The ‘Perfect-Unperfect’ Arcadia

  • Natasha Simonova
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


Any writer responding to the printed version of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia also had to respond to its author’s premature death from a battle-wound at Zutphen in 1586: what Gavin Alexander calls ‘the most important event in [Sidney’s] literary career’ (xix). Prior to his death, his works had had only a limited audience in manuscript, but their subsequent publication created Sir Philip Sidney as a canonical author: a status made all the more prominent by its ghostly and mediated nature. Unlike the writers discussed in subsequent chapters who sought to personally assert control over their works, Sidney’s authority depended in large part upon his death, and was asserted on his behalf by others. Posthumous publication served to authorise the volumes bearing his name as monuments to his memory, while highlighting the incompletion that defined both the author’s tragically short life and his works. Sidney thus occupied a central position in the reception of his texts, yet, as Alexander describes, his death also left them ‘especially open’ to others’ interventions (xix–xx). This was particularly true of the Arcadia, the incompletely-revised narrative that John Florio would paradoxically term ‘perfect-unperfect’. Published in thirteen editions and multiple issues between 1590 and 1672, the Arcadia was one of the most popular English romances of the seventeenth century, testifying to Sidney’s inimitable abilities.


Seventeenth Century Title Page Unfinished Work Limited Audience Pastoral Setting 
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  1. 3.
    The Alexander supplement was initially printed separately, sometime between 1616 and 1618, as a ten-page insert for the 1613 edition. Details of its publication history are provided in A. D. G. Wiles, ‘The Date of Publication and Composition of Sir William Alexander’s Supplement to Sidney’s “Arcadia”’ (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 50 [1956]: 387–92)Google Scholar
  2. Alison Mitchell and Katharine Foster, ‘Sir William Alexander’s Supplement to Book III of Sidney’s Arcadia’ (Bibliographical Notes 24 [1969]: 235–41).Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    The description of the tournament probably reflects Sidney’s role in the Accession Day Tilts, and this particular device has been attributed to him. See D. Coulman, ‘Spotted to be Known’ (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 20 [1957]: 179–80).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Natasha Simonova 2015

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  • Natasha Simonova

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