Sidney’s Arcadia as Cultural Monument and Proto-Novel

  • Peter Lindenbaum
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia is often reckoned to have been the ‘best loved’ or ‘most admired’ work of English prose fiction in the seventeenth century.1 One hesitates to say ‘most popular’ because of the manifest difficulty of its complex prose, its often recondite poetical experimentation and because we simply do not know how far down the social scale its readership extended — one assumes not very far. It was, none the less, one of the most frequently reprinted works of prose fiction in the 150-year period before what is generally considered the birth of the English novel, having gone through 13 editions between 1590 and 1674 and two more by 1739.2 Its importance for the history of the novel is registered in Richardson’s appropriation of his title character’s name from Sidney’s work and perhaps in Fielding’s claim to be writing comic epics in prose. The Arcadia is definitely part of the pre-history of the novel, though and does not present itself as a work in that genre, what with its adherence to the Renaissance rules for epic (as laid down by Minturno), its alternation of prose narrative and poetic interludes, its self-conscious embodiment of aristocratic values and what amounts to its insistence that a reader apprehend its action and characters at some distance from him- or herself.


Seventeenth Century Early Reader Early Edition Reading Public Title Character 
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  1. 1.
    The phrases are from John Buxton, Elizabethan Taste (London, 1963), p. 246 andGoogle Scholar
  2. William A. Ringler, Jr, ed., The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford, 1962), p. xv. The research for the present paper was originally undertaken while on a grant at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I should like to thank the library both for the grant and the fine working conditions that make study there so enjoyable. I should particularly like to thank Laetitia Yeandle who provided considerable encouragement and help in identifying the nature of the script found in the margins of the Sidney texts I examined and on the history of the Folger collection generally. Any study of early Sidney editions is inevitably indebted to the formidable work of Dr Bent Juel-Jensen in his Check-List of Editions of the Arcadia to 1739, which first appeared in The Book Collector 11 (1962), 468–79 and then in revised and expanded form in Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. Dennis Kay (Oxford, 1987), pp. 289–314.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Margery Corbett and Ronald Lightbown, The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title Page in England 1550–1660 (London, 1979), pp. 58–65.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Dugard had been the first printer of the particular edition of the Eikon Basilike which had outraged John Milton in Eikonoklastes because it included the prayers Charles I was purported to have uttered while imprisoned before his execution, one of which happens to have been ‘stolen word for word’ (Milton’s phrasing) from the Arcadia. Dugard went on to commit the further offence of attempting to print Salmasius’s Defensio Regia early in 1650, for which act he was imprisoned once again and deprived of his presses. After a month’s incarceration, Dugard seems to have emerged from prison a new man and a republican, had his presses restored to him and proceeded to print both Milton’s own government-sponsored refutation of Salmasius, The Defence of the People of England and get himself appointed Printer to the State. Thus it does not appear that it was as a closet royalist that he published the Arcadia in 1655. On Dugard’s career as a printer and publisher, see Leona Rostenberg, ‘Republican Credo: William Dugard, Pedagogue and Political Apostate’, in her Literary, Political, Scientific, Religious and Legal Publishing, Printing and Bookselling in England, 1551–1700, 2 vols (New York, 1965), pp. 130–59 and my entry on Dugard in the forthcoming Dictionary of Literary Biography volume, The British Literary Book Trade 1475–1700, ed. James K. Bracken and Joel Silver. Several of my comments on Dugard here appear in that entry also.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    There is yet another such Index, different from the other two, but not directly attached to an edition of the Arcadia. It is in a manuscript, formerly in the possession of John Buxton and now in the Bodleian Library (MS Eng.e.2017), apparently dating from the mid-1640s. It seems to have been written in the same hand as a manuscript poem, ‘A Draught of Sir Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia’, which can be established with some certainty as from that period; this too was formerly in John Buxton’s possession and is now Bodleian MS Eng.e.2016. The index is in two parts: a 26-page Subject Index, which ‘may readily lead to the most remarkable passages … in the Book’, arranged in page order; and ‘A Clavis opening the names and referring to the Characters’ arranged in alphabetical order. See Buxton’s ‘“A Draught of Sir Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia”’, in Historical Essays 1600–1750, Presented to David Ogg, ed. H. E. Bell and R. L. Ollard (London, 1963), pp. 60–77 (esp. p. 62).Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    On Curll’s career as a publisher, see Ralph Straus, The Unspeakable Curll: Being Some Account of Edmund Curll, Bookseller (London, 1927) and particularly the recent work of Alan D. Boehm, ‘Edmund Curll and the Politics and Poetics of Popular Bookselling’, unpublished paper delivered at the inaugural conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, at CUNY, June 1993, a summary of which appears in Publishing History, 35 (1994), 94–5; the paper is based on Chapter III of Boehm’s ‘The Poetics of Literary Commerce: Popular and Patrician Bookselling and the Rise of Publishing, 1700–1825’ (Diss. Indiana University, 1991). On Ponsonby, see Michael Brennan, ‘William Ponsonby: Elizabethan Stationer’, Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography, 7 (1983), 91–110.Google Scholar
  7. See, for instance, Chartier, Cultural History: Between Practices and Representations, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 40ff andGoogle Scholar
  8. Davis, Society and Culture and Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), pp. 191–2.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Peter Lindenbaum

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