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The Courtier Poets: Sir Philip Sidney

Updated on April 4, 2018
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My name is Jamie Lee Hamann and I started sharing poetry articles back in 2013. Every year I share a poem a day in April.

Courtier and Friend

Sir Phillip Sydney, named after King Phillip II of Spain, was born in 1557 at Penhurst, his fathers estate in Kent. His father was Sir Henry who had served in various courts throughout his career, including his work in Wales and Ireland.

When Sir Phillip Sydney was nine he attended Shrewsbury School where he met Fulke Greville and formed a friendship that would stand the test of time. While he studied at Shrewsbury he perfected his latin, french, and greek.

He entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1568 and in 1572 was the English Ambassador to France where he was made Gentlemen of the Bedchamber to Charles IV. He remained in France until the St. Bartholomew Massacre. After the Massacre he traveled around Europe to study Astronomy, Music, Horsemanship, and many of his other interests.

Queen Elizabeth was blessed to have Phillip as courtier to her court in 1575 and during this time and for a few years later he would spend time in Ireland with his sister Mary.

He was appointed ambassador to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. He moved to Germany with his friend Fulke Greville and their new mutual friend, Dryer. While in Germany the three began to form "The Protestant League" to bring to the Queen's court. The Queen was not impressed and broke off his employment for eight years.

During his withdrawal from court he moved in with his sister Mary in Ireland. He continued his relationship with Greville and Dryer.

Spencer joined the group which was called the "Aeropagus" which experimented with quantitative meters in English. He finished writing his "Arcadia" and wrote a play " The Lady of May" to be performed for the Queen.

He returned to court in 1583 where he was knighted and married Frances. He finished "Astrophil and Stella" the first sonnet series ever written that put the emotions of the characters over story.

When he was 32 years old he was mortally wounded and passed away within the confines of a field hospital.

Before his death he published his "Defense of Poesy" which was considered the best critical essay written prior to Dryer.

On His Deathbed

His fever had spiked and he could hardly see the nurse as she walked to his bed. Like his wounds his dreams had become nightmares. He struggled to find a clear thought in his muddy mind.

He remembered his time with Mary in Ireland. Visions of green pastures where he led Mary on walks and the gardens where he would sit and work on his essays.

He felt he had lived a good, long life. Alongside his bed was another dying soldier younger then him and he felt for the boy.

He wondered if the boy had seen anything other then war in his life and he felt a great pity in his gut.

His mouth had become dry and as treacherous as the desert. He could not breath through the arid landscape of his tongue. He tried to push out words to express his need of a drink to the nurse.

She looked over at him, struggling, and brought a glass of water. She handed the water to Sir Philip.

Yet before the needed fluid hit his lips he stopped. He looked over at the young soldier dying next to him and handed his water over to the boy.

The boy reached out and took the water and drank.

When the boy finished he looked over to Sir Philip wanting to share his gratitude.

By now Sir Philip had passed on yet his legacy would stay.

"O sweet woods..."

O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness!

Oh, how much I do like you solitariness!

Where man's mind hath freed consideration,

Of goodness to recieve lovely direction.

Where senses do behold what the creator is;

Contemplation here holdeth his only seat,

Bounded with no limits, born with wing of hope,

Climbs even unto the stars, nature is under it.

Nought disturbs thy queit, all to thy service yield,

Each sight draws on thought, thought, mother of science,

Fair trees' shade is enough fortification,

Nor danger to thyself if be not in thyself.

O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness!

Oh, how much I do like your solitariness!

Here nor treason is hid, veiled in innocence,

Nor envy's snaky eye finds any harbor here,

nor flatterers' venomous insinuations,

Nor cunning humorists' puddled opinions,

Nor courteous ruin of proffered usury,

Nor time prattled away, cradle of ignorance,

Nor causeless duty, nor cumber of arrogance,

Nor trifling title of vanity dazzleth us,

Nor golden manacles stand for a paradise,

Here wrong's name is unheard, slander a monster is,

Keep thy sprite from abuse, here no abuse doth haunt.

What man grafts in a tree dissimulation?

O sweet woods, the delight of solitariness!

Oh, how well I do like you solitariness!

Yet, dear soil, if a soul closed in a mansion

As sweet as violets, fair as lily is,

Straight as cedar, a voice stains the canary birds,

Whose shade safety doth hold, danger avoideth her;

Such wisdom that in her lives speculation;

Such goodness that in her simplicity triumphs;

Where envy's snaky eye winketh or else dieth;

Slander wants a pretext, flattery gone beyond;

Oh! if such a one have bent to a lonely life,

Her steps glad we receive, glad we receive her eyes,

And think not she doth hurt our solitariness,

For such company decks such solitariness.

A Look At the Scansion of "Oh Sweet Woods..."

"O sweet woods..." is a display of Sir Philips interest in quantitative verse. The form of this poem is a greek form called "lesser asclepiad." This form was named after the Greek poet Asclepiades.

The scansion of a "lesser asclepiad" is --/-uu-/-uu-/uu-, where (-) is a stressed accent and the (u) is the unstressed accent.

The theme of the poem is our relationship with nature and how nature can transform. He uses the stressed accents of the poem to declare his passion.

Nature here seems to hold what the poet finds dear, the ability to find solitude. He describes how the gift of solitude, that nature provides, opens the mind to thought.

He then goes on to talk about what distractions can be avoided in the solitude of nature and how this avoidance can open one up to moments of clarity.

Carrying on the Petrarchan tradition he explains how this benefits one in love.

This same use of stressed and unstressed syllables, in a similar but not exact replica of this quantitative verse, was used by modern poets like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg.

"Feed on my sheep..."

Feed on my sheep, my charge, my comfort feed,

With sun's approach your pasture fertile grows;

O only sun, that such a fruit can breed.

Feed on my sheep, your fair sweet feeding flows,

Each flower, each herb doth to your service yield;

O blessed sun, whence all this blessing goes.

Feed on my sheep, possess your fruitful field,

No wolves dare howl, no murrain can prevail,

And from the storms our sweetest sun will shield.

Feed on my sheep, sorrow hath stricken sail,

Enjoy my joys, as you did taste my pain,

While our sun shines no cloudy griefs assail.

Feed on my sheep, your native joys maintain,

Your wool is rich, no tongue can tell my gain.

In Conclusion

Sir Philip, a courtier poet and friend of Fluke Greville, left behind him many sonnets, "Astrophil and Stella" and an incredible reworking of the psalms of David.

We find him in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Yet we also find him withdrawn from court to spend time with his sister Mary in Ireland.

He continued his relationship with Greville and Dryer. Spencer joined the group which was called the "Aeropagus" and experimented with quantitative meters in English.

"O sweet woods..." is a display of Sir Philips interest in quantitative verse.

He shared his visions of green pastures, where he led Mary on walks, and the gardens where he would sit and work on his essays.

He had lived a long and good life.

Text References

"Five Courtier Poets of the English Renaissance," Blender M., Robert, Washington Square Press, 1969.

© 2018 Jamie Lee Hamann


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