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The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia Kindle Edition
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A huge work that deliberately confounds genre this is both epic and romance, both 'novel' and poetry. The closest thing like it is Spenser's The Faerie Queen (although that is verse and this is prose) or the Hellenistic novels, Daphnis & Chloe or the Ethiopica.
Whatever you want to call it though this is a marvellous read: full of shipwrecks and princesses, knights in disguise and love-lorn shepherds. Multiple narratives keep the story moving despite the Elizabethan love of rhetoric (and few do that better than Sidney!) and the sheer ability and love of story-telling come through admirably.
Not always an easy read at first as you do need to get into Sidney's rhythm but a fantastic (in all senses of the word) one.
** Edit **
I've just noticed that Amazon have published this review under all the various editions of the Arcadia, so just to clarify: the Oxford World Classics (called the 'old' Arcadia) IS the old Arcadia; but the Penguin edition called the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, despite the Amazon blurb which describes it as the old Arcadia, is actually the 'new' composite version with the first three books revised by Sidney and then tacked onto the last two books of the 'old' Arcadia, with most of the eclogic poetry stripped out.
But it is well worth acquiring the taste to enjoy it. It is no harder to read than Henry James or Proust. The story is good and characters really fascinating: the feeble king Basilius, who semi-abdicates because of an oracle; his devious wife Gynecia and their lovely daughters, the strong-minded Pamela and the gentler but still steadfast Philoclea, who must have suggested to Shakespeare some aspects of his comic heroines. Their lovers are good too: the bold Musidorus, who disguises himself as a shepherd and the amazing Pyrocles, who disguises himself as an Amazon named Zelmane. This is sustained for hundreds of pages and Sidney even uses female pronouns and consistently refers to Zelmane not Pyrocles. Philoclea develops a crush on the supposed Zelmane, most sensitively handled, and this turns gradually into a more mature love. Meanwhile both Basilius and Gynecia also fall in love with this ambiguous figure. This reminds me of Viola in Twelfth Night, and I dare Shakespeare picked up the idea partly from here. Then there is Amphialus, the very model of a controlling domestic tyrant, who captures Pamela and Philoclea, is minded to marry one of them but keeps them prisoners and even tortures them.
Sidney originally wrote a shorter and simpler tale, with a more pastoral emphasis. This is conventionally known as the Old Arcadia, and it was not published in his lifetime. The modern scholarly edition is by Jean Robertson and the Worlds Classic is a popular text of this version. Sidney began a revision, known as the New Arcadia, but was killed before completing the third of the five books. The composite version adds the original conclusion to the revised beginning. Actually this is what happened with Proust's A la recherche and it works well enough. The Oxford edition of the New Arcadia only contains the revised portion so if you want the traditional composite text you need this Penguin. Fortunately, it has been very well edited by Maurice Evans. He includes the transition between Sidney's two portions written by William Alexander and first published in 1621 but not the sixth book by Richard Beling which was added in 1627. Alexander's passage is a skilful piece of work, but both in it and in the Elizabethan editing of the original conclusion there are some slips in continuity, and my only criticism of Evans' editing is that he could have been more interventionist and corrected these too. There are also some typos and passages of bitched type in my copy. I hope these have been corrected in reprints.
Evans also provides brief but useful notes and an excellent introduction, which so impressed me that I went out and obtained his book on Spenser's Faerie Queene, which is really the verse counterpart to Arcadia, being first published in the same year, 1590.
It's a shame that this excellent edition is not available in a decent hardback on good paper. As it is not in verse it was not included in Yale's hardback series of Penguin English poets. I am hoping that the Folio Society will choose it for one of their luxurious editions. It deserves no less.
Sir Philip Sidney was one of the key figures in this revival, and his "Arcadia", a prose romance is one of the works by which he is best remembered. It is also known as the "Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" as he wrote it for his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, and may have written it while staying at the Herbert country estate, Wilton in Wiltshire. It exists in two versions, only one of which he actually completed. For many years the only version of the "Arcadia" that was generally known was the so-called "New Arcadia". At some time during the 1580s, Sidney began to revise his original story, reorganising it and adding extra episodes not contained in the first version. In 1586, however, he was killed while fighting in the Netherlands, and the revised version remained unfinished at his death. The version which was eventually published consisted of a hybrid of the two versions. Sidney's original version, today known as the "Old Arcadia", was rediscovered in the early twentieth century, and it is this version of the story which is contained in the Oxford World Classics edition.
Arcadia was originally a rugged, mountainous district of Ancient Greece, known for the honesty of its inhabitants and the simplicity of their way of life. In later centuries, however, the word came to signify an idealised pastoral way of life characterised by ease and comfort. Sidney's was not the first literary work with that title; early in the century the Italian Jacopo Sannazaro had published his own "Arcadia", which served as one of Sidney's sources.
As Adam Nicolson points out in his recent book "Earls of Paradise", Arcadianism in sixteenth century England was not, as it was to become later, a purely decorative style based upon nostalgia for an imagined past but a political ideology, standing for the country against the city and the court, for conservatism, hierarchy, Protestantism and the traditional feudal way of life, and against individualism, a market economy and the centralisation of power. Sidney's "Arcadia", therefore is ostensibly set in the Ancient Greek province of that name, which serves both as a fairy-tale country, a long tie ago and a long way away, and as a model for contemporary England.
Although the work is a prose romance, it has the five-act structure of a drama, the acts being divided from one another by sets of eclogues, poems mostly on the theme of love, actually composed by Sidney himself but in the context of the story supposedly written by Arcadian shepherds. (For some reason it was the shepherds of Arcadia rather than, say, cowherds or swineherds who were seen as living a particularly idealised life, in this case one which left them enough spare time to master the arts of poetry, including highly complex metres and rhyme schemes). Further poems supposedly written by various characters crop up in the main ext itself.
The plot is a complicated and far-fetched one, reminiscent of some of Shakespeare's comedies. ("Twelfth Night", "As You Like It" and "The Winter's Tale" all came to mind). It combines pastoral elements with adventure and courtly romance. Basilius, Duke of Arcadia, has withdrawn with his family from the Court to the countryside in an attempt to avoid the terms of a prophecy (which, as in all good Greek myths, such as the story of Oedipus, eventually comes true despite all attempts to thwart it). Two young men, Musidorus, Prince of Thessaly, and Pyrocles, Prince of Macedon, fall in love with Basilius' daughters Pamela and Philoclea, after being shipwrecked in the country. In order to gain access to the two princesses, both disguise themselves, Musidorus as a shepherd and Pyrocles as a woman, naming himself Cleophila. (The name is an inversion of that of his beloved, Philoclea; both derive from the Greek for "lover of glory").
This scenario gives rise to all sorts of complications, not the least of which is that both Basilius and his wife Gynecia fall in love with the supposed "Cleophila". (Basilius wrongly believes her to be a woman, Gynecia correctly suspects her to be a man, and Philoclea seems neither to know nor care whether her admirer is male or female- a sexually ambiguous storyline going beyond anything in Shakespeare).
Sidney's literary style is typical of late sixteenth century prose, a style which has become known as "Euphuism", and is characterised by a grand rhetorical manner, a complex sentence structure and much use of abstract nouns. This may be the cause of a strange contradiction in the way he has been regarded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sidney the man, the gallant poet-soldier giving his life on the battlefield for the liberty of a small nation, just as Byron was to do more than two centuries later, is a quintessentially Romantic figure. Sidney the mannered, stylised writer is far from Romantic. His highly artificial style does not conform to the idea, current since the late eighteenth century, that all great literature should represent the laying bare of the inmost secrets of the writer's soul.
Sidney himself described the "Arcadia" as "a trifle, and that triflingly handled". Yet there is much in the work to enjoy. Sidney's prose, although ornate and mannered, is also elegant and often witty. His poetry is often technically brilliant. He pays much more attention to characterisation than many earlier writers of prose fiction, such as Malory, and in this he can be seen as foreshadowing the modern novel. His is, however, an art which appeals more to the mind than it does to the heart, which perhaps explains why he, like some of his contemporaries, is today an author who is widely talked about but not so widely read.
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