Sir Philip Sidney: An Apology for Poetry
Sir Philip Sidney: An Apology for Poetry
About the Author
Sir Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554, in Penshurst, Kent, England, and he passed away on October 17, 1586, in Arnhem, the Netherlands. He was a distinguished figure, holding positions at the English court, engaging in political affairs, serving as a soldier, and composing poetry.
Hailing from a prosperous family, Sidney received an education that groomed him for roles in both politics and the military. However, he possessed a deep passion for literature, and he turned to writing as a means of expression. His notable work, Astrophel and Stella, a collection of sonnets, is esteemed as one of the finest examples of the Elizabethan era, second only to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
In 1595, Sidney authored The Defence of Poesie, an eloquent and sophisticated treatise that advocated for the importance of imaginative literature. This piece introduced innovative concepts of Renaissance literary theory to England.
Sidney also embarked on the creation of a heroic romance known as Arcadia, although he regrettably left it unfinished. Nevertheless, this work remains a significant contribution to 16th-century English prose fiction.
It is worth noting that none of Sidney’s literary works saw publication during his lifetime. Tragically, he met his demise due to infection after sustaining injuries while serving as a soldier in the Netherlands. His passing was widely mourned, as he was perceived as the epitome of a true gentleman in his era.
The Defence of Poesie, is a piece of literary criticism by Sir Philip Sidney, written around 1582, and published after his death in 1595. In the same year, another version of this work was published under the title An Apologie for Poetrie. Sydney’s treatise was written partly in response to a work titled The School of Abuse (1579) by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright, who dedicated the work to Sydney in which he accused the English stage. Although, Sydney addresses to more general objections to poetry such as those of Plato.
Considered the finest work of Elizabethan literary criticism, Sidney’s elegant essay suggests that literature is a better teacher than history or philosophy. The essay masterfully refutes Plato’s infamous decision to ban poets from the state in his Republic.
Sydney integrates many classical and Italian tenets (means “principles”) on imaginative literature i.e. poetry, to defend it against many contemporary and ancient criticisms and sets out to restore it to its rightful place among the arts. The essence of his “apology” or defense is that poetry, by combining the liveliness of history with the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy in rousing its readers to virtue.
Although, Sydney sadly finds the contemporary English Literature wanting, he praises such works as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the anthology The Mirror for Magistrates, and Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender. While his ideas are not considered particularly original, the work did introduce the critical thought of continental Renaissance theorists to England.
Author: The work was written by Sir Philip Sidney, a prominent English poet, courtier, and scholar of the Elizabethan era. He is known for his contributions to poetry and literature.
Date of Composition: “The Defence of Poesy” was composed around 1580, during the late 16th century, although it was not published until after Sidney’s death.
Genre: It is a work of literary criticism and prose, defending the art of poetry.
Context: Sidney wrote this work in response to criticisms of the contemporary imaginative literature (i.e. poesy or poetry), particularly those in Stephen Gosson’s The School of Abuse. Sidney aimed to counter these criticisms and elevate the status of poetry.
Purpose: Sidney’s primary purpose in writing this work was to argue for the moral and social significance of poetry. He believed that poetry had the power to convey truth, inspire virtue, and provide pleasure.
Structure: “The Defence of Poesy” is structured as a prose essay, divided into multiple sections or “divisions” in which Sidney addresses various aspects of poetry and its merits.
Key Ideas: Some of the key ideas in Sidney’s “defense” of poetry include its ability to teach through delight (the concept of “luminous wisdom”), its capacity to move the passions, and its role in celebrating human creativity and imagination.
Influence: Famous as the first piece of literary criticism in English, Sidney’s work had a significant influence on subsequent generations of poets and literary critics. It contributed to the development of literary theory and the appreciation of poetry as a valuable art form.
Legacy: “The Defence of Poesy” remains a foundational text in the study of English Renaissance literature and literary criticism. It continues to be studied and appreciated for its eloquent defense of poetry and its enduring relevance to the discussion of the arts.
Publication: Although Sidney completed the work around 1580, it was not published until 1595, several years after his death. The first edition was published by his friend Fulke Greville.
Sydney’s An Apology for Poetry is a seminal work in the history of literary criticism with its enduring impact on the appreciation of poetry.
An Apology for Poetry (aka The Defence of Poesy) by Sir Philip Sidney was written in the late 16th century, during the Elizabethan era in England. Its historical context is crucial to understanding the motivations behind the work:
1. Renaissance Humanism: The Renaissance was a period of great intellectual and cultural flourishing in Europe. Humanism, a key intellectual movement of the time, emphasized the study of classical texts and a renewed interest in literature, art, and learning. Sidney’s work reflects the humanist spirit of his era, as he defends the literary arts, particularly poetry, as a means of moral and intellectual improvement.
2. Religious and Political Turmoil: England during Sidney’s time was marked by religious conflicts, including the Protestant Reformation. Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, and the tensions between Catholics and Protestants were significant. Sidney’s work can be seen as an attempt to promote unity and moral values through literature amidst this religious and political strife.
3. Literary Dissentions: There were ongoing debates about the moral and social influence of literature, particularly poetry and drama. Stephen Gosson’s The School of Abuse was one such critique that Sidney responded to in An Apology for Poetry. These debates reflected broader concerns about the influence of literature on society and morality.
4. Patronage and Courtly Culture: Sidney was a courtier and a prominent figure in Elizabethan England’s literary and intellectual circles. An Apology for Poetry was likely written for a courtly audience and may have served political and social purposes by aligning Sidney with the queen’s support for the arts.
In this historical context, Sidney’s work emerged as an eloquent defense of poetry and the arts against various criticisms concerning their impact on society. It contributed to the broader cultural and intellectual discourse of the Elizabethan era and remains a significant text in the history of literary criticism.
Sydney wrote his “apology” for poetry partly in response to Gosson’s attack on literature and the arts in The School of Abuse, which was published in 1579.
Gosson’s work criticized the moral and social influence of literature, including poetry and drama, as corrupting and detrimental to society. Sydney’s An Apology for Poetry, written about 1580 but not published until after his death, directly addressed and refuted many of Gosson’s arguments. Sydney defended the value of poetry as a source of moral and intellectual enrichment and argued that it could be a force for good in society.
In essence, An Apology for Poetry is a counterargument to Gosson’s The School of Abuse, representing a significant contribution to the literary and cultural debates of their time.
In “An Apology for Poetry,” Sir Philip Sidney aims to restore poetry’s reputation among the arts. In Elizabethan England, many people viewed poetry negatively, but Sidney argues that these critics misunderstand poetry’s true essence. They have been misled by contemporary bad poetry. Sidney believes that grasping poetry’s genuine nature reveals it as the “supreme” art form.
Sidney develops a poetic theory, heavily influenced by classical sources, which sees poetry as a tool for teaching virtue. He also portrays poets as semi-divine figures with the ability to envision a more perfect version of nature. With this definition, Sidney proceeds to address common criticisms of poetry and poets, skilfully refuting them.
Following the seven-part structure of a classical oration, Sidney starts with an exordium, or introduction. He narrates an anecdote about horse-riding, and tells that like his riding instructor Giovanni Pietro Pugliano (who spoke too much about horse-riding), he will not discuss as much about the writing of poetry as the contemplation and appreciation of it. Since he has become a poet, he feels obliged to say something to restore the reputation of his unelected vocation.
Sydney starts his “apology” or defense of poetry by asserting that poetry was first among the arts, that emerged before philosophy and history. Sidney argues that all good writing is poetical, because poetical writing is the most vivid and therefore the most suitable to teach and delight the reader. In fact, many of the well-acknowledged philosophers and historians became influential because of their use of poetry in their works. Even those who wrote in prose, like Plato and Herodotus wrote poetically—that is, they used poetic style to come up with philosophical allegories, in the case of Plato, or to supply vivid historical details, in the case of Herodotus. Had they not used poetry they would never have become popular, Sydney claims.
One can understand the respect poets received in the ancient times by looking at the names they were given in Latin and Greek—vates (meaning “seer” or “prophet”) and poietes (meaning “maker”). So, poets were considered to have wisdom to understand the coming events that were hidden behind the veils of future. They were also considered to have creative power, who like God, can create new and more perfect realities using their imaginations.
Sidney then moves to the proposition, in which he offers a definition of poetry as an art of imitation that teaches its audience through “delight,” or pleasure. He adds that poetry is “a speaking picture” that creates images to convey ideas using words. Moving on to the divisions section, Sidney then specifies that the kind of poetry he is interested in is not religious or philosophical, but rather that which is written by “right poets.” The ideal form of poetry is not limited to using what already exists in nature, rather it creates perfect examples of virtue, which although may not be true, but are perfect tools to teach people what it means to be good.
Sydney then moves on to examination part and tells that poetry is a more effective teacher of virtue than history or philosophy because, instead of being limited to the realm of abstract ideas, like philosophy, or to the realm of what has actually happened, like history, poetry can present perfect examples of virtue in a way best suited to instruct its readers.
The philosopher can only articulate an abstract description of an ethical principle. The poet, however, “giveth a perfect picture of it” who, using their imagination can “coupleth the general notion with the particular example.” The poet concretizes an abstract principle in a perfect example for what the philosopher is only able to give a “wordish description.” The historian, on the other hand, does indeed provide many useful examples of human virtue from the past, but these examples are not necessarily more instructive for the reader. Oftentimes, an example from literature is “more doctrinable” (i.e., more instructive) than a true, imperfect historical example, where historians are bound to tell things as they were. Poetry therefore combines philosophy’s ability to articulate moral principles with history’s ability to give concrete examples. This makes the poet “the right popular philosopher” since he or she is able to communicate virtue to everyone, not just the learned, through his or her power to embody abstract ideas in concrete examples.
Finally, poetry is a more effective teaching tool than history or philosophy because it compels the reader to learn virtue through its vivid examples. These vivid examples are able to move the reader in a way that abstract language cannot. Sidney explains that “moving”—that is, delighting the reader in some way—is “well nigh both the cause and effect of teaching,” for “who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught?” Poetry moves the reader to virtue because it “doth not only show the way [to virtue], but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.” Therefore, poetry “doth draw the mind more effectively than any other art doth.” Poetry is thus particularly effective for educating children since it sugar-coats moral learning, like a “medicine of cherries.” In other words, if moral lessons are conveyed in pleasant stories, young readers will be educated almost without knowing. As they read for pleasure, they learn almost against their will.
Sidney asserts that poetry is the “monarch” of the arts because of its ability to unite the best parts of philosophy and history in vivid, pleasing, and memorable examples. These examples teach readers about virtue sometimes without them even knowing. All of the best philosophy and history, and even the Bible, draws on poetry to teach the reader through delighting them, just as Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry” makes its compelling case through vivid prose, an effective rhetorical structure, and memorable examples.
Following the classical structure from this examination to the refutation, Sidney refutes the criticisms made of poetry by “poet-haters.” Sidney outlines the four most serious charges against poetry which are:
a) “that there being many other more fruitful knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them then in this” which implies that poetry is a waste of time,
b) that poetry is the “mother of lies,”
c) that it is the “nurse of abuse;” infecting us with many pestilent desires; and
d) that Plato had rightly banished poets from his ideal republic.
Defending poetry against the first charge, he says that man cannot employ his time more usefully than in poetry. He says “that no learning is so good as that which teaches and moves to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poesy”.
He rejects the second charge by saying that among all writers under the sun, the poet is the least liar. The poet creates something by emotion or imagination against which no charge of lying can be brought. The astronomer, the geometrician, the historian and others, all make false statements. But poet “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth”, his end being “to tell not what is or what is not, but what should or should not be”. The question of truth or falsehood would arise only when a person insists on telling a fact. The poet does not present fact but fiction embodying truth of an ideal kind.
The third objection against poetry that it is the nurse of abuse, “infecting us with many pestilent desires or wits” may be partly justified, but for this, a particular poet may be blamed and not poetry. To this charge, Sidney replies that poetry does not abuse man’s wit but it is man’s wit that abuses poetry. All arts and sciences misused had evil effects, but that did not mean that they were less valuable when rightly employed. Abuse of poetry, according to Sidney, is not the problem of poetry but of the poet.
The fourth objection that Plato had rightly banished the poets from his ideal republic is also not sustainable because Plato sought to banish the amoral poets of his time, and not poetry itself. Plato himself believed that poetry is divinely inspired. In “Ion”, Plato gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. His description of the poet as “a light-winged and sacred thing” reveals his attitude to poetry. Sidney concludes that Plato’s ban was “upon the abuse, not upon poetry.”
Thus, Sydney concludes that all of these objections are, in truth, because of the power of poetry to move its audience, which means that they are actually reasons to praise poetry. For if poetry is written well, it has enormous power to move its audience to virtue.
Following a short Peroration, or conclusion, in which he summarizes the arguments he has made, Sidney devotes the final portion of his essay to a digression on modern English poetry. There is relatively little modern English poetry of any merit, Sidney admits. However, this is not because there is anything wrong with English or with poetry, but rather with the absurd way in which poets write poems and playwrights write plays. Poets must be educated to write more elegantly, borrowing from classical sources without apishly imitating them, as so many poets, orators, and scholars did in Sidney’s time. For English is an expressive language with all the apparatus for good literature, and it is simply waiting for skilful writers to use it.
Sidney brings “An Apology for Poetry” to a close on this hopeful note—but not before warning readers that, just as poetry has the power to immortalize people in verse, so too does it have the power to condemn others to be forgotten by ignoring them altogether. The critics of poetry should therefore take Sidney’s arguments seriously.
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