Sidney, Sir Philip

Assigned: Sidney, Sir Philip. “The Defence of Poesy” (262-91). Also read the editors’ introduction (260-62).

“The Defence of Poesy” (1595)

1. On 262 (“When the right virtuous Edward Wotton…”), Sir Philip Sidney’s exordium or opening rhetorical gesture of “A Defence of Poesy” humorously describes the skillful defense he and Edward Wotton heard Emperor Maximilian II’s riding master John Pietro Pugliano give of his own profession. Sidney says he was nearly persuaded “to have wished myself a horse” (263). This is a humorous remark, but how does it link to the serious philosophical discussions of craftsmanship that we find in Plato’s utopian fiction The Republic, where Socrates denies that artists are masters of a reality-based craft? (See The Republic, Book 10, Leitch 78-80; see also Ion, in which Socrates describes Homer and his reciters as divinely inspired lunatics rather than sober masters of a legitimate craft; see Leitch 46-58). When we consider the obvious utility of horsemanship, how does Sidney’s anecdote prepare us to take the “defense” of long-suffering, much-abused “poesy” that he is about to make?

2. On 263-64 (“But since the authors of most…”), Sidney considers the classical and biblical weight behind the concept of “the poet.” To begin with, what value does he show the Romans to have accorded poets in calling them vātēs, which Sidney defines as “a diviner, foreseer or prophet” (263)? In what way did the ancient Greeks also have a similar sense of poetry’s status as divinely inspired song or utterance, and before even their time or that of the Romans, how did the Psalms of David offer readers the same understanding of poetry and song? Finally, what insight about poetry does Sidney draw from the Greek word poiētēs (infinitive verb form poiēn, first person ποιέω, poiéō, I make, I do), which is clearly the etymological source of our English word, “poet”?

3. On 264-65 (“There is no art delivered to mankind…”), how does Sidney, following up on his earlier mention of the poet’s status as a legitimate poiētēs or maker, differentiate poetry from the other arts—that of the astronomer, geometrician, moral philosopher, rhetorician, etc.—all of which have “the works of nature” (264) for their main object? What “subjection” do poets refuse, and what ideal can they bring home to us because of this refusal? How do Sidney’s celebrated remarks here touch upon what he considers the moral quality and mission of poetry?

4. On 265-66 (“But let those things alone and…”), Sidney turns from the wondrous things poets invent to the way they often represent human nature. Aristotle’s definition of tragic drama in Poetics (see Leitch 103 bottom, “Tragedy is an imitation of an action…”) as imitative or mimetic reigned from ancient times until at least the end of the neoclassical era, after which (around the end of the eighteenth century) Romantic expressive poetics became dominant in England. How is the Christian author Sidney both validating Aristotelian mimetic theory and yet adapting it to suit his loftier moral view of what poetry can do for humankind? How, that is, does the poet work to “bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses…” (265)? Finally, why, according to Sidney, would it not be “too saucy a comparison” (264) to hint that God has given the poet some measure of divine inspiration? How can we recognize this inspiration based on what the poet creates?

5. On 266-68 (“Now let us go to a more ordinary…”), Sidney blends ideas from Aristotle and Horace to build up his elegant definition of poetry as “an art of imitation […] a speaking picture—with this end: to teach and delight” (266). What three kinds of poets does Sidney go on to identify, and what is the goal of each? How does Sidney rank them in terms of purpose and value to those who read their works? Further, Sidney apparently rejects the idea that versifying and poetic meter are essential to poetry. By what quality or species of “feigning” (267 bottom), then, may we truly recognize a poet, truly discern “the right describing note to know a poet by” (267)?

6. On 268-69 (“Now, therefore, it shall not be amiss…”), how, as Sidney casts them, do the moral philosopher and the historian, respectively, set forth their claims to nobility and excellence in the teaching of virtue? On what grounds does the moral philosopher advance the cause of abstruse argumentation, thinking himself superior in his “definitions, divisions and distinctions” (268)? On what basis, in turn, does the historian, secure in the examples offered by the past, undercut the moralist’s abstractions?

7. On 269-71 (“Now whom shall we find, since…”), how does Sidney justify his claim that poetry is superior to moral philosophy? How does “the speaking picture of poesy” deliver a “true lively knowledge” (270) when the philosopher can give nothing but the barren, if true, precept? What Christian argument about human nature and “fallen” faculties is Sidney advancing here as he makes his case that poetry best moves people to virtuous action in the world? (See, for example, Thomas Aquinas on why figurative language is necessary to the Bible’s salvational goal for humankind; Leitch 191 in particular.)

8. On 271-73 (“Now, to that which is commonly…”), how does Sidney enforce his assertion that the historian falls short of the poet with regard to teaching virtue? We know that historians provide plenty of past-based examples of people in action, but wherein, according to Sidney, do many of those examples lead us away from virtue, and not towards it? In what way, then, does poetry better accord with the author’s Renaissance (and Aristotelian) definition of learning’s purpose as “virtuous action,” or “well-doing and not […] well-knowing only” (268)? On page 272, what relationship between “moving” someone emotionally and learning does the Christian author Sidney assert?

9. On 273-78 (“By these, therefore, examples…”), how does Sidney deal with potential charges by moralists against the various genres, “the parts, kinds, or species” (274) that he identifies? Briefly, on what grounds does he respectively defend pastoral, elegy, comedy, and tragedy, lyric, and heroic? (274) Focus in particular on Sidney’s defense of comic plays: what does he consider to be “the right use of comedy” (275), the use that is consonant with moral improvement?

10. On 278-79 (“Now then go we to the most…”), Sidney identifies the four charges most commonly leveled against poets and goes on to demolish the first two of them. Briefly, what are the four charges? How does Sidney respond to the first one? How does he answer the second and more significant one; namely that poets tell falsehoods? Even though poets make things up and often depart from lifelike (“verisimilar” is the technical term) representation, why is it nonetheless wrong to call them liars? How do poets’ moral aims absolve them of the charge of dishonesty and falsehood in representation?

11. On 279-81 (“Their third is, how much it abuseth…”), Sidney confronts the third charge often made against poetry, which is that “it abuseth men’s wits” (279), which latter term is here used with a strong hint of Plato’s argument against poets as morally dubious because they make people give in to base desires. How does Sidney fight this charge coming from those who would rather eliminate poetry than allow it to work its supposed dark magic on the human spirit? What logical argument does he make to undermine the notion that poetry’s power to do harm condemns it?

12. On 281-83 (“But now indeed my burden is great…”), Sidney faces off against the fourth charge against poets, which is that Plato banished them from his ideal republic. First of all, what “digs” does Sidney cleverly get in against philosophers themselves? Next, what refutation does Sidney issue against the opinion that Plato condemned poetry altogether? Look up for yourself what Plato actually wrote with regard to the exiling of poets: see Book 10 of The Republic (Leitch 78 and 88-89), but also the excerpts from Books 2 and 3 (58-74). Is Plato’s supposed ban consistent? Based on your reading of Plato, what rhetorical strategy is Sidney following when he enlists Plato’s Republic and Ion (for Ion, see Leitch 46-58) to turn that seeming enemy of poetry into a friend? Does it matter whether Sidney’s construction of Plato is accurate? Why or why not?

13. On 284-88 (“Marry, they that delight in poesy…”), how does Sidney characterize the current state of the literary arts in England as he writes in the 1570’s, and what early-neoclassical sensibilities does he reveal in praising or criticizing certain tendencies in representation and convention? In responding, consider, for example, his remarks on 285 concerning the unity of place, or the notion that “the stage should always represent but one place.”

14. On 288-89 (“But what? Methinks I deserve…), how does Sidney judge his native language, English, for its inherent qualities and for its relative strengths in comparison with other languages? What observations does he offer regarding prosody, or metrics? Do his comparisons seem fair? Why or why not?

15. On 290-91 (“So that since the ever-praiseworthy…), in his peroration (concluding remarks), how does Sidney describe the benefits of belonging to the poetry-lovers’ club, so to speak? By contrast, what heavy curse does he lay upon those who are supposedly too ignorant or priggish to appreciate the virtues of poetry? How is his rhetoric itself designed to illustrate the virtues such people are unable to appreciate, and how does it remind us of the arguments he has set forth?

16. General question: How would you characterize Sir Philip Sidney’s argument in “A Defence of Poesy”—is his rhetoric mainly objective and analytical, or mainly geared towards stirring up the reader’s passion in favor of poets and poetry? Explain the grounds for your response, and in responding, consider especially the very beginning of the essay (the exordium) and the conclusion of it, or peroration.

17. General question: Mimetic doctrine reigned supreme in Europe from ancient times up through the end of the neoclassical era in the seventeenth century. To what extent do you find the ideas of Sir Philip Sidney, a Protestant Christian author, similar to those of one of the eminent pre-Christian mimetic theorists we will have read for this course: Plato, Aristotle, and Horace? To what extent does Sidney, in “A Defence of Poesy,” borrow from his “pagan” predecessor critics? How does his Christian intellectual and spiritual framework inflect his emphasis with regard to the relationship between the artist and nature, the relationship between the artist and his or her audience, and, perhaps, the amount of attention due to the formal qualities of the text, drama, or other kind of art under consideration?

18. General question: It is common—and very understandable—for modern literature and art professors to speak dismissively of moralist arguments about the supposed dangers of artistic representation. Sometimes, this moralist view is labeled “the contagion theory of art,” and as such, it may remind us of Plato’s stark condemnation of certain varieties of poetry in The Republic, or of harsh puritanical religious strictures against the power of perverse art. Sir Philip Sidney’s Christian emphasis in “A Defence of Poesy” is decidedly moral, though hardly rigid or severe: while he has little patience with priggish critics, he nonetheless clearly believes artists should take care in their representations to protect and elevate the morals of their audience. That kind of criticism is not common today, at least in its most direct form. All the same, and any religious promptings aside, what risks might lie in modern defenders of art being brashly dismissive about the “moral” and persuasive power of aesthetic experience? In responding, refer to Sidney’s argument on pages 279-81 of “A Defence of Poesy” regarding the charge some of his opponents make that poetry “abuseth men’s wits” (279).

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake