1. On September 22, 1586, Sir Philip Sidney received a bullet wound in the thigh while leading a cavalry charge at Zutphen in the Netherlands. All efforts to save him having failed, he died of his wound on October 17. His body was returned to England on his personal ship The Black Pinnace, and his funeral was held at St. Paul’s on February 16, 1587, an affair of enormous pomp, as anyone will appreciate who has seen Thomas Lant’s cycloramic illustrations of the occasion. The result of his death has been summarized by A. C. Hamilton: NOTE 1
Sidney had greatness thrust upon him by his death. The circumstances which led to his death, the death itself, and the national orgy of grief on the occasion of his extravagant funeral in London four months later, promoted the legend that he embodied all the values cherished by the age: the ideal man, the perfect knight and pattern of the courtier, the mirror of princes and the “world’s delight.”
If Sidney’s death precipitated a national orgy of grief, it also led to something like a nationwide frenzy of poetry-writing, for it engendered a terrific amount of versification in English, Latin, and miscellaneous other languages. In this context the University of Oxford brought out a memorial anthology under the title Exequiae Illustrissimi Equitis, D. Philippi Sidnaei, Gratissimae Memoriae ac Nomini Impensae, edited by Oxford’s leading poet-playwright of the time, William Gager of Christ Church.
2. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was common for both Universities to issue anthologies of poetry, mostly in Latin, honoring royalty and various other notable figures on such occasions as deaths, marriages, and visits. The style was set by the first of these, the Academiae Cantabrigiensis Lachrymae Tumuli Equitis D. Philippi Sidnaei edited by Alexander Neville and published by a London printer on the day of Sir Philip’s funeral. NOTE 2 Likewise, New College, Oxford, had stolen a march on the rest of the university by issuing its own anthology, Peplus illustrissimi viri D. Philippi Sidnaei supremis honoribus dicatus. Although the subsequent similar volume issued by Oxford contains some profuse expressions of gratitude to Cambridge for this homage to an Oxford man, it is not difficult to imagine that the actual University reaction was rather different. Since Oxford had been, in effect, scooped by its sister institution in a rather embarrassing way — all the more galling because the first items in the Cambridge volume were contributed by no less a figure than King James VI of Scotland — it was now doubly important to produce a volume that would stand as a fitting tribute to a dead hero who had himself been an Oxford man. According to the dedicatory epistle, Leicester’s chaplain had taken on himself the responsibility of prodding the University into action, and had selected Gager as the editor. Reading between the lines, we may perhaps see the personal hand of Leicester, the Chancellor of the University, in the choice. Gager responded by assembling a volume containing contributions by himself and by members of his own friends and literary circle (Richard Eedes, Thomas Smith, Matthew Gwinne, Richard Latewar, and Martin Heton, but conspicuously not by Alberico Gentili or John Case), by such leading lights of the university as Lawrence Humphrey and Thomas Thornton, and many others as well. NOTE 7 Perhaps in an effort to counterbalance the Scottish sovereign’s contributions to the Cambridge volume, this anthology is graced by a series of short epigrams by a former Oxford man, William Camden, who had recently been catapulted into national prominence by the appearance of the first edition of his Britannia.
3. The endemic faults of academic Latin versification were neoclassical frigidity and an excessive enthusiasm for the display of learning and cleverness. Viewed collectively, the various University anthologies constitute a veritable museum of these qualities, and in sampling them one gains the uncomfortable impression that the writing of some of this stuff was a kind of equivalent of the construction of crosswords. The reason for this, no doubt, is that most such anthologies were assembled in honor of remote national figures with whom the contributors had no personal association. Rather, the purpose of such anthologies was merely to show off individual contributors’ learning, talents and loyalty, and, collectively, to demonstrate the corporate loyalism of the university. One frequently finds poems that are little more than stunts: poems that imitate the shapes of physical objects, poems containing anagrams and acrostics, and the like. Such features, as well as the constant display of erudition for erudition’s sake, keep these academic anthologies firmly in the category of literary curiosities. Save for the occasional nuggets to be mined, the chief attraction of this minor literary genre is that such anthologies contain work by writers who made their literary reputations elsewhere. But the volume of Exequiae is at least partially exempted from these remarks by the obvious depth of feeling provoked by the death of Sir Philip. Even though this anthology was produced nearly a year afterwards, something of the original shock, grief, and outrage is undeniably captured. A number of the contributors attest their personal associations with Sidney and express their gratitude for his having encouraged their literary activities. More generally, writing of Lord Peter Wimsey in one of her mysteries, Dorothy Sayers said that there is sometimes an Oxford man who cuts such a commanding figure that he becomes a general model for imitation. This observation was never truer than about Sidney (one therefore wonders exactly how much of Sidney went into the making of Lord Peter). Clearly, he had been lionized by the young intellectuals with a literary bent who contributed to the present volume. This is evident, for example, in the kind of Platonic homosexual pairings currently fashionable at Oxford and abundantly documented in Gager’s unpublished poetry (such as Gager himself and Richard Brainche, Tobie Mathews and Richard Eedes, and Walter Devereux and Thomas Clinton): surely one of the motives for this craze was to replicate the relationship of Sidney and Fulke Greville.
4. But in this volume (as in Sidney memorial poetry generally), the memorialization of an Oxford man, of a friend and mentor, or Oxonian beau ideal, is largely subsumed to something quite different. England was at war, and nations at war require heroes. So far, the only such hero the Spanish war had produced was Drake, and now that Sidney was dead he was eligible to be set beside Drake or even placed considerably above him (as is explicitly said by George Carleton at 119.22 and implied by Francis Mason when he reduces Drake to no more than a figure represented on Sidney’s shield at 85.210ff.). Not only the contributors to the Cambridge Lachrymae, the New College Peplus, and the Oxford Exequiae, but many of the others who added to the vast amount of poetry on Sidney’s death written over the next few years were engaged in a collective act of mythmaking designed to satisfy the need for a suitable patriotic hero, transforming Sidney into an idealized paladin, at once the child of Mars and the Muses, who selflessly sacrificed his life on the altar of God and Country.
5. Although this would carry me far beyond the bounds of my present purpose, a detailed study of how this national icon was created would no doubt have considerable interest. Here I shall limit myself to pointing out its most remarkable feature in the present anthology. One Neo-Latin poet who came under his spell was Scipio Gentili, the younger brother of Alberico Gentili, an Italian Protestant refugee who had come to Oxford in 1581 and been taken in by Christ Church, and was created Regius Professor of Civil Law in the same year that the Exequiae was published. Although Scipio is usually regarded as a figure in German literary history, he spent the early 1580’s in England, where he published several volumes of poetry, mostly dedicated to Sidney. With one exception, these volumes were either translations of Tasso or Psalm metaphrases, but his single original work, the 1584 Nereus, is an epyllion written on the occasion of the birth of Sidney’s daughter. The striking feature of this work is the prediction that her son is destined to be the conqueror of the Spanish and colonizer of America, its apostle of civilization, and lawgiver. He will, in short, combine within himself nearly all the endowments and accomplishments of an ideal sovereign, so Gentili is coming dangerously close to predicting that a future King of England is destined to issue from Sidney’s loins.
6. It was probably well for Sidney that no further such effusions seem to have been written during his lifetime, for one imagines that they could easily have provoked Elizabeth’s jealous anger. But now that he was safely dead, his mortal shortcomings left behind, the floodgates burst. In reading this anthology (and much similar stuff) one is struck by the fact that numerous writers are willing to credit Sidney with attributes normally reserved for royalty. This plays itself out in a couple of ways. First, in reading contemporary Neo-Latin literature of flattery directed to Elizabeth and James (and, no doubt, to many other Renaissance sovereigns as well), one is impressed by the ready willingness of authors to resort to the vocabulary of the Roman emperor cult: calling them divinus, divus, attributing to them a numen, or otherwise asserting their divinity. In the present anthology, Sidney’s numen is repeatedly mentioned (at 12.4, by William Camden, 46.9 and 57.11, both by Richard Latewar, 66.5, by Rowland Searchfield, etc.). He is called divus at 94.12 (by Charles Sonibanke), 101.9 (by Thomas Lodington), 109.10 (by John Calfhill), and divinus by (e. g.) William Pritchard at 89.1, as well as by Gager himself at the beginning of his dedicatory epistle to Leicester. Note, also, that at 37.14 (by Matthew Gwinne) he is given the designation pater patriae. This parental image (mother for Elizabeth, father for James) is normally employed for the sovereign.
7. Then too, there is a claim, repeated in a large number of poems both in this set and elsewhere, that Sidney underwent some sort of apotheosis whereby he was translated to the stars or, as some tell it, was himself metamorphosed into a new star in the heavens. While this conceit, no doubt, had a partial origin in the name of Sidney’s literary character Stella, it is impossible to read of such a transformation without remembering the first and most memorable imperial apotheosis, which likewise featured transformation into a celestial body, that of Julius Caesar, and surely this fate is normally the prerogative of royalty, not available for their subjects. It figures prominently in the subsequent Oxford anthology on the death of Elizabeth, the 1603, Oxoniensis Academiae Funebre Officium in Memoriam Honoratissimam Serenissimae et Beatissimae Elizabethae. Indeed, a number of the poetic leitmotivs of that volume are appropriated from the present one, and it is instructive to see how easily rhetoric and imagery originally developed for Sidney could be recycled for application to a deceased sovereign. Finally, one contributor (Robert Dow, in 35), repeats, or possibly invents, a tradition that Sidney had actually been offered the throne of Poland. Majesty is by definition jealous, and it is a sign of how greatly England needed a national hero that Elizabeth and her government tolerated, or even encouraged, the appropriation of royal attributes to create a satisfactory one.
8. I have written elsewhere, and so shall not repeat here, how it appears that governmental permission for the University of Oxford to sponsor a printing press (operated by Joseph Barnes, Printer to the University), granted in 1584, involved an agreement that Barnes would print a certain amount of more or less frankly propagandistic poetry, and how some of the first volumes that issued from his press were either written by Gager or, in one case (the anonymous epyllion Pareus, in all probability by George Peele) recruited by him. Clearly, the present volume was part of this same effort, and therefore Gager was the most suitable choice as editor for the present volume. NOTE 3 It is likely that we can see his handiwork not just in the selection of items printed here, but also in the repeated themes that run through many of them like so many leitmotifs, which suggest diligent orchestration on his part: some (although scarcely all) of these themes are “light sorrow is eloquent, great sorrow is mute,” Oxford as a bereft mother, Sidney compared to a crop cut off before it could grow to fruition, Sidney as protégé of the Muses and Minerva, now forlorn, and the tension between them and Mars, Sidney going to the stars or being transformed into a star himself, Sidney as a citizen of Arcadia who could best Pan in a music contest, Sidney as heir to two Earls, and Sidney as a swan.
9. A striking feature of Gager’s service as editor of this volume can be gathered by glancing at the identifications of contributors in the commentary notes (made with the help of Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1500 - 1700, repr. Nendeln, 1968). If the Peplus anthology was the product of a single college, this Exequiae anthology purports to represent the entire university, but it is preponderantly the work of members of no more than two Oxford colleges, Christ Church and St. John’s (there is only a small number of contributions from members of All Souls, Baliol, Jesus, Lincoln, Magdalen, and Merton Colleges). A partial reason is that Sidney himself had been a Christ Church student, but one suspects something more is at stake. Although in his dedicatory epistle Gager states he selected the items included here out of out a considerably larger number of submissions, it would appear that, motivated either by favoritism of a desire to simplify his job, he was so eager to accept contributions by members of those two colleges that he included a number written by undergraduates, some in their second or even first year of studies.
10. Exequiae Illustrissimi Equitis, D. Philippi Sidnaei, Gratissimae Memoriae ac Nomini Impensae, as well as the Oxford Lachrymae, the New College Peplus, and several other contemporary volumes of memorial poetry, have been photographically reproduced in Elegies for Sir Philip Sidney (1587), edited by A. J. Colaianne and W. L. Godshalk (Delmar, New York, 1980). Nota bene: Since the original publication of this edition, an electronic edition of J. A. van Dorsten, Poets, Patrons, and Professors: Sir Philip Sidney, Daniel Rogers, and the Leiden Humanists (Leiden - Oxford, 2006), has appeared. Appendix II of this work presents an interesting anthology of forty Latin poems on the death of Sidney by Rogers himself, and by such Continental Humanists as Jan Dousa the Elder, Jan Dousa the Younger, and Paulus Melissus Schede.
NOTE 1 Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of his Life and Works (Cambridge, 1977) p. 4.
NOTE 2 The volume in question bears the date ”February 16, 1587” on its title page. This ought to mean February 16, 1588 new style, but is clearly a misprint.
NOTE 3 In view of the public nature of the occasion, and the fact that in his dedicatory epistle Gager is supposed to be speaking on behalf of the entire University, it is perhaps surprising that some of its elements are so personal. He alludes to Leicester’s friendship with his two maternal uncles, and takes the occasion to thank the Earl pro singulari illo tuo in me beneficio, quod adhuc collegii nostri alumnus sum. The import of this statement is unclear. Largely on the strength of these words has been identified as one of Leicester’s literary protégés (by Eleanor Rosenberg, Leicester, Patron of Letters, New York, 1955, p. 320), although there is no evidence for a patronage relationship with Leicester. Is it possible that Gager alluding to the evident arrangement by which he was charged with supervising the propagandistic aspect of Barnes’ printing operation? It is scarcely beyond the bounds of possibility that Leicester had a direct hand in this arrangement.