The Poems of Robert Sidney, 1984 (P. J. Croft, editor)
Sir Robert Sidney was the fifth of six children born to Sir Henry Sidney, of whom only three survived. The children’s father was lord deputy of Ireland, and their uncle was Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who may have given his name to his nephew. His older brother, Sir Philip (1554-1586), and sister, Mary, countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), both distinguished themselves in letters and politics. The fertile ground that led to this productive mix was the family home at Penshurst Place.
Robert grew up with his father away much of the time attending to business in Ireland. He followed his elder brother to Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied classics, letters, mathematics, and sciences. After graduating, he traveled throughout Europe, again following Philip’s lead. In each of these cases, the younger brother was the focused target of his brother’s developing interest in education and the promotion of Protestantism. During his time at Oxford, Robert, along with all the Sidneys, made regular trips to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The elder brother’s politics became too extreme for the queen and had a moderately negative effect on the reception of both siblings at court for a time.
Robert Sidney married Barbara Gamage in 1584. The marriage was a largely strategic affair, much like that of his younger sister, Mary, who at fifteen married Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, who was then forty. Both marriages were seen as positive moves for the family. In Robert’s case, this involved twelve children, all but two of whom survived. One of his daughters, Lady Mary Wroth, continued the family tradition of literary production.
One of the most significant factors in Robert’s life was his father’s support of his career. At the time, it was usual for family monies to go to the eldest son’s pursuits, but Henry Sidney seems to have been committed to the education of both of his surviving sons. Robert’s trip through Europe was part of a necessary training for a life in politics. During his time abroad, Robert became familiar with the new movements in Renaissance humanist thought and gained knowledge of several foreign languages. Upon his return, Robert entered Parliament in 1585.
Later that same year both Robert and Philip went to Flushing, Holland, where they fought against Spain. At the Battle of Zutphen, Sir Philip received injuries that led to his death ten days later. His younger brother, Robert, was knighted for his performance during the same battle and became head of the Sidney household at Penshurst Place upon his brother’s passing. Owing partly to his and his brother’s performance on the battlefield in Holland, Sir Robert was named governor of Flushing (1589-1616). From that point, Robert Sidney’s career continued to develop. He later became Baron Sidney (1603), Viscount De L’Isle (1605), and earl of Leicester (1618). Much of his work in the world of politics would involve the careful negotiation of the tensions surrounding various forms of Protestant factionalism and its rejection or acceptance at home and abroad. A highlight of this work came when he acted as an ambassador to Henri IV of France in ensuring proper treatment of Protestants under Henri’s rule. Sidney died at Penshurst in Kent on July 13, 1626.
Sir Robert Sidney’s body of work is small in one respect and large in another. He did not publish any of his poetry during his lifetime, though it did circulate among family and friends. However, the discovery in 1973 of his notebook has provided scholars with the single largest collection of poetry from the Elizabethan period. This ninety-page book is in the form of a sonnet cycle, with thirty-five numbered sonnets, twenty-four separately numbered poems or songs, and seven unnumbered poems. The manuscript is dedicated to his sister, the countess of Pembroke. Given the state of the manuscript, with its author’s notes and corrections, scholars believe it is most likely an incomplete draft, which would later have been sent out for publication.