Sir Philip Sidney does not approve of the Kardashians. I was putting together some slides for a lecture on the sixteenth-century poet, nobleman and dead Protestant wunderkind when I first learned his opinion of Kim and her family.
As those of you more internet-aware than me will surely know, Sir Philip Sidney has popped up in various online places recently, not being amused at things. He frowns on screaming teenage pop fans:
He finds Snooki’s hair excessive:
He finds church signs in the Bible Belt endlessly tiresome:
He despairs of spelling and grammar mistakes:
and he seems to have a particular problem with Twilight – this is only one of very many statements he has made on the topic:
The lamented Renaissance poet seems to be casting his ire widely across a number of cultural phenomena. And once I’d got over the initial WTFery of finding a Philip Sidney meme, I was fascinated by it. This is a cultural engagement with the Early Modern period, just as much as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, or an exhibition of Spanish Golden Age painting at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a sort of non-verbal “quotation”, bringing the meanings associated with the era to bear on contemporary culture, and finding a number of them wanting in Sidney’s eyes. The joke is also supposedly self-evident: the people using Sidney as a contrast to Jersey Shore or Twilight are certain that he embodies a certain set of values which oppose these works. I was intrigued by this aspect – the apparently self-evident quality of Sidney’s disapproval – so I started thinking about what image of the Early Modern period was being presented here.
Firstly, his catch phrase is oddly anachronistic. A paraphase of Queen Victoria’s famous “We are not amused”, it apparently elides the Elizabethan and Victorian periods, associating Sidney with an austere and forbidding image of another century. This plays into one strain of the way the Victorians appear in our popular imagination: as a sort of stern grandparents who sit back in the nineteenth century, silently judging everything which goes on in the modern era. I’m always surprised by how widespread this attitude to the Victorians is, the way so much popular culture seems to be trying to posthumously outrage their sensibilities. (This came out most strongly when people hurried to inform me what “the Victorians” thought about actresses during a discussion of the BBC Sherlock. I’m amazed there was a single female performer left in that society.) I wonder whether this elision between the images of Victorian and Elizabethan culture is more likely across the Atlantic, where it might fuse into a generalised “British” image of prissiness and old-fashioned moralism? I’d love to hear thoughts on that from readers in the US (where this meme originated.)
Of course seeing Sidney as the embodiment of Victorian attitudes is, in one sense, only taking the Victorians at their word. Looking at the way they depicted his life – or, with a typically Victorian combination of ghoulishness and idealism, his death – we can see how the nineteenth century built up the legend of the knight-courtier-martyr, whether in the lush “Last Days of Philip Sidney” by Robert Alexander Hillingford:
or the more functional illustration to Cassell’s Universal History:
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that Sidney is still bound up – for this corner of the internet, at least – with the supposed asceticism and self-righteousness of the Victorians. In this meme, he prowls the zeitgeist looking for signs of sloppiness and self-indulgence, the misplaced apostrophes which signal slipshod standards, the textual nipple-slips of modern culture. There’s clearly something playful about this meme: we’re can’t assume that everything which Philip Sidney’s humourless gaze falls upon is equally disapproved of by those who photoshopped him into the situation. But it’s a telling demonstration of how much popular culture associates the high culture of the Early Modern period with “the Victorians” and their values I’ve put that in quotation marks because I think “the Victorians” here are actually an after-echo of the image projected by a particular Evangelical-influenced mid-Victorian ethos.
Which brings us to the real question: would he have in fact been amused? Or rather, is that disdain we see (“imputed to him as self-righteousness” as contemporaries might have put it) actually in line with what we know about the ideology of that Zutphen-bothering sonnet-wrangler who liked to pass the helmet ‘pon the left hand side? Well, the Kardashians are probably a fair point. Given Sidney’s attitude towards the stage in An Apology for Poesy, which reeks of anxiety about the potential of fictions played before a socially mixed audience, I think he’d find most of the entertainment industry deeply suspect. I read that treatise as yearning towards the abstract (or at least the ideal) in art, and suspicious of the conditions under which plays are made from fallen bodies and stage props.
He might have had a sneaking admiration for the Kardashians’ skill at self-presentation, however. Or alternatively roaring fury that those not of noble birth had managed to pull off the trick of transforming their lives into a series of symbolic actions which gained them attention and money. This is, after all, the Sidney who played the game of giving meaningful gifts to his sovereign so well. We are talking about the courtier who once gave Queen Elizabeth a jewelled whip after their relationship had become rather strained. Playing out his life in public was one of Sidney’s accomplishments, even if he did it to a smaller audience. Aside from anything, the painting that meme is taken from is actually a flagrant and flamboyant act of self-advertisement. The ruff frothing over the polished gorget, the carefully draped hand, the bulging, gleaming doublet which nearly brushes that remarkable codpiece, which itself echoes the sword-hilt his other hand is wrapped around. Austere it ain’t:
I can’t see him being bothered about misplaced apostrophes and spelling mishaps, though. They’re unlikely to have concerned an author who would write at the end of the dedication of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia “And so, looking for no better stuffe, then, as in an Haberdashers shoppe, glasses, or feathers, you will continue to loue the writer, who doth exceedinglie loue you; and most most hartelie praies you may long liue, to be a pricipall ornament to the family of the Sidneis.” Nor, I think, would the church signs have troubled him overmuch. Sidney’s militant Protestantism was one of the driving forces of his public life, as well as a point of friction with other members of the court. A Protestant war against Catholic Spain was Sidney’s paramount ambition, and the religious zealotry which played such a large part in his career came from the same stable as the Bible Belt types he sneers at online.
The point of this pedantry is not to criticise the meme, or to nit-pick what parts of it cohere with what we know about Sidney. Rather, it’s to understand what modern values are being projected onto that figure of Sidney. What “high culture” and “the Renaissance” and even a certain brand of “Britishness”, are assumed to be opposed to. In this case, they’re apparently the antithesis of badly educated people, of popular writing, of religious enthusiasm and of “girly” things. (The number of times Sidney appears next to Justin Bieber or Cullen family references is remarkable.) The objects his judgement falls upon help outline a particular Anglo-Protestant image of cultural value, one which is often associated with Early Modern culture when it appears in contemporary settings, as I’ve previously noticed in “WASP Actually“. Sir Philip Sidney Is Not Amused. But his sulk is an eloquent sulk.