Literature You Should Know: Sidney’s Defense of Poesy

In the wake of the English Reformation, Puritan leaders began denouncing forms of entertainment they considered sinful, especially theater and poetry.  When one former playwright addressed an anti-theater treatise to Sir Philip Sidney, Sidney responded with An Apologie for Poetrie (later retitled A Defense of Poesy), the first work of its kind in English literature.  Sidney’s arguments about the purpose of poetry—by which he meant all forms of creative writing—still resonate for content creators who want to smash cut our postmodern culture toward a healthier direction.

Sir Phillip Sidney
Sir Phillip Sidney

Sidney applies the term poetry broadly because it derives from the Greek verb poiein, “to make.”  He points out that many poets don’t write verse, and many people who write verse don’t deserve to be called poets.  More modern forms of prose and scripted fiction would therefore also fall under the heading of poetry in Sidney’s view.  For him, creativity is the hallmark of poetry, far more than any given medium or genre.

Throughout the Defense, Sidney presents the thesis that poetry’s purpose is to teach and delight, and especially to teach by delighting.  Writing for a Renaissance audience, Sidney draws most heavily on classical literature, but he also hints at the Puritans’ hypocrisy with examples from Scripture.  When it comes to virtue, he argues, philosophy can present dry rules and history can furnish plain examples, but only poetry can combine the rule with the example in a way most people will enjoy.  And enjoyment is the key to convincing people to apply moral lessons to their own lives.  Sidney notes that even cultures that don’t have historians or philosophers still learn from their poets and storytellers.

Yet the message isn’t the only reason creative writing is worthwhile.  Sidney states that poetry’s the highest of the written arts because it’s the only one in which the author makes something new out of nature rather than recording what’s in nature.  As such, he argues, it’s also the highest expression of the imago Dei, the image of God in which all humans are made.  Because we’re created in the likeness of the Creator, the Author of history, what could be a more fitting human activity than making up our own stories?

Sidney then addresses the Puritan arguments against poetry, quickly dismissing those that are only mockery and agreeing to disagree with those who say that poetry’s a waste of time.  To the charge that poetry consists of lies, he points out that a lie affirms a falsehood to be true; scientists and historians can’t always avoid getting their facts wrong, but a poet never claims to be writing anything but fiction.  (And we all know how many documentaries and textbooks are riddled with errors and outright lies!)  Then there’s the objection that Plato banished poets from his republic, to which Sidney replies that Plato was really talking about poets who misused poetry to present harmful opinions of the gods.

apology-for-poetry-or-the-defence-of-poesy-sir-philip-sidneyThe one objection to which Sidney grants any credence is that poetry can be, and often is, abused to encourage the audience to embrace vice rather than rejecting it.   This debate continues today, whether we’re discussing the sexual content of television or music, railing against pro-statist movies, or arguing whether violent video games encourage violent behavior.  The problem, as Sidney sees it, is not “that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry.”  He distinguishes between two types of poetic imitation:  eikastike, “figuring forth good things,” and phantastike, “which doth contrariwise infect the [imagination] with unworthy objects…. But what!” he adds, “shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?”  Even what we call fantasy—The Lord of the Rings comes to mind—can be eicastic in Sidney’s sense in that it encourages virtue.  Lines do need to be drawn; the trick is drawing them in the right places.

Later, Sidney notes that a large part of the problem with English poetry is that it’s badly written by classical standards, regardless of the content.  Nor is the quality problem limited to verse; he gives examples from plays and even sermons.  Conservatives, especially Christians, have been having this same discussion for years—since so much pop culture is dreck, is it enough to support good content, regardless of writing quality?  The solution, I think Sidney would argue, is to create better works, good writing that teaches a good message… or, as Mary Poppins put it, the “spoonful of sugar [that] makes the medicine go down in a most delightful way.”

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.