Defence of Poesie "A Tale Which Holdeth Children From Play"

Sir Philip Sidney

"A Tale Which Holdeth Children From Play"

Context: Stephen Gosson came to London to be a playwright, but failing at his chosen profession, he turned critic and attacked the popular drama with great vehemence and bombast in The School of Abuse (1579), dedicated with audacity but without permission to Sir Philip Sidney. Poetry and drama had their defenders, and the debate over their merits continued for years; however, Sidney responded with this essay published after his death. He begins by pointing to the antiquity of poetry, the prestige it has been accorded in every age, and its neoclassical types, or genres. His most important discussion is his analysis of the creative imagination. The poet, he says, is a finer influence than the historian, the philosopher, or the mathematician because he is more creative; he can transcend nature, rather than merely analyze her, and present an ideal world:

Now therin of all sciences (I speak still of humane, and according to the humane conceit) is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only shew the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it. Nay, he doth, as if your journey should lie through a fair vineyard, at the very first give you a cluster of grapes, that, full of that taste, you may long to pass further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness; but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion; . . . and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner. And, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue: even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things by hiding them in such other as have a pleasant taste. . . . So is it in men (most of which are childish in the best things, till they be cradled in their graves): glad they will be to hear the tales of Hercules, Achilles, Cyrus, Aeneas; and, hearing them, must needs hear the right description of wisdom, valor, and justice; which, if they had been barely, that is to say philosophically, set out, they would swear they be brought to school again. . . .