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 charges that imaginative literature was simply a vile distraction that promoted idleness at best, immorality at worst. Sidney found that the only way to defend the practice of poetry was to redefine its function and assign it a more significant aesthetic role. Modeling his work on both classical and Renaissance predecessors, Sidney constructs in the Defence of Poesie a formal argument, in a style reminiscent of the Roman orator Cicero and his followers in the practice of rhetoric, to explain the value of poetry and to delineate those qualities that make the poet a valuable teacher.
Sidney’s first argument for the supremacy of poetry is that it was the “first light-giver to ignorance”; the first great works of science, philosophy, history, and even law were poems. Both the Italian and English languages were polished and perfected by their poets, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch on the one hand, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower on the other. Even Plato illuminated his philosophy with myths and dramatic scenes.
Both the Hebrews and the Romans gave high distinction to poets, considering them prophets, messengers of God or the gods. The Greeks called their writers “makers,” creators, who alone could rise above this world to make a golden one. Sidney writes of the poet: “So as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.”
The aim of poetry, of all earthly knowledge, is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” The moral philosopher feels himself the best teacher, for he can define and discuss virtue and vice and their causes; the historian argues that his examples from the past are far more effective instructors than the abstractions of the philosopher. Sidney finds the virtues of both combined in the poet, who can give precept and example. He cites Homer’s demonstration of wisdom personified in Ulysses; of valor, in Achilles; of anger, in Ajax. The poet is free to portray the ideal, while the historian must be faithful to his subjects, and they, being human, mingle faults with their virtues. The poet may show evil punished and good rewarded; the historian must record the vagaries of fortune, which allows the innocent to suffer and the vicious to prosper.
The poet has other advantages over the philosopher; however true the philosopher’s statements may be, they are hard to follow. The poet “doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it.” People will willingly listen to stories of Aeneas or Achilles, unaware of the lessons they are learning. Having established the superiority of poetry to his own satisfaction, Sidney analyzes both the pleasing and the instructive aspects of the various literary genres, trying to determine what faults may have brought poetry into disrepute. The pastoral can arouse sympathy for the wretchedness of the poor or illustrate civil wrongs in fables about sheep and wolves; satire makes one laugh at folly and thus reform. Comedy, which has been disgraced by “naughty play-makers and stage-keepers,” is valuable for the ridicule it casts upon people’s faults, which people scorn as they laugh. Tragedy, stirring up feelings of wonder and pity, “teacheth...
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