Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie (also known as An Apologie for Poetrie) is a short book, or long essay, stating the reasons that poetry is a noble art and is, in Sidney's view, superior to other forms of writing.
He begins with a humorous anecdote about his stay at the Imperial Court in Vienna where he and his friend Edward Wotton, on a diplomatic mission for Queen Elizabeth, were also taking horsemanship classes with the famous riding instructor Giovanni Pietro Pugliano. As an interesting sidelight, one wonders if Sidney is acknowledging that the Italians were better in horsemanship than the English, or is ironically making the opposite point in his apparent praise of Pugliano. At any rate, Sidney's point is to analogize military matters with intellectual ones. (In quotations I have modernized Sidney's spelling):
He [Pugliano] said soldiers were the noblest estate of mankind, and horsemen, the noblest of soldiers. He said they were the masters of war, and ornaments of peace: speedy goers, and strong abiders, triumphers both in camps and courts. Nay, to so unbelieved a point he proceeded, as that no earthly thing bred such wonder to a prince, as to be a good horseman. Skill of government was but a pedanteria in comparison. Then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast a horse was. The only serviceable courtier without flattery, the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse.
In this rather jocular way, Sidney sets up a parallel between soldiers, horsemen, and horses in one realm of life, and poets in another. Poetry, in his view, is the purest and highest form of writing. He identifies the primacy in Ancient Greece of poetry over science and philosophy and states that poetry is in some way the source of, and inspiration for, these other disciplines. At the same time, he defines poetry as not simply that which is written in meter and rhyme, but something having a deeper quality than exists in other types of writing:
And truly, even Plato, whosoever well considereth, shall find that in the body of his work, though the inside and strength were philosophy, the skin as it were and beauty, depended most of poetry.
Therefore, in Sidney's view, the essence of poetry is not in formal aspects or even in subject matter, but in some inner quality that enables even a "mere" philosopher such as Plato or an historian such Herodotus to be a "poet."
What, then, is the inner quality, the essence of the poetic? Sidney quotes Aristotle's definition of poetry as mimesis, or imitation, specifically the imitation of "nature." All disciplines, in Sidney's view, are imitative in some sense, or descriptive of the real world:
The moral philosopher standeth upon the natural virtues, vices, and passions of man; and follow Nature (saith he) therein, and thou shalt not err. The lawyer saith what men have determined. The historian what men have done...only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite a new form such as newer were in Nature, as the heroes, demigods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; 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...
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his own wit.
Thus, it's not simply literal imitation the poet is concerned with, but the creation of a "higher" nature. One can relate his thinking to that of many writers on aesthetics, into the Romantic period and later. In some sense, this is the essence of the modern conception of art, overall, that Sidney is presenting.
He goes on to categorize poets according to the type of "imitation" and the subject matter with which they deal: first, the religious, second, the philosophical (which includes what we call science), and third, those
which most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate, borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be: but range only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be, and should be.
He then sub-categorizes these into the types "heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, iambic, elegiac, pastoral, and certain others." He goes on to discuss at length these types, giving copious examples from Greek and Latin literature, and answering the "objections" that might be leveled by a skeptic against each genre of poetic writing. This is in keeping with the general tone of his "defense" of poetry against those who do not value it. He makes an extended argument regarding the supposed "abuse" of the poetical, which these naysayers claim makes all poetry to be worthless or dangerous, saying that this reasoning, if followed, would make the entire practice of medicine worthless merely because some doctors may be incompetent.
Sidney devotes the closing portion of his essay to a discussion of English poetry:
me thinks, before I give my pen a full stop, it shall be but a little more lost time, to inquire why England, (the mother of excellent minds,) should be grown so hard a step-mother to poets, who certainly in wit ought to pass all other.
His chief point in this regard is to say that although we (the English) may not have achieved true greatness in poetry, there is no reason that greatness cannot be attained now. He provides an insightful analysis of the English language and its features which distinguish it from other European languages, which he sees as advantages:
I know, some say it is a mingled language. And why not so much the better, taking the best of both the other? Another will say it wanteth grammar. Nay truly, it hath that praise, that it wanteth not grammar, for grammar it might have, but it needs it not, being so easy of itself, and so void of those cumbersome differences of cases, genders, moods, and tenses, which I think was a piece of the Tower of Babylon's curse, that a man should be put to school to learn his mother-tongue.
Sidney was ahead of his time in this essay. Though he did not live to see it himself, within a few decades Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and many others would create some of the world's greatest literature.