chapter  5
Romancing Arcadia: Sidney’s Arcadia (1593)
Pages 47

Around 1585, while Cervantes enjoyed the modest success of his newly published La Galatea, less than eight hundred miles north and a bit to the east, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) abandoned midsentence the major revision of what is now usually referred to as the Old Arcadia (OA). The OA, likely completed by 1580, was a pastoral romance written by Sidney as a present for his much-loved sister Mary Sidney Herbert, the countess of Pembroke, known as a gifted writer, linguist, and translator in her own right. Sidney composed much of the OA at Wilton, the ancestral home of the earls of Pembroke and the center of an informal gathering of poets sometimes called the Wilton Circle, which included Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, and the countess’s brother, among others. Although Sidney used dismissive rhetoric to characterize his Arcadian project, labeling the older and newer versions of the romance in a variety of contexts as a “toyful book,” “an ink-wasting toy,” an “idle work,” and “a trie, and that triingly handled,” readers of the unpublished OA, and certainly the countess and the sophisticated group around her, apparently found the OA complex, entertaining, and worthy of time, attention, and reection. Rhetoric to the contrary, the author obviously did, too, as only the sudden materialization of a long-desired opportunity for military command and experience, as well as potential social advancement, interrupted Sidney’s rewrite of his romance, a task never completed because of his death at the age of 31 from wounds suffered in combat in what is now The Netherlands. His friend and biographer Fulke Greville edited and oversaw the rst publication of the unnished, revised, work-in-progress Arcadia in 1590, while the countess of Pembroke and her secretary Hugh Sanford edited and oversaw the composite Arcadia published in 1593. The latter edition completed Sidney’s work for him by stitching the portion revised by the author up to that midsentence break in Book 3, together with the remainder of Books 3-5 from the OA. This romance, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, or some version of this 1593 edition, is the Arcadia that has proven most inuential and the most widely read over the passage of time.1