Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)


Philip Sidney
Philip Sidney

Umansky, Ellen, ed. “Philip Sidney.” Poetry Foundation. Harriet Monroe Poetry Istitute, n.d. Web. 7 Dec 2013. <>.


  • Sir Philip Sidney, born in 1554, did not think of himself as a writer in the conventional sense. He had an obvious passion for politics and foreign policy, one that proved evident in his continued involvement with Queen Elizabeth and her court. Sidney used his talent for writing, and the influence it allowed him, to attempt the changes he hoped to see in his country. Though Sidney was considered to be a very private person, he seemed to have also used writing as a way to express emotions, thoughts, and ideas that he could not express in his daily life.

  • Born to Sir Henry Sidney and Mary nee Dudley, Sir Philip Sidney had a privileged upbringing. Though he was not himself a nobleman, Sidney came from a family full of influential people; his father was a “thrice lord deputy” (Greenblatt 1037) in Ireland and his mother’s family has close ties to the Queen. Sidney was also the grandson of the Duke of Northumberland, the nephew of Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester) (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney), and the Godson of Philip II of Spain (Umansky).

  • At the age of 10, Sir Philip Sidney attended the Shrewsbury School, where he was deemed “very bright” (Umansky). There he met a boy named Fulke Greville, who became his lifelong friend. Sidney eventually went on to study at Oxford but never obtained his degree. After leaving Oxford, Sidney sought a more hands-on type of education which he obtained by traveling throughout Europe (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”). During his travels, Sidney encountered several influential people and experienced the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, a slaughtering of Protestant followers (Kuin).

  • Particularly after experiencing the massacre, Sidney lived his life as a devout Protestant. His deep devotion to his religion periodically caused issues in his political pursuits, as Queen Elizabeth preferred to be very careful when approaching issues of religion within political affairs (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”). This conflict between religion and politics that Sidney often experienced was especially evident during Sidney’s opposition to the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou, who was Catholic. Sidney even went so far as to write to the Queen in an attempt to persuade her to cancel the marriage (Jokinen, “Letter to Queen Elizabeth”).

  • In 1575, Sidney began a career in diplomacy that was cut short due to his ardent Protestantism. In 1580, Sidney left the court to live with his sister, Mary Herbert who was the Countess of Pembroke (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”). During his stay in Pembroke, Sidney wrote Arcadia. Sidney is said to have also written Astrophil and Stella and The Defense of Poesy around this time, though he probably began Astrophil and Stella in 1576 when he began courting Penelope Devereux (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”). After living with his sister for about a year, Sidney continued his political career as a courtier and was appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands in 1585 (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”). Though occasionally in conflict with Queen Elizabeth’s beliefs, Sidney was a great asset to the Queen’s court. Sidney was highly devoted to his work as a courtier and was even deemed the “Great Favourite” of the Elizabeth (Kuin).

  • Sir Philip Sidney died in 1586 of an infected thigh wound that he obtained in a battle against the Spanish. Sidney is said to have had an elaborate and expensive funeral procession (Greenblatt 1037). As a beloved courtier, Sidney was mourned throughout England. Sidney was not only an influential writer and advocate of the arts, but also embodied the characteristics of “an ideal courtier” (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”).

The Defense of Poesy

Astrophil and Stella

  • In his work Astrophil and Stella, Sidney advanced the art of poetry through his use of intensely emotional and personal sonnets. In this work specifically, Sidney seems to break from his supposed private nature to allow his readers into his most personal thoughts and feelings. The 108 sonnets and 11 songs (Source #2) in this work are said to be somewhat autobiographical, representing Sidney’s relationship with a woman named Penelope Devereux (Greenblatt 1084). This work is considered the first of the Elizabethan sonnet cycles (Jokinen, “Life of Sir Philip Sidney”).

  • Astrophil and Stella exemplifies the literary awareness characteristic of Sidney’s work. In the sonnets below, Sidney seems to use literary awareness to create a parallel between the relationship between Astrophil and Stella and his own relationship with writing. His allusions to literature and writing (particularly evident in the first sonnet selection) imply that he is using his poetry as an outlet to express his deep appreciation and love for writing. The idea that these poems are autobiographical, paired with Sidney’s consistent allusions to literature, further supports the idea that Sidney is trying to express his appreciation for and love of literature through the sonnets in this work.

  • Sidney also shows, through these sonnets, that writing is not simply a relationship between the writer and the work but rather a relationship between the writer and his audience. The emotions that Sidney portrays in his sonnets create an atmosphere of openness that does not seem to be present in any other facet of Sidney’s life. In Astrophil and Stella, Sidney seems to use his writing to relate to his audience. He also seems to utilize writing as a way to express his deepest emotions–something he felt he could not do in any other aspect of his life.

  • The sonnet selections below demonstrate the different dimensions of Sidney’s writing. The first sonnet exemplifies Sidney’s characteristic use of literary awareness while the second and third sonnet selections focus more on Sidney’s connection to his audience. In each of the sonnets below, Sidney demonstrates a sense of vulnerability and raw emotion that is exemplified through Astrophil’s infatuation and longing for Stella.

Sonnet 1: “Loving in truth . . .”

Sonnet 9: “Queen Virtue’s court . . .”

Sonnet 91:”Stella, while now by honor’s cruel might . . .”

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