Page images
[blocks in formation]

WHILE Elizabeth in the first year of her glorious reign was receiving the congratulations of a rejoicing land, a boy, not yet five years old, was plucking daisies and chasing butterflies on the green lawns of Penshurst in Kentshire. It was Philip Sidney, son of Sir Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley, who was sister to the magnificent Leicester, soon to be prime favourite of the Queen,

Philip, born in 1554, went to school at Shrewsbury, and passed thence to Oxford and Cambridge, where he won a scholar's name. Having spent three years in Continental travel, during which he saw Paris drenched in the blood of Huguenots, and himself narrowly escaped death on the fearful day of St. Bartholomew, he returned in his twenty-first year to England, a polished and accomplished man. His debut at court was an instant and decided success.

No doubt his uncle, Leicester, then in the full blaze of royal favour, had much to do with this; but Sidney had personal qualities which won for him the smiles of all. His finely-cut Anglo-Norman face, his faint moustache, his soft blue eyes, and flowing amber hair, were enough to make him the darling of the women;

while his skill in horsemanship, fencing, and manly games, gained the respect and admiration of the men. Higher than these outward and accidental graces must we rank the inteilect and scholarship which stamped him as one of England's greatest sons; and higher still, that gentle heart, whose pulses, always human, never throbbed

[blocks in formation]

more kindly than when, on the field of his death, he turned the cooling draught from his own blackened lips to slake the dying thirst of a bleeding soldier, past whom he was carried.

Yet this brilliance was not without its clouds. At tennis one day he quarrelled with the Earl of Oxford, who ordered him to leave the playing-ground. This Sidney refused to do; upon which Oxford, losing temper, called him a puppy. Voices rose high, and a duel was impending, when Elizabeth interfered and took Sidney to task for not paying due respect to his superiors. Philip's haughty spirit could not bear the rebuke, and he withdrew from court. Far from the glittering whirl, sheltered amid the oaks of Wilton, the seat of his brother-in-law, Pembroke, he wrote a romantic fiction, which he called The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Written merely to amuse his leisure hours, it was never finished, and was not given to the world till its gifted young writer had been four years dead. The censures, which Horace Walpole and others have passed upon this work, are quite unmerited. No book has been more knocked about by certain critics; but its popularity in the days of Shakspere and the later times of the Cavaliers, with whom it was all the fashion, affords sufficient proof that it is a work of remarkable merit. We, who read Scott and Dickens and Thackeray, cannot, certainly, relish the “Arcadia” as Elizabeth's maids of honour relished it; but all who look into its pages must be struck with its rich fancy and its glowing pictures. It is not a pastoral, as the misnomer “Arcadia," borrowed from Sannazzaro, seems to imply. There are indeed in this book shepherds, who dance and sing occasionally; but the life of a knight and courtier-such as Sidney's own-has clearly supplied the thoughts and scenery of the work.

But the book on which Sidney's reputation as an English classic writer rests, is rather his Defense of Poesie, a short treatise, written in 1581, to combat certain opinions of the Elizabethan Puritans, who would fain, in their well-meant but mistaken zeal, have swept away the brightest blossoms of our literature, along with pictures, statues holidays, wedding-rings, and other pleasant things.

A favourite of Elizabeth, who called him the "jewel of her



dominions," he was looked coldly on by the Cecils, whose policy it was to keep down men of rising talent. He had to struggle long against this aversion before he gained the governorship of Flushing. When this dear wish of his heart was at first refused, he was so angry that he resolved to join Sir Francis Drake's expedition, just then equipping for the West Indian seas. Nothing but a determined message from the Queen, whose messages were not lightly to be disregarded, could turn him from this step. It is said that about the same time he became a candidate for the crown of Poland, but here again Elizabeth interfered.

The bright life had a sad and speedy close. Holland, then bleeding at every pore in defence of her freedom and her faith, had sought the help of England, ceding in return certain towns, of which Flushing was one. Of this seaport Sidney became governor in 1585. In the following year his uncle, Leicester, laid siege to Zutphen (Southfen), a city on the Yssel, one of the mouths of the Rhine. A store of food, under the escort of some thousand troops, being despatched by Parma, the Spanish general, for the relief of the place, Leicester resolved to intercept the supply; and rashly judging one English spear to be worth a dozen Spanish, he sent only a few hundred men on this perilous service. It was one of those glorious blunders, of which our military history is full. Sidney was a volunteer, and as they rode on a chilly October morning to the fatal field, about a mile from Zutphen, the gallant fellow, meeting an old general too lightly equipped for battle, gave him all his armour except the breastplate. Thus his kindness killed him; for in the last charge a musket-ball smashed his left thigh-bone to pieces, three inches above the knee. As he

passed along to the rear, the incident occurred which 1586 has been already noticed.

Carried to Arnheim, he lay a few days, when mortification set in, and he died. His

last hours were spent in serious conversation upon the immortality of the soul, in sending kind wishes and keepsakes to his friends, and in the enjoyment of music.

Besides the “ Arcadia” and the “Defense of Poesie," Sidney wrote many beautiful sonnets, and in 1584 replied, with perhaps




more vigour than prudence, to a work called “ Leicester's Commonwealth," impugning the character of his uncle.


(FROM THE ARCADIA.") They came to the side of the wood, where the hounds were in couples, staying their coming, but with a whining accent craving liberty; many of them in colour and marks so resembling, that it shewed they were of one kind. The huntsmen handsomely attired in their green liveries, as though they were children of summer, with staves in their hands to beat the guiltless earth, when the hounds were at a fault; and with horns about their necks, to sound an alarm upon a silly fugitive: the hounds were straight uncoupled, and ere long the stag thought it better to trust to the nimbleness of his feet than to the slender fortification of his lodging; but even his feet betrayed him; for, howsoever they went, they themselves uttered themselves to the scent of their enemies, who, one taking it of another, and sometimes believing the wind's advertisements, sometimes the view of-their faithful counsellors—the huntsmen, with open mouths, then denounced war, when the war was already begun. Their cry being composed of so well-sorted mouths that any man would perceive therein some kind of proportion, but the skilful woodmen did find a music. Then delight and variety of opinion drew the horsemen sundry ways, yet cheering their hounds with voice and horn, kept still as it were together. The wood seemed to conspire with them against his own citizens, dispersing their noise through all his quarters; and even the nymph Echo left to bewail the loss of Narcissus, and became a hunter. But the stag was in the end so hotly pursued, that, leaving his flight, he was driven to make courage of despair; and so turning his head, made the hounds, with change of speech, to testify that be was at a bay : as if from hot pursuit of their enemy, they were suddenly come to a parley.

[blocks in formation]

WHEN Chaucer died, the lamp of English poetry grew dim, shining for many years only with faint, uncertain gleams. A haze of civil blood rose from the trodden battle-fields of the Roses and the dust of old, decaying systems, the clamour of whose fall resounded through the shaking land, obscured the light and blotted out the stars of heaven.” But only for a while. Truth came with the Bible in her hand. The red mist rolled away. The dust was sprinkled with drops from the everlasting well. Men breathed a purer air and drank a fresher life into their spirit, and a time came of which it may well be said, “There were giants on the earth in those days."

Edmund Spenser was, in point of time, the second of the four grand old masters of our poetical literature. He was born in 1553, in East Smithfield, by the Tower of London. It is said that he was of a noble race, but we know little or nothing of his parents. Nor can we tell where he went to school. of sixteen (1569) he entered Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar, and there in 1576 he took his degree of M.A. So meagre is our knowledge of his early life.

A friendship, formed at Cambridge with Gabriel Harvey of Trinity Hall, had considerable influence upon the poet's fortunes. When Spenser left college, having disagreed, it is thought, with the master of bis ball, he went to live in the north of England, perhaps to act as tutor to some young friend. He had, no doubt,

At the age

« PreviousContinue »