A short and perhaps erratic tour of the Defences of Poetry, from Sidney to the present day. In numerous installments appearing at irregular intervals.
In an artistic field which has reached an advanced stage of its history, there is no place for naïf’s: more precisely, the history is immanent in the functioning of the field, and to meet the object demands it implies, as a producer but also as a consumer, one has to possess the whole history of the field. (Bourdieu 56/57)
The recirculated assumptions that underwrite modern discussions of Poetry, most recently in David Constantine’s Poetry (Oxford. 2013) can be traced back in English at least as far as Sir Phillip Sidney (1554-1586), whose Defence of Poesy (Or An Apology for Poetry) is one of the first English attempts to make a case for poetry in English.
Sidney consciously and explicitly idealised the art and split it from both artifact and artificer. For the next four hundred years writers including Shelly, Emerson, Pound, T.S Eliot, Dana Gioia, and David Constantine would make similar claims for the effects of an idealised art which had little empirical justification. Part of their rhetorical strategy would be to recirculate previous claims without ever stopping to evaluate their truth.
The literary historian or the biographical critic might study the Defence as contemporary evidence of attitudes to poetry, or as the thinking of a particular Biographical subject. There are articles on Sidney’s use of Aristotle; his understanding of Aristotle; the rhetorical structures of the Defence; how the “meaning” in the defence is qualified by the rhetorical structures; the contradictions in the argument; the literary and intellectual sources of the defence., The theorist might contextualise the arguments to see how it negotiates the cultural discourse in circulation at the time.
But reading as a writer, I want to know if what Sidney said was factually true. Given the fact that these defences often avoid giving evidence for their claims, that in Sidney and Shelley’s case their history is a blend of wishful thinking and an apparent inability to distinguish between history myth and legend, the question that is rarely investigated in the university setting: “was he right?”, is the one I want answered. Could I base my practice on their claims for the art I wish to produce?
“Poetry’ is possibly one of the oldest of art forms. Rhythmically organised language appears in every culture in every period of history. As numerous commentators have pointed out, anyone who takes the writing of poetry seriously needs to know at least the tradition of poetry in his or her own language. Most who make the effort are aware that the obvious danger is to think that what qualified as “good poetry” in Chaucer’s time is the same as what gets published in the twenty first century, or that the label ‘poet’ had the same meaning and social connotations for Wyatt as it does for Cieran Carson or Les Murray.
However, Wyatt’s poems can still be read with profit and enjoyment by someone with no knowledge of the history or poetics of his time. Ironically, despite the academic trend over the past thirty years to insist on the importance of the context of the poem’s production, what does tend to be forgotten is that the Defences of poetry are always an individual’s move in a contemporary argument, always historically local, always culturally contingent.
In Bordieu’s words:
Ignorance of everything that goes to make up the mood of the age produces a derealization of works: stripped of everything which attached them to the most concrete debates of their time ( I am thinking in particular of the connotations of words) they are impoverished and transformed in the direction of intellectualism or an empty humanism.(32)
Bourdieu goes on to claim that this is particularly true in the history of ideas, and particularly in philosophy where there is a tendency to present philosophic activities as a “summit conference between great philosophers”(p32) This is even more true of the defences of poets. What tends to be forgotten is that 'poetry' is not the same thing for Shelly as it was Sidney or T.S. Eliot. When Pound and Eliot discuss 'Poetry' they are using the term in ways that we might recognise. We could find their ‘poetry’ in the poetry section of a book shop or a library. But the fact that we can read some of Sidney’s poems for enjoyment seduces us into thinking that Sidney’s definition of poetry is the same as ours. It wasn’t. Shelley’s “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is an often quoted piece of nonsense, but how many of those who quote it have either read the essay it appears in or know what Shelley meant by “poets” or ‘poetry’?
The two most famous of the defences, Sidney’s and Shelly’s, define poetry in ways that are radically different to contemporary usage. To examine the way their claims have been recirculated, it is first necessary to identify that. We shall be able to see that not only what Sidney was claiming for poetry but why he was making those particular claims, are the product of an interaction between social historical and literary forces. And because Sidney is some ways the paradigm that the others follow, I will deal with him first and try and do it in some detail.