« ZurückWeiter »
The true cause is that in England so many incapable folk write verses. With the exception of the Mirror of Magistrates, Lord Surrey's Lyrics, and The Shepherd's Kalendar, "I do not remember to have seen but few (to speak boldly) printed, that have poetical sinews in them." At this point he introduces a lengthy digression upon the stage, which, were we writing a history of the English drama, ought to be quoted in full. It is interesting because it proves how the theatre occupied Sidney's thoughts; and yet he had not perceived that from the humble plays of the people an unrivalled flower of modern art was about to emerge. The Defence of Poesy was written before. Marlowe created the romantic drama; before Shakespeare arrived in London. It was written in all probability before its author could have attended the representation of Greene's and Peele's best plays. Gorboduc, which he praises moderately and censures with discrimination, seemed to him the finest product of dramatic art in England, because it approached the model of Seneca and the Italian tragedians. For the popular stage, with its chaos of tragic and comic elements, its undigested farrago of romantic incidents and involved plots, he entertained the scorn of a highly-educated scholar and a refined gentleman. Yet no one, let us be sure, would have welcomed Othello and The Merchant of Venice, Volpone and A Woman Killed with Kindness, more enthusiastically than Sidney, had his life been protracted through the natural span of mortality.
Having uttered his opinion frankly on the drama, he attacks the "courtesan-like painted affectation" of the English at his time. Far-fetched words, alliteration, euphuistic similes from stones and beasts and plants, fall under his honest censure. He mentions no man. But he is clearly aiming at the school of Lyly and the pedants; for he pertinent
ly observes: "I have found in divers small-learned courtiers a more sound style than in some professors of learning." Language should be used, not to trick out thoughts with irrelevant ornaments or to smother them in conceits, but to make them as clear and natural as words can do. It is a sin against our mother speech to employ these meretricious arts; for whoso will look dispassionately into the matter, shall convince himself that English, both in its freedom from inflections and its flexibility of accent, is aptest of all modern tongues to be the vehicle of simple and of beautiful utterance.
The peroration to The Defence of Poesy is an argument addressed to the personal ambition of the reader. It somewhat falls below the best parts of the essay in style, and makes no special claim on our attention. From the foregoing analysis it will be seen that Sidney attempted to cover a wide field, combining a philosophy of art with a practical review of English literature. Much as the Italians had recently written upon the theory of poetry, I do not remember any treatise which can be said to have supplied the material or suggested the method of this apology. England, of course, at that time was destitute of all but the most meagre textbooks on the subject. Great interest therefore attaches to Sidney's discourse as the original outcome of his studies, meditations, literary experience, and converse with men of parts. Though we may not be prepared to accept each of his propositions, though some will demur to his conception of the artist's moral aim, and others to his inclusion of prose fiction in the definition of poetry, while all will agree in condemning his mistaken dramatic theory, none can dispute the ripeness, mellowness, harmony, and felicity of mental gifts displayed in work at once so concise and so compendious. It is indeed a pity that English lit
erature then furnished but slender material for criticism. When we remember that, among the poems of the English Renaissance, only Surrey's Lyrics, Gorboduc, the Mirror of Magistrates, and The Shepherd's Kalendar could be praised with candour (and I think Sidney was right in this judgment), we shall be better able to estimate his own high position, and our mental senses will be dazzled by the achievements of the last three centuries. Exactly three centuries have elapsed since Sidney fell at Zutphen; and who shall count the poets of our race, stars differing indeed in glory, but stars that stream across the heavens of song from him to us in one continuous galaxy?
Sir Philip Sidney was not only eminent as pleader, critic, and poet. He also ranked as the patron and protector of men of letters. "He was of a very munificent spirit," says Aubrey," and liberal to all lovers of learning, and to those that pretended to any acquaintance with Parnassus; insomuch that he was cloyed and surfeited with the poetasters of those days." This sentence is confirmed by the memorial verses written on his death, and by the many books which were inscribed with his name. A list of these may be read in Dr. Zouch's Life. It is enough for our purpose to enumerate the more distinguished. To Sidney, Spenser dedicated the first fruits of his genius, and Hakluyt the first collection of his epoch-making Voyages. Henri Etienne, who was proud to call himself the friend of Sidney, placed his 1576 edition of the Greek Testament and his 1581 edition of Herodian under the protection of his name. Lord Brooke, long after his friend's death, dedicated his collected works to Sidney's memory.
Of all these tributes to his love of learning the most interesting in my opinion is that of Giordano Bruno. This Titan of impassioned speculation passed two years in Lon
don between 1583 and 1585. Here he composed, and here he printed, his most important works in the Italian tongue. Two of these he presented, with pompous commendatory epistles, to Sir Philip Sidney. They were his treatise upon Ethics, styled Lo Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante, and his discourse upon the philosophic enthusiasm, entitled Gli Eroici Furori. That Bruno belonged to Sidney's circle, is evident from the graphic account he gives of a supper at Fulke Greville's house, in the dialogue called La Cena delle Ceneri. His appreciation of "the most illustrious and excellent knight's" character transpires in the following phrase from one of his dedications: "the natural bias of your spirit, which is truly heroical." Those who know what the word eroica implied for Bruno, not only of personal courage, but of sustained and burning spiritual passion, will appreciate this eulogy by one of the most penetrating and candid, as he was the most unfortunate of truth's martyrs. Had the proportions of my work justified such a digression, I would eagerly have collected from Bruno's Italian discourses those paragraphs which cast a vivid light upon literary and social life in England. But these belong rather to Bruno's than to Sidney's biography.
LAST YEARS AND DEATH.
AFTER Sidney's marriage there remained but little more than three years of life to him. The story of this period may be briefly told. Two matters of grave import occupied his mind. These were: first, the menacing attitude of Spain and the advance of the Counter-Reformation; secondly, a project of American Colonisation. The suspicious death of the Duke of Anjou, followed by the murder of the Prince of Orange in 1584, rendered Elizabeth's interference in the Low Countries almost imperative. Philip II., assisted by the powers of Catholicism, and served in secret by the formidable Company of Jesus, threatened Europe with the extinction of religious and political liberties. It was known that, sooner or later, he must strike a deadly blow at England. The Armada loomed already in the distance. But how was he to be attacked? Sidney thought that Elizabeth would do well to put herself at the head of a Protestant alliance against what Fulke Greville aptly styled the "masked triplicity between Spain, Rome, and the Jesuitical faction of France." He also strongly recommended an increase of the British navy and a policy of protecting the Huguenots in their French seaports. But he judged the Netherlands an ill-chosen field for fighting the main duel out with Spain. There, Philip was firmly seated in