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Dazzling Images: The Masks of Sir Philip Sidney.

Alan Hager's book presents a patchy survey of Sidney's oeuvre. It aims to save Sidney, providing a 'demythologized' insight where all others have failed: 'Sidney . . . is in danger of falling into a critical gap . . . because of a critical debate that fails to come to terms with his conscious role-playing'. Sidney is 'a ventriloquist didactic poet working by indirection and irony'. His voice is heard indirectly, as someone else's. He imitates the ironic, self-parodic postures in Erasmus's Moriae Encomium, More's Utopia, and Agrippa's De Incertitudine.

The assertion that Sidney practises self-parody in the tradition of the 'serious jest' depends upon convincing identification of the author with his narrators. In The Lady of May Rombus's views, 'whom I assume Sidney played', are Sidney's; but in the Defence of Poetry the 'rhetor', 'Sidney's Chaucerian narrator', is granted an ironic detachment. Such fluidity of identification self-destructs when ideas about the relationship of author to narrator in Book II of the New Arcadia conflict. Hager proposes that 'Three genres of erotic narrative make their appearance in an agon of feminine narration and critical response, but loss of control of these genres, I argue, belongs to the female personae, not their author, Sidney'. This view that fictional characters experience a life of their own creation is undermined in the next line. There Philoclea, Miso, and Mopsa, 'the female personae', are 'a set of three female authorial personae'.

Hager manipulates Philoclea's age to force her tale of Erona improbably to become 'her version of herself . . . at nineteen--Philoclea's age', which it is not. In the opening description of Musidorus's rescue and arrival in Arcadia, 'The narrator, by indirect discourse, filters the events to the reader through Musidorus's consciousness, even semiconsciousness as the case may be'. But Hager has previously concluded that tile 'opening tale' is 'gently undercut by the irony of the protean narrator and the designer, Sidney's Chaucerian narrator'. Is the discourse direct, indirect, or some fusion of both?

Deliberate intellectual drift pervades this book, which is brimful of deconstructionist self-parody. Hager's own didactic sophism parallels his description of Sidney's in the Defence of Poetry. He concludes that 'The reader of such a work must follow the rationalization and limited arguments of the changeable rhetor as one would a dialogue where different speakers represent divergent points of view, each with good reasons, but good reasons cloaked in logic coloured by the rhetoric of self-love'. This reads like an appreciation of the rhetor of Hager's own work.

Hager has a theory that Sidney has a theory 'of retroactive reading', whereby a reader scurries back to a passage once he or she realizes its fuller potential. Hager forgets how unpredictable the reader's reception of the text can be. Elsewhere he stresses that Sidney finds this important, as in Musidorus's concern about how Pamela will receive his letter in Book III of the New Arcadia, and in the opening sonnet in Astrophil and Stella.

The genital focus of the dicussion of AS x, where 'Thoughts surceasing, life melting, the fantasy dying "in me," all suggest masturbatory orgasm', develops in the exposition of AS 98.3 ('Ah bed . . . How is thy grace by my strange fortune staind') into a Hollywood horror scenario: 'Astrophil's bed horrifies him not only because Stella does not lie in it, but also because it is "by my strange fortune staind", by tears, but also, perhaps by blood and semen'. Time to shift his breeks!

Hager forces his thesis full circle. In AS 50, 'The image of masculine pregnancy and labor, which opens the sequence, develops into a vignette of birthing, postpartum depression, and infanticide' which 'has its "pathological" logic . . . . It reflects the poet's urge to self-destruction by proxy . . . he is suicidal'. In suicide by proxy the thesis of 'indirection' is pushed too far, while that of self-parody, which sets the light-hearted atmosphere of the poem, is sacrificed to the neo-gothic invention of 'a vampiric Astrophil' who 'anticipates the graveyard imaginings of a Hamlet or Ferdinand on Shakespeare's or Webster's stage'.

Hager's book begins with a critique of the received 'image of Sidney . . . that found a recent form in a BBC comedy series [Monty Python]'. Even when he published this in ELH 48 (1981), 1-16, the programme was about a decade old. The reference remains in this revamped article as if it were a talisman. In the circus of recent Sidney criticism Dazzling Images provides one of the more entertaining acts; but the thesis it presents of Sidney as 'a ventriloquist' attempts a virtuoso performance in the realm of the unworkable, that grey area where the performer assumes the life of his own dummy.

VICTOR SKRETKOWICZ University of Dundee
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Author:Skretkowicz, Victor
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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