Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie (1580-81) was intended as a reply to Stephen Gosson’s School of Abus (1579) Gosson had inducted poetry on four counts : that a man coaid employ his time more usefully than in poetry that it is the mother of lies, that it is the nurse of abuseramt that, Plato had rightly banished poets from his ideal state. Sidney in his Apology replies to each of these charges, drawing copiously, in the absence of critical authorities in England, on the ancient classics and the Italian writers of the Renaissance: in particular, on Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch, among the Greeks, Virgil, Horace and Ovid, among the Romans; and Minturno, Scaliger, and Castelvetro, among the Italians. Yet it is an original document.
Sidney’s Apology is not only a reply to Gosson but much more. It is a spirited defence of poetry against all the charges that had been laid at its door since Plato. He says that poetry is the oldest of all branches of learning; it is superior to philosophy by its charm, to history by its universality, to science by its moral end, to law by its encouragement of human rather than civic goodness. Among its various species the pastoral pleases by its helpful comments on contemporary events and life in general, the elegy by its kindly pity for the weakness of mankind and the wretchedness of the world, the satire by its pleasant ridicule of folly, the comedy by its ridiculous imitation of the common errors of life, the tragedy by its moving demonstration of ‘the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations guilden roofs are builded,’ the lyric by its sweep praise of all that is praiseworthy, and the epic by its representation of the loftiest truths in the loftiest manner. Neither in whole nor in parts, thus, does poetry deserve the abuse hurled on it by its detractors.
Hence Sidney says that a man might better spend his time in poetry. The poet is not a liar; the poet uses veracity or falsehood to arrive at a higher truth. It is not poetry that abuses man’s wit but man’s wit that abuses poetry. Plato found fault not with poetry, which he considered divinely inspired, but with the poets of his time who abused it to misrepresent the gods.
Sidney’s Apology “is a veritable epitome of the literary criticism of Italian Renaissance; and so thoroughly it is imbued with this spirit, that no other work, Italian, French, or English can be said to give so complete and so noble a conception of the temper and the principles of Renaissance criticism.” Sidney is the herald of Neo-classicism in England. He is essentially a theorist of the exuberant imagination. He fuses the romantic and the classical tendencies. His Defence of Poetry is the earliest attempt to deal with the poetic art, practically and not theoretically. His judgements are based on contemporary literature and show ample good sense and sound scholarship. It is not merely empty, abstract theorising : apart from the unities, his judgements are not governed to and great extent by rules and theories. His ultimate test is of a practical kind, i.e., the power of poetry to move to virtuous action. He has thus contributed to the appreciation of literature in the concrete.
Sidney’s work is comprehensive enough to incorporate all the existing forms of poetry in his age. He gives his views on the nature and function of poetry, on the three unities, on tragedy and comedy, and on diction and metre. It is the pioneer in dramatic criticism. As a French critic has observed. Sidney‘s Defence of Poetry “gives us an almost complete theory of neo-classical tragedy, a hundred years before the ‘Art Poetique’ of Boileau.'”
Sidney‘s Apologie for Poetrie has rightly been valued as “one of the outstanding performaces in English criticism and one which inaugurated a new phase in critical history. ” Outmoded though some of the critical opinions contained init now are, yet it provides a singularly lofty and noble introduction to the long line of English treatises on the art of poetry. Its significance lies in the fact that it comes at a time when most of the gentlemen shunned the name of being called a ‘poet.’ Sidney‘s vindication of poetry and his serious treatment of the poetic art enthused a new confidence in them and poetry came to be looked upon as a noble and worthy pursuit, no more a ‘laughing stock of children.’ Sidney boldly faced the traditional objections to poetry and he tried to dispel the mists of prejudice that had gathered around it. His approach was not only negative but he positively tried to bring out the value of poetry in the social and intellectual life of society. He presented his arguments in the i lost lucid and persuasive manner. He was treating poetry as a poet with ‘illuminating insight’ and ‘inspiring enthusiasm.’ “Nowhere else, ” says Professor Atkins, “do we find the same happy mingling of the ideal and the practical, the same blend of dignity and humour; of sincerity and irony, of controlled enthusiasm and racy colloquialism; or again, that unstudied simplicity and grace which everywhere pervade the work. “
What was precisely the influence of this treatise on Sidney’s contemporaries is only a matter of conjecture. It was circulated in manuscript among his friends and other literary circles during his life and ‘ was soon quoted in the best critical places—in Puttenham’s Arte of 1589, in Harington’s Apologie of 1598.’ Its influence on Ben Jonson, Shakespeare and other dramatists is quite obvious. It gives incentive to creative writing. When this treatise was written, English literature stood at the lowest ebb. In less than twenty-five years after its publication, it became one of the glories of the world. Apart from its influence on the creative writers of the Elizabethan age. Sidney’s treatise showed the direction of later criticism, the neo-classical as well as the romantic. The neo-classical critics made a fetish of his views on the observance of the unities, and the romantic critics like Shelley drew inspiration from its fountain for supporting their theory of creative imagination Even to the modern readers it continues to charm ‘with its idealism, its sanity, its humour, and its grace. ‘(Atkins).
The Apologie is a kind of formal beginning of literary theorizing in England, and a brilliant enough one. “The essay reflects and telescopes not only the continental criticism of the century but a certain amount of classical Greek and Roman as well. ” (Wimsatt and Brooks). Sidney was well-acquainted with the classical Greek and Roman critics. “But it all matters little. Sidney wrote, not a pedant’s encyclopedia, but a gentleman’s essay. ” (Wimsatt and Brooks).
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. Written in 1680-81 as a reply to Gosson’s School of Abuse, Sidney’s Apology is an epitome of Renaissance criticism, the foundation on which the castle of the future criticism of Sidney’s age rests.
2. A spirited defence of poetry on the whole; poetry’s oldest branch of knowledge, superior to philosophy, history and science.
3. Shows Sidney’s good sense and sound scholarship; a great contribution towards the appreciation of literature; gives an almost complete theory of neo-classical tragedy.
4. A blend of the ideal and the practical, of dignity and humour; of sincerity and irony, of controlled enthusiasm and racy colloquialism. (Atkins)
5. Its deep influence and circulation. Influence on Ben Jonson and Shakespeare and Shelley quite apparent.
6. “The essay reflects and telescopes not only the continental criticism of the country but a certain amount of classical Greek and Roman as well.”