A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

6

Elizabethan poetry

Sometimes the spirit of an age seems to be epitomized in the work and personality of one man. Such a man was Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86); one in whom the aristocratic virtues flowered in a life of study, travel, diplomacy and active service. When fatally wounded in the Netherlands, he handed to a dying soldier the cup of water brought for himself and spoke the famous words: ‘Thy need is greater than mine.’ The value that Sidney attached to literature may be judged from his Apology for Poetry, a serious critical work on the nature of poetry, the various categories of imaginative writing, and the current state of poetry in England. In it Sidney presents the poet as one who teaches more effectively than the philosopher. The philosopher ‘teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him, that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught’. But the poet is ‘the right popular philosopher’. He ‘yieldeth to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description; which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul as much as the other doth’.

Sidney’s Arcadia, whose first version was composed for his sister the Countess of Pembroke, is to modern eyes a remarkable extravaganza. It is a romance-epic in prose. It shows what are the effects of passions and vices on the individual, of bad rule and rebellious factions on the state, and it recommends private virtue and public duty. Its prose is interspersed with verse, and the prose itself is highly contrived, abounding in conceits and rhetorical devices, beautifully weighed and planted. Shipwreck, piracy, disguise, death sentences, imprisonment, magic potions—all the ingredients of the tragicomedy plot are interwoven with beautiful descriptions and fine speeches.

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