Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Defences of Poetry. Part two, Sidney's context

Pat two...Sidney's context. (for the Defence see part one)

Sidney therefore begins the tradition of defending poetry in English by separating Art from Artefact and ignoring the artificer.  The real value of Poetry lies in what it can do, not what it is. The evidence for this is always somewhere else and in some distant past.  A disappointed man with no real power consoles himself by elevating his pastime and in doing so claims to be more powerful than those who have excluded him.

This description could be applied to almost every defence written since, by Shelley, Pound, Eliot, al.

So you could cherry pick the defence for fine sounding phrases about what this abstraction called “Poetry” does in the fantasy space of a solitary writing.  Or you could stop and consider this piece of writing as a specific move made by a specific biographical subject in response to contemporary issues.
Anyone who knows Sidney as a poet in the modern sense,  and today that means some acquaintance with Aristophil and Stella  would realise that Sidney has both included himself in the ranks of poets, and excluded his own work from his definitions of Poetry.  

Helgerson describes the poets of Sidney’s generation: Unable to ignore the suspicion that poetry was morally harmful and equally unwilling to forgo it, [they] had to prove again and again that it might be made beneficial. They were thus forced to argue that their work, rightly understood, warns against the every wantonness it portrays, but such arguments only involved them in a maze of self contradiction, revealing their dilemma, the dilemma of their generation-without resolving it (Helgerson p5). It’s not only a dilemma for them, but for some modern critics.  Although dating the writing of the Defence is difficult, most critics put it before the composition of Aristophil and Stella.

 If we read as human beings we can accept that texts are produced by human beings, who are inconsistent and can change their minds. It is possible that Sidney believed passionately in the arguments he advanced in the Defence and encountered the limitations of his own theory in the dazzling form of Penelope Devreaux.  Other critics have tried to reconcile the apparent discrepancy.  However, to say that Aristophil and Stella is not a biographical record, but a courtly game played in private between Sidney and Lady Rich (Duncan Jones) or an inverted lesson (Dutton et al) is merely to say that  Aristophil and Stella can be read in different ways; to argue that Sidney never meant it to be taken seriously is to dabble in the writer’s unavailable intentions. Whatever the reading,  it seems difficult to reconcile a poem about thwarted adulterous passion which was not circulated in Sidney’s lifetime,  with his claims for the public, moral educational effects of poesy.

Why then, does the defence operates the way it does? We might also ask why poetry needed to be defended?  There are three  broad answers: the first is the state of English poetry when Sidney was writing, the second lies in a range of pressures created by the social and cultural milieu he inhabited and the third is biographical[1].  

To a modern English reader there is another, hidden question:  Why  did he write in English at all.  English writers had known since the early Middle ages that if they wrote in Latin, their potential audience stretched from Cork to Constantinople. Even by Sidney’s time writing in English restricted the potential audience to the literate members of a ruling class in a small island floating, geographically, culturally and intellectually on the periphery of Europe.  Sidney was fluent in Latin, French and Italian.  After his tour of Europe and his diplomatic mission he had a circle of correspondents that stretched across Europe, none of whom seem to have known English. By writing the Defence in English,  he was making his claims for poesy in a language the people he was arguing into the second rank: Philosophers and Historians, could not respond to nor read.  Interesting way of winning an argument.

Poetry in English

The distinctive feature of Sidney’s defence is that poetry in English needed a champion. Looking backwards, Sidney could see Chacer and little else. The fifteenth Century is a famously dead time in English Poetry.  Tottel’s Miscelancy, perhaps the first published anthology of English poetry, had been  printed in 1557, but there  is a defensive tone in the address of the Printer to the Reader:  
That to haue wel written in verse;yea & in small parcelles, deserueth great praise, the workes of diuers Latines, Italians and other doe proue sufficiently. That our tong is able in that kynde to do as praiseworthy as ye rest, the honourable stile of the noble earl of Surrey, and the wieghtinesse of the depewitted Thomas wyat the elders verse, with suerall graces in sundry good Englishe writers, doe show abundantly. (This quote from the excellent Shearsman Edition.)

To argue that English poetry could be as valid as its classical or European counterparts required more than faith.  The Humanist education of the time elevated classical models and at the same time Italy was seen as the centre of poetic eloquence.   Blinded by the success of the later Elizabethans we tend to forget how barren the early years of Elizabeth’s court were for poetry.

When Helgerson was writing in the late 1970s critics had accepted the idea of an ”anxiety of Influence”, but as he  pointed out,  it was more difficult to imagine the anxiety of those faced with no influences which they could follow, let alone fight against.  Even the standard history of 16th poetry which sees Wyatt and Surrey developing the English lyric, to be followed by Sidney and Spenser who between them put poetry on a sure footing, ignores the fact that   what was later hailed as the dawn of  English renaissance lyricism in the works of Wyatt and Surrey found no immediate revival under Elizabeth because her courtiers did not recognise it as a compelling precedent. Courtliness was largely to be devised anew and tailored to the new regime without well-defined models and, at first, without a vibrant or conspicuous role for poetry (May 41). While we may think of the Petrachian lyric as “courtly poetry”, This kind of verse , however, almost disappeared from English poetry and above all from that written by courtiers between about 1547 and 1570 (May 41). In the retrospective time scale of centuries that constitutes the History of English poetry 23 years is not much, but Sidney only lived for 32.  Before 1570 poetry at the Elizabethan court , as defined and catalogued by May, consisted of Humanist verse, mostly in Latin, usually addressed privately to friends upon notable occasions , commendatory verses before published books and eulogies (43).  While Sidney wrote verse for court spectacles, it is almost consciously ephemeral and reading it is a slog.

Even the success of Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calender, which the latter had dedicated to Sidney, and which is sometimes taken as the start of the English poetic renaissance  was initially of dubious value as Sidney’s ambiguous discussion of it suggests.  Sidney idealised poetry as a possibility because the reality of it was that neither he nor his friends were composing the kind of poems which the Defence applauds.  Other courtiers, like Ralegh, were using poetry for display and self-advancement in ways alien to Sidney’s claims. 

Cultural and historical.

But if this explains that English poetry needed a defence, it doesn’t answer the question why poetry needed to be defended in terms of what it could do.

In Sidney’s case a number of answers are possible.  For Matz (2000, page 60) , Sydney’s championing of Horatian ‘profit and pleasure’ can be read with reference to contemporary, politically charged debates, over aristocratic leisure.

For Helgerson and Pask,  Sidney’s work exhibits the anxiety of trying to reconcile the serious production of poetry with the contemporary  ‘Aristocratic Life Narrative’ that consigned poetry, and love, to the frivolous times of youth with the added complication that in a society so conscious of rank and duty as his, Sidney was forced to explain how what he claimed was an aristocratic activity could also be pursued successfully by the non-aristocratic.

Kevin Pask (1996), Richard Helgerson (1976) and Katherine Duncan-Jones  argue that  something more than poetry was at stake in these arguments over poetry. The idealised  biographical progression of the aristocratic male, what Pask (54 ff) calls ‘life narratives’,  encoded the development of childhood , youth and adulthood. Youth was a period tinged with effeminacy until it was replaced by the qualities appropriate to manhood, ‘and was therefore a stage of indeterminate length in the Renaissance’(54). ‘Poetry for instance, emerged in aristocratic life narratives as the avocation of youthful courtship and thus courtiership , provided of course that it was superseded by the qualities of manhood’ (p54).  The life of the poet was thus a narrative of youthful prodigality. The failure to convert youthful poetry into conquest or high administrative office produced a life considered fundamentally unnarratable. The early construction of Sidney’s life narrative with that of aristocratic hero ruled out the association of his poetry with his manhood (p54).  Helgerson claims this progression is clear not only in the way lives were originally narrated (Pask’s study) but in the careers of Sidney’s generation. (Helgerson P7/8.) Spenser alone does not seem to have followed this pattern.

For Sidney then,  what is possibly at stake is his own identity as a man and his own sense of his duty.  Was it possible for an Aristocratic adult male to take poetry seriously? Is poetry even a fit activity for a man who should be actively serving his prince?  I think it is difficult for a modern English reader, living in Australia, or England or America to understand how hierarchical Elizabethan society was or how seriously the idea of duty could be imposed on sons by fathers. Sidney had spent his life trying to please elder men: his father, his uncles, men like Languet,  who were happy to tell him how to behave, or trot him out to dazzle, or ask him to compose a letter objecting to the queen’s marriage, but who never seemed to be able to give him the role or the income such ability might logically deserve.   This was a society where rank mattered; where the law defined what colours you wore or what type of food you could serve your guests depending on your income.  Sidney himself had been reminded, having argued over the use of a tennis court, that he was but a commoner and the man he was arguing with was the seventeenth de Veere of that title.

For most of his life Phillip had no opportunity to serve his prince or his country. His  diplomatic carrier was brief, restricted to one major embassy. His knighthood was almost an accident, his great hopes of the Dudley fortunes dashed, his debts so great his father in law had to bail him out and let the newly weds live in his own house. (dj 227))  It is therefore possible for Pask to claim “that the defense (sic) produces an imagined resolution of his Ill- defined position within the framework of an aristocratic state”. He has slipped into the role of poet,  and now, in a sleight of rhetorical hand, he elevated himself from an outsider denied influence or prestige to someone who is in the position of judge.
But this stance exists only in the space of the text. Sidney cannot prove that Poems do the things he claims they do, that Poetry is necessary to the aristocrat, nor can he substantiate his position as judge.  He can only claim it by right of his title as poet which is conferred on him for poems his own defence excludes.   For all his attempts to prove poetry is at home in the camps there is no argument that military prowess depends on poetry, merely the negative argument that poetry does not compromise military prowess.  And if Poetry is the aristocrat’s vocation, then there is the troubling fact that “Base servile men with servile wits” practise this art as well and are ‘rewarded of the printer”.

Duncan Jones also reads the defence from a biographer’s perspective.   The audience and circulation of the defence seems to have been severely restricted in his own life time. She believed that the intended audience was his future father in law: Walsingham need not worry about his head being too full of poetic fancies for him to be a worthy successor to a vital post like his own First Secretaryship.   (Dj 233). Woudhysen however, believes that his father law would not have been a part of the restricted circle, and the fact that the defence only exists in two manuscript copies, one that may never have left Penshurst, suggests its restricted circulation. 

The biographical irony, which Sidney shares with Pound and Eliot, is that they all did expand the possibilities of poetry in English.  Sidney did far more for it than he did for the Elizabethan state. However, as May (100ff) points out, it is not the  defence or the claims it contained which did this. It was the poetry he wrote and the model his life provided for later writers:  “Above all he dignified poetry as a respectable aristocratic pastime. The accessibility of Sidney’s works, coupled with his position as a model courtier and national hero, gave maximum impetus to a new and positive recognition of poetry as worthwhile art form. At the same time, he had created in Astrophil and Stella [May claims it’s the first English sonnet sequence but Spiller contests this) an intensely personal work devoid of any external or over riding moral purpose.”

But the Defence had set a precedent.

The reality of poems had been replaced with a discussion of an abstraction called Poesy. Poesy, later Poetry,  wasn’t the sum total of all the poems ever written. Few poems could live up to those claims and even fewer could be used as evidence to support them.  The role of the Imaginary Poet had begun to exceed expertise in the arrangement of vowels and consonants and become just as abstracted and unreal. It wasn’t until the 19th century though that the implications of those two separations were driven not so much over the top and down the other side, but all the way to the world’s end,  which leads by way of a digression, to Shelley.  

Caveat Emptor....Should you wish to use any of this you are welcome as long as you acknowledge your source: however, please be aware the references are deliberately erratic to the point where that should sabotage any attempts at plagiarism.  Should you wish to use any of this, please use the comment bank to contact me and I will be happy to provide the proper references.   

[1] the tripartite division here is obviously clumsy. 

1 comment:

David X. Novak said...

I had not thought of Sidney's Defense - of which I've only read excerpts - as something analogous to Dante's De vulgari eloquentia but it makes sense. I remember that Donne wrote poems in Latin, but I've never seen them (or investigated) so I don't know what proportion of his work they represent (I have "The Complete English Poems"). Really like this context and its continuation in Part III (where originality rears its ugly head...).