Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie is an attempt to raise poetry above the criticism that had been directed at it by contemporary critics and to establish it as the highest of the arts, best fitted both to please and to instruct, the two aims stated by Horace in his Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.). The first part of Defence of Poesie is primarily theoretical; Sidney weighs the respective merits of philosophy, history, and poetry as teachers of virtue. In the final section, he surveys the state of English literature soon after 1580.
The importance of Sidney’s Defence of Poesie can best be appreciated by understanding the political climate of the late sixteenth century. A growing number of religious leaders were condemning the production of imaginative literature; lyric and dramatic works were viewed as little more than tools for corruption. Furthermore, much of the writing being produced in England was hackneyed and trite. Nevertheless, Sidney, a student of the classics and a poet himself, believed there was both aesthetic and moral value in poetry, which he defined broadly to include all imaginative literature. Well versed in Greek and Roman literature, familiar with both classical and Renaissance defenses of the arts, the courtier-artist took it upon himself to champion the practice of writing. The task proved formidable, since no earlier justification seemed to be able to counter the...
(The entire section is 1990 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In response to Stephen Gosson’s narrowly moralistic condemnation of poetry The Schoole of Abuse, Sidney’s Defence of Poesie sets forth a large-minded justification of literature as a legitimate pleasure that is at the same time an incentive to the practice of virtue. He leads up to this moral defense with a series of lesser, but nevertheless important, defenses, beginning with poetry’s long-standing reputation. In nations long admired, such as classical Greece and Rome, poetry was a “nurse” and a “lightgiver,” the kind of thing that was presented to young children as a preface to “tougher knowledges.” If societies such as these gave precedence to poetry, it surely must be a worthy thing.
Closely related to reputation are the good names that poetry has borne. In Rome, Sidney says, the poet was a vates, which signifies a seer or prophet. In other words, he or she was considered to be a person who possessed a special fund of knowledge like that of those who were able to predict the future. In Greece he was a poieten, which meant “maker” and which forms the basis of the English word “poet.” Thus, the poet is both a seer and a maker.
Sidney goes on to consider the “principal object” of poetry in relation to other occupations, all of which have some aspect of the natural world as the object of their attention. Astronomers study the stars; musicians, sounds; physicians, the human body....
(The entire section is 1023 words.)