Contention's field: essays in the life and art of Sir Philip Sidney

Martin, Christopher Clinton, Department of English, University of Virginia
Nohrnberg, James, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Braden, Gordon, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

Born into a fiercely competitive and self-conscious courtly milieu, Sir Philip Sidney found temperance perhaps the least accessible of all human virtues in his time. Constantly vacillating himself between the poles of studious retirement and aggressive self-assertion, Sidney populated his writings with characters who, absorbed in combative quests for status or identity, fall victim to the destructiveness of their own extreme tendencies. While several scholars, most notably Richard C. McCoy, have discussed the patterns of conflict and ensuing ambiguities informing the Sidney canon, they have for the most part overlooked his fascination with the very excess he repeatedly pondered and criticized. By explicating Sidney's responses to extreme positions in the areas of personal, political, and literary experience, the dissertation reveals the intellectual concerns which give life to the minor works as well as the more famous lyric and romance masterpieces.

By reputation one of the most representative Elizabethans, Sidney projects in his art the intensely combative tendencies typifying courtly life, focusing especially upon the excessive desire to establish selfhood or maintain status. Where in The Lady of May he comments on the inefficacy of the protracted rhetorical battles characterizing his contemporary political scene, and investigates the more private antagonisms of erotic relationships in the lyric sequences, Sidney also in the Arcadia explores the obsessive quest for autonomy in terms of the broader dynastic concerns besetting all hereditary governments. Ironically, Sidney's own polemic reveals that in real life he could not divorce himself from the competitive inclinations he frowned upon. The chapters framing the dissertation's central exposition suggest how at least two of his intimate contemporaries, Greville and Spenser, seriously questioned the overreaching temperament which ultimately led to his death. If Greville could not live up to his friend's illustrious ideals, he acknowledges in the Life of Sidney that his own skeptical cautiousness might be better suited to the more mundane political exigencies of the time; similarly, by publishing his Astrophel together with Colin Clouts Corne Home Againe, Spenser reaffirms his more secure if lowlier poetic status against the overwhelmingly splendid but corrupt world of the court in which Sidney moved.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Sidney, Philip -- 1554-1586
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