An Apology for Poetry/The Defence of Poetry (1595). Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)
Part one: A Brief Summary
Sidney's Essay was not published in his own life time. A discussion of context will appear in part two.
As with Shelley and Pound, we can see Foucault’s 'Author Function' at work. Sidney’s defence is validated, not by the poetry he wrote, which in many ways contradicts it, but by the myth of his life that was generated soon after his early death. Regarded as the epitome of the Courtier, the learned renaissance hyphenated man, patron of learning, writer of poems, man of action. The myth validates the Defence. As a piece of writing it's more coherrent than others, but this is not an essay that's gone through a review/editing process.
Firstly the defence is a defence of imaginative literature. Sydney follows Aristotle in insisting that because ‘poesy’, and poetry, come from the Greek word for ’making’, 'poesy' signifies the making of fictions, and not the use of verse. For Sidney, Poesy will be defended in terms of what it can do. Its effect, not its nature, is what is at stake.
Poesy is superior to other intellectual pursuits because the historian can only say what happened, the philosopher may well know what is good but will teach it in a way that is off putting. Only poetry by its ability to delight and present ideal and admirable version of the world can offer instruction in a way that will be amenable to all men. According to Sidney, there are three types of poesy.
The first is created by the religious poets: psalm writers for example; the second philosophical and moral and the third “indeed right poets” for these third be they 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.(p11)
Sidney distinguishes between the first sort, which he calls ‘Vates’, and the third sort, ‘Poets’. For these indeed do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger (11).
The third sort can be subdivided into heroic, lyric, tragic, comic etcec but he makes an important distinction: ..verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poet. (11) Sidney obviously felt the need to reiterate the point: When he comes to consider objections to his claims, he makes the following distinction. ”But that which giveth greatest scope to their [the poet haters] scorning humour is rhyming and versing. It is already said (and as I think truly said) it is not rhyming and versing that maketh poesy; one may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry.) (32) at the same time he explicitly defended verse: “So that verse being itself sweet and orderly, and being best for memory, the only handle of knowledge it must be in jest that any man can speak against it” 33
Writing a poem, does not make you a poet. Nor does writing verse mean you’re writing poetry. This is the first of the distinctions which will continue to be made up until the present.
What underlines the value of poetry, rather than mere verse, lies in its functional ability to instruct; to teach men moral goodness by representing what can be. At the same time poetry is not effeminate or feminising (which may have had particular relevance to Sindey because he had written his first major piece of Poesy, the 'old‘ Arcadia at the request of his sister for her and for her small circle of female friends, at her request. Opponents of poetry claim that before poets ‘were in price’, ‘our nation had set their hearts delight upon action and not imagination, rather than doing things worthy to be written than writing things fit to be done” (36) To which Sidney categorically states; For as poetry itself, it is the freest from this objection, for poetry is the companion of the camps.
This idealised version of poetry naturally elevates the poet who has all from Dante’s heaven to his Hell under the authority of his pen (p20). The problem which by now is nagging at Sidney’s reader is one he has obviously considered because he pre-empts the obvious objection: Which if I be asked what poets have done so. As I might well name some, so yet say I, and say again, I speak of the art and not of the artificer. (p20) He returns to the point later, when considering objections to his claims that poetry is the superior art: First that there being many more fruitful knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them than in this. Secondly, that it is the mother of lies. Thirdly that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires, with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent tail of sinful fancies and herein especially comedies give the largest field to ear as Chaucer saith (33) His response to the third objection is that … grant I say, whatsoever they will have granted, that not only love but lust, but vanity, but-if they list-scurrility possesseth many leaves of the poets’ books; yet think I, when this is granted, they will find their sentence may with good manners put the last words foremost, and not say that poety abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry (36). Shelley will make the same argument, in almost exactly the same cadence (grant that Homer was a drunkard, Dante a coward, Spenser a poet laureate) but will drift off the point to claim that great poets can’t be evil men.
On the one hand this strategy of discussing the art not the artificer and refusing to give specific examples allows Sidney to make his claims for the art without having to deal with every exception. On the other hand it means he can never substantiate his claims except in rhetorical terms which makes it very difficult for a reader to stop and consider the truth of what he’s saying. How seriously Sidney took his own defence is difficult to judge. It begins with an anecdote which warns the reader against theories. At the end he writes I conjure you all that had the evil look to read this inwasting toy of mine… This could well be the Aristocrat’s dismissal of effort, Castiglione’s sprezzatura, but at the same time when Sidney was dying, it is reported that he wanted his writings burnt. Even before that he had turned from writing poesy to translating psalms and then seems to have stopped writing all together.
With the exception of the doubt expressed in the last three sentences, such a reading of Sidney’s essay is conventional: I have outlined his argument. Traditionally it might lead to a statement like J.A.Van Dorsten’s, in his introduction to his 1966 OUP Edition of the Defence: : “Sidney’s treatise illustrates how an Elizabethan could look at literature.” Or more enthusiastically: ’The poet’s task therefore though called ‘imitation’, is not to represent this world as it is seen by our imperfect eyes but to figure forth a ‘nature” of a higher order, re-creating in his imaginative mind the world as it may have existed in the creator’s mind”(12). We are imperfect, but the Poet has a task which requires him(sic) to be Godlike. We will meet this semi-divine character in the effusions of Shelley, Emerson and Pound.
As Van Dorsten continues: “this doctrine, ambitious and humble at the same time, is not only crucial to an understanding of Sidney’s life and writings, but also indicates how poetry could cease to be regarded as a mere rhetorical art. In the Defence the limitless scope of poetry was defined in terms such as no English man had ventured to use before.” Leaving aside any quarrel with that “ambitious and humble” or ‘limitless scope”, we might ask why it had been defined in such terms? Anyone who knows Sidney the poet, and today that probably means some acquaintance with the sonnet sequence Aristophil and Stella on which his poetic reputation could be said to rest, would realise, reading the defence, that Sidney has both included himself in the ranks of poets, and excluded his own work from his definitions of poetry.
However such a simple outlining of the argument fails to take into account why he felt Poesy needed to be defended, and the particular historical, biographical, and cultural moment he was responding to.
Which will follow.
(A note on quotes and references. A small anti plagiarism move. If you read this and want to use it you may, as long as you acknowledge sources: but be aware that page references are to specific editions, and one or two quotes are deliberately left in need of checking. If you do want to use any of this, then leave a comment and I will provide the references.)