“Three centuries have passed since he died at Arnhem, yet we can still feel the fascination of his gracious personality, and catch something of the charm that made all men love him … the courtly Elizabethan hero, the writer of the sonnets to Stella, the Christian gentleman who gave the cup of water to the wounded soldier at Zutphen.” –Oscar Wilde, Pall Mall Gazette, December 11, 1886.
SIDNEY, SIR PHILIP (1554-1586), English poet, statesman and soldier, eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife Mary Dudley, was born at Penshurst on Nov. 30, 1554. On Oct. 17, 1564, he was entered at Shrewsbury school, close to Ludlow Castle, his father’s official residence as lord president of Wales. His life-long friend and first biographer, Fulke Greville, entered the school on the same day. In 1568 he went up to Christ Chukrch, Oxford, where he formed friendships with Richard Hakluyt and William Camden. In 1572 Sidney received the Queen’s leave to travel and learn foreign languages.
Travels.—He went first of all in the earl of Lincoln’s suite to Paris, where he witnessed the St. Bartholomew massacre. From Paris he went to Frankfort-on-the-Main (1573), where he lodged with the printer Andrew Wechel, with whom also Hubert Language was staying. Sidney had from his earliest youth an unwonted maturity of manner, which, combined with charm, gained him the confidence of men of affairs. In France he was in close connection with the Huguenot leaders, and Languet, an ardent Protestant, went on with him to Vienna. In October Sidney left for Italy; his letters to Languet afford considerable insight intot he development of his character and ideas. Sidney stayed some time in Venice, and sat to Paolo Veronese for a portrait. In July 1574 he was seriously ill, and on his recovery returned to Vienna. He visited Poland with Languet, where he is said to have been offered the vacant crown, and then stayed at Vienna in a vaguely diplomatic capacity. He wrote a letter on the state of affairs to Burghley in Dec. 1574. The court moved to Prague in 1575, and from there he was summoned home.
At Court.—He found his sister Mary at court, and a patron in his uncle, Leicester. On one of the Queen’s progresses he et Penelope Devereux, daughter of the Earl of Essex, then a child of fourteen, who was later the “Stella” of his sonnets. Essex died the next year, and seems to have desired a match between Sidney and Penelope. A letter of 1576 even mentions a “treaty” between them. But nothing was done. In the spring of 1577 Sidney was sent to congratulate the new Elector Palatine and Emperor, and to promote generally the Protestant cause. He met Don John of Austria at Louvain, and went on to Heidelberg and Prague. He proposed a Protestant league and Church conference, and in a speech to the Emperor advocated a general league against Rome and Spain. On his way back he visited William of Orange. On his return home he paid the first of many visits to his sister Mary, who had married the Earl of Pembroke, at Wilton. Sidney now made it his business to defend his father’s interests at Court, particularly from Lord Ormonde, who was doing his best to prejudice the Queen against him. He drew up a detailed defence of his father’s Irish government for presentation to the Queen. A rough draft of four sections is preserved in the British Museum (Cotton MS., Titus B., xii., 557), which, wven in its fragmentary state justifies the estimate of it fromed by Edward Waterhouse (Sidney Papers). At this time Sidney was beginning to be a figure in the world of letters; Spenser, whom he met in 1578, dedicated The Shepheardes Calendar  to him. He was a member of the Areopagus Society, which sought to introduce classical metres in English verse, and he wrote the Masque with which Leicester entertained the Queen at Wanstead in 1578, The Lady of May. But Leicester’s disgrace partially involved Sidney, and after a quarrel with Oxford, probably over the proposed Anjou marriage of the Queen, followed by more active opposition to the proposal in 1580 (Sidney Papers p. 287). Sidney had to leave the Court and returned to Wilton.
Stella.—Here Sidney began the Arcadia for his sister’s amusement; not long afterwards he was allowed to return to Court. About this time must be placed the Astrophel and Stella sonnets. The date is not the only obscure point about them. His Apologie for Poetrie appeared about 1581 and he was knighted in 1583. That autumn he married Frances, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. He still desired active service, took a keen interest in the enterprises of Frobisher, Hakluyt and Raleigh, and was especially enthusiastic for the Protestant cause against Spain. He advocated a direct attack on Spain, and was himself preparing to sail with Drake in 1585 when the Queen recalled him. At last he was given a command in the Netherlands, as governor of Flushing.
Active Service and Death.—In July 1586 he made a successful raid on Axel, near Flushing, and in September hejoined the force of Sir John Norris, who was operating against Zutphen. On the 22nd he joined a small force sent out to intercept a convoy of provisions. During the fight that ensured he was struck in the thigh by a bullet. He succeeded in Ride back to the camp. The often-told story that he refused a cup of water in favour of a dying soldier, with the words, “Thy need is greater than mine,” is in keeping with his character. … Sidney’s death was a personal grief to people of all classes. Some two hundred elegies were produced in his honour. Of all these tributes the most famous is Astrophel, A Pastoral Elegie, added to Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again (1595).
Writings.—Sidney’s writings were not published during his lifetime. A Worke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion, translated from the French of Du Plessis Mornay, was completed and published by Arthur Golding in 1587.
The Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia written by Philippe Sidnei (1590), in quarto, is the earliest edition of Sidney’s famous romance. A folio edition, issued in 1593, is stated to have been revised and rearranged by the countess of Pembroke, for whose delectation the romance was written. … The circumstances of its composition partly explain the difference between its intricate sentences, full of far-fetched conceits, repetition and antithesis, and the simple and dignified phrase of the Apologie for Poetrie. The style is a concession to the fashionable taste in literature which the countess may reasonably be supposed to have shared; but Sidney himself, although he was no friend to euphuism, was evidently indulging his own mood in this highly decorative prose.
Letters and Memorials of State . . . (1746) is the title of an invaluable collection of letters and documents relating to the Sidney family, transcribed from originals at Penshurst and elsewhere by Arthur Collins. Fulke Greville’s Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney (1652, ed. by Nowell Smith, 1907), is a panegyric dealing chiefly with his public policy. The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet was translated from the Latin and published with a memoir by Steuart A. Pears (1845). The best biography of Sidney is A Memoir of Sir Philip Sidney by H. R. Fox Bourne (1862). A revised life by the same author is included in the “Heroes of the Nations” series (1891). Critical appreciation is available in J. A. Symonds’s Sir Philip Sidney (1886), in the “English Men of Letters” series; in J. J. Jusserand’s English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare (1890); and in modern editions of Sidney’s works.
(Taken from The Encyclopedia Britannica (1958 ed.)