The best poems of Philip Sidney selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) was one of the finest poets of the English Renaissance and a pioneer of the sonnet form and English love poetry. Many of Sidney’s finest poems are to be found in his long sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella – the first substantial sonnet sequence in English literature – but he wrote a number of other poems which are much-loved and widely anthologised. Below we’ve chosen what we think are ten of Sir Philip Sidney’s best poems.
1. Sonnet 1: ‘Loving in truth’.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain …
One of the best poems about writing poetry, this sonnet, written in alexandrines or twelve-syllable lines, opens Sidney’s great sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, 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. In this sonnet, Sidney searches for the best way to marshal his feelings and put them into words that will move ‘Stella’.
2. Sonnet 31: ‘With how sad steps’.
With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languished grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries …
In this, one of Sir Philip Sidney’s most famous poems and the first of four poems from the ‘30s’ in the sequence Astrophil and Stella to appear on this list, ‘Astrophil’ apostrophises the pale moon in the night sky, wondering whether its pallor stems from hopeless love (as Astrophil’s own unhappiness down on Earth does). Sidney deftly steers his sonnet away from the sentimental excesses of courtly love poetry by introducing a note of bitterness in the final line, accusing the unimpressed Stella of ‘ungratefulness’.
3. Sonnet 33: ‘I might (unhappy word!), O me, I might’.
I might!—unhappy word—O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss;
Till now wrapt in a most infernal night,
I find how heav’nly day, wretch! I did miss …
As we mentioned above, the poems numbered in the 30s in Astrophil and Stella yield several real classics of Renaissance poetry. Here, Sidney/Astrophil chastises himself for not having immediately fallen in love with Penelope/Stella; as we know from the second sonnet in the sequence, it was not ‘love at first sight’. If it had been, he could have wooed her and married her, and lived happily ever after: if only he had been more foolish (and fallen headlong into love right away) or more wise (and been able to forget her altogether), he would be happier now…
4. Sonnet 38: ‘This night, while sleepe begins with heauy wings’.
This night, while sleep begins with heavy wings
To hatch mine eyes, and that unbitted thought
Doth fall to stray; and my chief powers are brought
To leave the sceptre of all subject things:
The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind, is Stella’s image; wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught,
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings …
This is not quite so famous as some of the other poems on this list of classic Sidney poems, but we think it’s a wonderful description of how love takes over our minds entirely, even during the hours of sleep: as Astrophil lies asleep, his ‘fancy’ conjures up an image of his beloved Stella – but she doesn’t merely shine, she sings as well in this vivid dream of her. But then, when he wakes up, this delightful vision of Stella vanishes, and with it the ability to get back off to sleep. It’s an experience every unhappy lover will have felt; but who has said it as well as Sidney does here?
5. Sonnet 39: ‘Come sleep, O sleep’.
Come Sleep, O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low …
In this sonnet, one of Sir Philip Sidney’s most oft-anthologised poems, Astrophil tries to strike a bargain with sleep (which eludes him because of his passionate love for Stella), promising the personified ‘Sleep’ a nice reward if the poet’s request for rest is granted: that there, in Astrophil’s dreams, we will be able to see the beautiful image of Stella. One of the cleverest sonnets in the sequence – though ‘clever’ should not be confused with ‘contrived’ here.
6. Sonnet 71: ‘Who will in book of fairest Nature know’.
Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices’ overthrow,
Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly;
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so …
Beauty is meant to lead us to virtue, according to Renaissance ideas of virtue. Anyone who wants to know where in nature you can observe beauty and virtue together should look at Stella, for the lines of her figure reveal what true virtue and decency are. But then, in the final line, we get a classic Sidney twist: into this Edenic world of beauty and virtue, Desire (personified, and suggesting lust and baser drives) is heard to cry out for satisfaction: ‘Give me some food.’
7. Sonnet 99: ‘When far-spent night persuades each mortal eye’.
When far spent night persuades each mortal eye,
To whom nor art nor nature granteth light,
To lay his then mark-wanting shafts of sight,
Closed with their quivers, in sleep’s armoury …
Our eyes are like arrows, darting a look here and there; but what do we do at night when it’s dark? Sleep, of course. But not so for Sidney, or rather Astrophil: his eyes are wide open, like windows letting the darkness in – that external darkness which so neatly chimes with the ‘inward night’ of his mind, thanks to his hopeless love for Stella. Look out for the masterly use of ‘i’ sounds at the end of each line of this sonnet, suggesting the eye/night theme of the poem.
My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;
There never was a bargain better driven.
His heart in me keeps me and him in one;
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own;
I cherish his because in me it bides …
We’ll conclude this pick of the best Sir Philip Sidney poems with three poems that are not from Astrophil and Stella. This poem is a sonnet – and, what’s more, an example of the English, or ‘Shakespearean’, sonnet form – but not one taken from Sidney’s sonnet sequence. Instead, it comes from the Arcadia, the long pastoral romance which Sidney wrote. This is one of the poems that feature in this long prose work. The poem is easy to summarise. The (female) speaker states that she and her lover have pledged their hearts to each other, and it’s the best exchange or ‘bargain’ that could have been contrived.
9. ‘Thou blind man’s mark’.
Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire! I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware;
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare …
This is another sonnet, but, like the poem immediately above, is not taken from Astrophil and Stella (though it reads as though it would be at home in that sequence). Sidney condemns sexual desire in this poem: it takes up all one’s time and energy, distracting one from higher things, and worst of all, it’s all in vain. The ultimate desire is to kill desire itself. This sonnet shows what Astrophil and Stella also demonstrates so well: that Sidney understood erotic desire and sought to depict its complex nature in skilfully crafted verse.
10. ‘Ye Goat-Herd Gods’.
Ye goatherd gods, that love the grassy mountains,
Ye nymphs which haunt the springs in pleasant valleys,
Ye satyrs joyed with free and quiet forests,
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,
Which to my woes gives still an early morning,
And draws the dolour on till weary evening …
One of the finest examples in English poetry of the sestina form. Like ‘My true love hath my heart’, this poem was part of the Arcadia, and is about two heartbroken shepherds who are lamenting their unluckiness in love and trying to out-sing each other.
Sidney’s best poetry, along with a helpful scholarly introduction to his life and work, can be found in Sir Philip Sidney The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.