Sidney’s Defence of Poesie ENGL 203 Dr. Fike
Main Point for Today • Periodicity: Sidney’s two texts—the sonnet from Astrophel and Stella and the Defence of Poesie—illustrate a central element of Renaissance English literature: namely, the way in which authors placed new emphasis on the classics. • We will see this point developing in various ways, particularly in Sidney’s use of Plato and of the structure of the classical oration.
Principles of Neo-Platonism • Beauty is divine in nature and origin. • There is a separation of flesh and spirit: • flesh is bad and earthly; • spirit is good and heavenly. • Love is essentially spiritual: • it is a meeting of souls and minds; • love can transcend the body. • One makes progress along a “ladder”: • from sensual to spiritual love • and from contemplation of earthly beauty to contemplation of and union with Heavenly Beauty. (Source: Ellrodt’s Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Edmund Spenser, pages 25ff.)
Sidney’s Sonnet #5 • Do you see Neo-Platonic ideas here? • How is this sonnet about reason?
Key Points POINT: We’re developing the idea that Sidney’s inspiration was classical and Platonic. • Plato and Socrates are explicitly mentioned in Sonnet 25: “The wisest scholar of the wight most wise.” • Beauty and virtue: Line 9 identifies “true beauty” with virtue, a kind of beauty that transcends physical good looks. In line 10, “this beauty” is earthly, mutable beauty. It is a “shade” of that “greater beauty” (virtue). • Reason > earthly beauty virtue • Ladder of love: Lines 12-13: “on earth we are but pilgrims made, / And should in soul up to our country move.”
Summary • There is earthy beauty, and then there is a more transcendental kind of beauty: namely, virtue. • The eyeballs get us in trouble when we dwell on physical beauty instead of virtue, when you let the outer, earthly light of physical beauty overcome the inner, more spiritual light of reason, which can help us toward virtue. • There is a sense at the end of the sonnet that we must ascend a ladder of love, from earthly to spiritual love, though the speaker seems anchored in the earthly in line 14. See also Sonnet 71: “But, ah, Desire still cries, ‘Give me some food.’”
Transition • We’re going to work our way around to see how Sidney uses Plato in the Defence as well. • Sidney’s text responds to a person: Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse, whose main point is that delight is bad.
From Gosson’s Text • “But the exercise that is now among us is banqueting, playing, piping, and dancing and all such delights as may win us to pleasure or rock us asleep.” • His real beef is with the role of the theaters in misusing delightful representations: “players” are “Lords of this misrule, or the very schoolmasters of these abuses.”
More from Gosson • “Therefore, he that will avoid the open shame of privy sin, the common plague of private offenses, the great wracks of little rocks, the sure decease of uncertain causes, must set hand to the stern and eye to his steps to shun the occasion as near as he can, neither running to bushes for renting his clothes, nor rent his clothes for impairing his thrift, nor walk upon ice for taking a fall, nor take a fall for bruising himself, nor go to theaters for being allured, nor once be allured for fear of abuse.”
Point • So Gosson’s text was the catalyst for Sidney’s Defence of Poesie, though Gosson was specifically criticizing the theater and plays whereas Sidney is writing more about literature in general. • Sidney replies on 643/143ff. to Gosson and Plato. • In order to get there, we need to ask some preliminary questions.
Questions • What is ironic about Plato’s criticism of the poets? (637/137) • What is a poet? (638/138) • What is poetry? (three points 639-41/139-41) First two rows, #1; second pair, #2; third pair, #3: find a partner and search for answers.
Possible Answers • “Plato…depended on poetry” (637/137), and the first great philosophers WERE poets (639/139). Plato himself uses poetic techniques, including made-up dialogue, characters, and dramatic situations. In short, the dialogues are themselves contrary to fact, as untrue as any of the events in Homer, whom Plato criticizes. • A poet is a “maker” (638/138). His role is thus analogous to God’s role in making the earth. So the poet has a quasi-divine function. • Poetry: It is imitation (mimesis, 639/139), it does not have to rhyme (640/140), and it is a speaking picture (639/139 and 641/141 top).
Next Question • What is poetry’s relationship to history and philosophy?
Answer • History is inadequate because it lacks theory. • Philosophy is inadequate because it lacks particulars. • Poetry combines the best of both: it deals with “the universal consideration” (641/141). It is more philosophical than history and more particular than philosophy.
Another Question • What is the function of poetry? (639/139)
Answer • The purpose of poetry is to teach through delight and thus to move us toward virtue. • Delight + teach virtue • Contrast to Doctor Faustus? • Sidney and Mary Poppins • The greatest delight is through story telling (GH 285-86).
Objections • What objections to poetry does Sidney identify? • How does Sidney reply?
Objections (page 643/143) • Poetry is a waste of time. • Poetry is “the mother of lies.” • Poetry, insofar as it portrays the gods doing terrible things to man and each other, is “the nurse of abuse.” • Plato banished the poets from his Republic.
Sidney’s Replies • Poetry moves us to virtue, and there is no end more desirable. • Poets cannot lie if they do not claim to be telling the truth. • Poetry can also edify and improve, can have a moral influence: it can delight and teach and thereby move people to embrace virtuous behavior. • Sidney believes that Plato opposes only poets who promulgated wrong opinions about the deities, rather than all poets in general. Sidney also points out that Socrates himself versified fables. In the Ion, says Sidney, Plato actually commends poetry. Plato even attributes to poetry an ability to inspire a divine force, “far about man’s wit” (846/146).
Sidney and the Platonic Hierarchy • Plato’s order: Forms/ideas > nature > art • Forms exist prior to and apart from physical manifestations. • You have the idea of a tree (most real), a physical tree (less real), and a painting of or poem about a tree (least real). • Question: What is Sidney’s order on 638/138: “Nature never set forth….”
Sidney’s Order • In Sidney’s opinion, ART TRANSCENDS NATURE! • Art = golden • Nature = brazen
Plato: Forms (highest, most real) Nature Art (lowest, least real) Art is a reflection of a reflection of the most real. Sidney: Art (golden, higher) Nature (brazen, lesser) Summary
Discussion Question • What is Sidney saying about the artist on 638-39/138-39? The passage begins “Neither let it be deemed….” • Read the whole paragraph and discuss.
Possible Answers • God made man; thus God is the maker of a maker, namely the artist. • God set man in supremacy over nature, and it is the artist who shows this most in poetry. • For the poet in creation has a divine aspect. As the wind-like “Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), so the mind in creation takes on “the force of a divine breath” (846/146, 849/149). In short, the poet is God-like. • Like Adam, the poet is fallen, but he is only partially nature’s creature because, having been created in the divine image, he has this divine breath within him. • Far from being twice removed from Plato’s transcendent realm of Forms, the poet has a divine quality in himself that surpasses nature. • Sidney is a Christian: he is aware that humanity is fallen, that human nature can be improved but not perfected. That is why he focuses on poetry’s ability to teach and delight and move us toward virtue: in other words, to unite pleasure and truth. Like Christianity, poetry can improve but not remake human nature. “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”: poetry is like medicine for the soul. • The “erected wit,” or right reason, is the divine element of man’s rational soul and the source of poetic art.
Connections to Wordsworth • Re. “breath”: Wordsworth, The Prelude 1.33-38: For I methought, while the sweet breath of heaven Was blowing on my body, felt within A correspondent breeze, that gently moved With quickening virtue, but is now become A tempest, a redundant energy, Vexing its own creation. • Wordsworth, The Prelude 14.192: Imagination is “Reason in her most exalted mood.”
Connection to Shelley • From A Defense of Poetry (2:758): “…the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, wakes to transitory brightness: the power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.”
Point • Sidney’s treatise on poetry is neither the first nor the last in a long line of defenses of poetry. • For example, he gets the business about teaching and delighting from Horace, and Sidney’s language undergirds subsequent treatises on poetry like Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s. • WW’s emphasis on “pleasure” parallel’s Sidney’s stress on “delight.” • Shelley’s claim that “the great secret of morals is love” parallels Sidney’s stress on moral virtue.
Another Element of Sidney’s Classicism: The Classical Oration • Types of classical orations: • Panegyrical: Related to praise of a person for some achievement • Deliberative: Carefully and fully considers all the points relevant to an issue (think “deliberate”) • Judicial: Related to legal defense of a client in court. • Which type of classical oration did Sidney write?
Answer • Judicial: It is as if Poetry is on trial, and Sidney defends her as a classical rhetorician would defend a client in a court of law.
The Structure of the Classical Oration • exordium (entrance or beginning) • narratio (narration—states the facts) • propositio (proposition/definition) • partitio (division—types of poetry) • confirmatio (confirmation—poetry and her rivals: history and philosophy) • reprehensio (confutation—objections to poetry) • digression (on native English poets) • peroratio (conclusion)
Simplified Version • Introduction • Background • Arguments • Objections • Replies—concession and refutation • Conclusion/summation
Concluding Points • Although Sidney’s prose style in the Defence makes it difficult to see the treatise’s organization, it is actually very carefully structured, following the outline of the classical oration (what we at Winthrop call the classical argument): sprezzatura (the art of concealing art). • This structure, Sidney’s emphasis on Neo-Platonism in his sonnet, and his multiple references to Plato illustrate the idea that writers in the Renaissance were very interested in reviving and using classical learning.END