11 FEBRUARY 1938, Page 30


Astrophel : or the Life and Death of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney. By Alfred H. Bill. (Cassell, iss.) Tins is that Sidney who as Providence seems to have sent him into the world to give the present a specimen of the ancients so it did on a sudden recall him and snatch him from us as more worthy of heaven than of earth." Just as today we might speak of some especially noble spirit as more worthy of the Elizabethan age-, so did the Elizabethans look upon Sir Philip Sidney as a " specimen of the ancients." He is one of those few historical characters of whom as we read ever more extravagant praise, we may begin to wonder whether he is not a little too good to be true. What super- human gifts can they have been which won the praise of Essex, Cecil, and Leicester, and the love of Fulke Greville, of Walsingham, of William the. Silent, of Edmund Spenser ?

What, sort of than it be for whom all England went into mourning- for many months ?

Sir Philip Sidney was less than thirty-two years old when by an act of great gallantry and rashness he threw away his life. He had never filled any position of the first importance, though he was Master of the Ordnance and Governor of Flushing at his death. Yet he left upon his age a mark that three centuries have not effaced ; and his memory is unstained by a single word of malice or dispraise. He was an admirable scholar and poet ; he was the author of a romance which, though unread today, profoundly influenced the 'literature of the next century ; all men of learning, whether in religion, science, or philosophy, looked upon him as a friend and equal. Yet if his talents ended there, one might say that in an age of men like Ascham and Bacon he was not unique. But Sidney was as well a successful diplomatist who won golden opinions all over Europe ; he was a fine horseman and swordsman, and prominent in every field of sport from the tournament to the tennis-court ; he was a soldier not only superlatively brave, but able and farsighted. If he had any deficiencies, it was possibly as a lover; yet he wrote some of the most passionate sonnets in our language.

Was all this manifold perfection, one wonders, merely due to some chance of birth or breeding ? It is the duty of his biographer to face this challenge, to try to penetrate beneath his " lovely and familiar gravity," and to find whether his secret lay in himself or in some lucky star. Sir Philip Sidney's present biographer, Mr. Bill, handles his subject with much ability and charm. His book is so well written and polite, his admiration is so quietly and well expressed, that all doubts are set at rest, and the conviction grows that Sidney was really, in himself and not merely in his setting, a peerless and incomparable man. He was far from owing any immense advantage to his birth : nor was his death the end of a career that might have waned ingloriously.

Least of all did he owe any debt to Queen Elizabeth. She had behaved abominably to Sidney's father, and she behaved quite as ill towards the son. And over his treatment of Elizabeth, it is necessary to criticise an otherwise admirable author. Mr. Bill subscribes to a convention which now appears to be becoming common form among all writers who deal with this particular period. That is to say, that after he has devoted two pages to an encomium upon Eliza- beth's " statecraft " and sense of duty, he thinks himself at liberty to sprinkle the rest of his book with instances of her incompetence, obstinacy, irresolution, ingratitude and want of discrimination. Opinions may differ about her merits, but it is hard to see how she can have it both ways. In her dealings with the Sidneys, at all events, she showed herself singularly unworthy of such servants.