The Defence of Poesy
The Puritan movement and its Relation to “A Defense of Poesy”
In the long essay, “A Defense of Poesy,” Sir Philip Sidney responds to the attempts of repression by the Puritan Movement on poets and their work by characterizing poetry as the roots of culture and intelligence. Sidney uses mythical allusions and historical references to various cultures in order to create an all-encompassing argument promoting the continued development of poetry in society, as well as defending its current and past existence. Sidney’s work is considered to be one of the most critical and influential literary criticisms of its time.The Puritan Movement lasted between the 16th and 17th centuries and was characterized by the desire to purify the church from the Catholic clergy’s corruption. At this time in history, the church was a largely influential part of government, and much of this corruption stemmed from the intertwining of the two. In addition, the Catholic Church had begun to sell items known as Indulgences, which were purchased relics sold by the Church in order to forgive one’s sins, or even forgive future sins at a higher cost. The invented rituals of the Church, which were not found in the Bible, outraged many people who believed in the raw interpretation of the Bible, especially with the literacy rate growing which allowed more people to be able to read the Bible for themselves, as opposed to being told what was written by a priest or other esteemed member of the Catholic Church. One result of this outrage was the formation of the Puritan Movement. Puritans held extremely strict views on people’s actions and works and their compliance with the Bible. Poets and playwrights were especially criticized by the Puritans, who said that such fiction-making would only lead to moral corruption and increased materialism, both of which they found to be detrimental to society’s progress. In order to refute the attacks by Puritan writers, Sidney composed “A Defense of Poesy.” He argues that poetry does, in fact, bring about moral good in society. He continues to refer to poetry as a tool to exercise and expand the imagination. The imagination, he believes, is the source of man’s sympathy, compassion, and love. He goes on to say that there are three different types of poetry: religious poetry, philosophical poetry, and poetry functioning as an imaginative treatment of life and nature. He states that even in the most primitive societies, such as the American Indians, poets have always been in existence and in a place of respect. Poetry has been used to preserve the memories of historical events, cultural values, ideas, and wisdom since its inception. He writes that poets are superior to regular historians and philosophers, due to their ability to convey history and ideas in an imaginative and creative way which appeals to the human condition. It can present factual information in a way that people can understand. Sidney states that the philosopher teaches “so as the learned only can understand him” (955). Poetry is also different from history and philosophy in its ability to move and give incentive for virtuous action. Sidney goes on to mention that many great philosophers, whose ideas are held highly and generally respected at this point in time, were in fact poets. Plato is one of the most notable examples of a great philosopher and poet. An interesting and clever fact pointed out by Sydney is that the word “poet” in Greek and Roman times actually meant “Maker” or “profit.” This coincides with his argument that all throughout history, poets have been respected and thought of reverently by members of society, and makes a strong point with the Puritans reading his essay by citing the comparison between poets and profits, appealing to their strong religious roots. Sidney once again appeals to the Puritans’ religious beliefs by stating that poets take part in the divine creation process. The talent of poets comes from their ability to create something new by using a pre-conceived idea known as the fore-conceit. Poetry links the real with the ideal, thus providing a link between the two worlds. Poets even have the ability to make the most unpleasant of things, such as war and death, appear pleasant through the means they use when presenting them. The Puritans often found poetry to be lewd, hence why they denounced it. What was ironic about this, however, was that their arguments against it seemed to be less of a religious matter, but more social, political, and personal. The Puritans had the view that poetry should be entirely eliminated from their society, as opposed to the view held by poets like Sidney that when vice was found in poetry, one should simply take away the vice. He believed that poetry in itself could do no harm. Sir Phillip Sidney wrote “A Defense of Poesy” as a response to Stephen Gosson’s “School of Abuse.” Gosson was a Calvinistic Puritan man, as his religion demanded, he detested all laughing matters. Puritans believed that laughter distracted people from proper function and hard work, and that laughter in itself is a distraction, deviating from the proper way. They thought that laughter in excess corrupted the Puritan virtues of efficiency, diligence, order, and rationality; it was a degradation of ethics. Laughter was also considered to be a display of lack of control over the bodily function and therefore lack of civility; “laughter is by courtesy a violation and indecency” (Gosson 4). As stated, Gosson’s work led an attack on theatre, but he also came up with several grounds on which he condemned poetry, more specifically, Sidney’s poetry. The first claim he makes is that a man can employ his time more usefully than in poetry. This point stems directly from the Puritan values of hard work with little leisure time. The Puritans viewed poetry as a waste of valuable energy with a destructive result. He goes on to state that poetry is the mother of all lies, calling poets themselves “fathers of lies, pipes of vanities and schooles of abuse” (Gosson 11). This statement is reflective of the Puritans’ disapproval of any fiction-making. Once again, such behavior was viewed as adding no value to society and feeding false ideas into particularly impressionable members of society, such as young people. Thirdly, he refers to poetry as the “nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires.” This statement demonstrates his belief that poetry degrades one’s virtue and morality, being why corrupt and immoral poetry is written. Sidney refutes this argument in saying that the abuse of poetry should not condemn the entire art; poetry is not to blame for the abuses committed against it by bad poets. His final argument is that Plato had banished poets from his ideal commonwealth. This point, however, can be refuted by more closely examining Plato’s intentions behind his writing, where he banished instead the abuse, not the practice in itself. He agreed with Sidney in saying that by being wary of poetry’s power, one could honor poetry rather than condemn it. Altogether, the Puritan Movement was the historical event that inspired Sidney to write “A Defense of Poesy.” Sidney successfully defends poetry against the Puritans’ repression by characterizing it as a holistic part of society vital to its culture and heritage.
Class and Society in The Defense of Poesy
Class and Society in The Defense of Poesy Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy, written in 1579 and published in 1575 (Norton Anthology Volume B) is a literary composition that preserved the eloquence and sophistication of poetry, allowing poetry to continue to be a flourishing and influential form of writing. However, Sidney’s work also further upheld the supremacy of poetry, and how this form of literary work was considered to be only for the most high class and elite persons of society. The Defense of Poesy affirms the social hierarchy that determines cultural class systems by continuously enforcing features of poetry. These features that Sidney writes include themes of power, strength and intelligence, which all confirm an underlying tone of Sidney’s work that poetry is meant for the elite nobility and high class socialites. Without saying so directly, Sidney implicates through The Defense of Poesy that poetry is a sophisticated and complicated form of art that should be consumed and enjoyed by those who are educated enough to understand it and appreciate it. There is no room nor bandwidth in Sidney’s defense of poetry for the common reader, much less the illiterate and uneducated, to partake in form of writing that enforces classist values.
While Sidney’s critical piece to defend the importance of poetry was crucial to keeping poetic writing form alive and relevant, it also created a divide in readers, due to the fact that poetry was either inaccessible, unavailable or unable to be understood by anyone except the elite. Sidney enforces the elitism of poesy by stating that poetry in itself is a creative imitation of other forms of art and literary works. In doing so, Sidney claims that poetry that is based off of the works of other well-known and prestigious writers, ranging from ancient Greek philosophers to Biblical figures, the poet/ knight/ courtier/ renaissance man attempts to display the supremacy of poetry as a writing form that mimics other famous works that many poems are inspired by. Sir Sidney takes the concept that imitation is the highest form of flattery into hi definition of poesy which is as follows, “Poesy therefore is an imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis… a speaking picture- with this end, to teach and delight” (Sidney 553). Sidney claims that poetry is a high class form of art because it imitates other esteemed forms of art. In that, Sidney claims that the emulations of poetry compared to other acclaimed works from throughout history are what poetry so impactful and powerful.
Sidney mentions how poetry in England specifically was based off of works from famous historical figures like King David from the Bible, which is an extremely important figure to the readers of the text due to the religious acuity of David himself. It is likely that Sidney mentions David due to the many poems he wrote that are published in the book of Psalms in the Bible (Psalms, King James Version). Not only was David the author of many different poems, the breadth and content of his poems were inspirational and significant, especially to Sidney, as he mentions in The Defense of Poesy. Sidney mentions how even Kings of old not only found poetry to be important, but they thought it was an essential form of writing, “Sweet poesy, that hath anciently had kings, emperors, senators, great captains, such as, besides a thousand others, David… not only to favor poets but to be poets;” (Sidney 576). The English knight and poet also lists Adrian, Sophocles and Germanicus, three other ancient historical figures who had great poetic contributions that are crucial pieces of art. Despite their differentiating backgrounds from ancient Israel, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire (Norton Anthology Volume B), Sidney included all four of these figures to showcase how even the strongest of military leaders were advocates for poetry themselves. While many people who were in opposition toward the importance of poetry might have assumed that it was an obsolete form of writing that was purposeless and had no meaning, Sidney used the example of great militaristic kings and emperors who used poetry as a means to express their thoughts and feelings in a format of art that could be shared with the world. While the battles of these great kings lasted for a short time, their poems outlasted the wars, showing how poetry is in fact the opposite of obsolete but rather as beneficial and relevant. Since Sir Sidney was a knight and warrior himself, it makes sense that he would exemplify the power of military leaders who were also poets as a display of why poetry is important.These examples of military leaders and kings that Sidney uses to defend poetry are not the only ones of their kind.
Moreover, Sidney references mythical and fictional figures who are featured in important historic poems, including the likes of Hercules and King Arthur. Sidney states that poetry is the most high form of writing and that it is, “by the Greeks called architeconike” (Sidney 555), where he further explains how poetry is to be considered “chief art” (Norton Anthology 555), in that there is no other form of art or writing that is better than poetry. This egotistical defense of poetry claims that there is nothing greater than the prose of a poet, and since Sidney himself is the author of many poems, one can hardly help but wonder if this defense of poesy is also a defense of Sidney’s own works of art. Sir Philip Sidney elaborates to tell the readers of how noble the act of writing poetry is, and goes on about how poetry has the same level of nobility as knighthood does, “Wherein, if we can, show we the poet’s nobleness” (Sidney 555). Sidney continues to defend the nobility of poetry by convincing the readers that the stories of heroes that are written in poetic form are not only vital to history but are also enjoyed by so many, proving poetry’s societal relevance, “glad will they to be to hear the tales of Hercules… and hearing them, must needs hear the right description of wisdom, valor, and justice” (Sidney 562). The poems featuring such heroes are an inspiration to the readers who want to integrate values such as the ones that are listed in the quote above. Sidney exemplifies the heroic works featured in poems about these famous heroes to further defend the art form of poetry as a whole. The author justifies how poetry is intended to make the readers process their thoughts and emotions and to embrace and contemplate on the message of which the poet is trying to portray.
Sidney displays the strengths of poetry by highlighting more famous figures known for their heroism and strength. The knight-poet himself goes on to describe the character of the legendary Arthur, a legendary king of England who was epically known across the lands as a hero. Sidney goes on to tell of how even King Arthur himself was a proponent and supporter of poetry as well, “For poetry is the companion of camps… honest King Arthur would never displease a soldier” (Sidney 573). Sidney uses the example of King Arthur to appease the so called charges against poetry itself (Sidney 568), knowing that such a famous hero and king who was known for his courageousness, honor and honesty would be a trustworthy critic, and if even the great King Arthur supported his soldiers to read poetry, then it must be worthy of the highest esteem. In turn, Sidney uses the charming and revered characteristics of King Arthur, an esteemed legend in English folklore and cultural history to persuade the readers and prosecutors of poesy to cherish the form of literary work as sophisticated, essential and inspirational. Despite these seemingly wonderful features, King Arthur was also known to be conniving and iniquitous, and these lesser known features are also the same ones that classified him as an elitist. Even though King Arthur was known for his genuine and down-to-earth characteristics, he was also a key proponent to social hierarchy, and also an accomplice to making poetry a item only meant for high society. Similarly, Sir Philip Sidney exploited the legend of King Arthur to keep poetry in the hands of the elite.
To further make his claim, Sidney defends poetry by arguing that this artistic form of literary works was meant to be consumed by the educated and intelligent, which in turn also made it unavailable to anyone outside of these qualifications (which usually meant anyone was not of nobility or high society, like himself). Sidney elaborates throughout his defense on how historians and philosophers differ from poets, and how poesy is superior to both because it is both based off of the past and the future, rather than dwelling on just one of these things. Poesy is argued to be a form of art that is for the educated, as Sidney produces a piece of rhetoric to convince the reader that they must have a certain level of intelligence to understand the structure and format of poetry, “that may the poet with his imitation make his own, beautifying it for further teaching and reading… having all, from Dante’s heaven to his hell, under the authority of his pen” (Sidney 560). Sidney states that poets must be brilliantly creative in order to write their works, and is implying also that the readers must be able to properly digest the complicated structure and form of poetry with intelligence and dignity in order to fully comprehend the depth of poetry itself. Creative intellect of both the author and the reader are necessary in order for poetry to be fully understood, according to Sidney. Not just anyone is talented or wise enough to sit down with pen and paper to write a poem.
According to Sidney, a poet must create an imitation of another work as a form of art and turn it into a poem, all the while using his or her own creativity and imagination to turn the literary work into something unique and entirely their own. There is an entire world of possibility for poets, yet Sidney has an underlying tone that the poet must be wise enough to differentiate what and what not to write about. Even the text itself references a famous piece of Italian literature, that only the most educated person would know, in order to emphasize the depth of intelligence necessary to create and consume poetry. Additionally, Sidney also claims the opposite, in that those who mock or refute poetry are uneducated and do not truly understand it if otherwise. Sidney condemns the cynics and the skeptics of poetry, as he believes that those who do not appreciate poetry are too uneducated and foolish to truly understand it, “First, truly I note not only in misomousoi, poet-haters… may stay the brain from a thorough-beholding the worthiness of the subject” (Sidney 568). Sir Philip Sidney not only defends poetry with this statement, but attacks those who do not support it and is in essence questioning their intelligence, discernment and overall common sense.
Additionally, Sidney uses the argument of Plato against poetry to actually support it by exposing Plato’s argument and agreeing with the ancient philosopher on how the content of poetry is important. Plato, in this scenario, was expressing his frustration of how poets of his time would write poetry that was falsifying the characteristics of the ancient Grecian gods. Plato blames other poets for the incorrect information put out by other poets and “Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence” (Sidney 575). The disrespectful manner that Plato accuses the other poets of having is similar to Sidney’s feelings about why poetry must be written and read by persons intelligent enough to understand it. Additionally, Sidney argues that it is better to praise the poet than to listen and to suffer the complaints of those who speak ill-will against poetry. Sidney calls for his readers to join him in admiration of the poets and to refute anyone who speaks out against poetry, “Let us rather plant more laurels for to engarland the poets’ heads… than suffer the ill-savored breath of such wrong-speakers” (Sidney 576). Sidney is directly persuading the readers to join him in advocating poetry and to oppose anyone who does not hold this same opinion about poetry. Sir Philip Sidney’s literary piece intended to defend poetry from attack was not only effective but also successful, as it has kept poetry relevant since. However, through all of this, Sidney also created a further divide in the accessibility of poetry. By claiming that poetry is only for the powerful, the strong and the intelligent, this is basically forcing out anyone who is not from the upper class from being able to read and analyze poetry.
Sidney makes it nearly impossible for someone with no social clout, no political power and little education to be able to have access to poetry. The lack of inclusiveness Sidney has in regard to the audience of poetry is discouraging, as it would seem logical to include anyone who might be interested in reading poetry to do so. However, Sidney does quite the opposite and makes it so that he indirectly disqualifies many people from having the opportunity to read poesy. While The Defense of Poesy is a wonderful piece of literature that encourages readers to be advocates for poetry, it also creates a divide as Sir Philip Sidney reduces his audience by making poetry only available to the elite and high class, which in turn is an oxymoronic result that contradicts Sidney’s original intent of the literary piece that defends poetry.