In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philip Sidney

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reference Materials
  • Journals
  • Biographies
  • Modern Editions
  • Early Printed Editions
  • Less Studied Works

Renaissance and Reformation Philip Sidney
Joel Davis, William Biferie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0338


Sir Philip Sidney (b. 1554–d. 1586), was famed in his lifetime as a courtier, diplomat, patron, poet, and soldier. He was born to Sir Henry Sidney, Lord President of the Marches of Wales and later Lord Deputy of Ireland, and his wife Mary, who was sister to Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester. In 1564 he entered Shrewsbury School, and he went on to Eton, Oxford, and Gray’s Inn. In August 1572, beginning a tour of Europe, he survived the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre at Paris, escaped to Heidelberg, and traveled through France, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Italy until 1575. He was mentored by the Burgundian diplomat Hubert Languet, who introduced him to many important statesmen and scholars. In 1577, Queen Elizabeth sent him on a diplomatic mission to celebrate the accession of the new Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II. In the brief period between the late 1570s and his death in 1586, Sidney produced a dazzling oeuvre remarkable for its innovations, its variety, and its influence both on literature in the Early Modern period and on the development of modern literature. Soon after he returned from the embassy, he wrote The Lady of May as a royal entertainment. Probably by 1579 Sidney was writing the work we now call the Old Arcadia, a witty pastoral romance that also showcased his experiments with English verse. He revised the Old Arcadia repeatedly, probably well into 1582 and perhaps later. Likely he also composed most of his Certain Sonnets in the later 1570s into the early 1580s. In 1581–1582 he was also at work on his celebrated sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella. Although Sidney was away from Elizabeth’s court for considerable parts of 1579 and 1580, he was prominent in Elizabethan tilts and court entertainments after 1580. Sidney likely also composed The Defence of Poesy, the first significant work of literary theory in English, sometime between 1580 and 1584. He was knighted in January 1583 and married in September that year to Frances, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, a powerful privy councilor and one of the queen’s spy-masters. Between 1581 and probably 1584, he had begun revising his Old Arcadia into an epic romance, which, though unfinished, nevertheless became the most influential work of prose fiction in English for nearly 200 years: the New Arcadia. He likewise began a metrical translation of the psalms, probably with his sister. He also failed to finish these. In late 1585, as English support for the Dutch revolt against Phillip II of Spain intensified, Sidney shipped out to take over the governorship of Flushing (Dutch: Vlissingen) in the Low Countries. A year later, he died of wounds sustained in a raid against a Spanish supply train outside the town of Zutphen, and he is remembered by the Dutch even today.

General Overviews

The best introductions to Sidney and his works suitable for undergraduates are Woodcock 2010 and Hamilton 1977; Woodcock 2010 is more up to date, but Hamilton 1977 is currently more influential. Myrick 1965 has been so influential for so long that it is essential for understanding the history of scholarship on Sidney. Buxton 1987, originally published in 1954, provides the best insight into Sidney’s place on the wider European stage, and it is still cited by new studies of Sidney in such contexts. If there is a single standard narrative of Sidney’s development as a poet, it is Rudenstine 1967, which also offers high-quality close readings of many Sidney poems, including lesser-known lyrics. McCoy 1979 offers a narrative of development centered on Freudian psycho-sexual conflicts, and it has been influential in criticism of Sidney’s New Arcadia in particular. Alexander 2006 uses distinctive traits in Sidney’s works as a basis on which to explain their influence on other writers in the Sidney family and on some 17th-century English literature, and it is unlikely to be superseded anytime soon. Hillyer 2010 is an excellent resource for dissertation writers and advanced scholars who need a thorough analysis of Sidney’s reception in literary criticism.

  • Alexander, Gavin. Writing after Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney, 1586–1640. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199285471.001.0001

    The most comprehensive study of Sidney’s immediate influence on English literature. Argues that Sidney’s literary works are inherently dialogic and radically incomplete; they invite both immediate literary responses by members of Sidney’s generation and continuations, spinoffs, and nostalgic and antiquarian responses of the later 17th century.

  • Buxton, John. Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19023-2

    Surveys Sidney’s personal and familial connections on the Continent and in England. Argues that, though the “Areopagus” itself was an in-joke, Sidney and his friends deliberately reformed English literary, intellectual, musical, and artistic culture in a broadly European tradition. Originally printed in 1954. Next to van Dorsten 1962 (cited under Sidney’s Continental Connections), this is the best early study of Sidney’s connections on the European continent.

  • Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: His Life and Works. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    A good, if dated, literary-historical introduction for nonspecialists. Reads Sidney’s works chronologically. Posits that Sidney is a “Christian humanist” caught between a sense that humanity is perfectible and Calvinist despair of the same.

  • Hillyer, Richard. Sir Philip Sidney, Cultural Icon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230106314

    A concise study of Sidney’s contemporary reception. Argues that Sidney’s reputation as courtier and hero has made it difficult to assess his literary achievements. Resists claims that Sidney’s political ideals lead directly to the republicanism of his great-nephew Algernon Sidney. Eight thematic chapters pair Sidney with comparable poetic and political exemplars.

  • McCoy, Richard. Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1979.

    Frequently cited life-and-works study. Interprets Sidney’s major works—in a largely Freudian paradigm—as inconclusive attempts to reconcile valorizing individual autonomy with imperatives to submit to authority.

  • Myrick, Kenneth O. Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

    One of the first books to argue that The Defence of Poesy informs all Sidney’s later work. Sees Defence as a unified classical oration that draws heavily on Minturno and Scaliger and embodies sprezzatura (deft nonchalance); the New Arcadia follows Minturno’s precepts for epic, but it is artistically flawed. Initially panned, remains influential. Originally published in 1935.

  • Rudenstine, Neil L. Sidney’s Poetic Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674422735

    Argues that Sidney deployed a variety of poetic styles from the beginning of his career. Two forces shape Sidney’s poetic development: tension between the active and contemplative life glimpsed in the correspondence with Languet and increasing command of dramatic tension that generates the energeia (forcibleness) for which Sidney’s poetry is known.

  • Woodcock, Matthew. Sir Philip Sidney and the Sidney Circle. Tavistock, UK: Northcote, 2010.

    Combines an introduction to Sidney and his literary works suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students new to Sidney with clear syntheses of the scholarship of the last few decades. Provides a brief chronology and a topically arranged annotated bibliography.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.