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VOL. II. PART I.
ART. I. The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia. A pastorale Romance. By Sir Philip Sidney. The eighth edition. London, 1633; folio; pp. 482.
THE name of Sir Philip Sidney is associated with many pleasing and delightful recollections. We remember him as one of the greatest ornaments of the most glorious reign in our annals-as one of the chief favourites of that great Queen whom we are taught from childhood to regard with respect and admiration. We remember him as the darling son of chivalry-as the inheritor of the noble and knightly qualities of Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristrem, of their courage without their ferocity, of their generosity without its concomitant rudeness-as the chain or connecting link which was interposed between the chivalric pageantry which had gone before, and the scarcely settled refinement which succeeded-as the compound of all that was high-spirited and romantic, of all that was gallant and brave. We remember him as one who communicated to the court of Elizabeth that tincture of romance, which gives it to our view, when seen through the dusky distances of antiquity, a mellow and chastened richness, not unlike the variegated and brilliant colouring with which the rays of the departing sun are embued by the painted windows through which they penetrate, as they
"Illume with mellow light the brown-brow'd aisle."
We remember him as the patron and friend of our English Ariosto, the author of that enchanting production, The Fairy Queen, which we are sorry to see it is now the fashion to underrate and neglect. And lastly, we remember him as the contemporary of Shakspeare, and as one of the kindred spirits of that enchanted circle, of which Shakspeare was the master magician and wizard supreme.
Few characters, indeed, appear so well fitted to excite enthusiastic admiration as that of Sir Philip Sidney. Uniting all the accomplishments which youthful ardour and universality of talent could acquire or bestow-delighting nations with the varied witchery of his powers, and courts with the fascination of his address-leaving the learned astonished with his proficiency, and the ladies enraptured with his grace, and communicating, wherever he went, the love and spirit of gladness—he was, and well deserved to be, the idol of the age he lived in. He appeared to be a good in which all nations considered themselves to be interested-not the partial and sole property and product of one people, but an universal benefaction, given and intended for all, and in the glory and honour of which all had a right to be partakers. His death, therefore, was lamented by every court he had visited; and, to do honour to his memory, kings clad themselves in the habiliments of grief, and universities poured forth their tribute of academical sorrow. So rare an union of attractions, so unaccustomed a concentration of excellence, such a compound of military renown with literary distinction, and courtly refinement with noble frankness, gave him a passport to every heart, and secured him, at once, universal sympathy and esteem. He was, indeed, if ever there was one, a gentleman, finished and complete, in whom mildness was associated with courage, erudition mollified by refinement, and courtliness dignified by truth. He is a specimen of what the English character was capable of producing, when foreign admixtures had not destroyed its simplicity, or politeness debased its honour. The very stiffness it then possessed had a noble original; it was the natural consequence of that state of society, when the degrees of order and subordination were universally observed and understood, when the social relations were not broken down by the incroaching power of innovation, and when each was as ready to pay as to exact his tribute of observance and respect. No lax discipline in morals had then interwoven itself with the manners of the great, nor was the court, as in the reign of Charles the Second, converted into a painted sepulchre, where the spirit, the gaiety, and the gilding without, could ill disguise the darkness and rottenness within: it was not, as in that court, a great national reservoir of iniquity, where all the degrees of order, and all the barriers of principle, were le
velled and overthrown. The most accomplished members of the court of Queen Elizabeth were not less distinguished for the strictness of their moral principles, than for their polish and address as courtiers. Of such a stamp was Sir Philip Sidney, and, such as he was, every Englishman has reason to be proud of him. He exalted his country in the eyes of other nations, and the country he honoured will not be ungrateful. England will ever place him amongst the noblest of her sons, and the light of chivalry, which was his guide and beacon, will ever lend its radiance to illuminate his tomb-stone, and consecrate his memory.
The productions of such a man, were they even inferior to the expectation his renown had excited, deserve surely a better reception than the rigid severity of criticism. He, whose whole end in writing was to make his readers wiser and better men, surely has a right to other treatment from that world on which his comet-like radiance was thrown. If there was nothing else to excite our lenity, yet should his untimely fate dispose us to regard, with favour, productions which can hardly be called other than juvenile, and certainly not the fruits of maturity. There is something very touching in the premature departure of promising excellence in the cutting short of the bright course of talent, before it has reached its goal and consummation-in the striking, with the lightning of heaven, the uprising shoot of genius, while yet it has only produced the blossoms of paradise, blighted and destroyed before they are ripened into fruit. There is something very melancholy in the thoughts, how many bright ideas and noble creations, how many glowing images and emanations of fancy, have been lost for ever to the world, by the early death of those to whom a longer life would have brought everlasting renown. When we consider what they might have been, had a longer duration been allowed them, to what a blaze of splendour that flame, whose increase we were observing, might at length have shot out, had it not been for ever extinguished by death, it is impossible not to feel affection and commiseration for victims so soon led to the slaughter. Such was the fate of Sir Philip Sidney; and the pity which it excites should surely prevent us from treating his works, as they have been treated, with sneering insolence and cold-blooded vituperation. Let us remember that he died at the age of thirty-two; and, if the lives of Milton and Dryden had not been prolonged beyond that period, where would have been their renown, or where the poetical renown of their country?
But the works of Sir Philip Sidney stand in no need of indulgence from considerations of compassion. With a mind, glowing with images of heroism, and filled with the brightest creations and the fairest visions of human and more than hu
man excellence; with a heart which embraced, in its wide circuit of benevolence, the universal good of his species; with an intellect, whose comprehensiveness of observation seemed to claim all arts and sciences, as within the compass of its power and the precincts of its dominion; with a fancy which, delicately beautiful and pensively sweet, overspread the emanations of his genius with an envelope not less delightfully tinted than the covering of the yet unopened rose-bud, and which breathed over all his productions an exquisite finish and relief; he possessed all the essential qualities, from whose operation the everlasting monuments of the mind are fabricated. Unfortunately for the world, the variety of his power and the diversity of his employments prevented him from bestowing on literature the whole energy of his mind, and thus such of his compositions as remain were rather the sports of his leisure, than the fullwrought and elaborate performances of his study. He has, however, left enough to the world, to demonstrate that the name of Sir Philip Sidney has an indisputable right to a place amongst those of our countrymen, who have been most distinguished for virtue or memorable for genius; and that, amongst the contemporaries of Shakspeare, no one has so closely approached his peculiar excellencies, or so nearly resembled him in some of his superlative endowments, as the author of the Arcadia. Without launching out into an hyperbolical exuberance of praise, we may safely affirm, that in the art of attracting interest and exciting compassion, in the art of ruling over and awaking the best sympathies of our nature, and of chaining the feelings of his readers to the fate and the fortunes of the personifications of his fancy-in the power of clothing and adorning every subject he treated upon, with the fairest flowers and sweetest graces of poetry, and of giving the charm of his inimitable diction to descriptions fresh from nature, and sentiments marked with the dignified and noble character of his mind—in the power of delighting and enchanting his readers, as with some strange and unearthly melody, which, once heard, is never forgotten, and whose remembered notes still continue to entrance the senses as long as their perceptions are alive-he is inferior to no writer in his own age, or in any which has gone before or succeeded it. His great defect was the want of judgement, which led him sometimes to adopt the forced conceits and quaintness of his contemporaries, and often induced him to desert, in the imitation of others, his own never-failing and unequalled fountain of invention and thought. From this defect, his poetry is perhaps the least valuable part of his works, and is often little more than a jingle of words, or a collection of strange and ill-assorted ideas-where the magnificent and the ridiculous, the ingenious and the mean, are mingled in one mass of incongruity together.