Home Vintage Magazines

The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine | January 1856

William Morris floral woodcut with small winged beasts

Sir Philip Sidney

Part 1—The Prelude.

Chapter 1—Clio in the Nineteenth Century.

W E often complain, and hear others complain, that the minds of this age are incapable of strong and patient intellectual effort; that they fritter themselves away in easy flights; that reader and writer alike disport themselves in the novel, the review, the leading article, till they lose both taste and power for soberer and weightier work. Popular history, we say, is but a series of sparkling and stimulating sketches, popular poetry but "short swallow-flights of song" skimming the very base of that Aonian mount above which Milton's muse soared with no middle flight. Much, or all of this, in more genial moments, we allow to be true, but call it the necessity of the time, which we must hopefully, not querulously, adapt ourselves to. How should it be otherwise in this nineteenth century, in the midst of which God has placed us, with its whirl of conflicting principles, its tossing sea of theories and anachronisms, beliefs and disbeliefs, truths of

Heaven and falsehoods of the Pit, each struggling in its own direction, the whole mass drifting—whither? A man, be he reader or writer, in the midst of such a time, may not go definitely forward, with a single eye, to a single object; but must needs move, if haply he can move at all, in a constant zigzag, ever carried out of his course by side currents, ever fearing that the moment is at hand when he must abandon the helm and trust himself solely to the wind and the wave. To speak without figure, every man in these days is so beset, at every moment, by questions of great, nay, of the greatest conceivable importance, all of which claim his thoughts at once, that it becomes impossible for him to devote a lifetime to the study of a particular aspect of a particular question. Moreover, no thought, or mechanical process having the similitude of thought, which does not bear upon the great questions of the day (the great questions of all days, did they but know it!) can,

except by factitious means, become interesting to us. The poet must tell us of the men of the day, their sorrows and aspirations, or of the men of the past,—solely as in contrast or other relation to ourselves;1 and that suggestively, not exhaustively; we have not time for more: the epic fragment will be more welcome than the epic complete. The historian must consign to the dustheap of oblivion, though with an erudite tear, his heraldries and genealogies, his battles of the crows and kites, ever remembering that knowledge is not good in itself, but only as it makes us good, and must be content to learn from the novelist, or let the novelist take his place; for the age has said,—We will have nothing more to do with phantoms, incoherent and inconceivable, however logical; we want to see men as they were and are; not with motives, but with impulses; not equations, with so many virtues minus so many vices, but men, with infinite possibilities of good and evil; we want to see them, not that we may satisfy a flippant curiosity, but that we may gauge ourselves by them, that we may know why we are what we are, why they were other than we. If you cannot satisfy us, we must seek those who can; though they should call themselves Magazine writers, nay Novelists; it matters little whether the acts recorded be truly told, in their minutiæ of place and time and agent, so that the feelings and impulses be truly portrayed. Thus many in these days think and say; not without just cause given. For example, take the age of Elizabeth, a time the most interesting to us of all times in English history, perhaps in world-history; its men and women were so truly English, so truly noble;

its circumstances so like our own, its character so unlike. What have we in the literature of these days, of any days since Elizabeth's time itself, which, thank God, being dead, yet speaketh, putting before us that age as it really was, excepting a few years back, a few magazine articles, by Mr. Kingsley and Mr. Froude, and a novel by Mr. Kingsley?2

Not challenging any comparison with these men, but thankfully accepting the hint they have given, I purpose to call the attention of the readers of our magazine, for a short time, in this and subsequent numbers, to the life and acts of the man who was looked upon by his contemporaries as the star of Elizabeth's court and time; the most perfect character, perhaps, of whom history has taken note: the courtier, the Christian, the scholar, the warrior, the friend of Spenser and Raleigh; the incomparable Sir Philip Sidney. I have no transcendental aim; I shall endeavour, for my own good and yours, to set Sir Philip Sidney before you as he looked and spoke, and wrote, and was; to give you glimpses of the times he lived in, and the men and women he was associated with; to teach you the lessons his life has taught me, and especially that most important lesson of his life (in these days) that a man may be a true servant of his country and his queen, an accomplished gentleman, a thorough scholar, alive to all the interests (called secular) of his fellow-men, and yet be none the less, but by much the more, a true servant of Christ. I know not whether I shall succeed; I know I shall not fail utterly, for the effort will be good both for myself and you, and therefore I have heart and hope to begin.

1 See Mr. Brimley's admirable analysis of the Morte d'Arthur, in the recent volume of Cambridge Essays, pp 241 sqq.

2 Mr. Parker's advertising sheet gives hope of a still more interesting contribution to the history of this time, shorrtly forthcoming.

next  »

About this article

This article is a heritage reprint from the title publication. It is the intent of this website to present this article in human and machine readable form. Format and content changes have been made. This article is provided for the purpose of entertainment only. Statements in this article were relevant to the published period and may not be applicable in current times.