Essay on Poetic Theory

The Defence of Poesy (1583)

by Sir Philip Sidney

Introduction

Sir Philip Sidney lived an active life as a courtier, solider, diplomat, and writer. He was born at Penshurst Place, in Kent in 1554. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, was appointed lord president of the Marches of Wales by Queen Elizabeth in 1559, and was later posted in Ireland; he was often absent from Penshurst. Sidney’s mother was lady-in-waiting to the queen until she caught smallpox in 1562. Sidney had a rigorous education at Shrewsbury School and then Christ Church, Oxford. After attending university, he traveled abroad for three years, where he became familiar with current political affairs and met political figures who would have a lasting influence on his life.

Sidney first traveled to Paris, where King Charles IX made him “Baron de Sidency” in 1572. During the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the queens’ council ordered Sidney back to safety in England, but he had already moved on to Germany. When he returned to London, he was made cupbearer at Queen Elizabeth’s court. In 1577, Sidney returned to the continent to lead a special embassy from Queen Elizabeth to the family of Maximilian II of Austria following the emperor’s death. After Sidney’s return to London, his interest in establishing a Protestant League was stopped by Elizabeth. The Sidney family did not always experience a smooth relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Sidney was made governor of Flushing in 1585; he was wounded in battle in the Netherlands and died of gangrene in 1586.

Sidney began writing poetry in 1578, and his writing career only lasted 7-8 years. His The Defence of Poesy was originally published under two different titles, The Defence of Poesie and An Apologie for Poetrie. It is a thorough and vigorous argument written by a practitioner of the art, who also had a strong education in the classics.

Early in The Defence of Poesy,” Sidney states, “having slipped into the title of a poet, [I] am provoked to say something unto you in the defense of that my unelected vocation.” In the piece he defends “poor poetry” and argues that poetry, whose “final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of,” is the best vehicle for the “purifying of wit.” He forms his argument in a classical seven-part structure, beginning with an introduction and moving through the stages of proposition, division, examination, and refutation to a final peroration, and including, as custom permitted, a digressio on a related issue. In The Defense of Poesy,” he references classical texts and examines different forms of poetry.

Sidney concludes by entertaining the thought that his reader “cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry.” If that is the case, if the reader has “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry” then “I must send you in the behalf of all poets:—that while 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.”

When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s [Maximilian II] court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable; and he, according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplations therein which he thought most precious. But with none I remember mine ears were at any time more loaded, than when—either angered with slow payment, or moved with our learner-like admiration—he exercised his speech in the praise of his faculty. He said soldiers were the noblest estate of mankind, and horsemen the noblest of soldiers. He said they were the masters of war and ornaments of peace, speedy goers and strong abiders, triumphers both in camps and courts. Nay, to so unbelieved a point he proceeded, as that no earthly thing bred such wonder to a prince as to be a good horseman; skill of government was but a pedanteria [pedantry—ed.] in comparison. Then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast the horse was, the only serviceable courtier without flattery, the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse. But thus much at least with his no few words he drove into me, that self-love is better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves be parties.

Wherein if Pugliano’s strong affection and weak arguments will not satisfy you, I will give you a nearer example of myself, who, I know not by what mischance, in these my not old years and idlest times, having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in the defense of that my unelected vocation, which if I handle with more good will than good reasons, bear with me, since the scholar is to be pardoned that follows the steps of his master. And yet I must say that, as I have just cause to make a pitiful defense of poor poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughing-stock of children, so have I need to bring some more available proofs, since the former is by no man barred of his deserved credit, the silly [weak—ed] latter has had even the names of philosophers used to the defacing of it, with great danger of civil war among the Muses.

And first, truly, to all them that, professing learning, inveigh against poetry, may justly be objected that they go very near to ungratefulness, to seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, has been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges. And will they now play the hedgehog, that, being received into the den, drove out his host? Or rather the vipers, that with their birth kill their parents? Let learned Greece in any of her manifold sciences be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history be brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some other are named, who, having been the first of that country that made pens deliver of their knowledge to their posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning. For not only in time they had this priority—although in itself antiquity be venerable—but went before them as causes, to draw with their charming sweetness the wild untamed wits to an admiration of knowledge. So as Amphion was said to move stones with his poetry to build Thebes, and Orpheus to be listened to by beasts,—indeed stony and beastly people. So among the Romans were Livius Andronicus and Ennius; so in the Italian language the first that made it aspire to be a treasure-house of science were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower and Chaucer, after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed to beautify our mother-tongue, as well in the same kind as in other arts.

This did so notably show itself, that the philosophers of Greece durst not a long time appear to the world but under the masks of poets. So Thales, Empedocles, and Parmenides sang their natural philosophy in verses; so did Pythagoras and Phocylides their moral counsels; so did Tyrtæus in war matters, and Solon in matters of policy; or rather they, being poets; did exercise their delightful vein in those points of highest knowledge which before them lay hidden to the world. For that wise Solon was directly a poet it is manifest, having written in verse the notable fable of the Atlantic Island which was continued by Plato. And truly even Plato whosoever well considers, shall find that in the body of his work though the inside and strength were philosophy, the skin as it were and beauty depended most of poetry. For all stands upon dialogues; wherein he feigns many honest burgesses of Athens to speak of such matters that, if they had been set on the rack, they would never have confessed them; besides his poetical describing the circumstances of their meetings, as the well-ordering of a banquet, the delicacy of a walk, with interlacing mere tales, as Gyges’ Ring and others, which who knows not to be flowers of poetry did never walk into Apollo’s garden.

And even historiographers, although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads, have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of the poets. So Herodotus entitled [the various books of—ed.] his history by the name of the nine Muses; and both he and all the rest that followed him either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battles which no man could affirm, or, if that be denied me, long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.

So that truly neither philosopher nor historiographer could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgments, if they had not taken a great passport of poetry, which in all nations at this day, where learning flourishes not, is plain to be seen; in all which they have some feeling of poetry. In Turkey, besides their lawgiving divines they have no other writers but poets. In our neighbor country Ireland, where truly learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in a devout reverence. Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have they their poets, who make and sing songs (which they call areytos), both of their ancestors’ deeds and praises of their gods,—a sufficient probability that, if ever learning come among them, it must be by having their hard dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delights of poetry; for until they find a pleasure in the exercise of the mind, great promises of much knowledge will little persuade them that know not the fruits of knowledge. In Wales, the true remnant of the ancient Britons, as there are good authorities to show the long time they had poets which they called bards, so through all the conquests of Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans, some of whom did seek to ruin all memory of learning from among them, yet do their poets even to this day last; so as it is not more notable in soon beginning, than in long continuing.

The text used here is from An Apologie for Poetrie, ed Edward Arber (London, 1858), with additional material from Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, ed. J. Churton Collins (Oxford, 1907) and The Defense of Poesy, ed A. S. Cook (Boston, 1890).
Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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Sir Philip  Sidney

Biography

The grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and heir presumptive to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, Sir Philip Sidney was not himself a nobleman. Today he is closely associated in the popular imagination with the court of Elizabeth I, though he spent relatively little time at the English court, and until his appointment as governor of Flushing in 1585 received little preferment from Elizabeth. Viewed in his own age as the . . .

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