Our Sidney. Our Perfect Man.

By Robert Pinsky on 4.09.09

“Elegy for Philip Sidney” is a poem that accumulates a lot of emotion from its cadences, the alternating lines of six and seven metrical feet. The form is known as “Poulter’s Measure”—the thirteen feet representing the number of eggs sold in a dozen, in case one should be rotten. (A variation on “baker’s dozen.”) Reading the poem aloud, one hears both the rhythmical, expressive force of the form and its capacity to vary with effects of syncopation, contract, and variation.

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Silence augmenteth grief, writing increaseth rage,
Staled are my thoughts, which loved and lost the wonder of our
      age:
Yet quickened now with fire, though dead with frost ere now,
Enraged I write I know not what; dead, quick, I know not how.

Hard-hearted minds relent and rigour’s tears abound,
And envy strangely rues his end, in whom no fault she found.
Knowledge her light hath lost; valour hath slain her knight.
Sidney is dead; dead is my friend; dead is the world’s delight.

Place, pensive, wails his fall whose presence was her pride;
Time crieth out, “My ebb is come; his life was my spring tide.”
Fame mourns in that she lost the ground of her reports;
Each living wight laments his lack, and all in sundry sorts.

He was (woe worth that word!) to each well-thinking mind
A spotless friend, a matchless man, whose virtue ever-shined,
Declaring in his thoughts, his life, and that he writ,
Highest conceits, longest foresights, and deepest works of wit.

He, only like himself, was second unto none,
Whose death (though life) we rue, and wrong, and all in vain
      do moan.
Their loss, not him, wail they, that fill the world with cries,
Death slew not him, be he made death his ladder to the skies.

Now sink of sorrow I, who live, the more the wrong!
Who wishing death, whom death denies, whose thread is all
      too long;
Who tied to wretched life, who looks for no relief,
Must spend my ever dying days in never ending grief.

Heart’s ease and only I, like parallels, run on,
Whose equal length keep equal breadth, and never meet in one;
Yet for not wronging him, my thoughts, my sorrow’s cell,
Shall not run out, though leak they will, for liking him so well.

Farewell to you, my hopes, my wonted waking dreams,
Farewell, sometimes enjoyed joy; eclipsed are thy beams.
Farewell, self-pleasing thoughts, which quietness brings forth;
And farewell, friendship’s sacred league, uniting minds of
      worth.

And farewell, merry heart, the gift of guiltless minds,
And all sports which for life’s restore variety assigns;
Let all that sweet is void; in me no mirth may dwell.
Philip, the cause of all this woe, my life’s content, farewell!

Now rhyme, the son of rage, which art no kin to skill,
And endless grief, which deads my life, yet knows not how to
      kill,
Go, seek that hapless tomb, which if ye hap to find,
Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.

Fulke Greville and Philip Sidney knew one another as children. After Sidney died young of wounds while fighting in the Low Countries, Greville wrote a biography of his friend in which he states that his own powers as a writer are inferior to those of Sidney. Some people would disagree, and feel that Greville did himself and his poetry a disservice.

Sir Philip Sidney was considered, not only by Greville, to be the ideal person. Writing in 1919, William Butler Yeats, in his poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” calls Gregory “our Sidney and our perfect man.” High-born, physically graceful and attractive, a man of learning, a pre-eminent poet, a trusted counselor and statesman, a courageous soldier, Sidney seemed to justify the old idea that links noble birth to actual nobility of spirit.

An example of how a simple element of language can produce powerful effects: in the second stanza, the dead man is called by his family name, “Sidney”; after the poem’s process of grieving has proceeded, in the second-to-last stanza uses the more intimate “Philip.”

Editor’s Note: Head over to Slate.com where Fulke Greville’s “All My Sense’s, Like Beacon’s Flame” is the classic poem of the month and join the discussion on The Fray.

topics: Essential Pleasures

2 Comments

dp said on 4.09.09 at 10:52am:

Any comment on the slight variation between the text as read and the text as printed?

Robert Pinsky's avatar

Robert Pinsky said on 4.09.09 at 3:28pm:

dp, like many (most?) readers I often make little inadvertent changes in a text a read aloud. Sometimes, with one’s own work, it might lead to a revision!

If you or anyone gives me an example or two regarding this great Greville lament for Sidney, I’ll check to see if there are two written texts or if I’m (unintentionally) improvising while reading it.