During the time that Phillip Sydney wrote, the appeal of poetry was starting to lose its footing for several speculative reasons. First, in the 16th century, a few learned individuals were beginning to explore prose, the essay form. Also, some poets were using the elevated language and verse of poetry to compete and even jest with one another in ways that the general public could not understand. Finally, the original intent of poetry had been lost – that being a valuable type of oral history, originally in song form. Many simply saw poetry as a useless art. For this reason, Sydney writes his Apology for Poetry.
The diction of the essay suggests a satirical wit about Sydney which has raised a few eyebrows as to the intent of the work. Is Sydney defending or indicting poetry, an art form to which he had dedicated much of his life? Sydney’s essays seem to point to a defense, as the title suggest, with a nice dose of self-deprecating humor tossed in to give it that edge of doubt.
First, Sydney is moved by the loquacious John Pietro Pugliano to consider the self-love to which people afford themselves and their own activities. This lecture on horses spawns in Sydney, the recognition that he could, and should, give the same admiration to poetry: “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….”
In making this proof he gives several examples. He argues that the Italians such as Dante Boccaccio and Petrarch used language in a way that aided them in their quest to be a “treasure-house of science” as did the Englishmen Gower and Chaucer you developed art and beauty through poetry. He goes on to note that that the revered philosophy of the Greeks were first words from the pens of poets and cites Empedocles, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Phocylcides and others as proof of this assertion. 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. He even notes that ignorant and barbaric people had one shred of decency, that being the poetry of their songs. Sydney concludes this argument by noting that “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.”
From there, Sydney moves to give his definition of poetry which he calls an art of imitation Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation,…that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end,—to teach and delight.” He gives three distinct divisions of this end goal. The first is to glorify God. He gives Biblical support for this claim: “Such were David in his Psalms; Solomon in his Song of Songs, in his Ecclesiastes and Proverbs; Moses and Deborah in their Hymns; and the writer of Job….” The second classification is to deal with philosophical matters “either moral, as Tyrtæus, Phocylides, and Cato; or natural, as Lucretius and Virgil’s Georgics; or astronomical, as Manilius and Pontanus; or historical, as Lucan; which who mislike, the fault is in their judgment quite out of taste, and not in the sweet food of sweetly uttered knowledge.” He is quick to note that even if these great thinkers are false, they are still gaining knowledge.
Finally, his third distinction is the men who make imitations of individuals and themes that should be imitated. Sydney asks that the reader ponder whether the perfect lover, constant friend, valiant man or just prince could ever exist other than in poetry. In Sydney’s words, “These verses allows for people to read and to aspire. For these third be they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight; and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be; but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.”
Sydney ends this portion of his defense of poetry by noting that “So that the ending end of all earthly learning being virtuous action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that have a most just title to be princes over all the rest; wherein, if we can show, the poet is worthy to have it before any other competitors.” To him, the poet is an indispensable part of the creation of history, art, beauty and mankind.
In his next section, Sydney compares the poet to the historian and the philosopher. Here he notes that the poet is the perfect blend of both – thus continuing to truly defend poetry. He notes that the historian can show people the true and exact picture, but questions whether that is really what the people want to see. Then he notes that philosophers deal in such abstractions that nobody can really understand what they are saying. Sydney argues that “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” and that, likewise, “the best of the historian is subject to the poet.” Thus, he places the position of the poet over them both.
Next, Sydney takes a witty look at what types of poetry could be found lacking with some of these individuals. He proposes that they dislike the pastoral for its simple country views, but satirically counters that “sometimes, under the pretty tales of wolves and sheep, can include the whole considerations of wrong-doing and patience.” He similarly examines lyric, iambic, comic, satiric, and heroic poetry, finding in each a reason for their prevalence.
Sydney continues his satiric swat at these “poet haters” by intending to discover why, exactly, they hate poetry. He decides that they seek praise by insulting others and wittily offers that the best way to do this is actually through poetry. His insulters offer four arguments against poetry which Sydney humorously defends, as if they were not much to deal with in the first place. They are:
o that there being many other more fruitful knowledge, a man might better spend his time in them than in this.
o that it [poetry]is the mother of lies.
o that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires
o that Plato banished them out of his Commonwealth
Sydney categorically addresses each.
To the first he says that “no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue,” and poetry leads to both. To the second argument he asserts that “they [historians, philosophers, doctors, etc] should be the principal liars,” noting the frequent mistakes made in medicine, astronomy and the like. To the third argument, he argues that many other things abuse equally, or more so, than poetry. He asks the following series of rhetorical questions in response:
Doth not knowledge of law, whose end is to even and right all things, being abused, grow the crooked fosterer of horrible injuries? Doth not, to go in the highest, God’s word abused breed heresy, and his name abused become blasphemy?
These lines show that any good institution can be abused and can be used to abuse. It is the people that abuse, not the poetry. Finally, he allows that he has great reverence for Plato, but notes that philosophers naturally hate poets and that banishing Plato from the commonwealth may not have been such a bad thing after all.
Sydney ends his defense of poetry by showing the nay-sayers what will happen in a world without poetry:
But if—fie of such a but!—you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a mome, as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’ ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rimed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse 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.
Even though Sydney uses satirical wit, humor and even a bit of self-deprecation, he is still adamantly defending the art of poetry now and throughout time.