“An Apology for Poetry” or “The Defence of Poesy” is one of the fines creations in the history of English Criticism. It is written by ‘Sir Philip Sidney’ the foremost poet of the Elizabethan Age. It was written in approximately 1580 and first published in 1595, after his death. Sidney as a critic one of the most important is the introduction of ‘Aristotelianism’ into England. J.E. Springarn states: –
“The introduction of Aristotelianism into England”
was the direct result of the influence of the Italian Critics:
and the agent in bringing this new influence to
letters were sir Philip Sidney.”
As a writer, Sidney is known for three principal works – “The Arcadia”, “Astrophel and Stella” and “An Apology for Poetry”, all published after his death. ‘An Apology for Poetry’ is indeed an epitome of Renaissance Criticism. It deals with his views on the nature and function of poetry.
Basically, Sidney wrote his “An Apology for Poetry” to refute ‘Stephen Gosson’s Charges against poetry. Stephen Gosson published his attack on poetry in 1579. Gosson draws heavy examples from the classical literature of Greece and ancient Rome to argue that it was not without reason that Plato banished the poet from his ideal state. As Stephen Gosson Says:
- Poetry is the “mother of lies”.
- There being much faithful knowledge a man might better spend his time in them than in poetry.
- Poetry has a wanton and corrupting influence.
- Stephen Gosson called poet with the pipers and jesters and called them caterpillars of commonwealth all alike enemies of virtue.
The reaction was needed, and this reaction was clearly visible with the publication of Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry”. He attacks Gosson’s view on Poetry and establishes a valid identity of poetry as a part of literature and our existence.
The Special Claims for Poetry made by Sidney
Sidney made some special claims for poetry. These claims were based on poetry’s divine origin, prophetic nature, cultural and social value, and universal appeal.
Sidney mocked the critic of poetry. They were according to him like jesters and fools. They failed to understand that poetry had been an instrument for making the barbarous nation civilized.
The first claim for poetry is based upon its divine origin Romans called poet ‘vates’ which is as much as a diviner, foreseer of the prophet. The poet is not only an imitator of nature. He is the maker. God has made him in his image and has given him the power of creation. The divine nature of poetry is further suggested by a remark from Sydney,
“Poets are born, not made.”
The claim for poetry also is based on its prophetic nature. It doesn’t deal with things as they are or as they were it tells us of things as they ought to be. Poets have rightly termed ‘vates’. They imitate, teach and delight as the prophets sing of virtue. Poetry has cultural value also. It has civilizing force. Poetry deals with universal and has general appeal.
Thus, Sidney by showing the universality and charm of poetry and proves that poetry is not a corrupter of mankind. It is purifying and ennobles mankind.
The function of Poetry according to Sidney
According to Sidney, all knowledge aims at the teaching of virtues. He admits that ‘Philosophy’ and ‘History’ also teach virtue but they are not superior to poetry in playing their parts. The philosopher sets down percept and rules by thorny argument. His knowledge stands upon abstract and general. But the poet deals with the universal. He produces wisdom and temperance. Sidney concludes that the philosopher teaches but he teaches obscurely. So as the learned only can understand him.
Though Rousse greatly influenced William Wordsworth the poetry of Wordsworth is more delightful and charming than Rousseau’s philosophy of nature.
The poet teaches much more and in a better way than history. The historian deals with the fact that ‘were’ and ‘Are’ but he cannot foretell the future. The past, present, and future shine in the verse of poets. He is one step ahead of the historian who writes of the past and presents only.
The description of World War two which we find in Rupert Brooks’s poem is more realistic than any other history book of World War II. Poetry does teach much more than philosophy and history do.
Kind of Poetry
After having discussed the function of poetry. Sidney then proceeds to analyze several kinds of poetry. There are three board divisions of poetry. There are three broad divisions of poetry.
- Religious Poetry
- Philosophical poetry
- Imaginative poetry
Thus, Sidney has proved that by nature poetry imitates its function to teach and delight. Dr. Johnson’s dictum that Dryden is the father of English Criticism seems unacceptable. Dryden came later and drew his inspiration from the English critical tradition established by Sidney.