An Apologie for Poetrie may for purposes of convenience be divided into sixteen sections.
1. The Prologue
Before launching a defence of poetry, Sidney justified his stand by referring in a half-humorous manner to a treatise on horseman-ship by pietro Pugliano. If the art of horsemanship can deserve such an eloquent euology and vindication, surely poetry has better claims for euology and vindication. There is a just cause to plead a case for poetry since it has fallen from the highest estimation of learning to be ‘the laughing stock of children.’
2. Some Special Arguments in Favour of Poetry
Poetry has been held in high esteem since the earliest times. It has been ‘the first light-giver to ignorance.’ The earlier Greek philosophers and historians were, in fact, poets. Even among the uncivilized nations, in Turkey, among the American Indians, and m Wales, poetry enjoys an undiminishing popularity. To attack poetry is, therefore, to cut at the roots of culture and intelligence.
3. The Prophetic Character of Poetry
The ancient Romans paid high reverence to the poet by calling him Vates, which means a Diviner, a Prophet, or a Foreseer. The etymological origin of Greek word ‘poet’ is Poiein, and this means ‘to make’. Hence the Greeks honour the poet as a maker or creator. This suggests the divine nature of poetry.
4. The Nature and Function of Poetry
Poetry is an art of ‘imitation’ and its chief function is to teach and delight. Imitation does not mean mere copying or a reproduction of facts. It means a representing or transmuting of the real and actual, and sometimes creating something entirely new. The poet, so Sidney declares, “lifted upwith the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite a new, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like.”
Commenting on the creative powers of the poet, Sidney further states: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.”
5. The Three Kinds of Poetry
The three kinds of poetry, according to Sidney, are : (a) religious poetry, (b) philosophical poetry, and (c) poetry as an imaginative treatment of life and nature. He calls special attention to the third class of poets, for ‘these be they that, as the first and most noble sort may justly be termed vates.’ They ‘most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, has been, or shall be, but range, only with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be, and should be.’
6. Various Sub-divisions of the Third Kind of Poetry
Poetry proper may further be divided into various species—the heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, iambic, elegiac, pastoral and others. Poets generally make use of verse to apparel their poetical inventions. But verse is ‘an ornament and no cause to poetry since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets.’
7. Superiority of Poetry to Philosophy and History
In the promotion of virtue, both philosophy and history play their parts. Philosophy deals with its theoretical aspects and teaches virtue by precept. History teaches practical virtue by drawing concrete examples from life. But poetry gives both precepts and practical examples. Philosophy, being based on abstractions, is ‘hard of utterance and mystery to be conceived.’ It cannot be a proper guide for youth. On the other hand, the historian is tied to empirical facts that his example drags no necessary consequence. Poetry gives perfect pictures of virtue which are far more effective than the mere definitions of philosophy. It also gives imaginary examples which are more instructive than the real examples of history. The reward of virtue and the punishment of vice is more clearly shown in Poetry than in History. Poetry is superior to Philosophy in the sense that it has the power to move and to give incentive for virtuous action. It presents moral lessons in a very attractive form. Things which in themselves are horrible as cruel battles, unnatural monsters, are made delightful in poetic imitation. Poet is, therefore, the monarch of all sciences. ‘For he doth not only show the way but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.’ The poet does not begin with obscure definitions which load the memory with doubtfulness, ‘but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well enchanting skill of music; and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner. And pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue.
8. Various Species of Poetry
The pastoral poetry treats of the beauty of the simple life, and sometimes, of the miseries of the people under hard Lords. Why should it be disliked? Elegiac poetry deals with the weakness of mankind and wretchedness of the world. It should evoke pity rather than blame. Satiric poetry laughs at folly, and iambic poetry tries to unmask villainy. These also do not deserve to be condemned.
Nobody should blame the right use of comedy. Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life presented in a ridiculous manner. It helps men keeping away from such errors. Tragedy, which opens the greatest wounds in our hearts, teaches the uncertainty of this world. No body can resist the ‘sweet violence’ of a tragedy.
The lyric which gives moral precepts and soars to the heavens in singing the praises of the Almighty, cannot be displeasing. Nor can the epic or heroic poetry be disliked because it inculcates virtue to the highest degree by portraying heroic and moral goodness in the most effective manner. Sidney asserts that the heroical is ‘not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry.’
9. Main Objections Brought Against Poetry by its Enemies
A common complaint against poetry is that it is bound up with ‘rhyming and versing’. But verse is not essential for poetry. ‘One may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry’ Verse is used for convenience. It produces verbal harmony and lends itself easily to memorizing. It is the only fit speech for music. It adds to words a sensuous and emotional quality.
10. Four Chief Objections to Poetry
There are some more serious objections to poetry, namely :
(a) that there being many other more fruitful knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them than in this;
(b) that it is the mother of lies :
(c) that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires; and,
(d) that Plato had banished poets from his ideal republic.
11. Replies to These Objections
Sidney dismisses the first charge by saying that he has already established that ‘no learning is so good as that which reacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry.’
His answer to the second objection that poets are liars is that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar. The Astronomer, the Geometrician, the historian, and others, all make false statements. But the poet ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth,’ his aim being ‘to tell not what is or is not, but what should or should not be.’ So what he presents is not fact but fiction embodying truth of an ideal kind.
The third charge against poetry is that all its species are infected with love themes and amorous conceits, which have a demoralising effect on readers. To this charge Sidney replies that poetry does not abuse man’s wit, it is man’s wit that abuseth poetry. All arts and sciences misused bad evil effects, but that did not mean that they were less valuable when rightly employed. Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Certainly not.
Sidney is rather perplexed at the last charge, namely Plato’s rejection of poetry. He wonders why Plato found fault with poetry. In fact, Plato warned men not against poetry but against its abuse by his contemporary poets who filled the world with wrong opinions about the gods. So Plato’s objection was directed against the theological concepts. In Ion, Plato gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. His description of the poet as ‘a light winged and sacred thing’ in that dialogue reveals his attitude to poetry. In fact by attributing unto poetry a very inspiring of a divine force, Plato was making a claim for poetry which he for his part could not endorse. Not only Plato but, Sidney tells us, all great men have honoured poetry.
12. Why is Poetry not honoured in England as it is elsewhere?
Why has England grown so hard a step-mother to Poets? asks Sidney. He thinks that it is so because poetry has came to be represented by ‘base men with servile wits’ or to men who, however studious, are not born poets. He says that ‘a poet no industry can make, if his own genius be not carried unto it’. Another cause is the want of serious cultivation of the Poetic Art. Threeihings necessary for producing good poetry are Art, Imitation, and Exercise which are lacking in the present generation of poets.
13. A Brief Review of the State of Poetry in England from Chaucer to Sidney’s own Time
Sidney says that few good poems have been produced in England since Chaucer. Chaucer did marvellously well in Troilus and Cresseida. The Mirrour of Magistrates also contains some beautiful passages. Earl of Surrey’s Lyrics also deserve praise. Spenser’s The Shepherds Calender is worth reading. English lyric poetry is scanty and poor. Love lyrics and sonnets lack genuine fire and passion. They make use of artificial diction and swelling phrases.
14. Condition of Drama
The state of drama is also degraded. The only redeeming tragedy is Gorboduc which itself is a faulty work. A tragedy should be tied to the laws of poetry and not of history. A dramatist should have liberty to frame the history to his own tragical convenience. Again many things should be told which cannot be shown on the stage. The dramatists should know the difference between reporting and representing. They should straightway plunge into the principal point of action which they want to represent in their play. There should be no mingling of tragedies and comedies, English comedy is based on a false hypothesis. It aims at laughter, not delight. The proper aim of comedy is to afford delightful teaching, not mere coarse amusement. Comedy should not only amuse but morally instruct.
15. Advantages of the English Language
The English language has some definite advantages. It is appreciable for its adaptability to ancient and modern systems of versification. It admits both the unrhymed quantitative system of the ancient poetry and the rhyme peculiar to modern language.
Poetry is full of virtue-breeding delightfulness. It is void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning. All the charges laid against it are false and baseless. The poets were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian divinity; they were the first bringers of all civility. There are many mysteries contained poetry. A poet can immortalize people in his verses.