Is Arcadia England?

Sidney’s Arcadia is supposed to be set in ancient Greece, but the1593 edition twice refers to the English countryside. The “barley break” poem (Lamon’s Song) that ends the first eclogues mentions “the downs we see, near Wilton fair,” (Ross&Davis, 122), a reference to the area around the Wiltshire estate of the Earl of Pembroke, where Sidney composed much of the Arcadia. William Ringler suggests the reference does not fit the fiction and points a finger at Mary Sidney, who edited her brother’s work:

“The Countess of Pembroke apparently found the uncompleted poem among her brother’s papers and inserted it at what she considered an appropriate location in the 1593 edition. Sidney, even if he had completed it, probably would not have included it in the Arcadia, because it is too obviously a poem of the contemporary Elizabethan rather than of the ancient Arcadian country-side.” (The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, 494).

The second reference to England occurs in a poem by Philisides (Phillip Sidney’s nom de plume) in the fourth eclogues: “My song, climbyou the wind / which Holland sweet now gently sendeth in” (Ross&Davis, 482). Ringler again attributes the inclusion of the poem to Philip’s sister:

“Sidney, perhaps because the setting is so obviously England, did not make the poem a part of hisOld Arcadia. His sister probably found it among his papers and inserted it into the Third Eclogues, a poor location because it is not appropriate to the ‘marriage group’. However, we must thank the Countess of Pembroke for preserving one of her brother’s most charming poems” (The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, p. 496).

As Ringler notes, the 1613 editor changed Wilton to Helis (in the country of Elis, west of Arcadia) and Holland to Cyprus.

It may seem that references to contemporary English in a work about ancient Arcadia violate decorum. But Virgil’s eclogues, the source of Sidney’s Dametas and Mopsa and, indeed, Arcadia itself,  prefigure the use of mixed geography in a pastoral work. Rather than creating dissonance, Sidney’s introduction of England to ancient Greece illustrates a close adherence to the details of Virgil’s art.

When Virgil imitated the Greek poet Theocritus, he conflated locations and mixed in fragments of Arcadian songs and people. The modern commentator Wendell Clausen says that Virgil’s landscape is more sylvan, more “heavily wooded” than that of Theocritus (Virgil’s Ecloques [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995] p. xxvi). But earlier editors agreed with the summary by C. S. Jerram, that “The scenery is chiefly borrowed from the Sicily of Theocritus. Neither hills nor rocks, beeches, chestnuts, or pines are found in the level plain that surrounds Mantua” (Virgil: Bucolics, Oxford, 1887, p. 57, Virgil’s home, where dispossessions occurred following the end of Rome’s civil war, and the setting of Virgil’s first eclogue. The second eclogue, by contrast, is set in Sicily, where Cordydon claims to tend a thousand sheep. The third eclogue seems to be set in Virgil’s neighborhood, since it mentions his nom de plume Tityrus; the Old Arcadia has a full imitation, transferring the geography to England, that does not appear in the New Arcadia. The fourth eclogue shows a characteristic indifference to the details of local l geography: “The destruction of the herds by lions does not agree with Italian surroundings, but was nevertheless an idea familiar to the Romans,” according to according to J. B. Greenough and G. L. Kittredge (The Great Poems of Virgil [Boston: Ginn, 1900], p. 572), who offer a Pompeian wall painting to show that lions were a feature of Roman paintings, if not the actual landscape.

The seventh eclogue is ultimately about art, not a particular place. It features two Arcadians, Corydon and Thyrsis, “Arcades ambo,” who seem to have wandered into Italy, where they vie in song beside the Mincius river, which flows near Mantua. They are heard by Meliboeus, dispossessed from his northern Italian farm in the First Eclogue, and Daphnis, who seems to belong in any landscape (one of the reasons his death recalls Julius Caesar’s in the Fifth Eclogue). The eighth eclogue continues Virgil’s pattern of making his poems a landscape of the mind and emotions. He use Maenalios, a mountain in Arcadia, loosely as a synonym for Arcadia in the repeated refrain “Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, versus” (Begin with me, my flute, Maenalian lays). Kittredge sagely comments that Maenalios is a “conventional epithet not properly belonging to the scene” (p. 82).

We may conclude that we should not be too quick to assume that the rules of pastoral poetry were unknown to Mary Sidney or that her edition violates decorum because she included Lamon’s poem and “The lad Philisides” in what was, after all, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.