In “An Apology for Poetry,” Sir Philip Sidney sets out to restore poetry to its rightful place among the arts. Poetry has gotten a bad name in Elizabethan England, disrespected by many of Sidney’s contemporaries. But, Sidney contends, critics of poetry do not understand what poetry really is: they have been misled by modern poetry, which is frequently bad.
If one understands the true nature of poetry, one will see, as Sidney shows in his essay, that poetry is in fact the “monarch” of the arts. Sidney does so by articulating a theory of poetry, largely drawn from classical sources, as a tool for teaching virtue and the poet as a semi-divine figure capable of imagining a more perfect version of nature.
Armed with this definition, Sidney proceeds to address the major criticisms made of the art of poetry and of the poets who practice it, refuting them with brilliant rhetorical skill. Following the seven-part structure of a classical oration, Sidney begins with an exordium, or introduction.
He tells an anecdote about horse-riding, noting that, like his riding instructor Giovanni Pietro Pugliano, he will not dwell so much on the writing of poetry as the contemplation and appreciation of it. Since he has become a poet, he feels obliged to say something to restore the reputation of his unelected vocation.
Sidney begins his defense of poetry by noting that poetry was the first of the arts, coming before philosophy and history. Indeed, many of the famous classical philosophers and historians wrote in poetry, and even those who wrote in prose, like Plato and Herodotus, wrote poetically—that is, they used poetic style to come up with philosophical allegories, in the case of Plato, or to supply vivid historical details, in the case of Herodotus.
Indeed, without borrowing from poetry, historians and philosophers would never have become popular, Sidney claims. One can get some indication of the respect in which poets were held in the ancient world by examining the names they were given in Latin and Greek, vates and poietes. Vates means “seer” or “prophet,” and in the classical world, poetry was considered to convey important knowledge about the future. Poietes means maker, and this title reflects the fact that poets, like God, create new and more perfect realities using their imaginations.
Sidney then moves to the proposition, where offers a definition of poetry as an art of imitation that teaches its audience through “delight,” or pleasure. In its ability to embody ideas in compelling images, poetry is like “a speaking picture.” Sidney then specifies that the kind of poetry he is interested in is not religious or philosophical, but rather that which is written by “right poets.”
This ideal form of poetry is not limited in its subject matter by what exists in nature, but instead creates perfect examples of virtue that, while maybe not real, is well-suited to teaching readers about what it means to be good.
Poetry is a more effective teacher of virtue than history or philosophy because, instead of being limited to the realm of abstract ideas, like philosophy, or to the realm of what has actually happened, like history, poetry can present perfect examples of virtue in a way best suited to instruct its readers. The poet can embody the philosopher’s “wordish descriptions” of virtue in compelling characters or stories, which are more pleasurable to read and easier to understand and remember, like Aesop’s Fables.
The poet should therefore be considered the “right popular philosopher,” since with perfect and pleasurable examples of virtue, like Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid, poetry can “move” readers to act virtuously. Reading poetry about virtue, Sidney writes, is like taking a “medicine of cherries.”
Following the classical structure from this examination to the refutation, Sidney rebuts the criticisms made of poetry by “poet-haters.” Sidney outlines the four most serious charges against poetry: that poetry is a waste of time, that the poet is a liar, that poetry corrupts our morals, and that Plato banished poets from his ideal city in the Republic.
He highlights that all of these objections rest on the power of poetry to move its audience, which means that they are actually reasons to praise poetry. For if poetry is written well, it has enormous power to move its audience to virtue.
Following a short peroration, or conclusion, in which he summarizes the arguments he has made, Sidney devotes the final portion of his essay to a digression on modern English poetry. There is relatively little modern English poetry of any quality, Sidney admits.
However, is not because there is anything wrong with English or with poetry, but rather with the absurd way in which poets write poems and playwrights write plays. Poets must be educated to write more elegantly, borrowing from classical sources without apishly imitating them, as so many poets, orators, and scholars did in Sidney’s time. For English is an expressive language with all the apparatus for good literature, and it is simply waiting for skillful writers to use it.
Sidney brings “An Apology for Poetry” to a close on this hopeful note—but not before warning readers that, just as poetry has the power to immortalize people in verse, so too does it have the power to condemn others to be forgotten by ignoring them altogether. The critics of poetry should therefore take Sidney’s arguments seriously.