"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 Risa 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, was formerly 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."