Sidney’s Apology is an important Renascent document. It is a synthesis of the critical doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Scaliger, Minturno, and a host of other writers and critics. It brings together romanticism and classicism. It is the first attempt in English to deal with the poetic art, practically and not theoretically.
On the nature and function of poetry, on the three unities, on tragedy and comedy, and on diction and metre, Sidney represents contemporary trends. Everywhere his work reflects the influence of Aristotle and Plato and other classical writers. But his originality lies in the skill with which he has drawfrupon, selected, arranged and adapted earlier ideas and then has put forth his own ideas, independently arrived at. He makes use of 1. Italian critics, 2. classical critics, Plato and Aristotle 3. Roman critics, Horace and Plutarch. 4. He also shows the influence of the medieval concept of tragedy, and 5. His didactic approach to poetry is typically Renaissance approach. However, his manner of presentation, his freshness and vigour, and his logical faculty are characteristically his own. His style has dignity, simplicity, concretness, and a racy humour and irony. It is an illuminating piece of literary criticism as well as a fine piece of creative literature.
Sidney approached poetry not as a pedantic critic, but as a responsive reader. While most of his contemporaries were busy framing rules of rhetoric and prosody, he was paving the way for creative literature. He was preparing an audience who could ‘feel’ the emotional impact of literature and appreciate it. Sidney felt that literature was a great dynamic force and it had the power ‘to move’, ‘to uplift’ and to satisfy emotionally and aesthetically. J. W.H. Atkins has pointed out that “to him poetry was a natural human activity enabling men to sing to beauty and truth, and to satisfy their longings for a world transformed, thus nurturing in them what was good and noble. Moreover, so far from being merely an instrument of moral teaching, it was a concrete and inspiring revelation of human deals, and thus, in a sense, a criticism of life. This, then with its element of permanent truth, was the substance of Sidney’s message to an age perplexed and even hostile.”
No doubt Sidney has freely drawn on earlier critics, yet he has tried to arrive at his own conception of poetry. The basic question he meets is: why is poetry valuable. The second section of his essay deals with the nature and value of poetry. This is followed by an examination of the objection to poetry. The fourth section presents a critique of the contemporary literary poetry and of morality.
His definitions of poetry, two in number, speak of his greatness as a critic. The first is :”Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end,—to teach and delight.” The second is :”it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet. …but it is that feigning notable images of virtue or vice, or -what else, with that delightful teaching; which must be the right describing note to know a poet by. “
His defence of poetry is unique. It logically refutes the contemporary charges of the puritans against poetry. Poetry is universal; the first light-giver to ignorance and the first nurse. The earliest recorded or preserved utterance of any nation is a form of poetic expression alone. The ancients delivered wisdom only through poetry. The first philosophers and scientists came before the people in the garb of poets. The poet is a creator, like God. The world created by the poet is a better world than ours. Only in the poetic world do we come across true lovers, constant friends, valiant men, right princes, and excellent men. These characters are perfect. The bad men in this world have unmixed badness, and such villains are not allowed to go unpunished. Poetry is superior to history and philosophy. The poet has both the general and the particular example. But the philosopher is only theoretical, for he has examples. The historian has examples, but no precepts. The historian speaks of what has been, not of what ought to be. The philosopher is vague and speaks of what should be.
The poet speaks of both what is and what should be, of what is universal and what is particular. Poetry has liveliness and passion which are lacking in history and philosophy.
Sidney’s remarks on tragedy, tragi-comedy and comedy speak of his knowledge of the contemporary trends of literature and his wide readings. In the field of drama his observations were true not only in his age but are also true and valid even today. His observations on satire and various forms of poetry are of great significance so are his views on diction, metre and verse. Surprisingly enough Sidney offers the best defence of metre. Praising English, he says that only in English can rhyme be observed “very precisely.”
“The essay reflects and telescopes not only the continental criticism of the century but a certain amount pf classical Greek and Roman as well. ” (Wimsatt and Brooks). Further, “Dramatic criticism in England began with Sir Philip Sidney. ” (Spingjarn). Sidney was ‘the president of chivalry and nobleness.’ He was, as Hakluyt called him the finest flower of the garden ofwitandart. He saw that Poetry in his own days had fallen from high estimation to be the laughing stock of children. Gosson in his ‘School of Abuse’ has condemned poetry and had called it the mother of lies and the nurse of abuse. He had pointed out that there were better professions and vocations than that of a poet and that the suggestion of Plato should be followed in turning out the poets from the state. Sidney who was himself a poet could not relish the idea and sharply and violently reacted against the views of Gosson and the Puritans. He wrote a pitiful defence of Poetry and based the claims for poetry on its divine origin, its prophetic nature, its cultural value, its universal appeal, its elevating power and its alluring methods. He said that poetry was the most ancient and ‘full of virtue breeding delightfulness.’ He replied to all the charges made by the critics of his days and put back poetry to its own pedestal. He made it popular and freed it from the bondage and slavery of the Puritans. He revitalised it and gave it new life and vigour. It was to his attempts that Poetry was again read with interest and poets like Shakespeare and Spenser md others made England ‘nest of singing birds.’
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. Apologie—an important Renaissance document—a synthesis of the critical doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Scaliger, Mintumo and a few other Italian critics—a union of romanticism and classicism,
first important English document in criticism.
first important English document in criticism.
2. Sidney represents contemporary trends on the nature and function of poetry, on the three dramatic unities, on tragedy and comedy.
3. His originality lies in the selection, arrangement and adaptation of earlier ideas. Also original in his style, presentation, etc.
4. Approached poetry not as a pedantic critic but as a responsive reader. He has his own conception of poetry. His defence of poetry is sound, logical and convincing. His view that “it is not riming and versing that maketh a poet” has proved to be a universal utterance.
5. He has rightly upheld the superiority of poetry over history, philosophy and science.
6. He regards the poet as God, the creator.
7. Sidney’s remarks on tragedy, tragi-comedy and comedy speak of the contemporary trends of literature and his wide ranging interests.
8. “Dramatic criticism in England began with Sir Philip Sidney.” (Spingarn).
9. Sidney, “the president of chivalry and nobleness,” “the finest flower of the garden of wit and art.”
10. Sidney revitalised poetry and gave it new life.