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The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics.

Blair Worden. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.9 pls. + xxv + 406 pp. $50. ISBN: 0-300-06693-7.

"Sidney's Arcadia is the unread classic of English literature," Blair Worden begins (xix) - something that may come as a surprise to many of us who have been reading it, teaching it, publishing on it, and directing dissertations on it for some years - and he proposes to salvage this unknown text by showing that it is stuffed with historical analogues. Primarily, he wishes to argue - and does with impressive and often useful detail for more than 200 pages - that the possibility of Elizabeth I's marriage to Anjou was not only the inciting incident of the Arcadia but will help to explain most of its mysteries. To make his case, Worden implicitly and explicitly draws analogies between Basilius and Elizabeth, Euarchus and William of Orange (far less often - Sidney had hoped to marry Orange's daughter), and Philanax to Sidney himself. In such a straightforward exercise, the historian seems to wish to transform a literary text into an indirect historical statement; there is little room here to demonstrate how longstanding poetic conventions, hotly debated literary issues, and deliberate literary choices of models (some of them now, but not then, the real unread texts) play a crucial role in the shaping of the work and of its presentation.

To be fair, this is not always (and never quite explicitly) the case. "If we were to look for a programme of political theory in the Arcadia we would be disappointed," he writes. "It would serve us right. Sidney, as a poet will do, supplies images of political degeneration, not analyses of it" (209). The intrusion and tone of "As a poet will do" is key in this unrepresentative passage. Just a few passages later this is supported by a more representative passage: "Basilius' mind, we learn when we first meet him has been 'corrupted with a prince's fortune.' Sidney went out of his way to reproduce those words in the New Arcadia. They point to the inherent defects of kingship where kingly will prevails. In 1579 George Buchanan, a writer always alive to the frailties of princes, feared lest Mary's son James VI of Scotland might be 'corrupted' by 'false notions' implanted by 'flattery.' John Stubbs declared in the Gaping Gulf, with Elizabeth's conduct during the Anjou negotiations in mind, that 'the very place of a prince doth bring him some disadvantage through our old Adam, who when he is lift up will hardly yield to the poor good advice of them that speak truth in a bare simplicity.' For Sidney and his allies the corruption of princes illustrated rules of 'nature.' It was the 'corruption of human nature' that led Languet and Mornay to conclude that kings must be restricted by contracts with their subjects; William of Orange, urging resistance to Philip II, observed that it is 'in the nature of sovereign power not to brook any contradiction'; in 1579 a Dutch tract against Philip remarked on the failings that lie in 'the nature of kings,' or at least in the 'nature' of 'most . . . kings'; Fulke Greville thought that it was 'in princes' natures' for passion to usurp reason; in the Arcadia it is 'according to the nature of great persons' that Basilius, 'in love with that he had done himself,' makes the preposterous appointment of Dametas as his 'principal herdman.' Sidney often alerts us to the vices inherent in 'great persons,"great personages,"great men,"great fellows,"proud lords,' on whose wills there is no check" (213-14).

The great range of documentation - sometimes manuscript; more often in printed sources - is stockpiled alongside an event, a phrase, or a character, allowing the reader to determine its importance - and perhaps even its relevance. The relative availability of such works to Sidney and their relative importance are not issues. That literary tactics press on such information is not a concern. Moreover, the subject is the Old Arcadia; the New Arcadia and the composite Arcadia (which Worden feels are inferior texts) depend largely on Mary Stuart (seen as Cecropia, 173) as the inciting incident. Yet frequently, to make his points, Worden slips without comment into the New Arcadia (as, for instance, on 159-60, 173, 232, 242, 261, 282, 333-34).

Part 4 of this study, especially with its discussion of "On Ister Bank," is exceptional in the degree to which the political analysis does bear directly on thoughts and events in the Old Arcadia, and part 5, on the private world of the characters, has some brilliant observations. Here too Mary Stuart's inability to divorce the amatory from the political sheds important fresh light on Pyrocles and Musidorus (see especially 305, 331). Sidney's own biography (315) leads Worden to some crucial understanding of the use of generations in the Old Arcadia. The conclusion, moreover, on the use of reason, the definition of liberty, and the responsibility of the aristocracy and the right form of government, occasionally using Sidney's lexicon of "security" and "sleep," is a major contribution to Sidney studies, demonstrating how the public and private in the work are two "dimensions of a single argument" (xxi).

This is a brave book, and a necessary one; as Worden himself remarks, we are at the point where historians and literary critics must find a way to help each other understand literary texts as well as historical documents. The poet's "well enchanting skill" (19) can illuminate history even as it embraces poetry. But until the knowledge of both professional interests are truly merged - and it is difficult when poetic genre and metaphor get in the way - we will still find the challenge one of the hardest, if most pressing, in Renaissance studies.

ARTHUR F. KINNEY University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kinney, Arthur F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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