An Apology for Poetry Summary
An Apology for Poetry by Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney was written in approximately 1580 and first published posthumously in 1595 by two printers in two separate but nearly identical editions. The one published by William Ponosby was titled The Defence of Poesie. The title of Henry Olney’s work is An Apology for Poetrie. The Italian Renaissance writers had a big influence on Sidney. We must remember that the critical vision was shrouded in darkness prior to the Renaissance. Sidney took a brave step out of the mediaeval darkness and into the light. Using humanist concepts, he wrote the first treatise on literary theory. One thing to keep in mind about Sidney’s Apology is that, while it is a brilliant work, it is more synthetic than original. In other words, most of the ideas he expresses in this defence have already been expressed by Aristotle, Horace, and others. Sidney, on the other hand, adds an incredible polish to it. He has chosen and adapted from a variety of sources to arrive at his own interpretation of poetry.
It is widely believed that Sidney was at least partially influenced by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright who dedicated his attack on the English stage, The School of Abuse, to Sidney in 1579. However, Sidney primarily addresses more general objections to poetry, such as those of Plato. In his essay, Sidney integrates a variety of classical and Italian fiction principles. The crux of his argument is that poetry, by combining the vitality of history and the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy at inspiring its readers to virtue. In addition, the text provides insightful commentary on Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethan stage.
In his Apology for Poetry, Philip Sidney responds to Puritan Stephen Gosson’s criticisms of poetry. To Sidney, poetry is an art of imitation that serves a specific purpose; it is imitated in order to instruct and entertain. According to him, poetry is merely a superior means of communication, and its worth depends on what is communicated.
Thus, when history is described with a lively and passionate tone, it becomes poetic. Instead of history and philosophy, he prefers imaginative literature that teaches better. Literature has the ability to reproduce a golden ideal world, not just the actual world.
Stephen Gossen makes charges on poetry which Sidney answers.
The charges are:
1. Poetry is the waste of time.
2. Poetry is mother of lies.
3. It is nurse of abuse.
4. Plato had rightly banished the poets from his ideal world.
Sidney has provided the following responses to these charges:
Sidney views poetry as a source of knowledge and a force for civilising. Gossoon attacks poetry, claiming that it corrupts the populace and is a waste of time, whereas Sidney argues that no learning is as valuable as that which teaches and inspires virtue, and that nothing teaches and entertains as effectively as poetry. Poetry was the primary source of education in essay societies. The ancient Greeks held poets in high regard, as he recalls. Poets should always be regarded with esteem. Therefore, poetry is not time wasted.
Sidney’s response to the second charge is that a poet cannot lie because he never asserts that his fiction is factual and therefore cannot lie. Ideal and universal are the poetic truths. Poetry therefore cannot be the mother of lies.
Sidney refutes the notion that poetry is the origin of abuses. Poetry is abused by people, not the other way around, in his opinion. By describing battles, bloodshed, and other acts of violence, etc., philosophy and history are more likely than poetry to foster abuse. In contrast, poetry helps maintain morality and peace by preventing such violence and bloodshed. Furthermore, it illuminates knowledge.
Plato’s Republic, according to Sidney, was an attempt to eradicate poetry abuse, not poets. His dialogues reveal that he was not immune to the poetic quality. Plato never asserts that all poets ought to be exiled. He advocated expelling only those poets who are subpar and incapable of educating the youth.
Art, according to Sidney, is an imitation of nature, but it is not a slavish imitation, as Plato believed. It is rather inventive imitation. Nature is monotonous, unfinished, and ugly. Artists are responsible for imparting a golden hue to drab nature. He decorates the raw materials of nature using his creative ability, imagination, and presentation style. Sidney conceives of art as a spatial-temporal image with a voice. Sidney is more concerned with nature than Aristotle is with human action.
Artists must consider the reading level of their audience when creating works of art. As with the entire Renaissance movement, the only purpose of art is to instruct and amuse. In the poet’s world, where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished, Sidney favours poetic justice.
Plato’s philosophy on ‘virtue’ is useless on the battlefield, whereas the poet teaches men how to behave in all situations. Moral philosophy teaches virtues via abstract examples, while history teaches virtues via concrete examples, but both are flawed. Poetry teaches morality through both example and perception (blend of abstract and concrete). Poetry is superior to philosophy and history because the poet creates his or her own world in which only inspiring things exist.
In the poet’s golden universe, heroes are idealised and villains are vile. The didactic effect of a poem is contingent upon the poet’s ability to evoke emotion.
The answer depends on the affective quality of the poetry. Among the various types of poetry, such as lyric, elegy, satire, and comedy, etc., the epic is the best because it depicts heroic deeds and inspires people to be courageous and patriotic.
In this way, Sidney defines all charges against poetry and argues in favour of the universal and timeless quality of poetry, thereby revealing why poets are universal geniuses.
Summary of An Apology for Poetry
Sir Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry” is an attempt to restore poetry to its rightful place among the arts. Numerous of Sidney’s contemporaries have given poetry a negative reputation in Elizabethan England. But, according to Sidney, poetry critics do not get what poetry truly is; they have been deceived by current poetry, which is frequently poor. Poetry is the “king” of the arts, as demonstrated by Sidney in his essay if one understands the actual nature of poetry. Sidney accomplishes this by articulating a theory of poetry, mostly derived from classical sources, as an instrument for teaching virtue and the poet as a demi-divine figure capable of creating a more idealised version of nature. Armed with this description, Sidney then refutes with remarkable persuasive skill the major criticisms levelled against the art of poetry and its practitioners.
Sidney opens with an exordium, or introduction, in accordance with the seven-part framework of a classical oration. He relates an anecdote about horseback riding, adding that, like his riding master Giovanni Pietro Pugliano, he will focus more on the contemplation and appreciation of poetry than on its composition. Since he became a poet against his will, he feels obligated to defend the honour of his new profession.
Sidney begins his defence of poetry by emphasising that poetry came before philosophy and history as the first of the arts. In fact, many of the famous classical philosophers and historians wrote in poetry, and even those who wrote in prose, such as Plato and Herodotus, wrote poetically—that is, they employed poetic language to develop philosophical allegories or to provide vivid historical facts, respectively. Sidney asserts that without borrowing from poetry, historians and philosophers would never have gained popularity. Examining the names given to poets in Latin and Greek, vates and poietes, can provide some insight into the esteem in which they were considered in the ancient world. Vates means “prophet” or “seer,” and in the ancient world, it was believed that poetry conveyed vital information about the future. Poietes means creator, and this name emphasises the notion that poets, like God, use their minds to create new and more perfect realities.
Sidney then transitions to the proposition, where he defines poetry as an imitational art that teaches its audience through “delight” or pleasure. Poetry resembles “a speaking picture” in its capacity to convey ideas through evocative visuals. Sidney then clarifies that he is not interested in religious or philosophical poetry, but rather poetry created by the “proper poets.” This ideal style of poetry is not limited in its subject matter by what occurs in nature, but rather offers flawless examples of virtue that, while perhaps not genuine, are great for teaching readers what it means to be good. Poetry is a more effective teacher of virtue than history or philosophy because, rather than being limited to the realm of abstract ideas, like philosophy, or to the realm of actual events, like history, poetry can present exemplary examples of virtue in a manner that is optimally suited to instruct its readers. The poet might incorporate the philosopher’s “wordy descriptions” of virtue into fascinating characters or stories, which are more enjoyable to read, simpler to comprehend, and easier to remember, similar to Aesop’s Fables. Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid is a wonderful and enjoyable example of virtue that can “move” readers to act virtuously, and so the poet can be deemed the “correct popular philosopher.” Sidney argues that reading poetry on virtue is like taking a “medicine of cherries.”
Sidney refutes the objections of poetry brought by “poet-haters” by following the traditional structure from the investigation to the rebuttal. Sidney lists the four most significant accusations against poetry: that poetry is a waste of time, that poets are liars, that poetry corrupts our morality, and that Plato expelled poets from his ideal city, the Republic. He emphasises that all of these concerns centre on poetry’s capacity to move its audience, which makes them praiseworthy arguments for poetry. For if poetry is well-written, it has a tremendous ability to inspire virtue in its audience.
Sidney devotes the final section of his essay to a digression on current English poetry, following a brief peroration, or conclusion, in which he summarises the arguments he has made. Sidney acknowledges that there is relatively little modern English poetry of merit. However, this is not because English or poetry are flawed, but rather because of the bizarre manner in which poets and playwrights write their poems. Poets must be taught to write more eloquently, taking from classical sources without slavishly mimicking them, as so many poets, orators, and professors did during the time of Sidney. Because English is an expressive language with all the tools for good writing, it is just awaiting the application of skilled writers. Sidney concludes “An Apology for Poetry” on this optimistic note, but not before cautioning readers that just as poetry has the potential to immortalise people in verse, it also has the power to condemn others to oblivion by neglecting them entirely. Therefore, poetry critics should take Sidney’s views seriously.
“An Apology for Poetry” by Philip Sidney was composed about 1580 and published in 1595, nine years after Sidney’s death. Sidney penned one of the most influential treatises on English poetry before many of England’s finest Elizabethan poets appeared on the scene. He writes about Chaucer, Gower, and his contemporary Spenser, but he never reads Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, or any of the other great poets of the time. Sidney prioritises old literature over modern literature throughout “An Apology for Poetry,” and particularly in its final “digression” on literature in vernacular tongues (i.e., modern European as opposed to ancient languages). In fact, although Sidney promotes imaginative literature in its ideal forms, he presents a scathing technical critique of the (mis)writing of contemporary poetry. However, in accordance with the development of nationalism in the early modern period, he places English above other European languages in terms of its expressive capacity.
Sidney contends that, in general, old poetry possesses an originality and breadth that is absent in contemporary literature, and that England in particular is suffering from a dearth of fine poetry. Sidney admires the poetry of Chaucer, Gower, and Sackville, among others, but considers the English poetry of his own day to be severely lacking. While England is the “mother of brilliant brains,” according to Sidney, it is the “tough stepmother of poets.” England has not created anything comparable to the literature of Scotland, France, or Italy throughout the 16th century. This is the result of a vicious cycle: the disrespect for poetry itself leads to a decline in the quality of poetry written. Poetry “finds in our time a cold reception in England,” and as a result, “our land is adorned with fewer laurels than usual.” According to Sidney, England has just lyric poetry and theatre, and neither is very well-written.
Sidney’s realistic criticisms of modern English poetry demonstrate that “An Apology for Poetry” is not merely an ode to literature. In fact, because Sidney has stated a poetic ideal, he prepares the reader to recognise the ways in which current vernacular poetry falls short of this ideal. Though Sidney admires the tragedies of Buchanan and the pastoral verse of Spenser, few collections of poetry contain “poetical sinews,” and dramatists produce “vast absurdities” by combining genres and disregarding the classical unities of time and place. In addition, comic playwrights play into the hands of poetry’s detractors by “stirring laughter in bad things” and therefore driving their audiences into immorality. This average and even poor poetry “causes her mother Poesy’s sincerity to be put into doubt, as if she were a disobedient daughter with a poor education.” In other words, mediocre contemporary writing tarnishes the reputation of poetry in general.
But, Sidney continues, contemporary literature need not be awful. Modern poets can learn by imitating ancient poetry creatively: that is, by adapting ancient forms to modern requirements, and not in Latin, the language of humanist study, but in the languages they really speak. In general, poets can be taught to write more effectively. “As the most productive soil must be fertilised, so must the highest flyer be guided by Daedalus,” writes Sidney, alluding to the legendary Greek inventor. To better their work, poets should practise mimicking ancient authors and steal strategies from ancient literature. Playwrights, for instance, should adhere to traditional standards for keeping the unity of time and space, and instead of attempting to condense a significant amount of action into a single scene, they might consider using ancient techniques, such as the messenger speech, to recap action. In a similar manner, lyric writers lack the energia (“vivacity”) of ancient love poetry. There is no reason why well-trained current authors cannot compose poetry on par with the ancients. Sidney says that English, “as well as any other language in the world,” is capable of “articulating sweetly and accurately the mind’s idea.” Even though Renaissance literature was multilingual and Sidney himself drew great inspiration from poetry written in various languages (notably Italian), he believes that English is the most expressive and best-suited European language for imaginative writing. Perhaps English is the Latin of the contemporary world.
Sidney contends that the issue with English poetry refers to the issue with English eloquence. Therefore, Sidney’s criticism of English poetry contributes to a larger critique of court culture. English poets have a preference for flowery language. Scholars share this problem, since they “season every food given at the table with sugar and spice.” Humanist authors, who have been trained to copy sophistically, attempt to sound like Demosthenes and Cicero, but end up sounding like “sophists.” Courtiers also use ludicrous language. Therefore, Sidney appreciates the speech of an ill-educated nobleman who speaks in a manner ““fittest to nature, therein (though he know it not) … according to art, though not by art.” As slavish copying does not result in good poetry, neither does it result in good speech. Poetry and oratory are inextricably intertwined, not only because “both have such affinity in the wordly considerations,” but also because Sidney’s essay is a prime example of how the two complement one another. As both a poet and an orator, Sidney uses rich imagery and metaphor to convince the reader of the worth of poetry.
Not only is “An Apology for Poetry” a defence of an abstract ideal of poetry, but it is also a critique of the present poetry of Sidney’s own day. Playwrights and lyric poets must learn to write differently, just as Elizabethan critics must learn to think differently about poetry. Both groups are a part of a court culture where sophisticated eloquence is prevalent.
Analysis of An Apology for Poetry
An Apology for Poetry is one of the most influential contributions to English Renaissance literary thought. Sidney argues for poetry’s role within the framework of an aristocratic state, demonstrating care for literary and national identity. Sidney answers in Apology to Stephen Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse, which expresses a growing hatred against poetry. Gosson presents essentially an assault on imaginative literature (Griffiths 5). A defence of poetry’s nobility is at stake in Sidney’s argument. The significance of poetry’s nobility is its ability to inspire readers to engage in virtuous behaviour. This belief stretches back to Horace: true poets must instruct and delight.
Sidney’s defence was a crucial addition to literary criticism during an era of animosity against poetry and puritanical belief in the depravity induced by literature. It was England’s first philosophical defence, in which he described the ancient and vital role of poetry in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function. Respect for tradition and a readiness to innovate were among Sidney’s gifts to his contemporaries. This is illustrated by his approach to Plato. He modifies Plato’s argument against poets by stating that poets are “the least dishonest.” Poets never assert that they know the truth, nor do they “make circles around your mind,” nor do they rely on authority. Sidney, expressing a cultural mentality descended from Aristotle, asserts that all literary claims are hypothetical or pseudo-statements when he states that the poet “never affirmeth.” Sidney, however, being a traditionalist, pays more attention to theatre than to poetry.
Drama, according to Sidney, “observes neither the principles of honest civility nor the rules of excellent poetry,” and so cannot do this genre justice.
Anti-theatricality, an aesthetic and ideological concern, developed in Sidney’s court circle during his lifetime. Because of the conclusion of a rising scorn for the principles of the emerging commercial culture, theatre became a difficult issue. A growing monetary economy fostered social mobility. This was the first time Europe encountered inflation. In 1605, despite the introduction of admission fees, London’s commercial theatres could accommodate up to 8,000 men and women despite the growing popularity of the city’s theatres at the time. Sidney has his own opinions regarding drama. In Apology, he demonstrates opposition to the current of his time, which pays little attention to unity of location in theatre, but his primary interest is with the “manner” in which the “subject” is communicated. He emphasises that tragedy is not constrained by history or narrative, but rather by “rules of poesy,” having “the liberty either to counterfeit a completely new matter or to shape the history to the most tragical convenience.”
Sidney adopts a variety of techniques to assert poetry’s rightful position. For example, he argues against the misalignment of poetry with youth, the effeminate, and the timid. He accomplishes this by establishing the notion that “poetry is the companion of camps” and by referencing the heroes of bygone eras. Sidney’s admiration for the poet as a soldier is crucial because he was once a soldier himself. Apology transforms poetry into an art form that requires a noble stirring of courage.
Sidney composes An Apology for Poetry in the form of a judicial oration for the defence; consequently, the structure resembles a trial. The descriptive discourse and the notion that poetry creates a separate world are crucial to his defence. Sidney uses forensic rhetoric to argue that poetry not only reflects a distinct reality, but that it also has a lengthy and venerable past and does not lie. It is justifiable in and of itself as a technique of inspiring readers to engage in virtuous behaviour.
Sidney had to overcome censorship by his use of rhetorical tactics in the Apology.
Sidney was well knowledgeable on the phenomenon of courtship. As part of his approach against the possibility of censorship, Sidney employs the usual divisions of classical oration, such as exordium and peroratio. Humanist education influenced Sidney’s use of classical oratory (Harvey 1). Utilizing the rhetorical techniques found in such guides as Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetoric, he constructs his argument using this way.
Rhetorique (1553) (Harvey 2). Additionally, Sidney used metaphor and allegory to disguise and convey his perspective. His use of horsemanship as imagery and analogy, for instance, substantiates his conception of the transformative potential of poetry. The etymology of Sidney’s name, “Philip,” is “horse-lover,” which is unnoticed in his work as an author (Pask 7). By “expanding a conceit,” Sidney extends the horse and saddle metaphor from the opening talk on horsemanship throughout his work (Leitch 333). Sidney then takes precautions to avoid a dispute with the “poet-whippers” (Leitch 346). Additionally, Sidney considers the rhetorical concept of memory. In addition to its potential to pleasure, poetry has an affinity for memory (Leitch 347).
Method and style are thus essential components of the Apology in order to circumvent the issue of censorship. Sidney consciously defends Horace and challenges the advantage afforded to “truth” for this reason. He contends that the poet makes no literal claims of truth, is not deluded, and consequently constructs “fictional” assertions that are as true as any others (Bear 5). What is at risk is not only the value of poetry in terms of its utility, but also its position in a world teeming with conflict, the contingent, and the temporary.