, and musings on the art of poetic creation. Sidney also adopts the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, though he uses it with such freedom that fifteen variants are employed.This series of sonnets treat the love of a man (likely Sidney) for a woman (likely Lady Rich) after her marriage. At first, she repels his suit. Eventually, he learns his attention are returned. The woman’s virtue keeps them from consummating their love. 

In sonnet 1, the Muse bades Astrophel to write of his love. “Fool,” said the Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Sonnet 2 describes the young man’s passion. His love was not sudden. He knew Stella for a long time and learned to love her. At first he did not tell her of his love, and now she is married, it is too late. 

In Sonnet 31, there is a change of mood. Hitherto, the poet has written poems of praise and has pictured his love as a pastime. Now his passion becomes deeper and more sorrowful. In this sonnet, he sees the moon looking upon the earth with great melancholy. He asks if ladies in heaven scorn their lovers as they do on earth. 

Sonnet 39 is an apostrophe to sleep: “Come, sleep! O’ Sleep, the certain knot of peace,/ The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,/ The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release”/etc. He would have sleep console him. 

In Sonnet 41, he says that people looked on and approved of his prowess and gave many reasons, but the real reason was “Stella looked on, and from her heavenly face/ Sent forth the beams which made so fair my race.” 


Astrophel and Stella 

The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia


Poetry Foundation

Sir Philip Sidney 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sir Philip Sidney, Author of the Finest Love Poems in English Before Shakespeare

  1. Julia says:

    Thank you for this piece.

Comments are closed.