Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry is one of the most important pieces of prose of the entire English Renaissance. Sidney’s defense of poetry is important not so much because its ideas are original but precisely because they are not. Sidney gave highly memorable expression to many ideas that were extremely widespread during his period.
Among the points Sidney makes in his treatise are the following:
- In the past, poetry was highly valued, partly because it was one of the first means by which people learned and expressed their learning.
- Many of the most respected intellects in human history have been poets and have defended poetry.
- Poetry is used and valued even in the Bible, the most important book for all Christians.
- The word “poet” comes from a Greek word meaning “to make”; a poet, therefore, is a maker.
- Philosophy can teach the nature of goodness, but it does so in ways that are often boring. History can describe various good people who have lived in the past. Poetry, however, can actually inspire people to want be good. Thus, speaking of poetry in competition with philosophy, Sidney says that the
philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs; the poet is, indeed, the right popular philosopher.
- There are various kinds, or “genres,” of poetry, and knowing about these is important.
- Poetry is like a speaking picture.
- Poetry is the most effective way to teach morality. Just as
virtue is the most excellent resting-place for all worldly learning to make his end of, so poetry, being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman.
- Contemporary condemners of poetry show their ignorance of the ideal achievements of poetry. They may have some reason to criticize contemporary abuses of poetry, but not poetry itself.
- Even Jesus Christ used poetry to teach.
- Although Plato may have criticized poetry, many, many other learned figures have defended it and extolled it.
- Contemporary poets and dramatists may sometimes misuse poetry, but that fact should not be used as a reason to condemn all poets and all poetry.
- In short,
since the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue, breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honour poesy, and to be honoured by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy . . . .
Sidney's treatise is important partly because Sidney himself was such a highly respected figure. If Sir Philip Sidney read poetry, wrote poetry, and valued poetry, then many other English people felt comfortable doing the same.