Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Full of Anxious Fear

The Gay Love Letters of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Hubert Languet (1518-81), French diplomat and Professor of Civil Law at Padua, met the English courtier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) in Frankfurt in 1572. It was in that year that Languet found that his life was in danger because of his support of the Huguenots, killed in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew. He and Sidney (1554–86), fresh from Oxford, on his tour of study, escaped France together, crossing the Rhine into Germany, and lived together in Frankfurt for a time. They then travelled together from Frankfurt to Vienna, where Languet represented his patron Augustus, Elector of Saxony, at the Imperial court. Sidney remained there until November the following year, when he went to Venice with a certain Count Hannau, and this is when the letters began. This separation was the beginning of many years’ correspondence (conducted in Latin) between the fifty-five-year-old diplomat and the nineteen-year-old courtier. Both men quote Cicero’s De Amicitia, especially his dictum that "Friendship is the salt and spice of life." Sidney's correspondence was much more irregular and infrequent. His letters in a sense represent the first "modern" letters by an Englishman. Sidney in his letters is more aloof, Languet more obviously infatuated: "my affection for you has somehow come to bewitch my soul." Languet on 18 June 1574 had written to Sidney: "If I wished to please myself, I would write you about nothing but my affection for you." Languet would have liked to have set up house with Sidney, a situation precluded by Sidney’s brilliant lineage and fortune: "But if I came upon a poor youth who resembled you in behaviour and character, I would certainly adopt him as my son and make him heir to my belongings, and I would not be at all concerned about his parentage." Languet sent love poems to Sidney, and commissioned Veronese to paint a portrait of him, which has not been traced. It is fortunate that Languet died before Sidney, and was spared the grief over his beloved being tragically killed in the battle of Zutphen, when English poets poured forth the national grief in numerous epitaphs and elegies calling him "the wonder of the age."


December 19, 1573

Your letter of the 4th Dec. arrived yesterday. It brings me another instance of your singular affection for me, which suffers all suspicions to be removed by one short note. And now about my own affairs. If the King [of Poland]'s inauguration is to take place so soon, it is impossible I should be there; . . . But however it may turn out now, in the spring I shall make the tour of all that country with the noble count of Hannau, who tells me that he too intends to leave Italy and go into Poland, Bohemia, and your own Saxony. And then, my very dear Languet, I shall see you, and one conversation with you would give me more delight, than all the magnificet magnificences of all these magnificos. . . .
          May God grant you long life for my sake.
                    – Farewell, wholly yours,
                              Ph. Sidney


November 19, 1573

What care and anxiety, nay what fear had you spared me, if you had written to me only once or twice on your journey! I did not desire a laboured letter, only a word or two, as, "this day we arrived here in safety," or the like. You remember how earnestly I begged this of you when you were leaving me. But you will say, "it matters little to you whether you hear or not: when I arrive at Padua or Venice, then I will write to you." You might have done both, and if you had, I should have thought myself greatly obliged by you. However, I would rather suppose that you have met no one to whom you could trust a letter for me, than either that you disregard your promises, or that your affection for me has begun to fail. That it was strong when you left me, I knew by the tears which hardly suffered you to say farewell. I forgive you this crime, and every other which you shall henceforth commit against me, if you will only be careful not to let your thirst for learning and acquiring information, lead you into danger. . . .


December 5, 1573

Nay, but I do not say, "it matters little to you whether you hear or not," for I am well aware how that "love is full of anxious fear." But this I will say, and say with truth, that I met literally no one who was going towards Vienna. But inasmuch as you tacitly charge me with some slackening of the affection with which I have regarded and ever shall regard you and all your noble qualities, while I acknowledge your kindness, I beg of you seriously and earnestly, that whatever be the distance which separates us, you will be satisfied of this, that I am not so possessed either with the folly of a boy, or the inconstancy of a woman, or the ingratitude of a brute, as not to seek eagerly the friendship of such a man, and hold it fast when I have gained it, and be thankful for it as long as I have it. I would I were sufficiently at home in Latin, or you in English; you should see what a scene I would make of these suspicions of yours. . . .
          Philip Sidney


December 4, 1573

I was meditating a very sharp remonstrance when the letter came in, which you wrote on your arrival at Venice: that at once dispersed the cloud from my mind, and made me happy indeed, for I learned from it that you had reached your journey's end in safety, and had not forgotten me. I was delighted too with your promise not to lose any opportunity of writing to me. See that you fulfil it. . . .
          I beg you will not show any one the foolish letters I send to you. I write without selection all that my mind in its changing moods suggests to me, and it is enough for me if I succeed in making you believe that you are very dear to me. I hope you will tell me what you think of the persons to whom I gave you letters.
          – Farewell.


December 24, 1573

I was afraid that you wished to punish by silence the wrong you thought had been done to you. And you could hardly have inflicted a more severe punishment upon me than this. My very dear son (for I am now pleased to call you by that name), thus far I have coveted no riches and have taken no trouble to acquire any besides the friendship of those in whom I have seen the eager desire for virtue flourishing; and I have not failed in this, for I have formed very rewarding and gratifying friendships with more than a few persons. But my affection for you has entered my heart far more deeply than any I have ever felt for anyone else, and it has so wholly taken posession there that it tries to rule alone, and, as it were, to practice tyranny. . . .


January 1, 1574

. . . I sometimes gratify myself at our kind Abondius' with the sight of your portrait, and then forthwith I suffer for it, because it only renews the pain I felt at losing you. . . . If you love me do not break off your habit of writing. I cannot tell you what pleasure your letters give me. I wish you and yours a happy new year.


January 15, 1574

To the most excellent and and illustrious Hubert Languet,
Always my much esteemed friend, at Vienna.
          Behold at last my letter from Padua! not that you are to expect any greater eloquence than is usually to be found in my epistles, but that you may know I have arrived here as I purposed, and in safety; . . . Here I am then, and I have already visited his excellency the Count, and the Baron Slavata your worthy young friends, and while I enjoy their acquaintance with the greatest pleasure to myself, I am perpetually reminded of your surpassing love of me, which you show in taking so much care not only for me, but for all my concerns and conveniences, and that without any deserving on my part. But you are not a man to be thanked for such a thing; for you are even now meditating greater kindness still, and, in truth, as far as I am concerned, much as I am indebted to you, I am only too willing to owe you more. But enough of this.
          Your last letter, written on the 1st of January, reached me on the 13th. It brought me no news, for it was filled with instances of your affection, ever pleasant indeed, but long since known and proved, a kind of letter which is above all others delightful and acceptable to me, for while I read, I fancy that I have the very Hubert himself before my eyes and in my hands. . . .
          The volumes of Cicero I will read diligently. There are some things also which I wish to learn of the Greeks, which hitherto I have but skimmed on the surface. But the chief object of my life, next to the everlasting blessedness of heaven, will always be the enjoyment of true friendship, and there you shall have the chiefest place.
          – Farewell, yours with all my heart,
                    Philip Sidney


January 22, 1574

It is supposed that the Emperor will go to Prague within two months, and therefore I begin to fear that I shall be unfortunate enough to lose the sight of you when you come back into Germany, which would be a most bitter disappointment to me. And even if things so fall in with my desire, that I may see you once more, I shall not enjoy the pleasure long. I foresee what pain I shall suffer in parting from you, and I would gladly find some remedy for it; but nothing occurs to me, unless a portrait of you might perhaps be a relief to me. And though your likeness is so engraven on my heart, as to be always before my sight, yet I beg you kindly to indulge me so far as to send it to me, or bring it when you come back. One reason why I wish to have it, is that I may show it to those friends to whom I say what I think of your worth, and what hopes I entertain of your character; for they feel that no man can possess such a gifted mind, without showing marks of it in his person, and especially in his face; and therefore they desire greatly to see you. But I hope you will consider yourself at liberty to say no, without offending me; for I should be sorry to make a request that could be disagreeable to you. The sight of your portrait at our friend Abondius', wrought upon me so, that when I came home I wrote these verses, which I send to you, though from my earliest youth I have never tried my hand on anything of the kind. I venture to expose myself to your mirth, and to say that I do not consider them altogether from the purpose, and to request therefore that they may be written under the portrait which you will cause to be painted, if there shall be room for them. . . .
          &I#150; Farewell
[These verses are lost. Languet subsequently commissioned Veronese for this portrait, but it no longer exists.]


February 5, 1574

. . . I wonder you say nothing in your last letter about your return, as you always did before. I dare not say that you are so fascinated by the alluring splendours of Italy, as to have forgotten us and ours, for you would be angry with me as you were formerly. But yet if there is any reason why you think you ought to change your plans, I should wish you to let me know in good time, that I may not nurse the vain hope and feel it the more when I find myself deceived. . . .


February 26 1574

"Just in time," as I believe Davus says in Terence. I was quite prepared to display all my authority in remonstrating with you, because this Friday, contrary to custom, had almost passed without a letter from you; when lo! it comes. It soon made me give up my fierce resolution, and indeed, from a vehement prosecutor turned me into a trembling defendant. . . . If indeed I should change my plans, it would be a want of courtesy in me, not to acquaaint you with the change; but while I continue in the same mind, why should I go on dinning into your ears the same story, trifling as it is? . . . And therefore, unless you will have me to be ungrateful, in othr words a monster, you must not believe it possible that I should either forget your affection, or suffer your friendship to be supplanted by any new conntions. . . .
          This day one Paul of Verona has begun my portrait, for whch I must stay here two or three days longer. Love me, and farewell. Venice, 26th Feb. 1574.
          I have written this letter half asleep.
                    Yours from my heart,
                              Philip Sidney


April 10, 1574

I do not believe your mind could so soon be tainted with the morals of the people whom you have visited [in Venice], as to forget utterly one who loves you better than himself, and grudge him the intense pleasure he will feel at hearing you have returned safe to Padua, to your good friends there. Still, as you write not a word of your return, you would give me some grounds for suspicion, if my regard for you, which absolutely rules me, would allow it. And if it should be so, I should not wreak my fury on the Etrurians and Savoyards, from whom my misfortune took its birth; but I would straight attack the English, and aim all my weapons at them; and if I should find nothing to charge you with except inconstancy in friendship, I would search out and scrape together, from every quarter, all that could hurt or lower the character of your country, and so satiate myself with sweet revenge. But I will do nothing hastily; I will command my temper until I am more certainly informed of your disposition toward me, and then I will act according to circumstances. But now let us cease fighting. . . .

SOURCE: The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, 1573-1576, trans. Charles Samuel Levy (printed Doctoral Thesis, Cornell University, 1963); The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, trans. Steuart A. Pears (London: William Pickering, 1845).

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