Five Fascinating Facts about Sir Philip Sidney
Facts about the life of Elizabethan poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney
1. Philip Sidney invented the name Pamela. Sidney (1554-1586) was a true ‘Renaissance man’: soldier, statesman, poet, diplomat, and – it would appear – coiner of popular girls’ names. Or at least this one name. Pamela appears in Sidney’s long prose work Arcadia (of which more below). The name means ‘all sweetness’ (from pan meaning all, and mela from the Latin for ‘sweet’ or ‘honey’, whence ‘mellifluous’).
2. Sidney’s depiction of ‘Arcadia’ helped to shape our view of the English countryside. The Arcadia, which exists in two substantially different versions – the ‘Old Arcadia’, which was only rediscovered in the twentieth century, and the revised ‘New Arcadia’ – is a long unfinished prose work. The New Arcadia went through several editions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and King Charles I is even supposed to have muttered lines from the Arcadia (the section known as ‘Pamela’s Prayer’) as he climbed the scaffold for his execution in 1649.
3. The Arcadia has also been described as one of the first English novels. Virginia Woolf went so far as to say: ‘In the Arcadia, as in some luminous globe, all the seeds of English fiction lie latent.’ So we owe the development of the English novel to Sir Philip Sidney too, at least in part.
4. Sidney wrote one of the first sonnet sequences in English literature. Composed in the early 1580s, Astrophil and Stella is a sequence of 108 sonnets – and a few songs – inspired by Sidney’s unrequited love for Penelope Rich (nee Devereux), who was offered to him as a potential wife a few years before. Sidney turned her down, she married Lord Robert Rich, and Sidney promptly realised he was in love with her. How autobiographical the sonnets actually are is disputed, and many scholars incline towards thinking Sidney is adopting a persona in these poems. Still, ‘Astrophil’ (meaning ‘star-lover’; sometimes rendered as ‘Astrophel’) is clearly meant to bring ‘Philip Sidney’ to mind, partly because of the ‘phil’ contained in the name, and partly because of an obscure pun (‘Astro’ means ‘star’, punning on the ‘Sid’ of Sidney – similar to the Latin sidus, ‘star’).
5. Sidney also wrote the first work of literary criticism in English. Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595) is widely regarded as the first sustained piece of literary criticism (or even literary theory) written in the English language.
Image: Sir Philip Sidney, from 1912 book by Henry Thew Stephenson; Wikimedia Commons.