|R. Bonnie Pajka
8 December 2000
Sir Philip Sidney: His Role as Writer in The Defence of Poesy
The first known piece of literary criticism, The Defence of Poesy credited to Sir Philip Sidney and published posthumously in 1595, catalogues, evaluates, argues, and justifies the writing of literature with many illustrations of the great classical authors and their works and the writers of "three general kinds of poetry: divinely inspired, philosophical, and indeed right poets" (Sidney 217)1. Sidney closely scrutinizes the Psalms of David, the treatises of Aristotle, and the fictional verses of the classical poets. Paradoxically, he also includes Plato in his treatise. Much has been written about the content contained in the Defence, including analyzing and explaining the manner in which Sidney planned and arranged his words on paper and his intent when defining literature, or poesy as: "the art of imitation" (217).
I would like to suggest another rhetorical strategy: Sidney's plausible, personal intent in his Defence was socially motivated. What was the manner in which his writing was perceived among his friends, peers, and community? Sir Philip Sidney's Defence forces the reader to make use of his or her imagination in order to draw a conclusion. In this writer's opinion, he laid the kindling that ignited the fire of individual expressionism and original creativity; this was a heretofore unheard of idea, lest the artificer's head be placed upon a stake on the Tower Bridge. Of poesy, Sir Philip Sidney said, "[I] t extends itself out of the limits of a man's own little world to the government of families and maintaining of public societies" (220).
Others have suggested that Sidney's use of rhetorical strategies in his Defence is simply to justify the poet as maker and poetry as magical, or as Sidney has said, "they that did imitate the unconceivable excellencies of God" (217). That is to say, the poet creates poetry, like God but on a lower level, from his own imagination. It has also been suggested that Sir Philip Sidney was protecting the interests of the theatre owners, writers, and actors. The Puritans and James Burbage, a man with a failed, playwright's ego, and "these persons with a feverish desire to convey their own original thoughts to their peers, allied themselves and attacked popular drama with vehemence" (Rollins and Baker 599). Unfortunately, the allied Puritans and Burbage agreed that the theatres of Renaissance England were "sinks of iniquity, that popular amusements were sinful, and that poetry was a sinister form of untruth"(599).
The first reading of the Defence appears to be Sidney's personal reply to the attack on English literature in Stephen Gosson's The School of Abuse; brazenly dedicated to Sidney, there stands a good argument that the Defence was written to answer Stephen Gosson's Abuse of Language, as a 'how-to' guide to the correct use of literature, and defend the theatres of London against the charge that they were the "sinks of iniquity" (Rollins and Baker 599). However, this writer believes this theory to be erroneous because of the calculated format in which Sidney delivers his Defence. Sidney's works may have laid the foundation for later writers who, because of their predecessors' fortitude, could now begin to express-rather than suppress, their thoughts and desires.
In order to fully understand Sidney's Defence contextually, poesy must be defined in its archaic form to include "all fictional literature" of the day. Other writers of this period, Gosson and Lodge among them, have limited poesy to the narrower literary genre of poetry, thus focusing only on one facet of Sidney's multifaceted Defence. Stephen Gosson, from The School of Abuse, states "...and the whole practise of poets, either with fables to shew their abuses or with plain terms to unfold their mischief, discover their shame, discredit themselves, and disperse their poison through all the world..." (Rollins and Baker 601). Thomas Lodge tried to refute Gosson's attack on the Defence, but it was perceived as 'noisy and intemperate' and was suppressed as soon as it appeared. Lodge says, "Wit hath wrought that in you that years and study never settled in the heads of our sagest doctors. No mervel though you dispraise poetry when you know not what it means" (603). Sidney's primary formal training did not center on writing but rather on his father's career as a statesman, expecting that his son, Philip, would follow suit. In his Defence Sidney excuses himself stating: "...in these my not old years and idlest times having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in defence of that unelected vocation, which if I handle with more good will, than good reasons, bear with me, since the scholar is to be pardoned that followeth in the steps of his maister" (213). Was this literary sprezzatura on Sidney's part, or was there a deeper, encoded message addressed to his contemporaries and other social and political reformers? Was this Defence merely a disclaimer for Sidney's 'good' name in regard to Gosson's Abuse; or, was there a humanist masquerading as a courtier, wooing sixteenth century society to social reformation by means of his literary treatise?
Sidney utilizes a scholarly, formal tone empowered by the citations of numerous classical writers, as well as examples of their works including Aristotle and Virgil and everyone in between. Sidney's intended publication context, in this author's opinion, would appear to be those persons in authoritative or scholarly posts that would expect a clearly documented argument in favor of acceptable Renaissance poesy. Persons in this capacity would be the ruling monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and her appointed religious and political law enforcers. But, the commoner must not be left without consideration. There were surely lower class citizens of the sixteenth century who, if they were or were not able to read, had their own social gatherings; reading and commonplace circles, provided them with some form of interpretation of Sidney's Defence.
But, what of that interpretation? How did society-upper, middle, and lower classes-perceive this Defence? Sidney tells his reader that poesy "hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges" (213). Sidney illuminated the public as to the source of their first learning. Is this not still true in the twenty-first century? The simple, little nursery rhymes, learned at the knee of an elder, provided and still provide the first taste of knowledge. It is interesting to note that it comes in the form of verse. Sidney argues that even "the body of Plato's work depended most of poetry: for all standeth upon dialogues"(213). After all, it has been well documented that Plato hated poets. Sidney later says, "Plato did banish them [poets]: in sooth, thence where he himself alloweth community of women" (239). Why was Plato's banishment of poets considered vital to Sidney in his Defence? Sir Philip Sidney makes this bold and powerful statement in his Defence, in this writer's opinion, to emphasize the concept that poets were censored in Plato's republic, but women were not. Queen Elizabeth might have applauded this point, but others, Gosson among them, probably perceived this to be an indecency, supporting their theory of corruptive influences in Elizabethan poesy. Plato believed that poets were artificers of the imagination, which led them to higher levels of critical thinking. These levels would include the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Women were easily suppressed in the male-dominated republic of Plato's time, but male poets were not so easily stifled. Thus, critical thinking led to free thinking and, in the eyes of Plato and eventually Renaissance authorities, led to immoral behavior. Sidney's belief that immoral behavior did not come from poetry but from the poet is, in this writer's opinion, the heart of his Defence; and, it supports his theory that individual expressionism and original creativity is a fundamental right for all people. Sidney states, "The philosopher, saith he, 'teacheth a disputative virtue, but I do an active. I give the experience of many ages" (220). In this statement he is upholding the idea of freedom of expression and individuality that was repressed in Renaissance England by means of manipulation through fear tactics and deadly intimidation. Because the Crown censured all publications, and increasingly banned those which were considered "immoral" as well as those which threatened the Tudor dynasty, Sidney stands as an advocate for all creative writers at a crucial point in the development of English literature (Sanders 2). Sidney continues his discourse holding up poets for comparison to historians, moral philosophers, the divine, and lawyers. Sidney says, "they hold to the general rule not to what should be but to what is" (221). The moral philosophers teach systematically, "with thorny arguments the bare rule, is so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade him till he be old before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest"(221). The divine or religious is excluded from the discussion because his scope of poetry goes beyond eternity (221). The lawyer, "seeketh to make good rather formidine poenae than virtutis amore, (through fear of punishment rather than love of virtue) or, to say righter, doth not endeavour to make men good" (221). John Addington Symonds, in his 1886 review of Sidney's Defence, contends that Sidney defends various kinds of literature and refutes traditional complaints by authorities alleging that: 1.) "There are studies upon which a man may spend his time more profitably; 2.) it is the mother of lies; 3.) it is the nurse of abuse, corrupting the fancy, enfeebling madness, and instilling pestilent desires into the soul; and 4.) Plato banished poets from his commonwealth" (Chelsea House Library 151). Of the first argument, that a man might better spend his time, Sidney responds, "it doth (as they say) but pitere principium, or begs the question" (Sidney 234). Sidney believed the reason was obvious in that "no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue; and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry" (234). To the second argument Sidney simply says, "for the poet he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth" (235). "And certain it is that, in our plainest homeliness, yet never was the Albion nation without poetry" (237). In this, Sidney's third argument, he quotes from William Harrison's Description of Britain, supporting the theory that, even before Britain was conquered by 'Albion', the arts flourished.
From Aristotle and Homer, to the Turks and the Tartars, including Alexander and King Arthur, the heroics, bravery, boldness, and fortune of all these great men have been preserved in epic and elegiac poetry for eternity. A poetry that has been steeped in heroism and courage could hardly lead mankind to sinfulness and corruption. "But now indeed my burden is great; now Plato's name is laid upon me, whom, I must confess, of all philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with good reason: since of all philosophers he is the most poetical" (239). Sidney finds this fourth argument to be his most difficult to defend because he must address someone whom he greatly admires-Plato. But, Sidney's answer to this charge is clearly simple and straightforward: "these men, no more but setting their names to it, by their own disgracefulness disgrace the most graceful poesy" (241). These poets exemplify behavior that is not worthy of imitation and, therefore, their poetry is tainted. These men, in their immoral behavior, abuse literature. It is the poet who is corrupt and not the poetry; if poets are the crafters of fancy, thus perverse imagination makes perverse poetry.
As has been cited before, Sidney was a humanist whose life centered on human interests and values. Arthur Barker comments in An Apology for the Study of Renaissance Poetry, "his [Sidney's] Defence is a rhetorically ordered formally humanistic forensic oration over which plays sprezzatura, the gracefully ironic, self-aware art of the courtier that conceals art; and through this the oration becomes itself a paradoxical fiction, a praise of living, in which the speaker adopts the person or mask of one who does not know clearly of what he is talking in order to enduce us to figure it out" (Barker 39). It is in this point, making it clear to any reader of Sidney's Defence, that Sir Philip Sidney's complex rhetoric was encoded with another theme; this seemingly straightforward essay is more than it appears to be. He is challenging his reader to use his or her imagination to find an individual interpretation of poesy. "Sidney is conscious throughout his defence that it is fiction he is defending, and that his strength lies in attacking the privileges generally accorded to 'fact' " (Bear 5). Yes, the Defence was written to answer Gosson's Abuse, this essay was a 'how-to' guide to the correct use of literature, and it refuted the statement that the London theatres were "sinks of iniquity" (Rollins and Baker 599). However, this writer believes that Sir Philip Sidney also wrote this essay in an attempt to show that the writers of poesy wrote fiction, and as such were expressing freethinking from the depths of their imagination. The imagination "of the indeed right poet" could not foul the minds of others because it was not real. "And that the poet hath that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he had imagined them" (Sidney 216). It may have been the non-fiction writing of the day that was dangerous, or perhaps Sidney had grown weary of the censorship of Elizabethans and his own inability to play the 'political game' any longer. Whatever his reasons, and they will never truly be known, his eloquence in the Defence, "follows the rules and outline of a standard argument: exordium, proposition, division, examination, refutation, digression, peroration; and does so with a spirit and style that must have done its author great credit in the eyes of his contemporaries" (Bear 4). The Defence proved Sidney's talent as a writer and a humanist; the persuasiveness of the text gives credibility to its political intent. By political intent, it is meant to be suggested that the Defence was the promotion of an ideology or a faction. Because he was talking specifically of fiction, the idea purported here is that devices of the imagination can never be censured; Sidney may have been disenchanted by the Crown's censure of his political career, thus he turned to inward pursuits of fancy and fiction. If Sidney could not change the political climate of censure and courtly protocol, then perhaps he could create a world where he could dwell without such restrictions. If the imagination can create a perfect world where there is no threat of beheading or immolation, then Sidney was up to the challenge.
"...[T] o believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landino, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury; lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses" (Sidney 249). Here Sidney seems to agree with Cristoforo Landino's prologue to Dante's Divine Comedy, which states that the writer who composes with such fury will impress the gods; everything he creates is brilliant-hence the poet is immortal. But, what Sidney is not saying on the surface, but rather encoding beneath is the theory that it is not the poet who is made immortal, but it is the poem and the reader who are made immortal. A poet uses imagination to create a written work, and the reader must use imagination to fully comprehend that poem. Thus, in both employing imagination, both are rendering immortality. Sidney may have been in search of his Utopia, finding it hidden in the depths of fancy. He proved his humanistic qualities in his portrayal of the ideal Renaissance man, which may be attributed to lineage and upbringing. It is this author's belief that Sir Philip Sidney wrote primarily in this context, thus his Defence is not only a social commentary, but it is also exactly as its title implies-a defense of a writer's fancy.
This is credible because Sidney was born of privilege and reared to be a statesman; he had no need of the money or the materialistic wealth that successful writing garnered. The execution of Sidney's aunt, Lady Jane Grey, his respected position as a courtier in the court of Queen Elizabeth, and his eyewitness account of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacres in France were all key events that may have led Sidney to serve queen and country sacrificing the ultimate-his life. Sir Philip Sidney's humanist views, and the circumstances of his untimely death, exemplify his belief in a value-centered life. During the eight-year period when he was absent from court, he turned to writing to fill the void in his life. In order to understand the proposed theory that Sidney encoded socially flammable issues within his text, it is necessary to do more than just mention his career in Queen Elizabeth's court and the political climate during this period of Sidney's life. His uncle, the Earl of Leicester, was a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth and had no male heir of his own. As such, Sidney grew up within the closed circles of the monarchy, learning protocol, what was considered acceptable behavior, and what were the "great expectations of which he was beset from birth" (Duncan-Jones viii)."With his first breath, Sidney was thrust into politics" (Stewart 9). In 1585, Sidney had secret orders from Queen Elizabeth to travel to Germany and seek out the German princes' attitudes toward the formation of a Protestant League. The chief aim of this league would be to protect England by associating it with other Protestant states in Europe that would counterbalance the threatening power of Roman Catholic Spain. In that same year, disappointed that he was not appointed a member of the Virginia Company, Sidney received another appointment from Queen Elizabeth making him "joint master of the ordinance" or the administrator of military supplies of the kingdom. He was also made governor of Flushing and given command of a company of cavalry (Encyclopaedia Britannica 784). The following year, Sidney would die from a fatal gunshot wound to the thigh, and his native England would publicly mourn him for an extended period of time.
As is true of any human being in any century, life can get in the way of a career and change the chosen path to something totally unexpected. "Sidney's literary output was the result of his lack of employment in serious affairs, and it is unlikely that his untimely death prevented further imaginative works" (Greville 482). Interestingly, Sidney has been long remembered for his literary contributions and not his political ones. Before these three very important appointments, Sidney's position at court was largely ceremonial. Perhaps his position was the result of the queen's closeness with Sidney's uncle, the Earl of Leicester, or the 'falling out' between the queen and Sidney over her proposed marriage to the Duc d'Anjou. No one can really be sure, but the fact remains that Sidney died a national hero and that seems contradictory for a poet. By contradictory, it is meant to be interpreted, that Sidney the courtier, appeared to be a gentle soul on the surface of his writings, and not one inclined to lead a cavalry unit into battle. However, he did, and that should alert readers to the fact that Sidney held deep, personal convictions that made him a true humanist. "The love of the cause would never make him weary of his resolution, because he thought 'a wise and constant man might never to grieve while he doth play his own part, truly, though other be out' " (Encyclopaedia Britannica 785).
It is lucky for readers that Sidney left the court for a time and wrote from one of those aforementioned points of view, specifically the "indeed right poet." "Readers should 'use the narration but as an imaginative groundplot of a profitable invention' - they should work through the text to something further" (Stewart 230). "There is no evidence to suggest that Philip made any impact whatsoever on the French court in the overcrowded, overheated days of the Lincoln embassy" (Stewart 72). Perhaps this is due to the fact that Sidney's impact would come later through his writings, especially in the very popular poetry of Astrophil and Stella. "Indeed right poets imitate in such a curious sense (it is not explained) that they '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" (Lewis 413). C.S. Lewis continues and points out that he [Sidney] believed poetry should teach as well as delight (413). But this teaching should not come from what we know already, but the poet should create it. "It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet-no more than a long gown maketh an advocate...But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by" (Sidney 221). Again, Sidney believes that the real poet is one whose work is rooted in fiction. It must have been fairly straightforward, albeit dangerous, to write a work of non-fiction in the Renaissance. Once the author had written his treatise, the publisher excused himself from all responsibility in the preface, and he, the publisher, let the chips fall where they may.
What was reality for Sir Philip Sidney? "Sidney has faced objection that poetry does not make anything in the sense in which Nature makes, because the products of poetry are not real" (Lewis 414). Reality in the Renaissance was fear; a fear of death by beheading or at the stake if you said, did, or wore the wrong thing. Perhaps that is why fiction and artifice were at the heart of Sidney's Defence. Sidney implies, "The lines coupleth in mental space between notion and example are the very stuff of which all knowledge is made" (Bear 6). In other words, whatever response a reader has to a work of fiction, then Sidney believes it is the correct response, as he leaves that to his reader. "Poetic imagination brings forth a model on which readers or audiences can build their own characters for the better" (Bear 5). And, who could blame Sidney for wanting to create better characters and better worlds? The world, in which he lived, from a twenty-first century viewpoint, was not a very optimistic one. "The Defence presents a distinctly unflattering view of humanity based largely on Sixteenth century Protestant conceptions of human nature, here made even more dark by the absence, for the most part, of the workings of grace on Sidney's "pagan" stage" (Weiner 52). By pagan, this author believes Weiner feels that the religious turmoil of the Renaissance made it nearly impossible for Sidney to write and identify with Protestantism or Catholicism because of their controversial reputation. After all, he was addressing his Defence to fiction, and so addressed his treatise to the "art of imagination" rather than to the teaching of religious doctrines.
In his essay entitled Sir Philip Sidney written in 1904, Adolphus William Ward says the Defence of Poesy is "so bent upon fancies pure and noble, and yet in the utterance of them so pleasantly abounding in the humour proper to gentle minds" (Ward 408). Sir Philip Sidney will not be remembered for what he did but rather for what he was that made him so widely admired; he was the embodiment of the English Renaissance man (Encyclopaedia Britannica 785). What was a true Renaissance man? According to Castiglione in his book The Courtier, a courtier was the embodiment of the true Renaissance man because he could fence and lead men into battle, yet he could write poetry and make love to a woman. Sir Philip Sidney appeared to be all of these things and maybe even more. But, in this writer's opinion, his one accomplishment that sets him apart from his contemporaries is encoded within his writings. It is the ideology that poetry is fiction, fiction is fancy, and fancy emanates from deep desires. These desires are born from whims and are cajoled from the spirit through original creativity and individual expressionism. It is this writer's belief that Sir Philip Sidney framed the groundwork for freedom of expression through the imagination, which culminates in poetry crafted through the fiction. But, Sidney's dear friend Fulke Greville said it best, "But the truth is: his end was not writing, even while he wrote; nor his knowledge moulded for tables or schools; but both his wit and understanding bent upon his heart, to make himself and others, not in words or opinions, but in life and action, good and great" (Symonds 151). Sir Philip Sidney may have set out to be a soldier or a politician, a courtier or a diplomat; of this, no one will ever be sure. But, his dear friend, Fulke Greville, was right to believe that Sidney's intellect and his true self was superior in life and unsurpassed in accomplishment. But it was Sidney who truly knew what was good and great: "...[I] n the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph" (Sidney 250). We would be nothing, not a word without those "indeed right poets" or the English Renaissance who fancied poesy-"the art of imitation" (217).
Barker, Arthur E. "An Apology for the Study of Renaissance Poetry." Literary Views: Critical
and Historical Essays. Ed. Carroll Camden. Chicago: William Marsh Rice University by
the University of Chicago, 1964. 37-43.
Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Introduction. The Oxford Authors Sir Philip Sidney. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1989. vii-xxiii.
Greville, Fulke. "The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Rollins, Hyder E. and Herschel Baker. , Editors. The Renaissance in England: Non-Dramatic
Prose and Verse of the Sixteenth Century. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1954.
Sanders, Arnold, PHD. , Department of English, Goucher College. "Sir Philip Sidney: The
Defence of Poesy." (Ponsonby 1595). Renascence Editions. Ed. Richard Bear. March
1995. University of Oregon. 29 September 2000. 1996.
Stewart, Alan. Sir Philip Sidney: A Double Life. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000.
Symonds, John Addington. "The Defence of Poesy." Sir Philip Sidney. (1886): 156-70.
The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism The Major Authors Edition. 1 (1985).
"The Life of Sir Philip Sidney." Luminarium. Sixteenth Century Renaissance English
Literature. Ed. Annina Jokinen. 13 April 2000. 15 September 2000.
Ward, Adolphus William. "Sir Philip Sidney." English Prose. 1 (1904): 401-8: The Chelsea
House Library of Literary Criticism Major Authors Edition. 1 (1985): 16-63.
Wallace, M. W., "The Life of Sir Philip Sidney." The New Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Macropaedia. 15th ed. 1997.