Some Penguin Classics do their duty quickly, efficiently, and with minimal fuss – indeed, considering how often Penguins are assigned as schoolroom texts, it’s fair to say a great many of them do just that. And although I haven’t been in a schoolroom in a long time, constantly reading and re-reading all types of books keeps me in a kind of schoolroom always – and sometimes a quick, no-fuss volume is exactly what I want.
One such volume (Penguin has produced thousands over the century – we’ll be seeing many, many more in due time) is the Selected Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, a slim, packed volume created in 1994 by Elizabethan specialist Catherine Bates. It’s an unenviable task, taking the large and extremely complicated poetical output of a writer like Sidney and distilling it into a volume of 200 pages without distorting the very works you’re editing. Sidney only lived 32 years, but he crammed the living of twice that time into his span, and in between all the rest, he and his sister managed to write some of the finest, most rarefied verse England had seen in hundreds of years. Getting all that into a book this size and doing justice to all of it is no mean feat, and Bates accomplishes it with a very appealing minimalist style. I don’t know of a comparable Sidney volume that wouldn’t either baffle or alienate college-age readers coming to the poet for the first time; Bates’ volume might just keep them reading.
Sidney was born to money and given an incredible education that for all its wonders barely managed to keep pace with his own superabundant abilities. He attended Oxford when he was 14, and by the time he was 20, he’d witnessed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, visited Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Basle, Bratislava, Vienna, Venice, Padua, Genoa, Florence, and Poland, and met and charmed (even though he’d had the smallpox, he was in his late teens and early 20s an astonishingly handsome young man) most of the leading scholars and intellects in all those places. Back home in England his unnaturally sweeping intellect and ability were already gaining him the age’s closest approximation of celebrity.
And in between his other accomplishments, he regularly retired to the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke, Wilton, where he got to do the single thing he liked best in all the world: talk, laugh, and collaborate with his sister Mary. It was at Wilton that they wrote the Old Arcadia, with its seemingly endless array of styles and voices (Bates gives generous selections):
This cave is dark, but it had never light.
This wax doth waste itself, yet painless dies.
These words are full of woes, yet they feel none.
I darkened am, who once had clearest sight.
I waste my heart, which still new torment tries.
I plain with cause, my woes are all mine own.
No cave, no wasting wax, no words of grief,
Can hold, show, tell, my pains without relief.
Mary also helped him dream up his oddly stilted, oddly moving masterpiece, the sonnet sequence (the first in English) Astrophil and Stella, so full of a young man’s ardor:
Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance
Guided so well, that I obtained the prize,
Both by the judgement of the English eyes,
And some sent from that sweet enemy, France;
Town-folks my strength; a daintier judge applies
His praise to sleight, which from good use doth rise;
Some lucky wits impute it but to chance;
Others, because of both sides I do take
My blood from them who did excel in this,
Think Nature me a man of arms did make.
How far they shoot awry! The true cause is,
STELLA looked on, and from her heav’nly face
Sent forth the beams, which made so fair my race.
Instead of bracing her edition with a long scholarly introduction, Bates keeps things stripped down and simple: a two-page overview of the provenance of Sidney’s manuscripts, a two-page summary (rather than a 15-page narration) of Sidney’s life, from his birth in 1554 to his tragic death at Arnhem in 1586, and then BOOM, you’re reading poetry! But not entirely unassisted: the endnotes come with terrifically compacted explications where necessary, like this one:
Edward named fourth … Edward IV (1442-82), who usurped the throne in 1461 after his father, the Duke of York, was killed fighting the Lancastrians. Edward was notorious among sixteenth-century chroniclers for his licentiousness, and Shakespeare presents him as enjoying ‘his hateful luxury/And bestial appetite in change of lust …/Even where his raging eye or savage heart,/Without control, lusted to make a prey’ (Richard III, III.v.80-84). Astrophil’s identification with this king invites a degree of irony at his own expense.
That last line is choice and shows an insightful editor working hard to stay inconspicuous. That can be a blessing sometimes, when all you really want is the poetry served up short and neat. There are much, much longer editions of Sidney’s verse – Penguin has been presenting various incarnations of this much-studied but not-enough enjoyed poet for decades (we’ll get to their cinder-block unedited Arcadia by-and-by), but I think this volume is the friendliest – for which its editor is to be most heartily thanked.