Basilus, a foolish old Duke, consults an oracle as he imperiously wishes to know the future, but he is less than pleased with what he learns. To escape the oracle's horrific prophecies about his family and kingdom, he withdraws into pastoral retreat with his wife and two daughters. When a pair of wandering princes fall in love with the princesses and adopt disguises to gain access to them, all manner of complications, both comic and serious, ensue. Part-pastoral romance, part-heroic epic, Sidney's long narrative work was hugely popular for centuries after its first publication in 1593, inspiring two sequels and countless imitations, and contributing greatly to the development of the novel. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (4)
An art which appeals more to the mind than to the heart
Malory apart, the fifteenthcentury did not see many literary works of any great significance produced in England, and there wasn't a great deal more in the first half (make that the first two thirds) of the sixteenth. Then, suddenly, the last few decades of the century saw a remarkable revival of drama, poetry and prose, including the works of Shakespeare himself, still the reigning heavyweight champion of English literature.
Sir Philip Sidney was one of the key figures in this revival, and his "Arcadia", a proseromance is one of the works by which he is best remembered. It is also known as the "Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" as he wrote it for his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, and may have written it while staying at the Herbert country estate, Wilton in Wiltshire. It exists in two versions, only one of which he actually completed. For many years the only version of the "Arcadia" that was generally known was the so-called "New Arcadia". At some time during the 1580s, Sidney began to revise his original story, reorganising it and adding extra episodes not contained in the first version. In 1586, however, he was killed while fighting in the Netherlands, and the revised version remained unfinished at his death. The version which was eventually published consisted of a hybrid of the two versions. Sidney's original version, today known as the "Old Arcadia", was rediscovered in the early twentieth century, and it is this version of the story which is contained in the Oxford World Classics edition.
Arcadia was originally a rugged, mountainous district of Ancient Greece, known for the honesty of its inhabitants and the simplicity of their way of life. In later centuries, however, the word came to signify an idealised pastoral way of life characterised by ease and comfort. Sidney's was not the first literary work with that title; early in the century the Italian Jacopo Sannazaro had published his own "Arcadia", which served as one of Sidney's sources.
As Adam Nicolson points out in his recent book "Earls of Paradise", Arcadianism in sixteenth century England was not, as it was to become later, a purely decorative style based upon nostalgia for an imagined past but a political ideology, standingfor the country against the city and the court, for conservatism, hierarchy, Protestantism and the traditional feudal way of life, and against individualism, a market economy and the centralisation of power. Sidney's "Arcadia", therefore is ostensibly set in the Ancient Greek province of that name, which serves both as a fairy-tale country, a long tie ago and a long way away, and as a model for contemporary England.
Although the work is a prose romance, it has the five-act structure of a drama, the acts being divided from one another by sets of eclogues, poems mostly on the theme of love, actually composed by Sidney himself but in the context of the story supposedly written by Arcadian shepherds. (For some reason it was the shepherds of Arcadia rather than, say, cowherds or swineherds who were seen as living a particularly idealised life, in this case one which left them enough spare time to master the arts of poetry, including highly complex metres and rhyme schemes). Further poems supposedly written by various characters crop up in the main ext itself.
The plot is a complicated and far-fetched one, reminiscent of some of Shakespeare's comedies. ("Twelfth Night", "As You Like It" and "The Winter's Tale" all came to mind). It combines pastoral elements with adventure and courtly romance. Basilius, Duke of Arcadia, has withdrawn with his family from the Court to the countryside in an attempt to avoid the terms of a prophecy (which, as in all good Greek myths, such as the story of Oedipus, eventually comes true despite all attempts to thwart it). Two young men, Musidorus, Prince of Thessaly, and Pyrocles, Prince of Macedon, fall in love with Basilius' daughters Pamela and Philoclea, after being shipwrecked in the country. In order to gain access to the two princesses, both disguise themselves, Musidorus as a shepherd and Pyrocles as a woman, naming himself Cleophila. (The name is an inversion of that of his beloved, Philoclea; both derive from the Greek for "lover of glory").
This scenario gives rise to all sorts of complications, not the least of which is that both Basilius and his wife Gynecia fall in love with the supposed "Cleophila". (Basilius wrongly believes her to be a woman, Gynecia correctly suspects her to be a man, and Philoclea seems neither to know nor care whether her admirer is male or female- a sexually ambiguous storyline going beyond anything in Shakespeare).
Sidney's literary style is typical of late sixteenth century prose, a style which has become known as "Euphuism", and is characterised by a grand rhetorical manner, a complex sentence structure and much use of abstract nouns. This may be the cause of a strange contradiction in the way he has been regarded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sidney the man, the gallant poet-soldier giving his life on the battlefield for the liberty of a small nation, just as Byron was to do more than two centuries later, is a quintessentially Romantic figure. Sidney the mannered, stylised writer is far from Romantic.His highly artificial style does not conform to the idea, current since the late eighteenth century, that all great literature should represent the laying bare of the inmost secrets of the writer's soul.
Sidney himself described the "Arcadia" as "a trifle, and that triflingly handled". Yet there is much in the work to enjoy. Sidney's prose, although ornate and mannered, is also elegant and often witty. His poetry is often technically brilliant. He pays much more attention to characterisation than many earlier writers of prose fiction, such as Malory, and in this he can be seen as foreshadowing the modern novel. His is, however, an art which appeals more to the mind than it does to the heart, which perhaps explains why he, like some of his contemporaries, is today an author who is widely talked about but not so widely read.
This is the one you want
RESOLVED: The "New" Arcadia is better than the old--much better. And this is the edition of it you ought to read.
Ian Myles Slater on: Multiple Identities and Versions
"The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" is a book that has been in and out of fashion for about four centuries. It is a story of disguised princes, an impersonated princess, infatuated shepherds, and gender and identity confusions on a rather large scale, all set in a strikingly English version of ancient Greece. It was written in a mixture of prose and verse by the Elizabethan courtier, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), beginning in 1579, supposedly to amuse his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. (Hence the book's title; the Sidney family itself was recent upper-gentry rather than old nobility, but the received title may have been as much a selling point for the original publisher as personal snobbery.) It seems in fact to have been part of an ambitious project for elevating English, a second- or third-rate language in a Europe dominated by literature in Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish.
It was a key text for English society in the seventeenth century, and received a variety of political and cultural readings -- a long story in itself, involving King Charles I and John Milton, among others. Although Sidney had offered himself as a champion of Elizabeth's officially Calvinist Church, some Puritans tended to find both poetry and fiction at best a distraction, at worst a threat, and the "Arcadia" combined them; not to mention the erotic element. The resulting debate over the "Arcadia," transferred from theological-moral to aesthetic frames of reference, continues; for some critics, liking this book is itself a Bad Thing. Of course, there are those who simply don't like it; nothing appeals to every taste.
As originally published in 1590, it was a fragment, in two and a half books, breaking off in mid-story (Book III, Chapter 29), where the author left his revisions when he went to the Netherlands, and his death fighting the Spanish, in a self-assumed role as the Protestant Knight-Errant. (There is an on-line version of this text, in the original spelling, transcribed by Richard Bear, at Renascence Editions.) Its publication came near the beginning of several decades of staggering importance in English literature, which included Christopher Marlowe's major works, and those of Shakespeare, Spenser, Ben Jonson, and John Donne, among others.
The 1593 edition, in five books, was more complete, with a conclusion presented as being drawn from an earlier draft, edited to conform to Sidney's alterations. This was undoubtedly true, for, even if no other evidence had survived, the handling of these texts gave rise to a dispute between the Countess and one of her fellow editors, and the additions did not quite join with the previously printed section, leaving plot-lines dangling. (This version, likewise in Elizabethan spelling, is available as an e-book from Kessinger; in that edition, the gap is on page 453.) Later printings included one or another (or both) of two more-or-less authorized bridge passages, linking up the unfinished original part of Sidney's revised and expanded narrative to the old conclusion. (There was a 1983 facsimile edition of the 1598 printing, from Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, apparently still available.) The original "old" version was later assumed to be lost, with Sidney's manuscripts.
This 1593 version of the work has been edited twice in recent years. First, by Maurice Evans, as "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia," now in the Penguin Classics series (included 1987; originally for the Penguin English Library, 1977), for the general reader, complete with the longer of the two "bridge" sections, and useful, but limited, notes. Second, by Victor Skretkowicz, as "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The New Arcadia)," a critical edition from Oxford University Press (1987), more useful for scholars and students, but probably less attractive to others. The Penguin version is probably the more widely read of the two, and, having read and referred to it for over twenty-five years, I think that it will serve the interested reader well for most purposes. (Beyond the great advantage of being in print....)
Besides the semi-offical bridge passages, other hands offered supplements and sequels to the 1593 version, some of which have recently come in for new attention. The series "Women Writers in English 1350-1850" includes "A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney's *Arcadia*" by Anna Weamys, edited by Patrick Colborn Cullen (1994); this represents a mid-seventeenth-century Royalist reading. An interesting critical approach is offered by Elizabeth A. Spiller in "Speaking for the Dead: King Charles, Anna Weamys, and the Commemorations of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia," available on-line.
The book's popularity faded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly with the rise of the modern novel as a preferred type of narrative fiction. Although it still had some readers and admirers, the romantic essayist and critic William Hazlitt called it "one of the great monuments of the abuse of intellectual power." Hazlitt's antipathy was in part a legitimate reaction to types of prose and verse he found overblown, in part a sign of a chronological cultural gap; the temporal equivalent of despising foreign literatures as being, well, so foreign.
Sidney was one of the key figures of the "English Renaissance" -- the (by European standards) delayed flowering of literature in England in the 1580s and 1590s (and several decades thereafter), most of which he didn't live to see, but which he promoted by propaganda and example. An aspect of the "new learning" of the Renaissance which doesn't get a lot of emphasis in standard textbooks was the popularity of the late (Hellenistic and Roman) romance in classical Greek; novels of love and adventure, often involving shepherds, disguised nobles, and lost princesses (or at least missing heiresses). The most widely read example of this genre in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the brief "Daphnis and Chloe" of Longus, but in earlier times there were equal or greater favorites; for example, the long and complex adventure story, "Aethiopica" by Heliodorus (first English translation by Thomas Underdowne, 1587). Their Renaissance vogue produced a series of imitations across Europe, most notably Jacopo Sannazaro's "Arcadia" (1502) and Jorge de Montemayor's "La Diana" (1558?). These were themselves international sensations; Sidney was trying to bring English literature into the (for him) modern age, just as, say, Coleridge, was trying to do in his day -- or Hazlitt, for that matter.
Maybe Sidney's example had nothing to do with the appearance of Spenser or Shakespeare as major poets; but Spenser certainly didn't think so, and some of Shakespeare's plays show every sign of being aimed at an audience that had enjoyed and absorbed the "Arcadia" and its various lesser imitators.
Beginning in 1909, the situation was complicated by the rediscovery (by Bertram Dobell) of manuscript copies of what came to be known to scholars as the "Old Arcadia" -- the complete first version, very differently arranged, with some different characterizations of the protagonists. It was not actually "lost," just ignored. This shorter, simpler, "unpublished" work, although not printed, turns out to have had a fair circulation among the Elizabethan elite, in a sort of ruling-class *samizdat*. First printed in 1926, as part of a multi-volume edition of Sidney's works, it was acclaimed by some critics -- including its editor, Albert Feuillerat -- as the true, preferred, version. Sidney's extensive revisions were dismissed as an abandoned experiment in unfortunate elaboration, and the 1593 edition as a sad botch, a pieced-together work without artistic merit.
Others -- notably C.S. Lewis -- championed the 1593 "New" Arcadia as that closest to the author's considered intent, and a work of actual historical importance. In this view, Sidney's most radical change -- opening in the middle of the action, and using his original first part as an inset story, or "flashback" -- was a serious attempt at classicism, modeled on Homer, Virgil, and Heliodorus, not a product of muddled thinking. Editors of anthologies and volumes of "selected works" have often resorted to providing selections from both redactions.
The "Old Arcadia" was critically re-edited by Jean Robertson for Oxford University Press in 1973 as "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia)," and, again, in a popular edition, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones for the World's Classics (Oxford University Press, 1985; with new bibliography, 1994); for some reason, this out-of-print edition currently appears on Amazon with an image of a volume of Jonathan Swift(!).
The Duncan-Jones text was reprinted in 1999 in the re-designed Oxford World's Classics series, and this version is in print (for now). The cover title of this edition is simply "The Old Arcadia," but Amazon, following the publisher's own web site, lists it as "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia: The Old Arcadia" (and variations). Both are, of course, legitimate, but this is a little confusing.
The [Oxford] World's Classics "Old Arcadia" is a good companion to the Penguin "New Arcadia" -- and I am not going to take sides on which of Sidney's versions is "better."
A monument of dullness?
T.S. Eliot labelled Sidney's Arcadia as a "monument ofdullness," and about 100 pages into the book, I felt inclined to agreewith his assessment.Sidney was a poet first and foremost, and even headmitted to his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, that this particular workwas but "a trifle."
Yet, surprisingly, I found myselfgetting captivated by the plot of two princes disguised as shepherds to winthe girls of their dreams (in the process, of course, they also win girls-- and guys -- of their nightmares).The somewhat stilted (even byRenaissance standards) language makes it difficult to plod through attimes, but the plot is interesting and keeps your attention -- and that'sultimately what counts.
Re: this edition, it is one of the few goodeditions of the original "Old" Arcadia around.Sidney revisedthe work during his lifetime and his friend and biographer, Fulke Greville,later published a bizarre composite of the old and revised versions thatfor centuries stood as the definitive "Arcadia". K. Duncan-Jonesprovides a clean text with useful scholarly apparatus.One caveat: in myedition, pp. 297-306 were *missing*, mistakenly replaced by adouble-printed pp. 307-316.This is an annoyance for someone who isreading the book as a scholar, which I believe represents the majorityreadership of the book, as I can't imagine casual readers picking it up forbedstand reading!
All in all, a fun work and better than the first actleads one to believe!
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