Born into the Elizabethan era, in 1554, Philip Sidney was known as a poet and soldier and was a prominent feature of the court at the time. He came from an influential family and was educated at Shrewsbury School and then Oxford, before being elected to Parliament at the age of just 18. Traveling widely through Europe in his youth, he was once tasked with trying to establish a union between the then queen, Elizabeth I, and the Duke of Anjou.
During that time he also worked as an envoy to the French king Louis IX and was known as a skilful diplomat. On his return to English shores in 1575, Philip Sidney devoted himself more fully to art and politics, as befitted his position at the time. He was not one to shy away from controversy, however, and once challenged the Earl of Oxford to a duel, something that made even the queen bristle with indignation.
His artistic pursuits were a little more serene and he composed Astrophil and Stella in the 1580s, exploring love and desire in a series of 108 sonnets. At the time he had close connections with other literary giants of the time, including Edmund Spenser and Edward Dwyer. Astrophil and Stella was notable for a change in the way romantic poetry was written where Sidney used aspects of the Italian poetry of Francesco Petrarca who was widely thought of as the father of humanism.
Perhaps his most ambitious work was The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Often separated into the old and new versions, where Sidney took the original work and greatly expanded on it, he began writing it in the 1570s. An epic poem in the Hellenistic style of the Greeks, it offered many stories which explored love, battle, war and the treachery of politics. The old version was never published until the early 20th century but the newer one was released twice during the 16th century, and was very popular at the time, inspiring many imitators.
In 1583, Philip Sidney wrote the essay The Defence of Poetry which had a central argument that, because it combines both historical matters and the philosophical, poetry is a much more powerful medium than the two subjects placed together.
Although nowadays he is inextricably linked with the Elizabethan court, he spent little time there. He was thought to be a champion of the protestant ethic but was closely associated with the King of Spain and was often found in the company of eminent Catholics. Hot in temper and often quick to rise to judgement, he was also seen as the perfect example of what was then known as the gentleman-soldier and he did not think of himself as just a writer.
In 1586, he went to Zutphen in the Netherlands to fight against the Spanish Catholics and there was wounded in battle. Carried to Arnhem, he died a short while later when the wound turned gangrenous. He was buried at St Paul’s in London.