Defence of Poesie / An Apologie for Poetrie (Ponsonby, 1595) Sir Philip Sidney
Genre: the first work of literary criticism in English.
Sir Philip Sidney is the first celebrated critic of English. He has written a critical essay in defence of poetry which was published in 1595 under two titles, Defence of Poesie & An Apologie for Poetrie (Posonby & Olney). It was intended as a reply to the Puritan attack on poetry. In his day, a critic named Stephen Gosson attacked poetry in his The Schoole of Abuse. He denounced poetry on the following grounds: (i) He classed poets with pipers, jesters, and called them caterpillars of the commonwealth – all alike enemies of virtue. (ii) the poetry was just a tissue of lies (iii) it encourages immorality (iv) it was only imitation of an imitation and therefore trivial. (v) Poetry was threat to morality and piety.
It was characteristic of European Humanism that these early critics relied on Plato and Aristotle when they had to attack or defend poetry. The best defence of poetry against these charges is that of Sir Philip Sidney, the first poet –critic in the history of English literature.
• In his Defence, first, Sidney proves that poetry is the oldest of all branches of learning. It is superior to philosophy by its charm, to history by its universality, to science by its moral end and to law by its encouragement of human goodness. Sidney argues that poets were the first philosophers, that they first brought learning to humanity, and that they have the power to conceive new worlds of being and to populate them with new creatures. According to Sidney, their "golden" world of possibility is superior to the "brazen" one of historians who must be content with the mere truth of happenstance. He then defines what he believes to be the essential formal characteristics of the various kinds of poetry, and defends poetry against the charge that it is composed of lies and leads one to sin.
• 1. To quote Sidney in his ‘Defence’: "The lawyer saith what men have determined; the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest persuade, thereon give artificial rules. . . Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done. . . Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden" (936-37).
2. “"Poetry is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis--that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture--with this end, to teach and delight" (937).
3. “The first kind of poets, like the psalmist, David, are divinely inspired (938), the second kind is philosophically inspired, and the third sort, "indeed right poets," must be distinguished from those inferior imitators whom Sidney compares to "the meaner sort of painters, who counterfeit only such faces as are set before them" (938).
4. "[I]t is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet [ . . . ] But it is that feigning of notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by" (939).
5. "[A]s Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis but praxis must be the fruit [of teaching]. … The philosopher showeth you the way . . . But this to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive studious painfulness [ . . . ] Now therein of all sciences . . . is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect to the way, as will entice any man to enter into it. [ . . . ] He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margin with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness, but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the sweet enchanting skill of music; and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner. And, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue" (942).
6. "The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false. So as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet (as I said before) never affirmeth. [ . . . so wise readers of poetry] will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written" (947-8).
He gives examples also to prove that poetry is the queen of arts. For instance, he says that (i) Pastoral poetry deals with the simple life and thus arouses sympathy and admiration for simple life. (ii) Satire laughs folly out of court; (iii) Elegiac poetry arouses sympathy for the suffering and the miserable. It softens the heart, (iv) Comedy is an imitation of common errors in a ridiculous fashion, and so is effective in warning men against such errors, (v) Lyric hymns the praise of men and God and thus enkindles virtue and courage. Critical Analysis: Sidney is well grounded in rhetoric. But the rhetorical or the ‘defence’ part of it is not the most vital part of his essay/tract. It is an admirable synthesis of the two traditions, the Platonic and the Aristotelian. We also see, in Apologie, the neo-classical trends that were developing from the Italian and French interpretations of Aristotle and other classics.
Sidney saw no antagonism between the idealism of Plato and the representational aesthetics of Aristotle. Plato, while disapproving of poets and poetry, has also stated that great or good poetry could not be written without inspiration. Aristotle’s representation (or imitation) meant that the poet, while taking the world as it exists for his subject matter, could represent it in a kind of microcosm. And Sidney, arguing his case for the superiority of poetry over history and philosophy, showed that the historian is tied down to actuality (the truth of the particular) and the philosopher to universals, while the poet makes the universal concrete. The poet, starting from the world as it is (the brazen world), transforms it by his imagination into a golden world. It is a kind of secondary creation, the primary creation being God’s. The poet sees the underlying pattern or the eternal truth and presents that in his creation. Thus, in Sidney’s synthesis we also see the beginning of the Romantic tradition of criticism.
In other ways, too, Sidney is modern. He started the essentially English tradition of descriptive or applied criticism. He discusses and judges individual authors and, being a poet himself, is able to get to the heart of the matter. He comes out with warmth of appreciation which shows the triumph of sensibility over the discipline of scholarship and theory. Thus, to conclude, we can say that, Sidney has established the superiority of poetry over other branches of learning and also shown that it serves both purpose - instructs and delights – delightful teaching is the end of poetry – and it delights by moving the reader. With great skill he has refuted the charges of Gosson and proved them to be baseless.