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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093

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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 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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990

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 the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.”

Sidney finds nothing to criticize in the work of the lyric poet, who lauds virtuous acts, gives moral precepts, and sometimes praises God, and he defends epic poetry as the greatest of all the genres: “For, as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy.”

Concluding his defense, Sidney takes up the most frequently repeated criticisms of poetry: that it is merely rhyming and versifying; that there are other kinds of knowledge that are worthier of one’s time; that poetry is “the mother of lies”; that it inspires evil lusts; and that Plato banished it from his commonwealth. Against the first objection Sidney reiterates his statement that poetry is not exclusively that which is written in verse, although he defends the use of verse on the grounds that it is a great aid to the memory and that it is “the only fit speech for music.”

The second argument has already been answered; if poetry be the greatest of teachers and inspirations to virtue, it must be worthy of the greatest share of people’s attention. To the contention that poets are liars, Sidney replies that since they never affirm their subjects to be literally true or real, they cannot lie. Although they do not reproduce details of life from specific incidents, neither do they attempt to prove the false true. They call upon the imagination for the “willing suspension of disbelief” and tell not “what is or is not, but what should or should not be.”

Sidney confesses that there is some justice in the condemnation of poetry for its scurrility, but he imputes the fault to bad poets who abuse their art, rather than to poetry itself. He suggests that Plato, in banishing poets from his Republic, was barring those bad writers who corrupted youth with false pictures of the gods, not the art of poetry itself.

Satisfied with these answers, Sidney then turns to the specific problems of literature in England in his own day. He sees no reason for poetry to flourish in Italy, France, and Scotland, and not in his own nation, except the laziness of the poets themselves. They will neither study to acquire ideas nor practice to perfect a style for conveying these ideas. A few English writers and works are, however, worthy of a place in world literature. Sidney praises Chaucer and the lyrics of the Earl of Surrey, and he finds that Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) “hath much poetry in his eclogues,” although he objects to Spenser’s use of rustic language, on the grounds that neither Theocritus nor Virgil, the most famous classical writers of pastoral, employed it. For the rest of English poetry, Sidney has only scorn, for it seemed to him meaningless: “One verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first what should be at the last; which becomes a confused mass of words, with a tinkling sound of rime, barely accompanied with reason.”

The public criticism of drama seems to him justified, with a very few exceptions. He commends Gorboduc (1561), a melodramatic Seneca-type tragedy by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, for its “stately speeches,” “well-sounding phrases,” and “notable morality,” but he is disturbed by the authors’ failure to observe the unities of time and place. The rest of the tragedies of the age seem absurd in their broad leaps in space and time, spanning continents and decades in two hours. A true Aristotelian in his views on drama, Sidney is convinced that stage action should be confined to one episode; other events may be reported in the dialogue to provide necessary background for the central events. He objects, too, to the presence of scurrilous comic scenes, chiefly designed to evoke loud laughter from the audience, in the tragedies.

Sidney’s last target is the affected artificial diction of lyric poetry, especially of love poetry. He believes that the wildly imaginative conceits of the Euphuists are tedious, and he praises, in contrast, the sense of decorum, of fitting diction and imagery, of the great classical orators.

After a few comments on the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative verse and on types of rhyme, Sidney addresses his readers, promising fame and blessings to those who will appreciate the values of poetry and laying this curse on those who will not: “While you live you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.”

Readers familiar with classical conceptions of poetry may find a disturbing dissonance in Defence of Poesie; at times, Sidney seems to speak in theoretical terms borrowed from Plato (who questioned the value of poetry); at other times he seems to focus, as did Aristotle, on the task of defining the elements of imaginative literature and championing poetry’s moral value. In actuality, Sidney is attempting to synthesize the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of poetry and to integrate them with the new neoclassical concept of criticism as a practical endeavor intended to assess the worth of individual works. Like Aristotle, Sidney stresses the importance of the poem as a made object. Significantly, however, he also emphasizes the importance of the imagination in the creation of art; poets rely not simply on what they see around them, but also on that inner quality that gives them the capacity to create people, places, situations, and emotions much like those of the everyday world, but in some ways better or worse, to serve as models for human behavior.

The Defence of Poesie presents principles generally accepted by the critics throughout the Renaissance: The author leans heavily upon the dicta of the most-noted classical critics, Aristotle, Plato, and Horace, and his standards are echoed by the major English critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. The notion that the poet is somehow an agent for good inspired not only the writers of Sidney’s own day, but also those of succeeding generations; the great English Romantics—among them William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—are the inheritors of Sidney’s belief that poetry has the power of moving people to do good. It is but one small step to move from Sidney’s assertion in Defence of Poesie that the final end of poetry is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection . . . as our degenerate soules” can reach, to Shelley’s pronouncement in his own Defence of Poetry that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Sidney’s essay is one of the most polished and interesting pieces of Elizabethan prose, and his comments on the writing of his own time have been borne out by the judgment of the centuries. Although this work is the first major piece of English literary criticism, it has seldom been surpassed in the centuries since Sidney’s death.