Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, also known as The Defence of Poesy, was written in 1579-80). It has at least one great claim to fame: it’s the first work of ‘literary criticism’ in English. Sidney’s essay is an ‘apology’ for, or defence of, the art of poetry, but Sidney was inspired to write it for a very specific reason. Let’s take a closer look at this landmark defence of poetry from a true Renaissance man.
Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry is, in part, a response to Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse. Gosson was a Puritan, and his School of Abuse was a polemical pamphlet claiming that poets lead people astray and preach immorality. Given Sidney’s own fondness for poetry – he would go on to write one of the first (though not quite the first) substantial sonnet sequence in the English language – it’s unsurprising that the author of Astrophil and Stella would leap to the defence of poetry. Gosson even dedicated his pamphlet to Sidney without Sidney’s permission, which is one sure-fire way to provoke a strong response from someone.
An Apology for Poetry is about the role of the poet in society. Sidney takes pains to demonstrate that all the great civilizations of the world have valued poetry and the work of the poet. For Sidney, poetry is not merely part of civilisation: it is civilisation. Poetry is a civilised, and civilising, art form.
Sidney goes on to explain why this is. Poetry can bring you closer to God. It can ‘give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature; which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry’. If God is our ‘Maker’, the poet is a kind of maker, too (and, indeed, the word ‘poet’ has its roots in the ancient Greek meaning ‘to make’).
For Sidney, poetry ‘is an art of imitation’: as he points out, Aristotle (in his Poetics, the very first work of literary criticism in all of Western literature) said as much. Poetry involves metaphor, and metaphor is a form of imitation, comparing one thing to another. Poetry is, then, ‘a speaking picture’ whose aim is ‘to teach and delight’.
And ‘teach’ is an important word for Sidney, for he acknowledges – indeed, insists – that poetry should have a didactic element. It should inspire noble and moral behaviour in the reader. In a famous quotation, Sidney asserts:
Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
In other words, poetry is superior to nature or reality in that poets always overlay the world with gold, depicting it in an idealistic way, and so present it in a ‘better’ light.
But Sidney is also aware that a reader is more likely to listen to a moral lesson if the poetry delivering that lesson is actually entertaining. And here the poet has the advantage over the philosopher: ‘I say the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught.’ But poets, by contrast, can reach people who aren’t schooled in philosophy, and impart valuable lessons to them.
For this reason, poetry is a democratic art, accessible to those who are untutored in philosophy. And poetic drama is perhaps the most democratic of all. Poetry requires a reader, and a reader needs to have been taught to read, so those who are illiterate are still shut out from it. But drama bypasses the need for the audience to be literate. All that drama requires is a spectator, rather than a reader.
Sidney is writing before the great golden age of the Elizabethan theatre (Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson), but theatre was a growing art form in London at this time. And before that, communities up and down England had been entertained during religious festivals by the Miracle and Mystery Plays, which dramatised – usually in verse – events from the Bible, such as the Nativity and the Crucifixion.
As well as arguing that poetry is superior to philosophy, Sidney also shows that it is a superior didactic tool to history. The problem with history is that has to stick to what actually happened. And moral lessons aren’t always easy to derive from history, especially when evil triumphs over good. What kind of moral message does that send out? But in poetry, Sidney argues, evil doesn’t triumph: good always overcomes it.
But there’s more to it than this. Indeed, Sidney uncovers a startling paradox about the difference between poetry and history. Whereas poets and playwrights never lie – yes, you read that right – historians, conversely, do lie all the time. How can that be?
Sidney explains this by saying that for writers of fictions – such as poets and playwrights – it’s actually impossible to lie, because they never affirm that anything they say is true. They are presenting their writing as fiction, so they’re not pretending to deal in facts. If you offer a story to readers and imply, ‘I made this all up’, although what follows is a fiction – essentially, one long lie – you as a poet are not lying, because by couching your narrative as a work of fiction, you are admitting that what you offer up is untrue.
But the historian, by contrast, purports to present the reader with facts, so as soon as they play fast and loose with those facts, or smooth over certain details, or cast things in a favourable or unfavourable light depending upon their own biases, they run the risk of lying. Because historians – unlike poets – affirm things, they lie as soon as they offer something which is packaged as ‘fact’ but is not factually true.
This rhetorical masterstroke is one of the most famous and influential parts of Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. It’s a counterblast to not only Gosson’s assertion that the poet is the ‘mother of lies’, but to Plato’s older objection to the poet (in his The Republic, arguably the first work of utopian literature ever written) on the grounds that poets are untrustworthy, because they make things up.
On the contrary, as we’ve seen, Sidney believes the poet is valuable precisely because he makes things up and only makes things up. And poetry, through its world of fancy and idealism, can impart valuable lessons to people. Even comedy, often considered a lower art form than tragedy, imitates the common errors of life, so fits with Aristotle’s idea of poetry as mimesis or imitation. Comedy, Sidney maintains, leads people towards virtue by representing human error and folly as absurd and worthy of scorn.
Sidney also addresses the role of the English language, arguing that it is a worthy vehicle for poetry. As the language of the people (it had even been the official language of the English court since the early fifteenth century), English is perfect for such a democratic art as poetry – a form that, after all, Sidney believes should both delight and instruct its readers and spectators.