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October 22, 2017

Sidney the Shepherd-Knight

On this day in 1586 the courtier-poet Sir Philip Sidney died from wounds suffered in a battle with the Spaniards at Zutphen, in the Netherlands. It is impossible to tell how much of the monument which Sidney's contemporaries constructed to him is based in reality, but the Queen is said to have described him as "the most accomplished gentleman in Europe," and the commoners at his funeral are said to have shouted, "Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived," and as C. S. Lewis put it, "Even at this distance, Sidney is dazzling."

We do know that the legendary story of his fatal wounding is false: Sidney was without his leg armor because he had been too rushed to put it on, not because he gave it to another soldier who had forgotten his own. And the battle itself was less than the high-point of English military glory: getting things reversed in the fog and the dark, the commanders positioned themselves in front of rather than behind their troops, and so were the first targets of the Spanish muskets at daybreak. Nor does the story that the bleeding commander, in the manner of Plutarch's Alexander the Great, gave up his own water bottle to one of his thirstier, bloodier soldiers seem verifiable, though Sidney's reputation for generosity and chivalric courtesy is well-documented.

Whether heartfelt or calculated to some promotional purpose, any number of contemporary anecdotes, letters, book dedications, and early biographies sang the virtues of "the miracle of our age," one "untouched by any man's envy or detraction, so that he might deservedly be called the darling of the human race." Sidney's body was brought back to England for burial -- the ship black-sailed and draped in black cloth, the state funeral the first for a commoner (Nelson and Churchill were second and third), the event recorded and lamented in every medium (including a 38-foot hanging mural).

Sidney was a pioneer in the sonnet (the Astrophel and Stella series), and his Arcadia is a major contribution to pastoral literature -- the land where "shepherd boys pipe as tho' they would never be old." And those who complain that the historical Sidney might not measure up to the poetic one should read his Defence of Poesie, an early and thoroughly Renaissance argument for the truth of "fiction." When Sidney examines the mere "Logic" of the Astronomer, Philosopher, Lawyer, Grammarian, Arithmetician, Physician and Metaphysician, he concludes that "of all writers under the Sunne, the Poet is the least lyer." Fulke Greville was friend and first biographer to the "shepherd saint"; these are the concluding lines of his "Elegy on the Death of Sidney":
    Farewell to you, my hopes, my wonted waking dreams;
    Farewell, sometimes enjoyed joy, eclipsed are thy beams;
    Farewell, self-pleasing thoughts which quietness brings forth;
    And farewell, friendship's sacred league, uniting minds of worth.

    And farewell, merry heart, the gift of guiltless minds,
    And all sports which for life's restore variety assigns.
    Let all that sweet is, void; in me no mirth may dwell:
    Philip, the cause of all this woe, my life's content, farewell!

    Now rime, the son of rage, which art no kin to skill,
    And endless grief, which deads my life, yet knows not how to kill,
    Go seek that hapless tomb, which if ye hap to find,
    Salute the stones that keep the bones that held so good a mind.

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