An Apology for Poetry by Sir Philip Sidney| Sidney as a Critic

 The regular English criticism has been started in the Tudor Period (1485-1603) and initial critics were Sir John Cheke, Roger Ascham and Thomas Wilson. It was the age of experimentation in the field of art and literature. Most of the English criticism was based on the Greek and Roman masters but a new kind of frame and shape has been developed by the English critics of coming generations. In this age, a lot of debate and discussion sprang out not only among literary scholars or critics but among common people also. There were arguments in England regarding the very role and use of poetry for the society. Some scholars and critics put a question mark on the very function and nature of poetry. Among such critics was Stephen Gosson who wrote a scathing criticism of poetry in his book School of Abuse in 1579. He levelled four main charges against poetry which later became the point of incessant debate in England. 

 Sir Philip Sidney’s (1554-1586) An Apology for Poetry (also An Apologie for Poesie) or Defence of Poesie, probably written in the next year (1580) of Gosson’s book, is an answer or reply to Gosson and his charges against poetry. Sidney is to be considered the first authoritative English critic for he practised poetry and literature; and for the first time in England, started a wellconstructed argument on poetry through his essay An Apology for Poetry. Gosson’s School of Abuse is dedicated or addressed to Sidney and Sidney took a logical stand to refute the charges against him, and in general poetry. But, now, it is not an answer to Gosson only, the scope of the essay is wider addressing many issues regarding poetry and literature. It is the foundation stone in English criticism.  Division of the Essay: there are total 91 paragraphs in the essay and can be divided into five parts as per its content in each paragraph: 

1.     1 to 42 Paras: why did Sidney write this book? Its reasons, nature and function of poetry.

2.     43 to 55 Paras: types of poetry, its strong points and demerits of poetry. 

3.     56 to 66 Paras: objections/ charges raised against poetry by Gosson and reply to them.

4.     67 to 88 Paras: condition/ state of poetry in contemporary times. 

5.     89 to 91 Paras: peroration or conclusion. 

Now let’s discuss the essay in detail.

1.     The Origin and Significance of Poetry: at the very initial of the essay, Sidney makes it clear that poetry is the oldest branch from which all knowledge came to us. To prove this, he has given examples of branches of knowledge and philosophy existed in ancient Greek, Roman, Turkey, French, Irish, etc. The initial languages were written in verse and all the knowledge were presented in verse form. In this ancient civilizations, poetry and poets were considered integral to society and had great significance. Poetry has the power of dispelling darkness and ignorance. It is the light of knowledge, even it is ‘the mother of all knowledge’. Further Sidney states that the philosophers and historians like Plato, Pythagoras and Herodotus composed their principles in verse form. They advocated the verse form, i.e. poetry. The ancient literature like Oracles at Delphi and David’s Psalms were delivered in verse. According to Sidney, “poetry has been the first light giver to ignorance and the first nurse”. So is the origin and significance of poetry. 

2.     What is Poetry? Its Function: the definition of poetry made by Sidney is based on the

Aristotle’s theory of imitation or mimesis: “poetry therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle terms it in the word mimesis—that is to say a representing, counter-feiting, or figuring forth to speak metaphorically, speaking picture with this end, to teach and delight”. 

Here he added a new dimension to poetry that it is counter-feiting means it can provide the alternate reality or option and is a speaking picture. He also sheds light on the function of poetry i.e. to teach and delight. For Sidney, teaching morality is a prime end of poetry. To note other functions, he provides three kinds of poetry i.e. sacred poetry, philosophical or didactic poetry and the last, right poetry. The task of a poet is to provide the feel of earthly beauty and uplift them to a higher level. A poet also should convey the right things or virtues for the well-being of individual and society. Through poetry, readers should begin the right or morally uplifting actions. 

3.     Kinds/ Types of Poetry: in some paragraphs, Sidney talks about the various kinds of poetry practiced in his days. The following are main types: 

1.     Pastoral Poetry: he accepted the mingling of tragic and comic elements in single work or poetry. Pastoral elements are real elements which takes readers to the region of nature and its beauty. In his time, pastoral poems were very famous and was a leading English genre of poetry. Hence Sidney advocates pastoral poetry. The sheer innocence and truth is found in pastoral and it helps to refine and purify the readers. 

2.     Elegy: it is a form which provides opportunity to be the part of another’s sorrow. We can show our consideration and sympathy for a fellow being. Lamenting on someone’s death is a noble human quality much needed for the well-being of very human existence. We share our emotions through such kind of poetry. Elegy is the right means of expressing grief or sorrow for someone loved. 

3.     Iambic/ Satirical Poems: through such poetry, we can mock at our own follies and foibles to correct our faults. Sometimes, such poems may be harsh in tone pointing to a serious individual or collective flaw in the society. 

4.     Comic Poems/ Comedies: the intention of a poet in composition of comic poems is straight that he/ she wants to ridicule the common or gross errors in society. It is a noble intention projected to rectify the coarse edges of individuals and society. We can use it to reform society and make life better. 

5.     Tragic Poems/ Tragedies: Sidney appealed not to blame tragedy for it is not a native form or came from Greeks and Romans because all the human passions are same or universal. Tragedy can include the most intense and serious passions of human mind which no other form is capable of holding it. It has the capacity to cleanse the human mind. It is the loftiest of the forms in which poetic justice is meant for the reformation of society. Here the audience get opportunity to uplift themselves from a moral flaw or fault.

6.     Lyric: it is one of the significant forms of poetry in which a poet can project the noble sentiments. This form has been practised by great poets like Petrarch, Wyatt, Surrey and Shakespeare. In lyric, Sidney included the poetic forms viz. sonnet, ode, ballad, etc. which were popular in those days. Lyric can present the inherent human problems. This form is also intimate to God. 

7.     Heroic Epic: according to Sidney, “it is the best and most accomplished kind of poetry”. It is composed on the grand scale. It should not be condemned for any reason as it shows the place and actions of human beings in the vast universe. Only the grand action is the part of epics and there is no place for trivial actions. It helps in the elevation or uplifting of human beings. 

In all these forms or kinds of poetry, Sidney’s focus is on how poetry is meant to teach and delight or moral uplifting. 

4.     Comparison between Poetry and Other Genres: this forms a significant section in An Apology for Poetry where Sidney argued that poetry is the superior form to all other branches. First he made comparison between poetry and philosophy. It is accepted by all that philosophy gives us moral counsels but through the abstract principles which are far from the actual life. But in its opposite, the poet has the power to explain all the abstract principles and relate them to actual life. Poetry has the flexibility to mould its counsels as per the need of time which is not possible for philosophers. 

Then he compares poetry and history. History provides mere facts about what happened in the past. Though there are actual story of human life, it does not pass any moral judgement on what has happened. It is a static and stagnant record. Historians have to depend on the second hand source information and they dig in the past. But poetry is full of life and zestful flowing to show the path to society. It is superior to philosophy and history for it fulfils the deficiencies of both. 

Then he talks about Theology, Law and poetry. Theology is more intimate to God and His principles which are, obviously incomprehensible to the common mind. Law, again does not teach morality. For him the Bible is a beautiful poetry. Hence, poetry is the only medium combines all the qualities or elements of these branches and becomes superior to all. 

5.     Gosson’s Charges against Poetry and Sidney’s Reply: this is the most interesting and more argued section of An Apology for Poetry. It was the age of debate and arguments and common masses also talking about poetry and literature. Following are the four main charges against poetry made by Gosson:  

1.     Poetry is the waste of time.

2.     Poetry is the mother of lies.

3.     Poetry is the nurse of abuse/ immoral.

4.     Plato banished poets from his ideal state.

To these charges, Sidney has given a very logical reply. Regarding the very first charge, he said, it is the most creative use of time because poetry is superior to all other branches and its ultimate end is to teach and reform the society. It is not the waste of time but fruitful use of time. Poetry is not the mother of lies but the mother of knowledge. Though it contains some fictitious characters or names, through it the poet tries to reveal the reality and truth. Poetry contains the truth. It is the manifestation of universal truth. How poetry can be immoral, if it teaches the very morality. Poetry does not make men weep or lament but the poets and so poetry cannot be blamed. It is the responsibility of poet to use poetry in right direction to perform well for society. There may be some bad poets who have used poetry in negative direction. 

Answering to the last charge, he stated Plato did banish poets but not poetry. He was not against poetry but bad poets. In the time of Plato, there were some inefficient and worse poets who have damaged poetry. How Plato can banish poetry, if he himself wrote in verse form. He condemned bad poets and not the poetry. 

In this way, Sidney has presented an extensive picture of English poetry and arguments in favour of it which laid the further path to emerging English critics.   

Watch video here: An Apology for Poetry by Sir Philip Sidney 

Works Cited: 

Blamires, Harry. A History of Literary Criticism. New Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd. 2004. Print. 

Ghosh, D.N. Principles of Literary Criticism. Gwalior: Kitab Ghar, 1964. Print. 

Prasad, B. An Introduction to English Criticism. New Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd. 2006. Print. 

Thorat, Ashok. et al. A Spectrum of Literary Criticism. New Delhi: Frank Bros. & Co. 2001. Print.  


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Author: Dr. Datta G Sawant