Nine Lives (of the Poets): Sidney!

Our book today was written quite some time ago: it’s Fulke Greville’s biographical sketch of his friend Philip Sidney. As every English major in the Western world once knew, Sidney died while fighting Spanish forces in the Netherlands in 1586 (“thy need is yet greater than mine” he reportedly told a fellow wounded man, handing him his water canteen) at the age of 32. Fulke Greville, his devoted friend since childhood (“Fulke Greville is a good boy” the boy Sidney scrawled in one of his friend’s schoolroom copy-books), probably wrote his The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney around 1611 or 1612. On 1 September 1628, Greville – Lord Brooke by then, and fairly wealthy from a lifetime spent at court – was stabbed in the back by his servant, Ralph Haywood (who then killed himself), allegedly because Haywood was irritated that Greville hadn’t mentioned him in his will. In 1652, Greville’s Life of Sidney was finally printed.

Unlike the case of poor Spenser, the ensuing centuries have seen many, many excellent biographies of Sidney – they could hardly resist such a tempting subject, now could they? Sidney was everything a young courtier should be – well-educated, widely-travelled, well-spoken, much-respected, only picturesquely reckless, personally brave, artistically gifted, and physically beautiful. His father, Henry Sidney, had been much the same – plain-spoken, handsome in his youth, non-ostentatiously honest and as sharp as a well-wrought weathervane. Henry Sidney did much that deserves censure while pursuing the Tudor oppression of Ireland, but it was also he who held the shivering, pain-wracked Edward VI in his arms in the last hour of his life and, his rough lips touching the boy’s brow, whispered “Rest now, dearest one; fine to rest now” – greater comfort than which no servant has ever given a king. Henry’s son Philip never got a chance to grow into the hale middle-aged statesman and writer he would have become – but he dazzled all the same, dazzled like the sun for the time he had.

Greville was as dazzled as the rest, and his portrait of Sidney – an intensely, almost joyfully strange little book, as passionate and distractible as its author – unapologetically displays that fact:

Indeed he was a true model of Worth; a man fit for Conquest, Plantation, Reformation, or what Action soever is greatest, and hardest among men: Withall, such a lover of Mankind, and Goodness, and that whosoever had any real parts, in him found comfort, participation, and protection to the uttermost of his power …

Perhaps some readers will take these tones of outright worship, link them with that business of old Lord Brooke being stabbed to death in a fit of pique by a manservant, perhaps mix in the many happy, laughing, sweaty days when Greville would join Sidney and the other lusty courtiers of Elizabeth’s court in elaborate jousts and contests and pantomimes, and derive a picture, a reality, that has familiar names and taxonomies here in the 21st century. In the Elizabethan Age, open and strenuous protestations of friendship between men was the highest fashion, so such a picture might be too presumptuous – or too easy. Safer just to say Greville was completely devoted to his handsome friend – and that he received in return the passionate reciprocation Sidney (the son, just like the father) gave to everybody he found worthy. Certainly Greville could never really believe in a world where Sidney was so abruptly taken away – like most of Sidney’s friends, he more or less refused to live in that world. “For my own part,” he writes, “I observed, honoured, and loved him so much; as with what caution soever I have passed through my days hitherto among the living, yet in him I challenge a kind of freedom even among the dead.”

At one point while his brief biography is thumping along, Greville pauses for the most unaffectedly touching line in his whole book. He’s relating some anecdote from long ago when he stops and admits, “Besides, I do ingenuously confess, that it delights me to keep company with him, even after death.”

Although he himself assesses Sidney’s work with a severity of judgement we might not expect of an acolyte (to be fair, Sidney himself set the example in this, referring but casually to the ultimate worth of any of his own works), Greville has nothing but offhand scorn for those uncomprehending readers – “our four-eyed Criticks” – who might come along later. And come along they did, in their legions! They annotated his works, wrote his many biographies – and annotated Greville’s biography. Our particular version of that biography today is the 1906 edition by Nowell Smith, whose work is superb – and whose assessment of the four-eyed Critick who came before him, Dr. Grossart, thunders with Edwardian excess:

Lovers of literature, who happen to have scholarly instincts and training, can never speak of enthusiastic antiquaries like Dr. Grossart without compunction. On the one hand they admire the generous expenditure of time and money which Dr. Grossart gave to his many ‘labours of love.’ On the other hand they can only look aghast at on the mass of inaccurate statements and worthless judgements which swell the undigested bulk of his editions. The gratitude which they are anxious to feel as they enter into the fruits of his labour is thwarted by the double labour which they have to expend in correcting his mistakes and verifying the rest of his statements.

As mentioned, many, many worthy biographies have appeared since this one. In recent years, the scholarly volume by Alan Stewart and the lively one by Katherine Duncan-Jones stand out as equally good and pleasantly different from each other, for instance. But there’s something about Greville’s haphazard devotion and lovable garrulity that take the palm for charm even in their fallibility. There’s devotion here, as might be expected of a man who ordered that his grave’s inscription read: “Fulke Greville, servant to Queen Elizabeth, conceller to King James, friend to Sir Philip Sidney.”

No real doubt which of those he considered the greatest honor.

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