“Rapt from Himself”: Rape and the Poetics of Corporeality in Sidney’s Old Arcadia

  • Amy Greenstadt
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In a scene in the original version of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (c. 1580), the romance’s hero, Pyrocles, comes to the bed chamber of his lover Philoclea, intending to convince her to elope with him. As he approaches her door he is, the narrator tells us, “rapt from himself with the excessive forefeeling of his near coming contentment.” A few lines later, we learn that such “rapture” works by “ravishing” the senses “from the free use of their own function” in an action that is at once “forcible” and “charming.”1 The words “rapt” and “ravishing,” derived from the Latin raptus, meaning “violently carried away,” by the later Middle Ages were used to describe a psychological state in which the individual was transported by an emotional experience. Renaissance culture identified female beauty as a primary agent of such rapture, a ravishing power that seduced men’s senses and overturned their higher mental faculties of reason and will.2 The “rapt” Pyrocles seems to be under the sway of such enthralling effects of the feminine, as his “excessive forefeeling” of sexual consummation with Philoclea robs him of the “free use” of his own “function[s].”


Sexual Violence Early Modern Period Authorial Intention Sexual Consent Female Beauty 
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  1. 1.
    Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 200–201. All further references are from this edition, and are noted in the text. The original version of the Arcadia, known as the Old Arcadia, was written sometime between 1577 and 1580; a second, substantially reworked version, known as the New Arcadia, was probably written around 1584 and was never finished; W[illiam] A. R[ingler], “Sir Philip Sidney,” The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, ed. George Watson, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp. 355–56. Sidney’s sister Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, published the New Arcadia posthumously in 1590, appending the ending from the Old Arcadia onto the later unfinished version; the Old Arcadia itself was circulated in manuscript but was not published, and was only rediscovered by scholars in 1907.Google Scholar
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    J. B. Post, “Ravishment of women and the Statutes of Westminster,” Legal Records and the Historian, ed. J. H. Baker (London: Royal Historical Society, 1978), p. 158. For other interpretations of Westminster II, see Christopher Cannon’s essay in this volume, “Chaucer and Rape: Uncertainty’s Certainties,” and Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Statutes of Rapes and Alleged Ravishers of Wives: A Context for the Charges Against Thomas Malory, Knight,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 28 (1997): 361–418, esp. 366.Google Scholar
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    Thus Early Modern rape cases used the Westminster phrasing of “ravishment” against a woman’s “will” or “consent.” For example, in a 1677 case in Northumberland, Barbary Elder described how her assailant “did hould her handes down by her side & did pull up her cloathes and did ravish her much against her will”; PRO ASSI 45 12/1/20A. As late as 1962, the author of a guide to forensic medicine warned that “a girl out of her first decade is seldom capable of being raped against her will”; K. Simpson, A Doctor’s Guide to Court (London: Butterworths, 1962), p. 125; cited in Zsuzsanna Adler, Rape on Trial (New York: Routledge, 1987), p. 24.Google Scholar
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    City of God, I:16. The Latin version employed here is from Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Philip Levine (London: Loeb Classical Library and Harvard University Press, 1966). My translations are loosely based on Levine and City of God, ed. David Knowles, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Books, 1977). Further citations will be noted in the text by book and chapter numbers only.Google Scholar
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    James Grantham Turner, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), p. 45. Turner points out that “The moment [in the City of God] when the first couple’s ‘eyes were opened’ corresponds to the moment in the Confessions when Augustine’s father notices in the baths that his son is ‘pubescentem’; the pagan-humanist father rejoices, in anticipation of grandchildren, at the physical signs of his son’s sexual ‘intoxication’—though the Christian mother is filled with grief” (44; refers to Confessions II.iii.6). He also notes that we can trace the special meaning of the “flesh” for Augustine “via S. Paul to Hebrew semantics, where basar, ‘flesh’, can mean both the whole human being and the erect penis” (43).Google Scholar
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    Philip Sidney, Defense of Poesy, ed. Lewis Soens, Regent’s Critics Series (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 12. All further citations will be noted in the text. Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie was written about 1581 and circulated widely in manuscript before being published posthumously in 1595 as the Defense of Poesy.Google Scholar
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    As Turner suggests, Sidney’s theory of the imagination actually owes much to Augustine’s emphasis upon the combined powers of emotion, divine grace, and imagination, which could break down the rigid distinction between the “rational” and the “sensual.” See One Flesh, pp. 31–32, 35, 39. For a discussion of how Sidney’s more secular appropriation of the imaginative identification with the divine contradicted contemporary Protestant thought, see Peter C. Herman, Squitter-wits and Muse-haters: Sidney, Spenser, Milton and Renaissance Antipoetic Sentiment (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1996), pp. 67–70.Google Scholar
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    An article by Maria Teresa Micaela Prendergast called my attention to the interplay of Petrarchan and Ovidian imagery in the romance; see “Prose, Verse, and Femininity in Sidney’s Old Arcadia,” Framing Elizabethan Fictions, ed. Constance C. Relihan (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996). In that article, Prendergast argues that in the Old Arcadia, Sidney sets pieces of Petrarchan verse within a prose narrative suffused with Ovidian imagery in order to suggest we abandon the version of gendered subjectivity developed in the former poetic tradition in favor of that of the latter. She maintains too absolute a distinction between these conventions by associating them, respectively, with the romance’s use of lyric verse and prose narration. Ultimately, however, Prendergast is correct that for Sidney, prose becomes the medium most able to accommodate his new notion of the relationship between author, text, and reader. On Ovidian themes in the New Arcadia, see Clare Kinney, “The Masks of Love: Desire and Metamorphosis in Sidney’s New Arcadia,” Criticism 33.4 (1991): 461–90.Google Scholar
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    Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983) Book X, 1.251–54. The original Latin reads, “Virginis est verae fades, quam vivere credas, et, si non obstet reverentia, velle moved.” Sidney invokes this story twice in the Old Arcadia, at the moments when Pyrocles adopts and then reveals his disguise (see pp. 25, 106).Google Scholar
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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Amy Greenstadt

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