Sidney’s Apologie is a true defence of poetry. The Puritans of his age attacked poetry on many counts. Gosson wrote his document to show how evil some poetry was; it was full of abuse. He quoted Plato as his authority and denounced poetry as something that weakened a nation, prompted lies and corrupted the taste. But Sidney in his essay showed that poetry should be highly valued. The poets were the first light-bringers to ignorance. The influence of poetry was a civilising one. The earliest Greek philosophers and Historians were in reality born poets. “So that truly neither philosophers nor historiographer could, at the first, have entered into the gates of popular judgements, if they had not taken a great pass-port of poetry.
Poets from the first have flourished, in all quarters of the world, even among Barbarians, the Turks and the Red Indians. “Even among the most barbarious and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have their poets, who make and sing songs, both of their ancestors’ deeds and praises of their gods. A sufficient probability that, if ever learning came among them, it must be by having their hard, dull wits sharpened by the sweet delights of poetry.”
The Romans called the poet ‘Vates’ which means a seer or a prophet, and in Greek the word ‘Poet’ means ‘Maker’ or ‘Creator.’ The poet is a ‘maker’, a creator in the real sense of the term, for while all other arts are tied to Nature, the poet is not a slave to Nature. He is truly creative : “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 make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden. ” The poet alone can fashion a perfect lover, a perfect friend, and a perfectly valiant man, even though they are not found in Nature.
Sidney’s method is that of a logician : he examines it in whole and in parts, considers the points in favour and the points against, and then sets forth his main thesis that far from being despised it deserves, ‘the laurel crown.’ It is the oldest of all branches of learning, ‘whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges’, being 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 or 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 guilded roofs are builded’ the lyric by its sweet 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.
Then Sidney turns to the four charges labelled against it by Gosson. Taking the first that a man might better spend his time than in poetry, he says that ‘if it be, as I affirm, that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry, then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed.’ Next, to say that the poet is a liar is to misunderstand his very purpose. The question of veracity or falsehood arises only where a period tells of facts, past or present. The poet has no concern whatever with these; he merely uses them to arrive at a higher truth. As a poet therefore he can scarcely be a liar, howsoever much he may like to be one. The third charge that ‘it abuses men’s wit, training it to wanton sinfulness and lustful love is particularly applied to the comedy and sometimes also to the lyric, the elegy, and the epic, into all of which the love element enters. But granting that love of beauty is a beastly fault and one deserving hateful reproach, will it not be more correct to say that it is not poetry that abuses man’s wit that abuses poetry? For, there can be poetry without sinful love. The nature of a thing is determined not by its misuse but by its right use. The fourth charge that associates Plato’s great name with the condemnation of poetry is without foundation also, for 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, although even in this misrepresentation they merely gave vent to popular beliefs. ‘So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honour unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.’
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. Sidney’s Apologie a true defence of poetry. Sidney defends poetry on the following grounds :—
(a) Poets are the very first removers of ignorance and light- bringers.
(b) Influence of poetry civilizing.
(c) Poetry the oldest branch of knowledge—a universal
(d) Poets are makers and creators in the real sense. The poet alone
can fashion a perfect lover, a perfect friend, and a perfectly
can fashion a perfect lover, a perfect friend, and a perfectly
(e) Poetry—superior to philosophy, history and science. Superior to philosophy by its charm, to history by its universality and to science by its moral end.
(f) All forms of poetry have a unique appeal—the pastoral by its helpful comments on contemporary events and life in general, the elegy by its kindly pity, the satire by its pleasant ridicule of the follies of mankind, the lyric by its sweet praise, epic by its loftiest truths in the loftiest manner, comedy by its ridiculous imitation of errors, and tragedy by its demonstration of the uncertainty of this world.
(g) Poetry teaches and moves to virtue.
2. The poet is not a liar: it is not poetry that abuses man’s wit but man’s wit that abuses poetry.
3. Plato, in fact, found fault not with poetry in general but with the inferior kind of poetry of his age in his country, the poetry which tried to dominate other disciplines. Plato was not an adversary but a patron of poetry.
4. The first historians and philosophers were poets.