Friday, 27 February 2015

The Defense of Poesy by Philip Sidney

"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."

I can hear the groans of disapproval already. As if my comprehensive posts on Astrophil and Stella wasn't torture enough (you can read them here and here), I find myself returning again to Philip Sidney. For those select few who haven't already left to re-check your email or look up cute cat videos on Youtube, I implore you to please bear with me! I will do my best to keep this review as short as possible. I am under no illusions that I can be overzealous in my reviews, even prone to incessant ramblings, but sometimes a piece of literature such as Sidney's The Defense of Poesy requires a more thorough analysis than just a few short paragraphs. Granted, I will barely be able to scratch the surface and have decided to present a sparknotes version (against my better judgment), less I lose the few individuals who actually follow this blog, forever. 

I was not planning on reading anything else for February's Renaissance Literary Movement but while making my way through Sidney's large collection of poems, many questions circled around in my mind concerning the nature of poetry, which then brought about more questions about literature in general: what is the purpose of reading poetry? Is it for enjoyment, enlightenment, the intrinsic human desire for knowledge? Why even bother reading a bunch of poems written by some dead white dude from the 1500's? I mean, what value does this bring to my life? Indeed, some of the poems were memorable, others not so much, but what does it all add up to in the end? On the most rudimentary level, they are just words, elaborate fictions, organized within a specific structure on the page. Hence, why do we bother to read literature in the first place when life is so short and there are countless more productive activities to be doing? It just so happened that Philip Sidney wrote an extensive treatise entitled The Defense of Poesy or An Apology for Poetry (depending on the version) which attempts to answer some of these lingering questions.

Sidney's structural framework in composing his argument is influenced largely by Aristotle's Poetics, using the imitation of rhetoric as a legal defense (law speech). There are three important types of rhetoric worth noting:
  1. Forensic: Pleading a case.
  2. Deliberative: Public assembly.
  3. Epideictic: Praise.
Sidney is more inclined to use forensic rhetoric--beginning with an "exordium" (introduction), moving to slightly adjacent matter before arriving at the main argument that relies heavily upon narration. The main ideas presented in his defense include emphasizing the antiquity of poetry, the connection between poet and prophet, the poet as "Maker" or artificer, the relationship between art and nature; being able to create a "second type" of nature that occurs in the realm of imagination. Sidney is well aware of the inherent irony concerning the poet as someone who speaks truth, yet utilizes imitation as their primary aesthetic. There is an another layer of irony at work here because the entire Defense itself, is in fact, a formal fiction.

He outlines three different types of poetry: Divine, Philosophic and Art (containing many subdivisions). He then moves from these categories to specific examinations--focusing on the close relationship between poetry and learning (establishing philosophy and history as inferior) before moving on to refutation. This section is most interesting to me because it touches upon some of my burning questions alluded to earlier. Sidney deals with four main negative arguments against the value of poetry:
  1. Poetry is a waste of time.
  2. Poets are liars.
  3. Poetry as simple fancies and imitations; inconsequential to the "real world."
  4. Plato banished the poets.
Let us try and see how Sidney tries to refute these claims.

First off, Sidney views these attacks as calumnious, false and feeble. For example:
"But truly I imagine it falleth out with these poet-whippers, as with some good women, who often are sick, but in faith they cannot tell where; so the name of poetry is odious to them, but neither his cause nor effects, neither the sum that contains him, nor the particularities descending from him, give any fast handle to their carping dispraise (515).

 Take that naysayers!

The didactic approach or ideas of the fiction that the poet creates along with the execution is important. Good poetry is both an educational tool and creates pleasure:

"Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis -- that is to say, a presenting, counterfeiting, or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture -- with this end, to teach and delight" (505).

The poet has the power to imitate nature but can also make it better. The fusion of simulacrum and poetic imagination allowing the creation of another world; an ironic "counterfeiting" and "figuring forth" to achieve a semblance of divinity in the human mind. 

Sidney is also keen to highlight the importance of wit:

"This purifying of wit -- this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit -- which commonly we call learning, under what name so ever it come forth, or to what immediate end soever it be directed, the 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" (506).

In other words, poetry has a religious function to be a spiritual influence, to make us better people, to improve our minds and purify our "degenerate souls."

The poet is not some charlatan who wastes his time scribbling nonsensical gibberish. He is a moral philosopher akin to a religious prophet, an important figure in society who can inspire learning, virtue and righteous action in others:

Poetry represents all of "human learning" and is "the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learning have their their beginnings" (515).

As a humanist, it makes sense that Sidney would refer back to the ancients and classical antiquity as supporting evidence for his defense. For him, poetry is a worthy endeavor, a distinguished vocation to instruct others; an important moral duty,  not simply an amusing hobby to indulge in on a lazy Sunday afternoon:

"That a man might better spend his time, is a reason indeed; but it doth being the question. For if it be as I affirm, that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virutre; and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry: then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed" (517).

As far as Sidney is concerned, even though the poet uses the art of imitation ("mimesis"), he is not as untruthful as others, specifically the historians and philosophers--the former being too specific, the latter dealing with abstract generalities. For him, poetry can be more general and is not rooted to particularities which can cause problems:

"That poets should be the principal liars, I will answer paradoxically, but truly, I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar, and, though he would, as a poet can scarcely be a liar...for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false" (517).

He continues with the argument that the poet's primary concern is not to be an inventor of whimsical fancies to be taken as truth. Once again, above all else, poetry is moralistic:

"The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He citeth not authorities of other histories, even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not. but what should or should not be" (517).

The poet seeks out the truth as a moral philosopher. He should aim to teach and  impart guidance ("what should or should not be").

Sidney reveres Plato even though he banished the poets. Plato's arguments are complicated because they are often contradictory. Dialogues and myths are poetic but he believes that the poet possesses a type of "divine madness." In short, he views poetry as an imitation of an imitation. Sidney's counter-argument is a little sketchy but he seems to suggest that there are two types of art: one that spurs proper images that lead to virtuous action and ones that spurs improper images that lead to bad action. He both repudiates and agrees with Plato on certain levels. The defense then undergoes a series of digressions before making its way to the "peroration" (conclusion). Sidney questions the role of poetry in England, asking whether or not English poetry can become a viable form language, showing the juxtaposition between poetry and drama. He wraps up his final defense with a scathing indictment against the detractors of poetry--referring to them as "Poet-apes"-- and I had the compulsion to raise my fist in the air. Preach on brotha, preach on!

As far as literary theory goes, Sidney's defense is not as painful to read as I initially thought it might turn out to be. Sure, his lengthy expository will prove to be an ordeal for some but its worth reading for anyone who might be interested in 16th century literary criticism or perhaps like me, require a little inspiration now and again to continue on with my own literary ambitions. Keep reading, keep writing, it's not a futile endeavor and forget what people might think about your chosen path. Knowing that even Sidney had to contend with people who strongly disapproved of the arts or looked down upon a literary career as folly, is a great source of comfort to me and I am very grateful. Thanks for being on the side that champions the power and importance of literature, Sidney. 

Source: Sixteen-Century Poetry and Prose Course Package compiled by Professor David Galbraith (2010).

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