« ZurückWeiter »
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY.
LINEAGE, BIRTH, AND BOYHOOD.
SHELLEY, in his memorial poem on the death of Keats, named Sir Philip Sidney among "the inheritors of unfulfilled renown." If this praise be applicable to Chatterton and Keats, it is certainly, though in a less degree perhaps, true also of Sidney. His best friend and interpreter put on record that "the youth, life, and fortune of this gentleman were, indeed, but sparks of extraordinary greatness in him, which, for want of clear vent, lay concealed, and, in a manner, smothered up." The real difficulty of painting an adequate portrait of Sidney at the present time is that his renown transcends his actual achievement. Neither his poetry nor his prose, nor what is known about his action, quite explains the singular celebrity which he enjoyed in his own life, and the fame which has attended his memory with almost undimmed lustre through three centuries. In an age remarkable for the great deeds of its heroes, no less than for the splendour of its literature, he won and retained a homage which was paid to none of his contemporaries. All classes concurred in worshipping that marvellous youth,
who displayed the choicest gifts of chivalry and scholarship, of bravery and prudence, of creative and deliberative genius, in the consummate harmony of a noble character. The English nation seemed instinctively to recognise in him the impersonation of its manifold ideals. He was beautiful, and of illustrious ancestry, an accomplished courtier, complete in all the exercises of a cavalier. He was a student, possessed of the new learning which Italy had recently bequeathed to Europe. He was a poet and the "warbler of poetic prose," at a moment when the greater luminaries of the Elizabethan period had scarcely risen above the horizon. Yet his beauty did not betray him into levity or wantonness; his noble blood bred in him neither pride nor presumption. Courtly habits failed to corrupt his rectitude of conduct, or to impair the candour of his utterance. The erudition of the Renaissance left his Protestant simplicity and Christian faith untouched. Literary success made him neither jealous nor conceited; and as the patron and friend of poets, he was even more eminent than as a writer. These varied qualities were so finely blent in his amiable nature that, when Wotton called him "the very essence of congruity," he hit upon the happiest phrase for describing Sidney's charm.
The man, in fact, was greater than his words and actions. His whole life was 66 a true poem, a composition, and pattern of the best and honourablest things ;" and the fascination which he exerted over all who came in contact with him a fascination which extended to those who only knew him by report-must now, in part at least, be taken upon trust. We cannot hope to present such a picture of him as shall wholly justify his fame. Personalities so unique as Sidney's exhale a perfume which evanesces when the lamp of life burns out. This the English nation felt
when they put on public mourning for his death. They felt that they had lost in Sidney, not only one of their most hopeful gentlemen and bravest soldiers, but something rare and beautiful in human life, which could not be recaptured,-which could not even be transmitted, save by hearsay, to a future age. The living Euphues of that era (so conscious of its aspirations as yet but partially attained, so apt to idealise its darlings) had perished—just when all men's eyes were turned with certainty of expectation on the coming splendours of his maturity. "The president of nobleness and chivalry" was dead. "That most heroic spirit, the heaven's pride, the glory of our days," had passed away like young Marcellus. Words failed the survivors to express their sense of the world's loss. This they could not utter, because there was something indescribable, incalculable, in the influence his personality had exercised. We, then, who have to deal with meagre records and scanty written remains, must well weigh the sometimes almost incoherent passion which emerges in the threnodies poured out upon his grave. In the grief of Spenser and of Camden, of Fuller and of Jonson, of Constable and Nash, of the Countess of Pembroke and Fulke Greville, as in a glass darkly, we perceive what magic spell it was that drew the men of his own time to love and adore Sidney. The truth is that Sidney, as we now can know him from his deeds and words, is not an eminently engaging or profoundly interesting personage. But, in the mirror of contemporary minds, he shines with a pure lustre, which the students of his brief biography must always feel to be surrounding him.
Society, in the sixteenth century, bestowed much ingenuity upon the invention of appropriate mottoes and significant emblems. When, therefore, we read that Sir
Philip Sidney inscribed his shield with these words Vix ea nostra voco (“These things I hardly call our own"), we may take it for a sign that he attached no undue value to noble birth; and, indeed, he makes one of the most respectable persons in his Arcadia exclaim: "I am no herald to enquire of men's pedigrees; it sufficeth me if I know their virtues." This might justify his biographers in silence regarding his ancestry, were it not that his connections, both on the father's and the mother's side, were all-important in determining the tenor of his life.
The first Sidney of whom we hear anything came into England with Henry II., and held the office of Chamberlain to that king. His descendant, Nicholas Sidney, married a daughter of Sir William Brandon and aunt of Charles, Duke of Suffolk. Their son, Sir William Sidney, played an important part during the reign of Henry VIII.; he served in the French wars, and commanded the right wing of the English army at Flodden. To him was given the manor of Penshurst in Kent, which has remained in the possession of the Sidneys and their present representatives. On his death in 1554 he left one son and four daughters. The eldest of these daughters was ancestress of Lord Bolingbroke. From the marriage of the second to Sir James Harrington descended, by female alliances, the great house of Montagu and the families of North and Noel. Through the marriage of the third with Sir William Fitz-William, Lord Byron laid claim to a drop of Sidney blood. The fourth, who was the wife of Thomas Ratcliffe, Earl of Sussex, dying childless, founded Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge. With the only son, Sir Henry Sidney (b. 1529-89), we shall have much to do in the present biography. It is enough now to mention that Henry VIII. chose him for bedfellow and companion to
his only son. "I was, by that most famous king," he writes, "put to his sweet son, Prince Edward, my most dear master, prince, and sovereign; my near kinswoman being his only nurse, my father being his chamberlain, my mother his governess, my aunt in such place as among meaner personages is called a dry nurse; for, from the time he left sucking, she continually lay in bed with him, so long as he remained in woman's government. As the prince grew in years and discretion so grew I in favour and liking of him." A portion of Hollingshed's Chronicle, contributed by Edward Molineux, long time Sir Henry Sidney's secretary, confirms this statement. "This right famous, renowned, worthy, virtuous, and heroical knight, by father and mother very nobly descended, was from his infancy bred and brought up in the prince's court and in nearness to his person, used familiarly even as a companion." Nothing but Edward VI.'s untimely death prevented Sir Henry Sidney from rising to high dignity and power in the realm. It was in his arms that the king expired in 1553 at Greenwich.
One year before this event Sir Henry had married the Lady Mary Dudley, daughter of Edmund, Viscount De l'Isle and Duke of Northumberland. The Dudleys were themselves of noble extraction, though one of their ancestors had perished ignobly on the scaffold. Edmund Dudley, grandson of John Lord Dudley, K.G., joined with Sir Richard Empson in those extortions which disgraced the last years of Henry VII.'s reign, and both were executed in the second year of his successor. His son, Sir John Dudley, was afterwards relieved of the attainder, and restored to those honours which he claimed from his mother. His mother, Elizabeth Grey, was heiress of a very ancient house, whose baronies and titles had passed by an almost unex