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In a particularly important passage of his Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney sums up a number of his most significant assumptions about poetry as an art. He speaks of poets as writers who create in order
to imitate: and imitate both to delight and teach: and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger: and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved, which [is] the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed . . . .
In other words, poets write in order both to please and to instruct. They offer pleasure so that their readers will learn (and embrace) morality. Without being offered such pleasure, many persons might ignore or reject moral teachings. The greatest purpose of learning is to move people to want to be virtuous. Thus, the chief goal of poetry is to promote virtue.
Do Sidney’s own poems exemplify his ideas about the methods and purposes of poetry? The short answer is an emphatic “yes.” Consider, for example, sonnet 5 from his Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence, which teaches the following lessons in the following lines:
Lines 1-2: God created our eyes to serve our reason. (The implication is that our reason should not serve our eyes.)
Lines 2-3: The reason or soul ought to rule the body.
Lines 3-4: Anyone who departs from the rules of reason is merely seeking his or her own pain. Such a person is a traitor to Nature (and thus, implicitly, to God, the creator of Nature).
Lines 5-7: Cupidinous love (that is, selfish desire) is a kind of idol which we often worship instead of God. In other words, we often worship ourselves.
Line 8: Cupid, the personification of selfish desire, can damage both our bodies and our souls.
Line 9: In truth, the only true source of beauty is virtue (with the implication that the source of all virtue is God).
Line 10: Any beautiful thing or person here on earth is merely a shadow or imitation emanating from God, the source of true beauty.
Line 11: Any beautiful thing or person on earth is ephemeral because it is made up of earthly elements. The earthly elements will eventually separate from one another. Thus earthly beauty will inevitably decay (with the implication that heavenly beauty is eternal).
Lines 12-13: God put us on earth so that we can journey back to heaven, our true home.
Line 14: In spite of the fact that he knows and confesses all these standard Christian truths of his era, Astrophil ironically, foolishly, and comically still remains obsessed, at the end of the poem, with his selfish desire for Stella’s physical beauty.
This poem, then, like many sonnets in the sequence, teaches not only overtly and explicitly (as in the first thirteen lines) but also implicitly and ironically (as in line 14). The final line, in particular, provides us with the pleasure of humor while also teaching us indirectly the valuable lesson that we should resist selfish desire.
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