Sir Philip Sidney: An Apology for Poetry

Categories : Literary Criticism
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

Philip Sidney%252C 3rd Earl of Leicester

Sir Philip Sidney-Biography

Sir Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554 at Penshurst, Kent, England and died on October 17, 1586 at Arnhem, Netherlands. He was a courtier, statesman, soldier, critic, and poet who earned for himself the reputation of being an ideal gentleman. He belonged to a noble family of statesmen. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, was appointed Lord President of Wales and three times Lord Deputy of Ireland. His uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser. Sidney had his early education at Shrewsbury School, where he developed friendship with classmate Fulke Greville, who later also became his biographer.
At age 18, he moved on to Christ Church, Oxford and studied there for three years. From 1572-1575 he went on a tour of Europe and visited France, Germany, Austria, Hungary Poland, and Italy. On this tour, he gained knowledge of European politics, music, astronomy, geography and perfected his knowledge of Latin, French, and Italian. During his travels, he became acquainted with prominent European statesmen and scholars, including the humanist scholar Hubert Languet, who strongly influenced his religious and political beliefs.
On his return to England, Sidney entered quickly into the political life of the court. His political interests took him to Ireland and Germany. Besides politics, Sidney had a great interest in literature and had close contacts with literary men. He associated with writers Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, and Edmund Spenser. He desired to create a new English poetry and experimented with new meters. In 1578 Lady of May, a pastoral play let, was performed in honor of Queen Elizabeth I. During this time, he also composed a major part of his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, as the first draft of his prose romance, the Arcadia. In 1579 he composed Apology for Poetry probably as a rejoinder to the publication of Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse , which was dedicated to Sidney without his knowledge or approval. During his lifetime, Sidney’s works circulated only in manuscript and were published posthumously.
Sidney fell in love with Penelope Devereux, the daughter of the Earl of Essex, and most likely his inspiration for “Stella“. She, however, married Lord Rich in 1581. Later, Sidney married Frances, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’ Secretary of State. In 1583, Sidney was knighted. In 1584, Sidney began a major revision of the Arcadia. In 1585, he was appointed governor of Flushing, a town that the Dutch had ceded to the Queen. He fought at the side of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in Flanders for several months. On Sept. 22 1586, in the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands Sidney was fatally wounded. A musket ball struck his leg because of which he developed gangrene and died a few weeks later. Biographers relate tales of his generosity to his fellow soldiers. Sidney was only thirty-one when he died. He was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London after a magnificent, ceremonial state funeral.

Major Works

Arcadia 1590
Astrophel and Stella 1591
An Apology for Poetry was first published in 1595 under two titles as Defense of Poesie by William Ponsonby and An Apologie for Poetry by Henry Olney (without authorization).
Sidney’s Apology attempts to raise the value of poetry to the highest level, especially in view of the contemporary criticism directed against it. During Sidney’s time, imaginative literature, especially poetry and drama, came under attack. Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579) attacked actors , playwrights and poets; criticized the social and moral disorder in fiction; viewed Literature as immoral, irresponsible, unrealistic and corrupting; and represents the generally held view of literature at this time. Such views were fostered by the absence of good writing in England. Sidney, a learned man, well versed in the classics, recognised the intrinsic value of poetry and took up cudgels to espouse it. To raise poetry to the highest level, he set about redefining the function of poetry to assign it a greater and more aesthetic role. Sidney thought there was ample scope to defend poetry and eulogise it, as it had fallen from its deserved status. To present a convincing defense Sidney presented his Apology in the classical style of presenting an argument, a style also followed by the Roman orator, Cicero.
Textual Analysis
An Apology for Poetry is a carefully planned, organized judicial argument in the form of a classical oration. It falls into the following divisions: (a) exordium: an introduction announcing the topic in such a way as to gain attention and good will; Sidney begins with a humorous reference to the treatise of John Pietro Pugliano, written in praise of horses and horsemanship. (b) narration: the statement of the facts of the case; Sidney states that the poets aim is to teach and delight. (c) propostio : theses or argument; Sidney refers to three kinds of poets. (d) confirmation: evidence that supports the theses; Sidney gives arguments that show the superiority of poetry over other disciplines. (e) refutation: answering arguments; Sidney answers all charges levelled against poetry. (f) digressio: digression; Sidney deals with the state of poetry in England in his own time.(g) perorati : Conclusion; Sidney concludes with ………..
The Poet and Poetry
Sidney draws on both Plato and Aristotle to define poetry and defend poets. Aristotle defined poetry as an act of imitation, but for Sidney poetry is an art of imitation with a specific aim: “Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termed it in his 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 (Sidney). According to Plato’s theory of forms, Art being a reflection of a reflection is thrice removed from the ideal form and thus is the least real. However, Sidney adapts this theory to state that the ideal poet is able to create from a pre-existing idea called the fore-conceit.Based on this fore-conceit the poet creates a world that is golden and not brazen as is the natural world. Thus, through his imaginative recreation of the ideal golden world the poet comes close to representing Plato’s idea of the ideal form. Sidney here exploits the idea of mimesis to the full, stretching its very limits and possibly even going past it since he makes it cover all kinds of imitations from the faithful reproduction of appearances to the implementation of universals. Imitation is a generalized rendering, in which particular actions and characters are universally representative. The poet thus not only takes part in the divine act of creation but also provides the link between the real and ideal. Sidney adopts the language of Renaissance Platonism to draw a parallel between the activity of god in creating Nature and the activity of the human mind able “to grow in effect another nature” (Sidney). For Sidney “the imaginative, hallucinatory character of Literature is justified by its utopian desire” (Sidney). Sidney then elaborates on the superiority of this kind of mimesis over History and Philosophy.
History is restricted to showing the experiences of past ages and to what happened. Its veracity is doubtful and it is not possible to draw any conclusions through particular examples. On the other hand, the philosopher “tells” what virtue and vice is in abstract terms without beauty of clarity and style. The philosopher speaks in a voice that is moralizing and teaches only those who are already learned. Poetry, however, is superior to both:
a. It teaches and delights.
b. Combines the precept with the example
c. Achieves what cannot be achieved either by the historian or by the philosopher. The poet not only “shows” and “tells” what virtue is but also turns that gnosis(knowledge) into praxis (performance).
d. The poet by representing ideal characters leads men to virtuous action.
 According to Sidney, teaching is of value only if it leads to action. Imitation for Sidney is “the representation of moral ideals in heroic characters and actions” (Sidney). The poet needs to imitate moral and political abstractions such as the ideal ruler, the just state and civil felicity. Sidney gives the example of Cyrus, the great, celebrated by Zenophon in his Cryopedia. Cyropaedia was composed in 365 BCE. It treats the life of the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus “the Great”. Xenophon’s portrayal of Cyrus as a benevolent monarch, ruling through persuasion, rather than by force, built his reputation as a righteous and tolerant king. Cyropaedia was first considered a true account of Cyrus’s life but it is now generally agreed that Xenophon did not intend Cyropaedia as history. Classical scholars point out that a number of the so-called “facts” included in it are incorrect and that the “frequent citation of apparently exact numbers for armies and the like needs to be regarded as a literary device to inspire confidence to the reader”( Sidney ). Sidney uses Xenophon’s Cyropaedia to show the superiority of literature over history by praising it. He feels that Xenophon was justified in taking leeway with history to present an idealized, fictional account of Cyrus , the great, so as “not only to make a 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”( Sidney).
Sidney defends poetry for its ancient origins and its universality. Sidney stresses the importance of poetry by stating that no nation is without poetry and asserting that it has been “the first light-giver to ignorance.” The ancient Greeks and Romans had great reverence for the poets. The Romans called him Vates, which means a Prophet or a Foreseer, while the Greeks honoured him as Poieini.e. maker or creator. This points towards the divine nature of poetry. Sidney makes an analogy of poetry with a gentleman “who may altogether carry a presence full of majesty, beauty, but perchance we may find in him a defectious piece, a blemish” so far this reason, poetry must be appreciated not only as a whole but in its various parts (Sidney). For this purpose he develops a series of stylistic, structural, and thematic categories and each specific category attempts to bring about a specific ethical response from the reader. Poetry of various kinds pleases for different reasons. Sidney divides poetry into religious, philosophical or informative and the “right kind”. First come the religious divine poets, and these include both the poets of Scripture and the pagan religious poets though “in a full wrong divinity” (Sidney).David’sPsalms and Solomon’s Song of Songs are cited as examples of religious poetry among others.
Second is the philosophersare knowledge givers. Philosophers, like Plato, use the method of poetry to present philosophy through imaginary scenarios. Manilus and Pontanesare considered astronomical poets and Lucan, a historical poet. The third kinds are the “right poets” or the real makers, “for these indeed do merely make to imitate and imitate both to ‘teach and delight” (Sidney). Based on style, structure and theme, Sidney makes categories of the “right kind” of poetry. Each kind – pastoral, elegiac, iambic, satiric, comedy, tragedy, lyric, Epic or heroic pleases and serves a specific purpose. The categories themselves are arranged hierarchically with the heroic being placed at the top:
Epic: Like most Renaissance writers, Sidney places epic poetry foremost in his list of the most idealized of all genres. Heroic poetry is the best and most accomplished and presents the loftiest truths in the loftiest manner. It teaches and moves men to the most high and excellent truth with examples – Achilles, Cyrus, Aeneas, Turnus, Tydeus and Rinalo. It makes magnanimity and justice shine. The images of heroes “stir and instruct the mind, and inspire the reader to “be worthy”. Aeneas’s action as presented in Virgil’s Aeneid is an exemplar of the Roman virtues of devotion to duty and reverence to the gods. It teaches virtue better than the ancient philosophers Chrysippus and Crantor. Heroic poetry makes virtue triumph and is therefore considered by Sidney as “the best and the most accomplished kind of poetry”(Sidney).
Pastoral: Pastoral poetry deals with the humble life and arouses understanding and admiration for the simple life and abhorrence for actions of brutality and tyranny. The “pretty tales of wolves and sheep can include whole considerations of wrongdoing and patience” (Sidney). Sidney gives examples fromVirgil’s Eclogues I and VII. Eclogue I juxtaposes a herdsman Tyrus, who is currently experiencing good fortune with one (Meliboeus) who is a recent victim of misfortune. Ecologue VII shows that the glory of greatness is short lived. It sings of virtue and politics under cover of tales.
Elegiac: A sad poem or song that rouses kindly pityrather than blame for the weakness of humankind and the misery of the world. Sidney states that Heraclitus, also called “the weeping philosopher”, because of his melancholy philosophy, must be praised for showing compassion accompanying just causes of lamentation.
Iambic: Openly attacks wickedness and rubs the galled mind to expose villainy.
Satire: Satire ridicules folly and weeds it out.
Comedy: Comedy through a ridiculous imitation of the common errors of life laughs men out of them. Observing and despising evil traits like flattery, miserliness and craftiness in others, people desire to give these up.
Tragedy: Tragedy demonstrates the uncertainty of the worldand shows how golden roofs are built on weak foundations. It stirs the “affect of admiration and commiseration” and gives advice to tyrants and kings: “The cruel tyrant who wields the sceptre with harsh rules, he fears those who fear him, and terror recoils upon its author”. To illustrate the moving power of tragedy he gives the example of Alexander Pheraeus , a cruel tyrant, who was moved to tears after watching Euripides’s play Troades .
Lyric: Lyric sings of all that is praiseworthy and thus enkindles virtue and courage. It gives moral precepts, teaches honourable enterprises, and is the enemy of idleness. It expresses a moving nationalism. He praises the old song of Percy and Douglas – the ballad of Chevy Chasethat never fails to move him. The ballad is about a battle fought in the borderlands between the forces of Northumberland’s Earl Percy and Scotland’s Earl Douglas. In the song Earl Percy is the instigator, hunting in Scottish territory, the woods of Chevy Chase. A bloody battle follows in which many are killed.
Sidney refutes all Puritan allegations levelled against poetry and states that poetry does not deserve the abuse hurled on it by its detractors. To the Puritan charge that poetry is mere rhyming and versifying, Sidney responds by stating that it is not always necessary and that if it is there it provides ornamentation and embellishment and also aids memory. To the charge that “there are more fruitful knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them than in poetry” he says that the aim of all teaching/learning is to promote virtue, and poetry as demonstrated in the Apology does it best out of all sciences, and therefore the study of poetry is the most profitable . Some consider poetry as “the mother of lies”. To this Sidney replies:”The poet he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth” i.e that poets are not liars for they never affirm that they are telling the truth. Additionally, unlike the historians, the poets truths are ideal and universal in nature. The poet uses veracity or falsehood to arrive at a higher truth. To the charge that poetry is the “nurse of abuse”, has a “wanton influence”, debases the mind, and makes men effeminate and unmartial, Sidney says that it is not poetry that abuses man’s wit , but men who abuse poetry. To the last charge that Plato banished poets from his “ideal” state, he argues that Plato was not so much against poetry as the misuse of poetry by the contemporary Greek poets and writers who abused it to misrepresent the Gods, for Plato in the Ion says that poets are divinely inspired. He also takes on Plato for defiling that which he himself used to teach and influence. He considers Plato’s Dialogues a form of poetry.
Sidney acknowledges the decline of poetry and drama in his own age and enumerates the following reasons for its decline:
1. Poets are not inspired and lack an ardent and passionate spirit that is necessary for poetic creation.
2. Those writing poetry lack knowledge and training and do not have the classics as their models.
3. They lack the genius necessary to produce genius.
4. Poetry comes from knowing sound models and their imitation, which needs practice and effort: Poets are made not born: “even the fertiliest ground must be manured” (Sidney).
5. The intricacies of poetic art are unknown to them.
Regarding the state of drama he urges that tragedy arouse the Aristotelian pity and awe and should also show the fall of tyrants. He berates “the mingling of horns & pipes with funerals or kings with clowns” and condemns contemporary writers for mixing tragedy and comedy. He urges that that the unities of time, place and action be followed: (a) The action must be confined to a “single revolution of the sun”(b) The place of action must be one (c) Characters must announce where they are – a garden, a shipwreck, a monster or a battlefield. He praises the tragedy of Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex (1561) by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville but criticises it for the violation of the unities. He praises Gower, John (1325?–1408) and also Chaucer for his Troilus and Cressida. He distinguishes between delight and laughter. Delight he defines as something that lasts and laughter that which only temporarily tickles. Delight, he feels is possible without laughter. The laughter of comedy should not be at the cost of causing pain to someone. It should deal with the weaknesses, foibles, and follies of humankind with the aim of correcting them by bringing about self-knowledge.
Sidney thinks Poetry is important for its four special ethical effects:
1. It purifies wit
2. Enriches memory
3. Enables judgement – literary memories find new and possibly profound meaning in personal experiences
4. Enlarges conceit
In his Apology Sidney emerges as both a classicist and a romanticist. The ancients serve as his models and he often quotes the classical writers. Innumerable references are made to classical literature, mythology, and classical literary theories. Sidney not only borrows from them but also constantly refers to their authority. He observes the rules devised by them, and urges that the Unities stated by the classical writers be followed. He follows the classical metres, and stresses the didactic element. He considers the English language superior to Italian and French, in the use of rhyme and meter. He also attempts to bring the classical meters into English.
Sidney, a theorist of the exuberant imagination, fuses the romantic and the classical tendencies. His belief is that the poet is divinely inspired and that the poet uses his imagination to create fictionalized ideal worlds. As a romanticist, he believes that history may be fictionalized, and the chronological sequences may be changed to present the story in flashback. The Apology is the earliest attempt to deal with the poetic art practically, not theoretically. Sidney’s judgements are based on contemporary literature, and reveal ample good sense and sound scholarship. It is not merely abstract empty theorizing, Sidney always corroborates by giving examples. Apart from his rigidity regarding the Unities, his judgements are not governed by rules and theories. His ultimate test is of a practical kind i.e. the power of poetry to move to virtuous action. He gives his views on the nature and function of all the existing forms of poetry in his age: on tragedy, comedy and diction or metre. The Apology is a pioneer in literary criticism. It gives an almost complete theory of neo-classical tragedy, a hundred years before the Ars Poetique of Nicholous Boileau (1636-1711).
In the absence of critical authorities in England, Sidney draws on the ancient classical writers and the Italian renaissance writes in particular. He draws on Homer, Plato, Horace and Plutarch among the Greeks; Virgil, Horace and Ovid among the Romans; and Minturno, Scaliger and Castelvetro among the Italians. Yet Sidney’s Apologyis an original document. It is the first piece of literary criticism. Later writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dryden, Pope, and Samuel Johnson took up Sidney’s ideas and used them to formulate their own theories of poetry. The Romantics Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats are all indebted to Sidney for assigning a divine status to poetry and for believing in the power of poetry to move people to do well. The Apology epitomizes the best in the spirit of literary criticism derived from other sources. It is the earliest attempt to deal with the poetic art practically not theoretically. His judgements as a literary critic are based on a critical analysis of contemporary literature and show good acumen and sound scholarship. Apart from the Unities, his judgement is not subject to rulebooks and theories. His ultimate test is of a practical kind i.e. the power of the poet to move to virtuous action. The Apology is the pioneer in dramatic criticism. In fact, Spingarn states that “Dramatic criticism in England began with Sidney”. Sidney gives his views on tragedy, comedy, diction and metre. All later critics are indebted to Sidney for his work. He exercised a great influence on contemporary writers as well and showed them the way. “He was head and shoulders above other theoretical treatises of the Elizabethan period , such as those of Gascoigne, Webbe, Puttenham, Campion and Daniel” – both because he is consistently entertaining which others are not , and because Sidney carries the debate back to the first principles – the value of the imagination itself – and tackles Plato head-on. Some of his critical assumptions might appear limited but should be understood in the light of the absence of good literature in his own time.
Sidney concludes his Apologyby criticising the affected and artificial diction of lyric love poetry. He believes that far-fetched conceits used by them are cold and fail to move. In contrast, he appreciates the restraint and decorum exercised by the classicists in using the right kind of imagery and diction. Sidney ends his Apologyjust as he began, with a touch of humour. He promises wisdom, name, fame and blessings to those who appreciate and value poetry but lays a curse on those who fail to appreciate poetry: “While you live you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph”.

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