Sir Philip Sidney, Defense of Poesy  (ca. 1579 in MS / 1595 ed. prin.)

Genre: the first work of literary criticism in English.

Form: prose, with some portions of verse cited as examples.

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:

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:

  1. 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 a concordance.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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].)

  5. 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 here. I especially recommend emblem number 23, but always in moderation.
  6. 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 mandates?
    • 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?
  7. 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 Margery Kempe, 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?
  8. 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 here.

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