In response to Stephen Gosson’s narrowly moralistic condemnation of poetry The Schoole of Abuse, Sidney’s Defence of Poesie sets forth a large-minded justification of literature as a legitimate pleasure that is at the same time an incentive to the practice of virtue. He leads up to this moral defense with a series of lesser, but nevertheless important, defenses, beginning with poetry’s long-standing reputation. In nations long admired, such as classical Greece and Rome, poetry was a “nurse” and a “lightgiver,” the kind of thing that was presented to young children as a preface to “tougher knowledges.” If societies such as these gave precedence to poetry, it surely must be a worthy thing.
Closely related to reputation are the good names that poetry has borne. In Rome, Sidney says, the poet was a vates, which signifies a seer or prophet. In other words, he or she was considered to be a person who possessed a special fund of knowledge like that of those who were able to predict the future. In Greece he was a poieten, which meant “maker” and which forms the basis of the English word “poet.” Thus, the poet is both a seer and a maker.
Sidney goes on to consider the “principal object” of poetry in relation to other occupations, all of which have some aspect of the natural world as the object of their attention. Astronomers study the stars; musicians, sounds; physicians, the human body. The poet, however, “not tied to any subjection,” ranges throughout nature for his or her material and even goes beyond nature, because he or she can imagine things better than nature has actually produced. Poets are the maker of makers, and therefore the Greek name for a poet is particularly appropriate.
Sidney then gathers together two of the most famous definitions of poetry from the ancient world. Aristotle thought of poetry as a mimetic art—that is, an art of imitation. Horace defined it as an art that both teaches and delights. For Sidney, these two notions are quite compatible, and it remains for him to reinterpret these Aristotelian and Horatian concepts according to his own understanding of poetic art.
Before undertaking this task, Sidney classifies poets into three categories. The first category, religious poets, includes David in his Psalms and Homer in the hymns attributed to him. Philosophical poets are those such as the Roman Lucretius, who wrote the philosophical treatise De rerum natura (c....
(The entire section is 1023 words.)