The two Arcadias of Sidney's two Arcadias

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Author: V.L. Forsyth
Date: Winter 2009
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,330 words
Lexile Measure: 1520L

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Sir Philip Sidney's land of Arcadia has never been found very satisfactory as a setting for the events of his Arcadia. In particular, a chorus of voices has protested that Sidney's Arcadia is not pastoral enough, which seems strange when in most readers' minds Arcadia is a setting associated with the seemingly idyllic pastoral of, above all, Jacopo Sannazaro, the first person to use "Arcadia" as a title for a pastoral work. This equation of Arcadia with something like an idyllic pastoral setting has also been fostered by the interpretations of twentieth-century pastoral critics such as Bruno Snell, Renato Poggioli, Harry Levin, and T.G. Rosenmeyer. The conviction that Arcadia must be a pastoral idyll, coupled with the obvious fact that Sidney's Arcadia is also a seemingly realistic state in which rebellions break out and wrongdoers are ultimately tried and sentenced for their misdeeds, has led to many interpretations of Sidney's Arcadia as a work that deliberately undermines or works against the pastoral idyll that its title invokes. This of course fits in with larger ideas about Renaissance pastoral as ambivalent and self-problematizing.

There has been a range of suggestions of what exactly the Arcadia pits its Arcadia against: pastoral ethos against heroic ethos; one version of pastoral against others; idealized pastoral against "real" country life. (1) Everyone agrees that the Arcadia offers a pastoral vision in competition with something else, but what that something else is has been difficult to determine. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that terms such as "pastoral," "heroic," and "antipastoral" are in themselves difficult to define.

My suggestion is that in the Arcadia, Arcadia is depicted not against something else, but against itself. Very little attention has been paid to the literary associations possessed by the land of Arcadia at the time Sidney was writing other than the connection with Sannazaro. The two main sources where Sidney could have obtained information about the land of Arcadia are Polybius's description in the fourth book of his Histories and Sannazaro's pastoral romance Arcadia. (2) These two main sources, however, offer very different visions of the land of Arcadia, and, as Sidney is influenced by both of them, his own text offers two competing versions of the land of Arcadia, one seemingly based on Polybius's account and the other based on Sannazaro's. It is important to recognize that Arcadia is not simply an evocation of the "landscapes ... of Vergil and Sannazaro" and that the term "Arcadia" can no longer be used as a synonym for the pastoral genre in this context. (3) Arcadia also has another, very different dimension in Polybius's account of it. If Arcadia as a setting does not suggest only pastoral poetry, there is no need to argue that Sidney chose to explore the problems inherent in the pastoral genre by contrasting it with something else. Arcadia suggests both a political and a pastoral version of itself, and the tensions between these two versions were ready for Sidney to explore. Sidney's...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A195856720