An Apology for Poetry: Sidney’s deffence for poetry
The precipitating fact for Sidney’s writing “An Apology for Poetry” was that an earnest young student, Stephen Gosson, had written a piece called “The School of Abuse”. Gosson’s pamphlet was only one expression of the narrow form of Puritan opinion that had been misled into attacks on poetry and music as feeders of idle appetite that withdrew men from the life of duty. To show the fallacy of such opinion, Philip Sidney wrote in 1581 this piece which was entitled “An Apology for Poetry”. Sidney himself speaks of the need to defend poetry: ‘I have more just cause to make a pitiful defence of poor poetry… to be the laughing-stock of children’. Since the Elizabethan period marked the high tide of the Renaissance in England, this Renaissance spirit is evident in the spirit of rebellion, in the love for nature, in the knowledge of the ancients, and finally in following the footsteps of Aristotle, Horace and Longinus in his “Defense”.
Sidney catalogues four chief objections to poetry by poet-haters, the ‘misomousoi’. The first is that poetry is useless, that there being many other more fruitful knowledge, a man might better spend his time in them than in pursuing poetry. The second is that poetry is depictive, the mother of lies. The third is that it is immoral, the nurse of abuse, infecting man with many pestilent desires. The fourth and the final is that the venerable philosopher Plato had banished poets from his ideal republic.
The Renaissance critic that he is, Sidney dismisses the first charge by declaring like Horace that ‘delightful teaching is the end of Poesy’. He declares that he has already established that ‘no learning is so good as that which teaches and moves to virtue,… so much as Poetry’. In the teaching of virtue, poetry is superior to philosophy and history. Philosophy deals with its theoretical aspects and teaches virtue by precept. History teaches practical virtue by drawing concrete examples from life. But poetry gives both precept and practical examples.
His answer to the second objection, that poets are liars, is that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least of all liars. The Astronomer, the Geometrician, the Historian, and others, all make false statements. But the poet ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth’, his aim being ‘to tell what is or what is not, but what should or should not be’. So what he presents is not fact but fiction embodying truth of an ideal kind.
The third charge against poetry is that all its species are infected with love themes and amorous conceits, which have a demoralizing or effeminizing effect on readers. To this charge, Sidney replies that all arts and sciences misused had evil effects, but that did not mean that they were less valuable when rightly employed. Sidney argues that that should be the art of ‘eikastike’ or the art of making of good likenesses, rather than ‘phantastike’ or the art of making false likenesses.
Sidney is rather perplexed at the last charge, namely Plato’s rejection of poetry. He tells us that Plato warned men not against poetry but against those theological concepts which poetry embodied and not against poetry itself. In “Ion”, Plato gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. Not only Plato but, Sidney tells us, all great men have honoured poetry.