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The Defence of Poesy

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The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney, written c. 1580–82; published 1595
Member of a family that had risen to prominence under the Tudor monarchy, Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86) won admiration at an early age for his courtly skills and intellectual curiosity. His wide travel in continental Europe included diplomatic missions on behalf of Elizabeth I. He advocated support for the Protestant Netherlands in their military resistance to the rule of Catholic Spain. When an English force was sent to the Netherlands in 1585, Sidney was given command of a garrison, and died from wounds sustained in a military engagement.
Sidney’s major writings probably belong to the period 1578–84, though none can be dated with certainty. Arcadia, a prose narrative interspersed with verse, combines chivalric romance, pastoral, comedy, and debate on ethics and politics. It survives in a complete earlier version and an unfinished expanded version. Astrophil and Stella, a cycle of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, is one of the first English adaptations of Petrarchan love poetry. By turns witty and tormented, it is a lightly disguised and no doubt fictionally embellished treatment of Sidney’s thwarted love for Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex.
The most likely date for the composition of the Defence is 1580–82. Like Sidney’s other writings, it circulated only in manuscript during his lifetime, and was published by two separate printers in 1595 under the titles Defence of Poesy and Apology for Poetry. It is one of several English defenses against moralistic or philosophical attacks on poetry, drama, and music. One of these attacks, Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579), was dedicated to Sidney and possibly prompted the writing of the Defence.
The Defence has the structure of a classical oration, a literary form much utilized in Renaissance education and later adopted in Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). Rejecting the methodical order of a treatise and the fantastic elaboration of euphuism, the fashionable literary style of his day, Sidney adopts the varying voice of a public speaker. The Defence expounds ideas with clarity and concision; it wins over the reader through politeness and humor; it assails poetry’s enemies with satirical caricature and impassioned rhetorical questions; it rises to a rhapsodic enthusiasm in praising poetry. The persona created by Sidney’s style exhibits the sprezzatura of the Renaissance gentleman, in which seriousness and effort were masked by the appearance of ease and casualness.
In the theoretical part of Sidney’s Defence, “poetry” means imaginative literature. His purpose is to defend creative writing, whether in verse or prose, against the ethical charges of falsehood and frivolity. Sidney’s basic argument is that poetry feigns “notable images of virtues, vices, or what else” and thus provides “delightful teaching.” In developing this argument he makes well-informed and quite sophisticated use of the ancient writers Plato, Aristotle, and Horace. He also draws on medieval doctrines and Italian Renaissance criticism.
From Aristotle comes Sidney’s definition of poetry as “mimesis” or imitation.
Imitation is not the copying of particulars but a generalized rendering, in which a particular action and characters are universally representative. For the means by which this imitation is achieved, Sidney adopts the language of Renaissance neoplatonism, which drew a parallel between the activity of God in creating nature and the activity of the human mind, able to “grow in effect another nature.” Possibly on religious grounds, Sidney is reluctant to press the high claim that the poet has intuitive apprehension of an ideal world.
Sidney quotes from Horace’s Ars poetica (Poetic Art) the view that the aim of poetry is “to teach and delight.” The way these purposes work together is the central theme of the essay. The delightfulness of the poet’s fiction and the vividness of his “speaking picture” are the source of his ability to move hearers or readers to virtue. In this ability the poet is superior to his main rivals in the enterprise of Renaissance humanism, the philosopher and the historian. The philosopher’s teaching is too “abstract and general,” while the historian’s is too narrow, tied “to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things.” The poet uniquely combines the strengths of the two: “he coupleth the general notion with the particular example.”
Sidney’s emphasis on the power of poetry to move readers to virtuous conduct, and in particular to military valor, is characteristic of the practically oriented Christian humanism of the northern European Renaissance. His lament over the shortcomings of contemporary English poetry shows a cultural nationalism that is also characteristic of the Renaissance. In his review of English poetry, as well as in his earlier discussion of the traditional poetic genres, Sidney drops his broad definition of poetry as fiction and adopts the more conventional definition of poetry as writing in verse. His criticisms of English poetry and drama are based on a more rigid neoclassical ideal of formal “correctness” than is found in the early part of the essay.
The prescriptions about style in the Defence are well applied in Sidney’s other writings. The Defence criticizes English love poets “as men that had rather read lovers’ writings…than that in truth they feel those passions, which easily (as I think) may be bewrayed [revealed] by that same forcibleness or energia (as the Greeks call it) of the writer.” Astrophil and Stella is a brilliant exercise in energia, giving dramatic verisimilitude to Astrophil’s passion. Sidney’s application of the “teaching” power of poetry is more problematic. The Defence makes a sharp division between the representation of vicious characters who show “nothing that is not to be shunned” and virtuous characters who show “each thing to be followed.” Such clearcut characters are rarely exhibited in Sidney’s fictions, or in any fictions. This is a fact that the reader of the Defence can forget under the impact of Sidney’s powerful advocacy.
Like most Renaissance writers on poetry, Sidney restates and reinterprets classical doctrines. Later Renaissance writings that seem to derive from the Defence may simply share the same sources. Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), an answer to Thomas Love Peacock’s satirical The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), borrows Sidney’s title, adopts many of his arguments, and develops his neoplatonic suggestions into a Romantic claim for the transcendent status of the imagination.

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