Sir Philip Sidney, Defense of Poesy
(ca. 1579 in MS /
Genre: the first work of literary criticism in
Form: prose, with some portions of verse cited as
Characters: Sidney, in his historical persona as Sir Philip
Sidney, poet and courtier [both carefully constructed "roles," so
don't treat him as a politically naive truth-teller!]; Edward Wotton, a courtier and friend to Sidney who
shared his Continental tour; John Pietro Pugliano, Italian riding master to the
Emperor; and all the poets who ever had been.
Summary: Sidney clearly had been contemplating the problem of the
poet's role in society for a long time, perhaps since his earliest education in which he
would have encountered Plato's famous banishment of poets from the ideal Republic on the
grounds that they could lead the Guardians and citizens to immorality. It long has
been argued that he may have been responding to
Stephen Gosson, a Puritain pamphleteer
whose "School of Abuse" blamed playwrights and the theatre, in particular, and
poets in general, for leading English society astray. Gosson dedicated the pamphlet
to Sidney without asking permission, and some poets at the time suspected Sidney would
reply in some fashion.
To compare Gosson's
spectacularly unsuccessful patronage appeal with Spenser's for Shepherd's
Calendar in that same year (1579), click here. Based on the
aesthetic of "Defense" and what you know about English nobles' sense of
propriety with respect to contact with "commoners," how many things did Gosson
do wrong that Spenser did right? In the "Defense," 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 genres of poetry, and defends poetry against the charge
that it is composed of lies and leads one to sin.
Famous "Sidneyisms" you should be able to explain:
- "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. . .
world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden" (956-7
8th ed. / 9th ed. 1049-50).
- "[T]he skill of each artificer standeth in the idea or fore-conceit of
the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that
idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he had
imagined them. Which delivering forth also is not wholly imaginative
[i.e., fanciful], as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air;
but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a [poetic character like
the Persian conqueror] Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as
nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many
Cyruses, if they will learn aright
why and how
that maker made him" (957 8th ed. / 9th ed. 1050). [This last passage
concisely explains why literary criticism needs to be taught, and often why
creative writers can learn from constructive literary criticism--usually of
other poets' work.]
- "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"
(958 8th ed. / 9th ed. 1052).
- The first kind of poets, like the psalmist, David, are divinely inspired (958), 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" (958). These are inferior to "the more excellent, who having no law
but wit, bestow that in colours upon you which is fittest for the eye to see as the
constant though lamenting look of Lucretia, when she punished in herself another's fault,
wherein he painteth not Lucretia whom he never saw, but painteth the outward beauty of
such a virtue" (958 8th ed. / 9th ed. 1052).
[Lucretia, a chaste Roman wife, killed herself after the King's son raped her, punishing
herself for his crime. According to Roman tradition, her deed led to the overthrow
of the Tarquin dynasty and the establishment of the Roman Republic.]
- "[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" (959 8th ed.
/ 9th ed. 1052).
- "[A]s Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis but praxis must be the
fruit [of teaching]. And how praxis can be, without being moved to
practice, it is no hard matter to consider. 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" (962-3 8th ed. / 9th ed. 1060).
- "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" (968
8th ed. / 9th ed. 1068).
- "But our comedians think there is no delight without laughter, which is very wrong,
for though laughter may come with delight, yet cometh it not of delight [my
emphasis]" [ . . . ] Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present.
Laughter hath only a scornful tickling" (971 8th ed. / 9th ed. 1078).
- "I conjure you all that have the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine,
even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no
more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more
to jest at the reverent title of rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were
the ancient treasurers of the Grecians' divinity; to believe, with Bembus [Pietro Bembo],
that they were first bringers-in of all civility, to believe with Scaliger, that no
philosopher's precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgil"
(974 8th ed. / 9th ed. 1083).
N.B.: This work has two titles based on the two printed editions. The first,
"Defense of Poesy," uses "poesy" for all literary forms, including
lyric, drama, and prose. The second, "Apology for Poetry," uses
"apology" in the sense of the Greek word apologia, or "an argument
in defense" of a client. In both senses, Sidney stands as an advocate for all
creative writers at a crucial point in the development of English literature. The
Crown censored all publications, and increasingly banned those which were considered
"immoral" as well as those which threatened the Tudor dynasty. Puritans,
like Gosson, though they may have been motivated by strong moral beliefs, also tended to
chill the creative environment in which poets worked, driving them into the questionable
freedom offered by the protection of the nobles' courts. (Compare Chaucer's
relationship to John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster and father to Bolingbroke [Henry
IV]). Poets remained caught in this uneasy relationship between court and religious
critics until Samuel Johnson's era (C18) and the rise of a self-sustaining market
relationship among poets, printers, booksellers, and the reading public.
Issues and Research Sources:
- The first edition (editio princeps), printed by Olney in 1595, was
titled An Apology for Poetrie. In that same year, Ponsonby
printed the same essay with the title The Defense of Poesie.
What's the difference? Part of the answer may be
detected in the OED's record of "apology"'s shift in meaning between its
first recorded use in the works of Sir Thomas More in 1533 and the year
before Sidney's essay's publication, when Shakespeare's Richard III
used it in what became its Modern English sense. What about "Poetrie"
and "Poesie"? Look up both in the OED and pay attention to what
happens to "poesie" in later centuries, but that does not seem to be
involved in the 1595 printer's decision. Maybe it was a typographer's
choice? Which term does Sidney use most often in the essay? Try
- Regarding Sidney's great boast about the poets' power to create a "second
Nature," better than the original, consider this statement: "[Nature's] world
is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden" (937
8th ed. / 9th ed. 1050). Now would be a good
time to return to the "Battle of Maldon" (i.e., the poem)
and the battle of Maldon (i.e., the event
as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). What has the poet given
to us, and to Byrtnoth and his war-band individualized by name and dialogue
and actions, that the chronicler did not have it in his power to give?
Those things are poetry. The rest is mere fact.
- The defense clearly is intended to address contemporary issues, but what does its
historical reference tell you about the changes in English poetic ambitions since Wyatt
and Surrey? It might be said that those poets mimicked Virgil's hexameters and
David's psalms, but the real challenge in English literature came in its urge to
create some new art forms. What new opportunities did new forms (or new versions of
old forms) offer to them? It starts slowly, with something as simple as the
evolution of the English sonnet from the Petrarchan, and the emergence of
anti-petrarchanism as a theme in the new form. Consider the huge jump in dramatic
sophistication between Everyman and Dr. Faustus or Lear! A
culture is being remade.
- The prose romance, a genre in which Sidney wrote "The Countess of Pembroke's
Arcadia," was already an old form after the French Arthurian cycle and the late
Hellenistic pastorals. The sonnet cycle already had been "done" by
Petrarch, who reissued his sonnets in manuscript versions with a compelling "life to
death" narrative order based on the live of his beloved Laura.
See, especially, the claim that the best poet delights and
instructs, which is Horace's advice for his pupil (958, 959
8th ed. / 9th ed. 1052).
- Does Sidney's version of this venerable advice suggest any new angles on the genre of
the literary critical essay?
- What are the dangers to the poet and to the audience if either "delight" or
"instruction" overwhelm the poem?
(Compare Harry Bailey's rule for deciding the best tale told by a Canterbury Pilgrim
[234: ll. 800].)
- Sidney says poetry is a speaking picture (958
8th ed. / 9th ed. 1052). What does this suggest
about the relation between visual and poetic arts in this period? This is one of Sidneys' aphorisms which come directly from Horace (see #3 above)--what might we learn
from the uses of visual and verbal arts, perhaps embedded in one another (poetry written
to be recited in drama; paintings described in poems, etc.)? Renaissance
"emblem books" combined poetry, prose aphorisms, and symbolic drawings which
illustrated the often paradoxical relationships among important qualities, values, or
common human experiences. For a view of an emblem book in both the original Latin
and an English translation, click
I especially recommend emblem number 23, but always in moderation.
- Sidney describes the bards as "vates," from the Latin for Makers or Prophets.
- Does the role of prophet-poet bring with it any occupational hazards?
- Do prophet-poets sacrifice anything to aesthetics in order to achieve their prophetic
- Might a poet be criticized for "failure of prophesy" if the poem's content
turned out to be false, even though the poem's form was beautiful and continued to be
repeated for reasons peculiar to the audience's needs?
- Once you've done your readerly duty by Sidney and tried to understand what
he says poets are good for, how they work, etc., step back from the "Defense
of Poesy" for a moment and consider his gender. What would he have to
defend first if he were a woman writing this essay, before he even
could address the defense of poets? What does he take for granted about
poets' genders and their relationship to their audiences' genders?
Compare Sidney's situation with that of
especially her confrontation with the Archbishop who tells her not to speak
publicly (see note #3 on the web page), and with the situation of
his own sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, with whom he
collaborated on a famous and influential translation of the psalms (see
note #1 about the dedicatory poem). What must these women first address
when defending their right to a public voice, and what effect does this have
on their work?
- To see the complete "Defense," along with Richard Bear's (U.
Oregon) head notes on its manuscript and print history, as well as his
excellent reading of its significance for modern critical theory, click
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