The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 9. Arcadia

The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia was begun in 1580, during Sidney’s retreat at Wilton, and was posthumously published in 1590. It was primarily intended as merely an expression of some of the “many fancies” that lurked in his “young head”; it was “a trifle, and that triflingly handled”; and as the author sent his sheets by instalments to his sister, the countess, it was on the understanding that they should proceed no further. The prime motive of the work was to indulge his fancy with ideal scenes and sentiments, such as he had sought for in vain in the debased chivalry of the court; and fancy leads him on to pastoral scenes, to the calm of a golden age, as it had led others before him in similar periods of unsettlement.

Earlier pastoral works existed in Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1504) and Montemayor’s Diana Enamorada (1552); and to each of these Sidney is somewhat indebted, while, for occasional incident, he goes to Heliodorus and others. From Sannazaro he obtains his title, and, possibly, the trick of infusing something of a personal element into his work. Although the work of the Elizabethan is never autobiographical to the extent of the Italian’s, yet, amidst his fancies, there stray some serious and personal thoughts on religion, philosophy and love, while the pastoral Philisides shadows forth the friend of Languet. Sidney’s debt to Montemayor is, however, less uncertain, as is shown by the striking parallel which exists between the opening passages of their respective works. In Diana, Sidney found a precedent for his mixed pastoral, for his happy blend of eclogue and romance; by Sannazaro, on the other hand, the chivalrous element had been left untouched. Montemayor’s conception of romance, moreover, embodied nothing of the magical, and Sidney follows him in discarding this piece of medieval machinery. And, once again, the love-plot in Montemayor’s hands having become more than ever complicated, Sidney, by the employment of bewildering disguises, and a multiplicity of incident, succeeds in effecting the same artistic confusion.

The main interest of Sidney’s plot centres in love-intrigue. Two shipwrecked princes, Musidorus and Pyrocles, after preliminary adventure, fall in love with Pamla and Philoclea, daughters of the king of Arcadia, who has taken up his abode in the depths of a forest. Exigencies of courtship compel the princes to assume rustic disguises; and Pyrocles, appearing as a shepherdess Zelmane, soon becomes involved in awkward entanglements. The king falls in love with the pretended shepherdess, while his queen is attracted by the man whom she recognises through his disguise. From this compromising position, Pyrocles is only rescued by the privileged skill of the novelist; explanations and pardons follow, and the sequel is of a felicitous kind. But the story, as thus outlined, fails to give any idea of the plot’s endless involutions, of its untiring series of alarums and excursions. Subordinate romances are woven into the main structure; there are tournaments and fêtes, long-drawn love-scenes and unceasing adventure with both man and beast. And the movement is further retarded by numerous experiments in metre, due to Sidney the Areopagite. There are some choice insertions, like the ditty beginning “My true-love hath my heart,” but, by the side of these, there are limping hexameters and elegiacs, experiments in terza rima and ottava rima and occasional exhibitions of the sdrucciolo or trisyllabic rimes.

As a romance, the work enshrines Sidney’s noble ideals of medieval chivalry. The Grecian heroes embody true knightly qualities: they are simple and gentle, daring in action and devoted in love. And the pastoral element gives an ideal setting to this chivalrous action. Arcadia is a land where morning “strows roses and violets on the heavenly floor,” a land of flowering meadows and quiet pastures, where “shepherd boys pipe as though they should never be old.” But, while the romance is thus prodigal of beauty, it is not without many faults, both of form and style. Its characters, in the first place, are of a shadowy kind; a strong suggestion of sheer unreality is inevitable. As regards its structure, there is an obvious lack of order and restraint, and this is a feature which, while characteristic of the age, is, perhaps, exaggerated in the case of the romance with its traditions of amplitude. In drama and poetry, there existed compelling forces of law and order, to which the intensity of the one and the grace of the other were due. But the laws of the prose romance were yet to be evolved, and in the Arcadia will be found no very logical development, nor skilful handling of the threads of the narrative. Its discursive character has already been noted, and one result of this exhausting method lies in the fact that the work concludes without decent disposal of all the characters. Nor must humour be looked for in either situation or phrase. Though a few rustics like Dametas and Mopsa are introduced by way of an antimasque, the humorous result apparently desired is not obtained. Sidney’s temperament was melancholy as well as idealistic; his vision did not include either the ludicrous or the grotesque. The work, however, has the qualities of an eclectic performance, reflecting the rich confusion of the renascence mind. Fancy ranges in the romance from Greece to England, and within its purview the three ages seem to meet. The landscape, in the first place, has the bright colouring of renascence paintings—something, too, of the quieter tones of an English country-side; its temples and its churches, its palaces and pavilions, suggest a medley collected from Greece, Italy and England. Then, again, the ancient and medieval worlds appear to meet the modern. While the pastoral colouring revives the ancient notion of a golden age, and the chivalrous element is a faint afterglow of medieval days, a modern touch is perceived in the confessed unreality of the nature of the romance. Romance, hitherto, had been speciously linked with the real and actual: now, frankly removed to fanciful realms, it is made to imply an escape from reality—the sense in which it is accepted by the modern mind.