The Defence of Poesy
Sir Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney lived an active life as a courtier, solider, diplomat, and writer. He was born at Penshurst Place, in Kent in 1554. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, was appointed lord president of the Marches of Wales by Queen Elizabeth in 1559, and was later posted in Ireland; he was often absent from Penshurst. Sidney’s mother was lady-in-waiting to the queen until she caught smallpox in 1562. Sidney had a rigorous education at Shrewsbury School and then Christ Church, Oxford. After attending university, he traveled abroad for three years, where he became familiar with current political affairs and met political figures who would have a lasting influence on his life.
Sidney first traveled to Paris, where King Charles IX made him “Baron de Sidency” in 1572. During the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the queens’ council ordered Sidney back to safety in England, but he had already moved on to Germany. When he returned to London, he was made cupbearer at Queen Elizabeth’s court. In 1577, Sidney returned to the continent to lead a special embassy from Queen Elizabeth to the family of Maximilian II of Austria following the emperor’s death. After Sidney’s return to London, his interest in establishing a Protestant League was stopped by Elizabeth. The Sidney family did not always experience a smooth relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Sidney was made governor of Flushing in 1585; he was wounded in battle in the Netherlands and died of gangrene in 1586.
Sidney began writing poetry in 1578, and his writing career only lasted 7-8 years. His “The Defence of Poesy” was originally published under two different titles, The Defence of Poesie and An Apologie for Poetrie. It is a thorough and vigorous argument written by a practitioner of the art, who also had a strong education in the classics.
Early in “The Defence of Poesy,” Sidney states, “having slipped into the title of a poet, [I] am provoked to say something unto you in the defense of that my unelected vocation.” In the piece he defends “poor poetry” and argues that poetry, whose “final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of,” is the best vehicle for the “purifying of wit.” He forms his argument in a classical seven-part structure, beginning with an introduction and moving through the stages of proposition, division, examination, and refutation to a final peroration, and including, as custom permitted, a digressio on a related issue. In “The Defense of Poesy,” he references classical texts and examines different forms of poetry.
Sidney concludes by entertaining the thought that his reader “cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry.” If that is the case, if the reader has “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry” then “I must send you in the behalf of all poets:—that while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.”
When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s [Maximilian II] court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable; and he, according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplations therein which he thought most precious. But with none I remember mine ears were at any time more loaded, than when—either angered with slow payment, or moved with our learner-like admiration—he exercised his speech in the praise of his faculty. He said soldiers were the noblest estate of mankind, and horsemen the noblest of soldiers. He said they were the masters of war and ornaments of peace, speedy goers and strong abiders, triumphers both in camps and courts. Nay, to so unbelieved a point he proceeded, as that no earthly thing bred such wonder to a prince as to be a good horseman; skill of government was but a pedanteria [pedantry—ed.] in comparison. Then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast the horse was, the only serviceable courtier without flattery, the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse. But thus much at least with his no few words he drove into me, that self-love is better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves be parties.
Wherein if Pugliano’s strong affection and weak arguments will not satisfy you, I will give you a nearer example of myself, who, I know not by what mischance, in these my not old years and idlest times, having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in the defense of that my unelected vocation, which if I handle with more good will than good reasons, bear with me, since the scholar is to be pardoned that follows the steps of his master. And yet I must say that, as I have just cause to make a pitiful defense of poor poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughing-stock of children, so have I need to bring some more available proofs, since the former is by no man barred of his deserved credit, the silly [weak—ed] latter has had even the names of philosophers used to the defacing of it, with great danger of civil war among the Muses.
And first, truly, to all them that, professing learning, inveigh against poetry, may justly be objected that they go very near to ungratefulness, to seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, has been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges. And will they now play the hedgehog, that, being received into the den, drove out his host? Or rather the vipers, that with their birth kill their parents? Let learned Greece in any of her manifold sciences be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history be brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some other are named, who, having been the first of that country that made pens deliver of their knowledge to their posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning. For not only in time they had this priority—although in itself antiquity be venerable—but went before them as causes, to draw with their charming sweetness the wild untamed wits to an admiration of knowledge. So as Amphion was said to move stones with his poetry to build Thebes, and Orpheus to be listened to by beasts,—indeed stony and beastly people. So among the Romans were Livius Andronicus and Ennius; so in the Italian language the first that made it aspire to be a treasure-house of science were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower and Chaucer, after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed to beautify our mother-tongue, as well in the same kind as in other arts.
This did so notably show itself, that the philosophers of Greece durst not a long time appear to the world but under the masks of poets. So Thales, Empedocles, and Parmenides sang their natural philosophy in verses; so did Pythagoras and Phocylides their moral counsels; so did Tyrtæus in war matters, and Solon in matters of policy; or rather they, being poets; did exercise their delightful vein in those points of highest knowledge which before them lay hidden to the world. For that wise Solon was directly a poet it is manifest, having written in verse the notable fable of the Atlantic Island which was continued by Plato. And truly even Plato whosoever well considers, shall find that in the body of his work though the inside and strength were philosophy, the skin as it were and beauty depended most of poetry. For all stands upon dialogues; wherein he feigns many honest burgesses of Athens to speak of such matters that, if they had been set on the rack, they would never have confessed them; besides his poetical describing the circumstances of their meetings, as the well-ordering of a banquet, the delicacy of a walk, with interlacing mere tales, as Gyges’ Ring and others, which who knows not to be flowers of poetry did never walk into Apollo’s garden.
And even historiographers, although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads, have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of the poets. So Herodotus entitled [the various books of—ed.] his history by the name of the nine Muses; and both he and all the rest that followed him either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battles which no man could affirm, or, if that be denied me, long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.
So that truly neither philosopher nor historiographer could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgments, if they had not taken a great passport of poetry, which in all nations at this day, where learning flourishes not, is plain to be seen; in all which they have some feeling of poetry. In Turkey, besides their lawgiving divines they have no other writers but poets. In our neighbor country Ireland, where truly learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in a devout reverence. Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have they their poets, who make and sing songs (which they call areytos), both of their ancestors’ deeds and praises of their gods,—a sufficient probability that, if ever learning come among them, it must be by having their hard dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delights of poetry; for until they find a pleasure in the exercise of the mind, great promises of much knowledge will little persuade them that know not the fruits of knowledge. In Wales, the true remnant of the ancient Britons, as there are good authorities to show the long time they had poets which they called bards, so through all the conquests of Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans, some of whom did seek to ruin all memory of learning from among them, yet do their poets even to this day last; so as it is not more notable in soon beginning, than in long continuing.
But since the authors of most of our sciences were the Romans, and before them the Greeks, let us a little stand upon their authorities, but even [only—ed.] so far as to see what names they have given unto this now scorned skill. Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words, vaticinium and vaticinari, is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianæ, when by sudden opening Virgil’s book they lighted upon some verse of his making. Whereof the histories of the Emperors’ lives are full: as of Albinus, the governor of our island, who in his childhood met with this verse,
Arma amens capio, nec sat rationis in armis,
[Angered, I take up arms, but reason does not lie in arms—ed.]
and in his age performed it. Although it were a very vain and godless superstition, as also it was to think that spirits were commanded by such verses—whereupon this word charms, derived of carmina, comes—so yet serves it to show the great reverence those wits were held in, and altogether not [not altogether—ed] without ground, since both the oracles of Delphos and Sibylla’s prophecies were wholly delivered in verses; for that same exquisite observing of number and measure in words, and that high-flying liberty of conceit [concept, invention—ed.], proper to the poet, did seem to have some divine force in it.
And may not I presume a little further to show the reasonableness of this word Vates, and say that the holy David’s Psalms are a divine poem? If I do, I shall not do it without the testimony of great learned men, both ancient and modern. But even the name of Psalms will speak for me, which, being interpreted, is nothing but Songs; then, that it is fully written in metre, as all learned Hebricians agree, although the rules be not yet fully found; lastly and principally, his handling his prophecy, which is merely poetical. For what else is the awaking his musical instruments, the often and free changing of persons, his notable prosopopoeias, when he makes you, as it were, see God coming in His majesty, his telling of the beasts’ joyfulness and hills’ leaping, but a heavenly poesy, wherein almost he shows himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith? But truly now having named him, I fear I seem to profane that holy name, applying it to poetry, which is among us thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation. But they that with quiet judgments will look a little deeper into it, shall find the end and working of it such as, being rightly applied, deserves not to be scourged out of the church of God.
But now let us see how the Greeks named it and how they deemed of it. The Greeks called him “a poet,” which name has, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It comes of this word poiein, which is “to make”; wherein I know not whether by luck or wisdom we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.” Which name how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences than by any partial allegation. There is no art delivered unto mankind that has not the works of nature for his principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth. So doth the astronomer look upon the stars, and, by that he sees, set down what order nature has taken therein. So do the geometrician and arithmetician in their divers sorts of quantities. So doth the musician in times tell you which by nature agree, which not. The natural philosopher thereon has his name, and the moral philosopher stands upon the natural virtues, vices, and passions of man; and “follow nature,” says he, “therein, and thou shalt not err.” The lawyer says what men have determined, the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaks only of the rules of speech, and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weighs the nature of man’s body, and the nature of things helpful or hurtful unto it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he, indeed, build upon the depth of nature.
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goes hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. 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 may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
But let those things alone, and go to man—for whom as the other things are, so it seems in him her uttermost cunning is employed—and know whether she have brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Æneas? Neither let this be jestingly conceived, because the works of the one be essential, the other in imitation or fiction; for any understanding knows the skill of each artificer stands in that idea, or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet has that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he has imagined them. Which delivering forth, also, is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it works, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him. Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man’s wit with the efficacy of nature; but rather give right honor to the Heavenly Maker of that maker, who, having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature. Which in nothing he shows so much as in poetry, when with the force of a divine breath he brings things forth far surpassing her doings, with no small argument to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam,—since our erected wit makes us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keeps us from reaching unto it. But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted; thus much I hope will be given me, that the Greeks with some probability of reason gave him the name above all names of learning.
Now let us go to a more ordinary opening of him, that the truth may be the more palpable; and so, I hope, though we get not so unmatched a praise as the etymology of his names will grant, yet his very description, which no man will deny, shall not justly be barred from a principal commendation.
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle terms it in his word mimēsis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end,—to teach and delight.
Of this have been three general kinds. The chief, both in antiquity and excellency, were they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God. Such were David in his Psalms; Solomon in his Song of Songs, in his Ecclesiastes and Proverbs; Moses and Deborah in their Hymns; and the writer of Job; which, beside other, the learned Emanuel Tremellius and Franciscus Junius do entitle the poetical part of the Scripture. Against these none will speak that has the Holy Ghost in due holy reverence. In this kind, though in a full wrong divinity, were Orpheus, Amphion, Homer in his Hymns, and many other, both Greeks and Romans. And this poesy must be used by whosoever will follow St. James’ counsel in singing psalms when they are merry; and I know is used with the fruit of comfort by some, when, in sorrowful pangs of their death-bringing sins, they find the consolation of the never-leaving goodness.
The second kind is of them that deal with matters philosophical, either moral, as Tyrtæus, Phocylides, and Cato; or natural, as Lucretius and Virgil’s Georgics; or astronomical, as Manilius and Pontanus; or historical, as Lucan; which who mislike, the fault is in their judgment quite out of taste, and not in the sweet food of sweetly uttered knowledge.
But because this second sort is wrapped within the fold of the proposed subject, and takes not the free course of his own invention, whether they properly be poets or no, let grammarians dispute, and go to the third, indeed right poets, of whom chiefly this question arises. Betwixt whom and these second is such a kind of difference as betwixt the meaner sort of painters, who counterfeit only such faces as are set before them, and the more excellent, who having no law but wit, bestow that in colors upon you which is fittest for the eye to see,—as the constant though lamenting look of Lucretia, when she punished in herself another’s fault; wherein he paints not Lucretia, whom he never saw, but paints the outward beauty of such a virtue. For these third be they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight; and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, has been, or shall be; but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be. These be they that, as the first and most noble sort may justly be termed vates, so these are waited on in the excellentest languages and best understandings with the fore-described name of poets. For these, indeed, do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved:—which being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed, yet want there not idle tongues to bark at them.
These be subdivided into sundry more special denominations. The most notable be the heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, iambic, elegiac, pastoral, and certain others, some of these being termed according to the matter they deal with, some by the sort of verse they liked best to write in,—for indeed the greatest part of poets have appareled their poetical inventions in that numberous kind of writing which is called verse. Indeed but appareled, verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets. For Xenophon, who did imitate so excellently as to give us effigiem justi imperii—the portraiture of a just empire under the name of Cyrus (as Cicero says of him)—made therein an absolute heroical poem; so did Heliodorus in his sugared invention of that picture of love in Theagenes and Chariclea; and yet both these wrote in prose. Which I speak to show that it is not riming and versing that makes a poet—no more than a long gown makes an advocate, who, though he pleaded in armor, should be an advocate and no soldier—but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by. Although indeed the senate of poets has chosen verse as their fittest raiment, meaning, as in matter they passed all in all, so in manner to go beyond them; not speaking, table-talk fashion, or like men in a dream, words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peizing [weighing—ed.] each syllable of each word by just proportion, according to the dignity of the subject.
Now, therefore, it shall not be amiss, first to weigh this latter sort of poetry by his works, and then by his parts; and if in neither of these anatomies he be condemnable, I hope we shall obtain a more favorable sentence. This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning, under what name soever it come forth or to what immediate end soever it be directed, the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clay lodgings, can be capable of. This, according to the inclination of man, bred many-formed impressions. For some that thought this felicity principally to be gotten by knowledge, and no knowledge to be so high or heavenly as acquaintance with the stars, gave themselves to astronomy; others, persuading themselves to be demi-gods if they knew the causes of things, became natural and supernatural philosophers. Some an admirable delight drew to music, and some the certainty of demonstration to the mathematics; but all, one and other, having this scope:—to know, and by knowledge to lift up the mind from the dungeon of the body to the enjoying his own divine essence. But when by the balance of experience it was found that the astronomer, looking to the stars, might fall into a ditch, that the inquiring philosopher might be blind in himself, and the mathematician might draw forth a straight line with a crooked heart; then lo! did proof, the overruler of opinions, make manifest, that all these are but serving sciences, which, as they have each a private end in themselves, so yet are they all directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architektonikē, which stands, as I think, in the knowledge of a man’s self, in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing, and not of well-knowing only:—even as the saddler’s next end is to make a good saddle, but his further end to serve a nobler faculty, which is horsemanship; so the horseman’s to soldiery; and the soldier not only to have the skill, but to perform the practice of a soldier. So that the ending end of all earthly learning being virtuous action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that have a most just title to be princes over all the rest; wherein, if we can show, the poet is worthy to have it before any other competitors.
Among whom as principal challengers step forth the moral philosophers; whom, me thinks, I see coming toward me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by daylight; rudely clothed, for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things; with books in their hands against glory, whereto they set their names; sophistically speaking against subtlety; and angry with any man in whom they see the foul fault of anger. These men, casting largess as they go of definitions, divisions, and distinctions, with a scornful interrogative do soberly ask whether it be possible to find any path so ready to lead a man to virtue, as that which teaches what virtue is, and teaches it not only by delivering forth his very being, his causes and effects, but also by making known his enemy, vice, which must be destroyed, and his cumbersome servant, passion, which must be mastered; by showing the generalities that contain it, and the specialities that are derived from it; lastly, by plain setting down how it extends itself out of the limits of a man’s own little world, to the government of families, and maintaining of public societies?
The historian scarcely gives leisure to the moralist to say so much, but that he, loaded with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself for the most part upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay; having much ado to accord differing writers, and to pick truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goes than how his own wit runs; curious for antiquities and inquisitive of novelties, a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table-talk; denies, in a great chafe [agitation—ed.], that any man for teaching of virtue and virtuous actions is comparable to him “I am testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriæ, magistra vitæ, nuntia vetustatis [the witness of the times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the directress of life, the messenger of antiquity—ed.]. The philosopher,” says he, “teaches a disputative virtue, but I do an active. His virtue is excellent in the dangerless Academy of Plato, but mine shows forth her honorable face in the battles of Marathon, Pharsalia, Poitiers, and Agincourt. He teaches virtue by certain abstract considerations, but I only bid you follow the footing of them that have gone before you Old-aged experience goes beyond the fine-witted philosopher; but I give the experience of many ages. Lastly, if he make the songbook, I put the learner’s hand to the lute; and if he be the guide, I am the light.” Then would he allege you innumerable examples, confirming story by story, how much the wisest senators and princes have been directed by the credit of history, as Brutus, Alphonsus of Aragon—and who not, if need be? At length the long line of their disputation makes [comes to—ed] a point in this,—that the one gives the precept, and the other the example.
Now whom shall we find, since the question stands for the highest form in the school of learning, to be moderator? Truly, as me seems, the poet; and if not a moderator, even the man that ought to carry the title from them both, and much more from all other serving sciences. Therefore compare we the poet with the historian and with the moral philosopher; and if he go beyond them both, no other human skill can match him. For as for the divine, with all reverence it is ever to be excepted, not only for having his scope as far beyond any of these as eternity exceeds a moment, but even for passing each of these in themselves. And for the lawyer, though Jus be the daughter of Justice, and Justice the chief of virtues, yet because he seeks to make men good rather formidine poeœnæ [fear of punishment] than virtutis amore [love of virtue—ed.] or, to say righter, doth not endeavor to make men good, but that their evil hurt not others; having no care, so he be a good citizen, how bad a man he be; therefore, as our wickedness makes him necessary, and necessity makes him honorable, so is he not in the deepest truth to stand in rank with these, who all endeavor to take naughtiness away, and plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls. And these four are all that any way deal in that consideration of men’s manners, which being the supreme knowledge, they that best breed it deserve the best commendation.
The philosopher therefore and the historian are they which would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, setting down with thorny arguments the bare rule, is so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived, that one that has no other guide but him shall wade in him till he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge stands so upon the abstract and general that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy that can apply what he doth understand. On the other side, the historian, wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things, and not to the general reason of things, that his example draws no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine.
Now doth the peerless poet perform both; for whatsoever the philosopher says should be done, he gives a perfect picture of it in some one by whom he presupposes it was done, he gives a perfect picture of it in in some one by whom he presupposes it was done, so as he couples the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture, I say; for he yields to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestows but a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as that other doth. For as, in outward things, to a man that had never seen an elephant or a rhinoceros, who should tell him most exquisitely all their shapes, color, bigness, and particular marks; or of a gorgeous palace, an architector, with declaring the full beauties, might well make the hearer able to repeat, as it were by rote, all he had heard, yet should never satisfy his inward conceit with being witness to itself of a true lively [vital—ed.] knowledge; but the same man, as soon as he might see those beasts well painted, or that house well in model, should straightway grow, without need of any description, to a judicial comprehending of them; so no doubt the philosopher, with his learned definitions, be it of virtues or vices, matters of public policy or private government, replenishes the memory with many infallible grounds of wisdom, which notwithstanding lie dark before the imaginative and judging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of poesy.
Tully takes much pains, and many times not without poetical helps, to make us know the force love of our country has in us. Let us but hear old Anchises speaking in the midst of Troy’s flames, or see Ulysses, in the fullness of all Calypso’s delights, bewail his absence from barren and beggarly Ithaca. Anger, the Stoics said, was a short madness. Let but Sophocles bring you Ajax on a stage, killing and whipping sheep and oxen, thinking them the army of Greeks, with their chieftains Agamemnon and Menelaus, and tell me if you have not a more familiar insight into anger, than finding in the schoolmen his genus and difference. See whether wisdom and temperance in Ulysses and Diomedes, valor in Achilles, friendship in Nisus and Euryalus, even to an ignorant man carry not an apparent shining. And, contrarily, the remorse of conscience, in Oedipus; the soon-repenting pride of Agamemnon; the self-devouring cruelty in his father Atreus; the violence of ambition in the two Theban brothers; the sour sweetness of revenge in Medea; and, to fall lower, the Terentian Gnatho and our Chaucer’s Pandar so expressed that we now use their names to signify their trades; and finally, all virtues, vices, and passions so in their own natural states laid to the view, that we seem not to hear of them, but clearly to see through them.
But even in the most excellent determination of goodness, what philosopher’s counsel can so readily direct a prince, as the feigned Cyrus in Xenophon? Or a virtuous man in all fortunes, as Æneas in Virgil? Or a whole commonwealth, as the way of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia? I say the way, because where Sir Thomas More erred, it was the fault of the man, and not of the poet; for that way of patterning a commonwealth was most absolute, though he, perchance, has not so absolutely performed it. For the question is, whether the feigned image of poesy, or the regular instruction of philosophy, has the more force in teaching. Wherein if the philosophers have more rightly showed themselves philosophers than the poets have attained to the high top of their profession,—as in truth,
Mediocribus esse poetis
Non Dii, non homines, non concessere columnœ—
[Not gods nor men nor booksellers allow poets to be mediocre—ed.]
it is, I say again, not the fault of the art, but that by few men that art can be accomplished.
Certainly, even our Savior Christ could as well have given the moral commonplaces of uncharitableness and humbleness as the divine narration of Dives and Lazarus; or of disobedience and mercy, as that heavenly discourse of the lost child and the gracious father; but that his thorough-searching wisdom knew the estate of Dives burning in hell, and of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, would more constantly, as it were, inhabit both the memory and judgment. Truly, for myself, me seems I see before mine eyes the lost child’s disdainful prodigality, turned to envy a swine’s dinner; which by the learned divines are thought not historical acts, but instructing parables.
For conclusion, I say the philosopher teaches, but he teaches obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teaches them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs; the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher. Whereof Æsop’s tales give good proof; whose pretty allegories, stealing under the formal tales of beasts, make many, more beastly than beasts, begin to hear the sound of virtue from those dumb speakers.
But now it may be alleged that if this imagining of matters be so fit for the imagination, then must the historian needs surpass, who brings you images of true matters, such as indeed were done, and not such as fantastically [fancifully—ed.] or falsely may be suggested to have been done. Truly, Aristotle himself, in his Discourse of Poesy, plainly determines this question, saying that poetry is philosophoteron and spoudaioteron, that is to say, it is more philosophical and more studiously serious than history. His reason is, because poesy deals with katholou, that is to say with the universal consideration, and the history with kathekaston, the particular.
“Now,” says he, “the universal weighs what is fit to be said or done, either in likelihood or necessity—which the poesy considers in his imposed names; and the particular only marks whether Alcibiades did, or suffered, this or that.” Thus far Aristotle. Which reason of his, as all his, is most full of reason.
For, indeed, if the question were whether it were better to have a particular act truly or falsely set down, there is no doubt which is to be chosen, no more than whether you had rather have Vespasian’s picture right as he was, or, at the painter’s pleasure, nothing resembling. But if the question be for your own use and learning, whether it be better to have it set down as it should be or as it was, then certainly is more doctrinable [instructive—ed.] the feigned Cyrus in Xenophon than the true Cyrus in Justin; and the feigned Æneas in Virgil than the right Æneas in Dares Phrygius; as to a lady that desired to fashion her countenance to the best grace, a painter should more benefit her to portrait a most sweet face, writing Canidia upon it, than to paint Canidia as she was, who, Horace swears, was foul and ill-favored.
If the poet do his part aright, he will show you in Tantalus, Atreus, and such like, nothing that is not to be shunned; in Cyrus, Æneas, Ulysses, each thing to be followed. Where the historian, bound to tell things as things were, cannot be liberal—without he will be poetical—of a perfect pattern; but, as in Alexander, or Scipio himself, show doings, some to be liked, some to be misliked; and then how will you discern what to follow but by your own discretion, which you had without reading Quintus Curtius? And whereas a man may say, though in universal consideration of doctrine the poet prevails, yet that the history, in his saying such a thing was done, doth warrant a man more in that he shall follow,—the answer is manifest: that if he stand upon that was, as if he should argue, because it rained yesterday therefore it should rain to-day, then indeed it has some advantage to a gross conceit. But if he know an example only informs a conjectured likelihood, and so go by reason, the poet doth so far exceed him as he is to frame his example to that which is most reasonable, be it in warlike, politic, or private matters; where the historian in his bare was has many times that which we call fortune to overrule the best wisdom. Many times he must tell events whereof he can yield no cause; or if he do, it must be poetically.
For, that a feigned example has as much force to teach as a true example—for as for to move, it is clear, since the feigned may be tuned to the highest key of passion—let us take one example wherein a poet and a historian do concur Herodotus and Justin do both testify that Zopyrus, king Darius’ faithful servant, seeing his master long resisted by the rebellious Babylonians, feigned himself in extreme disgrace of his king; for verifying of which he caused his own nose and ears to be cut off, and so flying to the Babylonians, was received, and for his known valor so far credited, that he did find means to deliver them over to Darius. Muchlike matter doth Livy record of Tarquinius and his son. Xenophon excellently feigns such another stratagem, performed by Abradatas in Cyrus’ behalf. Now would I fain know, if occasion be presented unto you to serve your prince by such an honest dissimulation, why do you not as well learn it of Xenophon’s fiction as of the other’s verity? and, truly, so much the better, as you shall save your nose by the bargain; for Abradatas did not counterfeit so far.
So, then, the best of the historian is subject to the poet; for whatsoever action or faction, whatsoever counsel, policy, or war-stratagem the historian is bound to recite, that may the poet, if he list, with his imitation make his own, beautifying it both for further teaching and more delighting, as it pleases him; having all, from Dante’s Heaven to his Hell, under the authority of his pen. Which if I be asked what poets have done? so as I might well name some, yet say I, and say again, I speak of the art, and not of the artificer.
Now, to that which is commonly attributed to the praise of history, in respect of the notable learning is gotten by marking the success, as though therein a man should see virtue exalted and vice punished,—truly that commendation is peculiar to poetry and far off from history. For, indeed, poetry ever sets virtue so out in her best colors, making Fortune her well-waiting handmaid, that one must needs be enamored of her. Well may you see. Ulysses in a storm, and in other hard plights; but they are but exercises of patience and magnanimity, to make them shine the more in the near following prosperity. And, of the contrary part, if evil men come to the stage, they ever go out—as the tragedy writer answered to one that misliked the show of such persons—so manacled as they little animate folks to follow them. But the historian, being captived to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well-doing, and an encouragement to unbridled wickedness. For see we not valiant Miltiades rot in his fetters? The just Phocion and the accomplished Socrates put to death like traitors? The cruel Severus live prosperously? The excellent Severus miserably murdered? Sylla and Marius dying in their beds? Pompey and Cicero slain then, when they would have thought exile a happiness? See we not virtuous Cato driven to kill himself, and rebel Cæsar so advanced that his name yet, after sixteen hundred years, lasts in the highest honor? And mark but even Cæsar’s own words of the forenamed Sylla—who in that only did honestly, to put down his dishonest tyranny—literas nescivit, [he was without learning—ed.] as if want of learning caused him to do well. He meant it not by poetry, which, not content with earthly plagues, devises new punishments in hell for tyrants; nor yet by philosophy, which teaches occidendos esse [that they are to be killed—ed.] but, no doubt, by skill in history, for that indeed can afford you Cypselus, Periander, Phalaris, Dionysius, and I know not how many more of the same kennel, that speed well enough in their abominable injustice or usurpation.
I conclude, therefore, that he excels history, not only in furnishing the mind with knowledge, but in setting it forward to that which deserves to be called and accounted good; which setting forward, and moving to well-doing, indeed sets the laurel crown upon the poet as victorious, not only of the historian, but over the philosopher, howsoever in teaching it may be questionable. For suppose it be granted—that which I suppose with great reason may be denied—that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much Philophilosophos [a friend to the philosopher—ed.] as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what so much good doth that teaching bring forth—I speak still of moral doctrine—as that it moves one to do that which it doth teach? For, as Aristotle says, it is not Gnosis [knowing] but Praxis [doing—ed.] must be the fruit; and how Praxis cannot be, without being moved to practice, it is no hard matter to consider. The philosopher shows you the way, he informs you of the particularities, as well of the tediousness of the way, as of the pleasant lodging you shall have when your journey is ended, as of the many by-turnings that may divert you from your way; but this is to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive, studious painfulness; which constant desire whosoever has in him, has already passed half the hardness of the way, and therefore is beholding to the philosopher but for the other half. Nay, truly, learned men have learnedly thought, that where once reason has so much overmastered passion as that the mind has a free desire to do well, the inward light each mind has in itself is as good as a philosopher’s book; since in nature we know it is well to do well, and what is well and what is evil, although not in the words of art which philosophers bestow upon us; for out of natural conceit the philosophers drew it. But to be moved to do that which we know, or to be moved with desire to know, hoc opus, hic labor est [this is the work, this is the labor—ed.]
Now therein of all sciences—I speak still of human, and according to the human conceit—is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but gives so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it. Nay, he doth, as if your journey should lie through a fair vineyard, at the very first give you a cluster of grapes, that full of that taste you may long to pass further. He begins not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent [margin—ed.] with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness. But he comes to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music; and with a tale, forsooth, he comes unto you, with a tale which holds children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner, and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue; even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things, by hiding them in such other as to have a pleasant taste,—which, if one should begin to tell them the nature of the aloes or rhubarb they should receive, would sooner take their physic at their ears than at their mouth. So is it in men, most of which are childish in the best things, till they be cradled in their graves,—glad they will be to hear the tales of Hercules, Achilles, Cyrus, Æneas; and, hearing them, must needs hear the right description of wisdom, valor, and justice; which, if they had been barely, that is to say philosophically, set out, they would swear they be brought to school again.
That imitation whereof poetry is, has the most conveniency to nature of all other; insomuch that, as Aristotle says, those things which in themselves are horrible, as cruel battles, unnatural monsters, are made in poetical imitation delightful. Truly, I have known men, that even with reading Amadis de Gaule, which, God knows, wants much of a perfect poesy, have found their hearts moved to the exercise of courtesy, liberality, and especially courage. Who reads Æneas carrying old Anchises on his back, that wishes not it were his fortune to perform so excellent an act? Whom do not those words of Turnus move, the tale of Turnus having planted his image in the imagination?
Fugientem haec terra videbit?
Usque adeone mori miserum est?
[Shall this land see him in flight? Is it so wretched to die?—ed.]
Where the philosophers, as they scorn to delight, so must they be content little to move—saving wrangling whether virtue be the chief or the only good, whether the contemplative or the active life do excel—which Plato and Boethius well knew, and therefore made Mistress Philosophy very often borrow the masking raiment of Poesy. For even those hard-hearted evil men who think virtue a school-name, and know no other good but indulgere genio [indulge one’s inclination—ed.], and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the philosopher, and feel not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be content to be delighted, which is all the good-fellow poet seems to promise; and so steal to see the form of goodness—which seen, they cannot but love—ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries.
Infinite proofs of the strange effects of this poetical invention might be alleged; only two shall serve, which are so often remembered as I think all men know them. The one of Menenius Agrippa, who, when the whole people of Rome had resolutely divided themselves from the senate, with apparent show of utter ruin, though he were, for that time, an excellent orator, came not among them upon trust either of figurative speeches or cunning insinuations, and much less with far-fetched maxims of philosophy, which, especially if they were Platonic, they must have learned geometry before they could well have conceived; but, forsooth, he behaves himself like a homely and familiar poet. He tells them a tale, that there was a time when all parts of the body made a mutinous conspiracy against the belly, which they thought devoured the fruits of each other’s labor; they concluded they would let so unprofitable a spender starve. In the end, to be short—for the tale is notorious, and as notorious that it was a tale—with punishing the belly they plagued themselves. This, applied by him, wrought such effect in the people, as I never read that ever words brought forth but then so sudden and so good an alteration; for upon reasonable conditions a perfect reconcilement ensued.
The other is of Nathan the prophet, who, when the holy David had so far forsaken God as to confirm adultery with murder, when he was to do the tenderest office of a friend, in laying his own shame before his eyes,—sent by God to call again so chosen a servant, how doth he it but by telling of a man whose beloved lamb was ungratefully taken from his bosom? The application most divinely true, but the discourse itself feigned; which made David (I speak of the second and instrumental cause) as in a glass to see his own filthiness, as that heavenly Psalm of Mercy well testifies.
By these, therefore, examples and reasons, I think it may be manifest that the poet, with that same hand of delight, doth draw the mind more effectually than any other art doth. And so a conclusion not unfitly ensues: that as virtue is the most excellent resting-place for all worldly learning to make his end of, so poetry, being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman.
But I am content not only to decipher him by his works—although works in commendation or dispraise must ever hold a high authority—but more narrowly will examine his parts; so that, as in a man, though all together may carry a presence full of majesty and beauty, perchance in some one defectious piece we may find a blemish.
Now in his parts, kinds, or species, as you list to term them, it is to be noted that some poesies have coupled together two or three kinds,—as tragical and comical, whereupon is risen the tragi-comical; some, in the like manner, have mingled prose and verse, as Sannazzaro and Boethius; some have mingled matters heroical and pastoral; but that comes all to one in this question, for, if severed they be good, the conjunction cannot be hurtful. Therefore, perchance forgetting some, and leaving some as needless to be remembered, it shall not be amiss in a word to cite the special kinds, to see what faults may be found in the right use of them.
Is it then the pastoral poem which is misliked?—for perchance where the hedge is lowest they will soonest leap over. Is the poor pipe disdained, which sometimes out of Meliboeœus’ mouth can show the misery of people under hard lords and ravening soldiers, and again, by Tityrus, what blessedness is derived to them that lie lowest from the goodness of them that sit highest? sometimes, under the pretty tales of wolves and sheep, can include the whole considerations of wrong-doing and patience; sometimes show that contention for trifles can get but a trifling victory; where perchance a man may see that even Alexander and Darius, when they strove who should be cock of this world’s dunghill, the benefit they got was that the after-livers may say:
Hœc memini et victum frustra contendere Thyrsim;
Ex illo Corydon, Corydon est tempore nobis
[I remember such things, and that the defeated Thyrsis struggled vainly; From that time, with us Corydon is the Corydon—ed.]
Or is it the lamenting elegiac, which in a kind heart would move rather pity than blame; who bewails, with the great philosopher Heraclitus, the weakness of mankind and the wretchedness of the world; who surely is to be praised, either for compassionate accompanying just causes of lamentation, or for rightly painting out how weak be the passions of woefulness?
Is it the bitter and wholesome iambic, who rubs the galled mind, in making shame the trumpet of villainy with bold and open crying out against naughtiness?
Or the satiric? who
Omne vafer vitium ridenti tangit amico;
[The sly fellow touches every vice while making his friend
who sportingly never leaves till he make a man laugh at folly, and at length ashamed to laugh at himself, which he cannot avoid without avoiding the folly; who, while circum prœcordia ludit [he plays around his heartstrings], gives us to feel how many headaches a passionate life brings us to,—how, when all is done,
Est Ulubris, animus si nos non deficit œquus .
[If we do not lack the equable temperament, it is in
Ulubrae (noted for desolation)—ed.]
No, perchance it is the comic; whom naughty play-makers and stage-keepers have justly made odious. To the argument of abuse I will answer after. Only thus much now is to be said, that the comedy in an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one. Now, as in geometry the oblique must be known as well as the right, and in arithmetic the odd as well as the even; so in the actions of our life who sees not the filthiness of evil, wants a great foil to perceive the beauty of virtue. This doth the comedy handle so, in our private and domestic matters, as with hearing it we get, as it were, an experience what is to be looked for of a niggardly Demea, of a crafty Davus, of a flattering Gnatho, of a vain-glorious Thraso; and not only to know what effects are to be expected, but to know who be such, by the signifying badge given them by the comedian. And little reason has any man to say that men learn evil by seeing it so set out; since, as I said before, there is no man living, but by the force truth has in nature, no sooner sees these men play their parts, but wishes them in pistrinum [in the mill (place of punishment)—ed.], although perchance the sack of his own faults lie so behind his back, that he sees not himself to dance the same measure,—whereto yet nothing can more open his eyes than to find his own actions contemptibly set forth.
So that the right use of comedy will, I think, by nobody be blamed, and much less of the high and excellent tragedy, that opens the greatest wounds, and shows forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that makes kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humors; that with stirring the effects of admiration and commiseration teaches the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilded roofs are builded; that makes us know:
Qui sceptra sœvus duro imperio regit,
Timet timentes, metus in auctorem redit
[The savage king who wields the scepter with cruel sway
Fears those who fear him; dread comes back to the head of
But how much it can move, Plutarch yields a notable testimony of the abominable tyrant Alexander Pheræus; from whose eyes a tragedy, well made and represented, drew abundance of tears, who without all pity had murdered infinite numbers, and some of his own blood; so as he that was not ashamed to make matters for tragedies, yet could not resist the sweet violence of a tragedy. And if it wrought no further good in him, it was that he, in despite of himself, withdrew himself from hearkening to that which might mollify his hardened heart. But it is not the tragedy they do mislike, for it were too absurd to cast out so excellent a representation of whatsoever is most worthy to be learned.
Is it the lyric that most displeases, who with his tuned lyre and well accorded voice, gives praise, the reward of virtue, to virtuous acts; who gives moral precepts and natural problems; who sometimes raises up his voice to the height of the heavens, in singing the lauds of the immortal God? Certainly I must confess mine own barbarousness; I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crowder [a public entertainer, singing for a crowd—ed.], with no rougher voice than rude style; which being so evil appareled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar? In Hungary I have seen it the manner of all feasts, and other such meetings, to have songs of their ancestors’ valor, which that right soldierlike nation think the chiefest kindlers of brave courage. The incomparable Lacedæmonians did not only carry that kind of music ever with them to the field, but even at home, as such songs were made, so were they all content to be singers of them; when the lusty men were to tell what they did, the old men what they had done, and the young men what they would do. And where a man may say that Pindar many times praises highly victories of small moment, matters rather of sport than virtue; as it may be answered, it was the fault of the poet, and not of the poetry, so indeed the chief fault was in the time and custom of the Greeks, who set those toys at so high a price that Philip of Macedon reckoned a horserace won at Olympus among his three fearful felicities. But as the unimitable Pindar often did, so is that kind most capable and most fit to awake the thoughts from the sleep of idleness, to embrace honorable enterprises.
There rests the heroical, whose very name, I think, should daunt all backbiters. For by what conceit can a tongue be directed to speak evil of that which draws with it no less champions than Achilles, Cyrus, Æneas, Turnus Tydeus, Rinaldo? who doth not only teach and move to a truth, but teaches and moves to the most high and excellent truth; who makes magnanimity and justice shine through all misty fearfulness and foggy desires; who, if the saying of Plato and Tully be true, that who could see virtue would be wonderfully ravished with the love of her beauty, this man sets her out to make her more lovely, in her holiday apparel, to the eye of any that will deign not to disdain until they understand. But if anything be already said in the defense of sweet poetry, all concurs to the maintaining the heroical, which is not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry. For, as the image of each action stirs and instructs the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflames the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy. Only let Æneas be worn in the tablet of your memory, how he governs himself in the ruin of his country; in the preserving his old father, and carrying away his religious ceremonies; in obeying the god’s commandment to leave Dido, though not only all passionate kindness, but even the human consideration of virtuous gratefulness, would have craved other of him; how in storms, how in storms, how in sports, how in war, how in peace, how a fugitive, how victorious, how besieged, how besieging, how to strangers, how to allies, how to enemies, how to his own; lastly, how in his inward self, and how in his outward government; and I think, in a mind most prejudiced with a prejudicating humor, he will be found in excellency fruitful,—yea, even as Horace says, melius Chrysippo et Crantore [better than Chrysippus and Crantor (famous philosophers)—ed.]. But truly I imagine it falls out with these poet-whippers as with some good women who often are sick, but in faith they cannot tell where. So the name of poetry is odious to them, but neither his cause nor effects, neither the sum that contains him nor the particularities descending from him, give any fast handle to their carping dispraise.
Since, then, poetry is of all human learnings the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learnings have taken their beginnings, since it is so universal that no learned nation doth despise it, nor barbarous nation is without it; since both Roman and Greek gave divine names unto it, the one of “prophesying,” the other of “making,” and that indeed that name of “making” is fit for him, considering that whereas other arts retain themselves within their subjects, and receive, as it were, their being from it, the poet only brings his own stuff, and doth not learn a conceit out of a matter, but makes matter for a conceit; since neither his description nor his end contains any evil, the thing described cannot be evil; since his effects be so good as to teach goodness, and delight the learners of it; since therein—namely in moral doctrine, the chief of all knowledges—he doth not only far pass the historian, but for instructing is well nigh comparable to the philosopher, and for moving leaves him behind him; since the Holy Scripture, wherein there is no uncleanness, has whole parts in it poetical, and that even our Savior Christ vouchsafed to use the flowers of it; since all his kinds are not only in their united forms, but in their several dissections fully commendable; I think, and think I think rightly, the laurel crown appointed for triumphant captains doth worthily, of all other learnings, honor the poet’s triumph.
But because we have ears as well as tongues, and that the lightest reasons that may be will seem to weigh greatly, if nothing be put in the counter-balance, let us hear, and, as well as we can, ponder, what objections be made against this art, which may be worthy either of yielding or answering.
First, truly, I note not only in these misomousoi, poet-haters, but in all that kind of people who seek a praise by dispraising others, that they do prodigally spend a great many wandering words in quips and scoffs, carping and taunting at each thing which, by stirring the spleen, may stay the brain from a through-beholding the worthiness of the subject. Those kind of objections, as they are full of a very idle easiness—since there is nothing of so sacred a majesty but that an itching tongue may rub itself upon it—so deserve they no other answer, but, instead of laughing at the jest, to laugh at the jester. We know a playing wit can praise the discretion of an ass, the comfortableness of being in debt, and the jolly commodity of being sick of the plague. So of the contrary side, if we will turn Ovid’s verse,
Ut lateat virtus proximitate mali,
“that good lie hid in nearness of the evil,” Agrippa will be as merry in showing the vanity of science, as Erasmus was in commending of folly; neither shall any man or matter escape some touch of these smiling railers. But for Erasmus and Agrippa, they had another foundation than the superficial part would promise Marry, these other pleasant fault-finders, who will correct the verb before they understand the noun, and confute others’ knowledge before they confirm their own, I would have them only remember that scoffing comes not of wisdom; so as the best title in true English they get with their merriments is to be called good fools,—for so have our grave forefathers ever termed that humorous kind of jesters.
But that which gives greatest scope to their scorning humor is riming and versing. It is already said, and as I think truly said, it is not riming and versing that makes poesy. One may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry. But yet presuppose it were inseparable—as indeed it seems Scaliger judges—truly it were an inseparable commendation. For if oratio next to ratio, speech next to reason, be the greatest gift bestowed upon mortality, that cannot be praiseless which doth most polish that blessing of speech; which considers each word, not only as a man may say by his forcible quality, but by his best-measured quantity; carrying even in themselves a harmony,—without, perchance, number, measure, order, proportion be in our time grown odious.
But lay aside the just praise it has by being the only fit speech for music—music, I say, the most divine striker of the senses—thus much is undoubtedly true, that if reading be foolish without remembering, memory being the only treasurer of knowledge, those words which are fittest for memory are likewise most convenient for knowledge. Now that verse far exceeds prose in the knitting up of the memory, the reason is manifest; the words, besides their delight, which has a great affinity to memory, being so set, as one cannot be lost but the whole work fails; which, accusing itself, calls the remembrance back to itself, and so most strongly confirms it. Besides, one word so, as it were, begetting another, as, be it in rime or measured verse, by the former a man shall have a near guess to the follower. Lastly, even they that have taught the art of memory have showed nothing so apt for it as a certain room divided into many places, well and thoroughly known; now that has the verse in effect perfectly, every word having his natural seat, which seat must needs make the word remembered. But what needs more in a thing so known to all men? Who is it that ever was a scholar that doth not carry away some verses of Virgil, Horace, or Cato, which in his youth he learned, and even to his old age serve him for hourly lessons? as:
Percontatorem fugito, nam garrulus idem est
[Stay away from an inquisitive man: he is sure to be
[and] Dum sibi quisque placet, credula turba sumus
[While each pleases himself, we are a credulous mob—ed]
But the fitness it has for memory is notably proved by all delivery of arts, wherein, for the most part, from grammar to logic, mathematic, physic, and the rest, the rules chiefly necessary to be borne away are compiled in verses. So that verse being in itself sweet and orderly, and being best for memory, the only handle of knowledge; it must be in jest that any man can speak against it.
Now then go we to the most important imputations laid to the poor poets; for aught I can yet learn they are these.
First, that there being many other more fruitful knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them than in this.
Secondly, that it is the mother of lies.
Thirdly, that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires, with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent’s tail of sinful fancies,—and herein especially comedies give the largest field to ear [plough—ed] as Chaucer says; how, both in other nations and in ours, before poets did soften us, we were full of courage, given to martial exercises, the pillars of manlike liberty, and not lulled asleep in shady idleness with poets’ pastimes.
And, lastly and chiefly, they cry out with an open mouth, as if they had overshot Robin Hood, that Plato banished them out of his Commonwealth. Truly this is much, if there be much truth in it.
First, to the first, that a man might better spend his time is a reason indeed; but it doth, as they say, but petere principium [to return or revert to the beginning—ed.] For if it be, as I affirm, that no learning is so good as that which teaches and moves to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poesy, then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed. And certainly, though a man should grant their first assumption, it should follow, methinks, very unwillingly, that good is not good because better is better. But I still and utterly deny that there is sprung out of earth a more fruitful knowledge.
To the second, therefore, that they should be the principal liars, I answer paradoxically, but truly, I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar; and though he would, as a poet can scarcely be a liar. The astronomer, with his cousin the geometrician, can hardly escape when they take upon them to measure the height of the stars. How often, think you, do the physicians lie, when they aver things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of souls drowned in a potion before they come to his ferry? And no less of the rest which take upon them to affirm. Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lies. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirms. The poet never makes any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He cites not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calls the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he tells them not for true he lies not; without we will say that Nathan lied in his speech, before alleged, to David; which, as a wicked man durst scarce say, so think I none so simple would say that Æsop lied in the tales of his beasts; for who thinks that Æsop wrote it for actually true, were well worthy to have his name chronicled among the beasts he writes of. What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing. Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes? If then a man can arrive at that child’s age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written. And therefore, as in history looking for truth, they may go away full-fraught with falsehood, so in poesy looking but for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative ground—plot of a profitable invention. But hereto is replied that the poets give names to men they write of, which argues a conceit of an actual truth, and so, not being true, proves a falsehood. And doth the lawyer lie then, when, under the names of John of the Stile, and John of the Nokes, he puts his case? But that is easily answered: their naming of men is but to make their picture the more lively, and not to build any history. Painting men, they cannot leave men nameless. We see we cannot play at chess but that we must give names to our chess-men; and yet, me thinks, he were a very partial champion of truth that would say we lied for giving a piece of wood the reverend title of a bishop. The poet names Cyrus and Æneas no other way than to show what men of their fames, fortunes, and estates should do.
Their third is, how much it abuses men’s wit, training it to wanton sinfulness and lustful love. For indeed that is the principal, if not the only, abuse I can hear alleged. They say the comedies rather teach than reprehend amorous conceits. They say the lyric is larded with passionate sonnets, the elegiac weeps the want of his mistress, and that even to the heroical Cupid has ambitiously climbed Alas! Love, I would thou couldst as well defend thyself as thou canst offend others! I would those on whom thou dost attend could either put thee away, or yield good reason why they keep thee! But grant love of beauty to be a beastly fault, although it be very hard, since only man, and no beast, has that gift to discern beauty; grant that lovely name of Love to deserve all hateful reproaches, although even some of my masters the philosophers spent a good deal of their lamp-oil in setting forth the excellency of it; grant, I say, whatsoever they will have granted that not only love, but lust, but vanity, but, if they list, scurrility possesses many leaves of the poets’ books; yet think I when this is granted, they will find their sentence may with good manners put the last words foremost, and not say that poetry abuses man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuses poetry.
For I will not deny, but that man’s wit may make poesy, which should be eikastike, which some learned have defined “figuring forth good things,” to be phantastike, which doth contrariwise infect the fancy with unworthy objects; as the painter that should give to the eye either some excellent perspective, or some fine picture fit for building or fortification, or containing in it some no table example, as Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, Judith killing Holofernes, David fighting with Goliath, may leave those, and please an ill pleased eye with wanton shows of better-hidden matters. But what! shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Nay, truly, though I yield that poesy may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of his sweet charming force, it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused, that contrariwise it is a good reason, that whatsoever, being abused, doth most harm, being rightly used—and upon the right use each thing receives his title—doth most good. Do we not see the skill of physic, the best rampire [rampart—ed] to our often-assaulted bodies, being abused, teach poison, the most violent destroyer? Doth not knowledge of law, whose end is to even and right all things, being abused, grow the crooked fosterer of horrible injuries? Doth not, to go in the highest, God’s word abused breed heresy, and his name abused become blasphemy? Truly a needle cannot do much hurt, and as truly—with leave of ladies be it spoken—it cannot do much good. With a sword thou may kill thy father, and with a sword thou may defend thy prince and country. So that, as in their calling poets the fathers of lies they say nothing, so in this their argument of abuse they prove the commendation.
They allege herewith, that before poets began to be in price our nation has set their hearts’ delight upon action, and not upon imagination; rather doing things worthy to be written, than writing things fit to be done. What that before-time was. I think scarcely Sphinx can tell; since no memory is so ancient that has the precedence of poetry. And certain it is that, in our plainest homeliness, yet never was the Albion nation without poetry. Marry, this argument, though it be leveled against poetry, yet is it indeed a chainshot against all learning,—or bookishness, as they commonly term it. Of such mind were certain Goths, of whom it is written that, having in the spoil of a famous city taken a fair library, one hangman—belike fit to execute the fruits of their wits—who had murdered a great number of bodies, would have set fire in it “No,” said another very gravely, “take heed what you do; for while they are busy about these toys, we shall with more leisure conquer their countries.” This, indeed, is the ordinary doctrine of ignorance, and many words sometimes I have heard spent in it; but because this reason is generally against all learning, as well as poetry, or rather all learning but poetry; because it were too large a digression to handle, or at least too superfluous, since it is manifest that all government of action is to be gotten by knowledge, and knowledge best by gathering many knowledges, which is reading; I only, with Horace, to him that is of that opinion
Jubeo stultum esse libenter
[I gladly bid him to be a fool—ed.]
for as for poetry itself, it is the freest from this objection, for poetry is the companion of the camps. I dare undertake, Orlando Furioso or honest King Arthur will never displease a soldier; but the quiddity of ens, and prima materia, will hardly agree with a corselet. And therefore, as I said in the beginning, even Turks and Tartars are delighted with poets. Homer, a Greek, flourished before Greece flourished; and if to a slight conjecture a conjecture may be opposed, truly it may seem, that as by him their learned men took almost their first light of knowledge, so their active men received their first motions of courage. Only Alexander’s example may serve, who by Plutarch is accounted of such virtue, that Fortune was not his guide but his footstool; whose acts speak for him, though Plutarch did not; indeed the phoenix of warlike princes. This Alexander left his schoolmaster, living Aristotle, behind him, but took dead Homer with him. He put the philosopher Callistheries to death for his seeming philosophical, indeed mutinous, stubbornness; but the chief thing he was ever heard to wish for was that Homer had been alive. He well found he received more bravery of mind by the pattern of Achilles, than by hearing the definition of fortitude. And therefore if Cato misliked Fulvius for carrying Ennius with him to the field, it may be answered that if Cato misliked it, the noble Fulvius liked it, or else he had not done it. For it was not the excellent Cato Uticensis, whose authority. I would much more have reverenced; but it was the former, in truth a bitter punisher of faults, but else a man that had never sacrificed to the Graces. He misliked and cried out upon all Greek learning; and yet, being fourscore years old, began to learn it, belike fearing that Pluto understood not Latin Indeed, the Roman laws allowed no person to be carried to the wars but he that was in the soldiers’ roll. And therefore though Cato misliked his unmustered person, he misliked not his work. And if he had, Scipio Nasica, judged by common consent the best Roman, loved him. Both the other Scipio brothers, who had by their virtues no less surnames than of Asia and Afric, so loved him that they caused his body to be buried in their sepulcher. So as Cato’s authority being but against his person, and that answered with so far greater than himself, is herein of no validity.
But now, indeed, my burthen is great, that Plato’s name is laid upon me, whom I must confess, of all philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence; and with great reason, since of all philosophers he is the most poetical; yet if he will defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded, let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it.
First, truly, a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets. For, indeed, after the philosophers had picked out of the sweet mysteries of poetry the right discerning true points of knowledge, they forthwith, putting it in method, and making a school-art of that which the poets did only teach by a divine delightfulness, beginning to spurn at their guides, like ungrateful prentices were not content to set up shops for themselves, but sought by all means to discredit their masters; which by the force of delight being barred them, the less they could overthrow them the more they hated them. For, indeed, they found for Homer seven cities strove who should have him for their citizen; where many cities banished philosophers, as not fit members to live among them. For only repeating certain of Euripides’ verses, many Athenians had their lives saved of the Syracusans, where the Athenians themselves thought many philosophers unworthy to live. Certain poets as Simonides and Pindar, had so prevailed with Heiro the First, that of a tyrant they made him a just king; where Plato could do so little with Dionysius, that he himself of a philosopher was made a slave. But who should do thus, I confess, should requite the objections made against poets with like cavillations against philosophers; as likewise one should do that should bid one read Phædrus or Symposium in Plato, or the Discourse of Love in Plutarch, and see whether any poet do authorize abominable filthiness, as they do.
Again, a man might ask out of what commonwealth Plato doth banish them. In sooth, thence where he himself allows community of women. So as belike this banishment grew not for effeminate wantonness, since little should poetical sonnets be hurtful when a man might have what woman he listed. But I honor philosophical instructions, and bless the wits which bred them, so as they be not abused, which is likewise stretched to poetry. Saint Paul himself, who yet, for the credit of poets, alleges twice two poets, and one of them by the name of a prophet, sets a watchword upon philosophy,—indeed upon the abuse. So doth Plato upon the abuse, not upon poetry. Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence, and therefore would not have the youth depraved with such opinions. Herein may much be said; let this suffice: the poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced. For all the Greek stories can well testify that the very religion of that time stood upon many and many-fashioned gods; not taught so by the poets, but followed according to their nature of imitation. Who list may read in Plutarch the discourses of Isis and Osiris, of the Cause why Oracles ceased, of the Divine Providence, and see whether the theology of that nation stood not upon such dreams,—which the poets indeed superstitiously observed; and truly, since they had not the light of Christ, did much better in it than the philosophers, who, shaking off superstition, brought in atheism.
Plato therefore, whose authority I had much rather justly construe than unjustly resist, meant not in general of poets, in those words of which Julius Scaliger says, Qua authoritate barbari quidam atque hispidi, abuti velint ad poetas e republica exigendos [which authority (Plato’s) some barbarians want to abuse, in order to banish poets from the state—ed] but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity, whereof now, without further law, Christianity has taken away all the hurtful belief, perchance, as he thought, nourished by the then esteemed poets. And a man need go no further than to Plato himself to know his meaning; who, in his dialogue called Ion, gives high and rightly divine commendation unto poetry. So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary. For, indeed, I had much rather, since truly I may do it, show their mistaking of Plato, under whose lion’s skin they would make an ass—like braying against poesy, than go about to overthrow his authority; whom, the wiser a man is, the more just cause he shall find to have in admiration; especially since he attributes unto poesy more than myself do, namely to be a very inspiring of a divine force, far above man’s wit, as in the forenamed dialogue is apparent.
Of the other side, who would show the honors have been by the best sort of judgments granted them, a whole sea of examples would present themselves: Alexanders, Cæsars, Scipios, all favorers of poets; Lælius, called the Roman Socrates, himself a poet, so as part of Heautontimoroumenos in Terence was supposed to be made by him. And even the Greek Socrates, whom Apollo confirmed to be the only wise man, is said to have spent part of his old time in putting Æsop’s Fables into verses; and therefore full evil should it become his scholar, Plato, to put such words in his master’s mouth against poets. But what needs more? Aristotle writes the Art of Poesy; and why, if it should not be written? Plutarch teaches the use to be gathered of them; and how, if they should not be read? And who reads Plutarch’s either history or philosophy, shall find he trims both their garments with guards [ornaments—ed.] of poesy. But I list not to defend poesy with the help of his underling historiography. Let it suffice that it is a fit soil for praise to dwell upon; and what dispraise may set upon it, is either easily overcome, or transformed into just commendation.
So that since the excellencies of it may be so easily and so justly confirmed, and the low-creeping objections so soon trodden down: it not being an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage; not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit; not banished, but honored by Plato; let us rather plant more laurels for to engarland our poets’ heads—which honor of being laureate, as besides them only triumphant captains were, is a sufficient authority to show the price they ought to be held in—than suffer the ill-savored breath of such wrong speakers once to blow upon the clear springs of poesy.
But since I have run so long a career in this matter, methinks, before I give my pen a full stop, it shall be but a little more lost time to inquire why England, the mother of excellent minds, should be grown so hard a stepmother to poets; who certainly in wit ought to pass all others, since all only proceeds from their wit, being indeed makers of themselves, not takers of others. How can I but exclaim,
Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine læso?
[O Muse, recall to me the causes by which her divine will
had been slighted—ed.]
Sweet poesy! that has anciently had kings, emperors, senators, great captains, such as, besides a thousand others, David, Adrian, Sophocles, Germanicus, not only to favor poets, but to be poets; and of our nearer times can present for her patrons a Robert, King of Sicily; the great King Francis of France; King James of Scotland; such cardinals as Bembus and Bibbiena; such famous preachers and teachers as Beza and Melancthon; so learned philosophers as Fracastorius and Scaliger; so great orators as Pontanus and Muretus; so piercing wits as George Buchanan; so grave counselors as—besides many, but before all—that Hospital of France, than whom, I think, that realm never brought forth a more accomplished judgment more firmly builded upon virtue; I say these, with numbers of others, not only to read others’ poesies but to poetize for others’ reading. That poesy, thus embraced in all other places, should only find in our time a hard welcome in England, I think the very earth laments it, and therefore decks our soil with fewer laurels than it was accustomed. For heretofore poets have in England also flourished; and, which is to be noted, even in those time when the trumpet of Mars did sound loudest. And now that an over-faint quietness should seem to strew the house for poets, they are almost in as good reputation as the mountebanks at Venice. Truly even that, as of the one side it gives great praise to poesy, which, like Venus—but to better purpose—has rather be troubled in the net with Mars, than enjoy the homely quiet of Vulcan; so serves it for a piece of a reason why they are less grateful to idle England, which now can scarce endure the pain of a pen. Upon this necessarily follows, that base men with servile wits undertake it, who think it enough if they can be rewarded of the printer. And so as Epaminondas is said, with the honor of his virtue to have made an office, by his exercising it, which before was contemptible, to become highly respected; so these men, no more but setting their names to it, by their own disgracefulness disgrace the most graceful poesy. For now, as if all the Muses were got with child to bring forth bastard poets, without any commission they do post over the banks of Helicon, till they make their readers more weary than posthorses; while, in the meantime, they,
Queis meliore luto finxit præcordia Titan,
[On hearts the Titan has formed better clay—ed.]
are better content to suppress the outflowings of their wit, than by publishing them to be accounted knights of the same order.
But I that, before ever I dust aspire unto the dignity, am admitted into the company of the paper-blurrers, do find the very true cause of our wanting estimation is want of desert, taking upon us to be poets in despite of Pallas [though lacking inspiration—ed.]. Now wherein we want desert were a thank-worthy labor to express; but if I knew, I should have mended myself. But as I never desired the title, so have I neglected the means to come by it; only, overmastered by some thoughts, I yielded an inky tribute unto them Marry, they that delight in poesy itself should seek to know what they do and how they do; and especially look themselves in an unflattering glass of reason, if they be inclinable unto it. For poesy must not be drawn by the ears, it must be gently led, or rather it must lead; which was partly the cause that made the ancient learned affirm it was a divine gift, and no human skill, since all other knowledges lie ready for any that has strength of wit, a poet no industry can make if his own genius be not carried into it. And therefore is it an old proverb: Orator fit, poeta nascitur [the orator is made, the poet is born—ed.]. Yet confess I always that, as the fertilest ground must be manured [cultivated—ed.], so must the highest-flying wit have a Dædalus to guide him. That Dædalus, they say, both in this and in other, has three wings to bear itself up into the air of due commendation: that is, art, imitation, and exercise. But these neither artificial rules nor imitative patterns, we much cumber ourselves withal. Exercise indeed we do, but that very fore-backwardly, for where we should exercise to know, we exercise as having known; and so is our brain delivered of much matter which never was begotten by knowledge. For there being two principal parts, matter to be expressed by words, and words to express the matter, in neither we use art or imitation rightly. Our matter is quodlibet indeed, though wrongly performing Ovid’s verse,
Quicquid conabar dicere, versus erat;
[Whatever I tried to say was poetry—ed.]
never marshalling it into any assured rank, that almost the readers cannot tell where to find themselves.
Chaucer, undoubtedly, did excellently in his Troilus and Cressida; of whom, truly, I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk so stumblingly after him. Yet had he great wants, fit to be forgiven in so revered antiquity. I account the Mirror of Magistrates meetly furnished of beautiful parts; and in the Earl of Surrey’s lyrics many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble mind. The Shepherd’s Calendar has much poetry in his eclogues, indeed worthy the reading, if I be not deceived. That same framing of his style to an old rustic language I dare not allow, since neither Theocritus in Greek, Virgil in Latin, nor Sannazzaro in Italian did affect it. Besides these, I do not remember to have seen but few (to speak boldly) printed, that have poetical sinews in them. For proof whereof, let but most of the verses be put in prose, and then ask the meaning, and it will be found that one verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first what should be at the last; which becomes a confused mass of words, with a tinkling sound of rime, barely accompanied with reason.
Our tragedies and comedies not without cause cried out against, observing rules neither of honest civility nor of skilful poetry, excepting Gorboduc,—again I say of those that I have seen. Which notwithstanding as it is full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca’s style, and as full of notable morality, which it doth most delightfully teach, and so obtain the very end of poesy; yet in truth it is very defectious in the circumstances, which grieves me, because it might not remain as an exact model of all tragedies. For it is faulty both in place and time, the two necessary companions of all corporal actions. For where the stage should always represent but one place, and the uttermost time presupposed in it should be, both by Aristotle’s precept and common reason, but one day; there is both many days and many places inartificially imagined.
But if it be so in Gorboduc, how much more in all the rest? where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms, that the player, when he comes in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or else the tale will not be conceived. Now ye shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of shipwreck in the same place, and then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave. While in the mean time two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field?
Now of time they are much more liberal. For ordinary it is that two young princes fall in love; after many traverses she is got with child, delivered of a fair boy, he is lost, grows a man, falls in love, and is ready to get another child,—and all this in two hours’ space; which how absurd it is in sense even sense may imagine, and art has taught, and all ancient examples justified, and at this day the ordinary players in Italy will not err in. Yet will some bring in an example of Eunuchus in Terence, that contains matter of two days, yet far short of twenty years. True it is, and so was it to be played in two days, yet far short of twenty years. True it is, and so was it to be played in two days, and so fitted to the time it set forth. And though Plautus have in one place done amiss, let us hit with him, and not miss with him. But they will say, How then shall we set forth a story which contains both many places and many times? And do they not know that a tragedy is tied to the laws of poesy, and not of history; not bound to follow the story, but having liberty either to feign a quite new matter, or to frame the history to the most tragical convenience? Again, many things may be told which cannot be showed,—if they know the difference betwixt reporting and representing. As for example I may speak, though I am here, of Peru, and in speech digress from that to the description of Calicut; but in action I cannot represent it without Pacolet’s horse. And so was the manner the ancients took, by some Nuntius [messenger—ed] to recount things done in former time or other place.
Lastly, if they will represent a history, they must not, as Horace says, begin ab ovo [from the egg—ed] but they must come to the principal point of that one action which they will represent. By example this will be best expressed. I have a story of young Polydorus, delivered for safety’s sake, with great riches, by his father Priamus to Polymnestor, King of Thrace, in the Trojan war time. He, after some years, hearing the overthrow of Priamus, for to make the treasure his own murders the child; the body of the child is taken up by Hecuba; she, the same day, finds a sleight to be revenged most cruelly of the tyrant. Where now would one of our tragedy writers begin, but with the delivery of the child? Then should he sail over into Thrace, and so spend I know not how many years, and travel numbers of places. But where doth Euripides? Even with the finding of the body, leaving the rest to be told by the spirit of Polydorus. This needs no further to be enlarged; the dullest wit may conceive it.
But, besides these gross absurdities, how all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carries it, but thrust in the clown by head and shoulders to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion; so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragi-comedy obtained. I know Apuleius did somewhat so, but that is a thing recounted with space of time, not represented in one moment; and I know the ancients have one or two examples of tragi-comedies, as Plautus has Amphytrio. But, if we mark them well, we shall find that they never, or very daintily, match hornpipes and funerals. So falls it out that, having indeed no right comedy in that comical part of our tragedy, we have nothing but scurrility, unworthy of any chaste ears, or some extreme show of doltishness, indeed fit to lift up a loud laughter, and nothing else; where the whole tract of a comedy should be full of delight, as the tragedy should be still maintained in a well-raised admiration.
But our comedians think there is no delight without laughter, which is very wrong; for though laughter may come with delight, yet comes it not of delight, as though delight should be the cause of laughter; but well may one thing breed both together. Nay, rather in themselves they have, as it were, a kind of contrariety. For delight we scarcely do, but in things that have a convenience to ourselves, or to the general nature; laughter almost ever comes of things most disproportioned to ourselves and nature. Delight has a joy in it either permanent or present; laughter has only a scornful tickling. For example, we are ravished with delight to see a fair woman, and yet are far from being moved to laughter. We laugh at deformed creatures, wherein certainly we cannot delight. We delight in good chances, we laugh at mischances. We delight to hear the happiness of our friends and country, at which he were worthy to be laughed at that would laugh. We shall, contrarily, laugh sometimes to find a matter quite mistaken and go down the hill against the bias, in the mouth of some such men, as for the respect of them one shall be heartily sorry he cannot choose but laugh, and so is rather pained than delighted with laughter. Yet deny I not but that they may go well together. For as in Alexander’s picture well set out we delight without laughter, and in twenty mad antics we laugh without delight; so in Hercules, painted with his great beard and furious countenance, in woman’s attire, spinning at Omphale’s commandment, it breeds both delight and laughter; for the representing of so strange a power in love, procures delight, and the scornfulness of the action stirs laughter.
But I speak to this purpose, that all the end of the comical part be not upon such scornful matters as stir laughter only, but mixed with it that delightful teaching which is the end of poesy. And the great fault, even in that point of laughter, and forbidden plainly by Aristotle, is that they stir laughter in sinful things, which are rather execrable than ridiculous; or in miserable, which are rather to be pitied than scorned. For what is it to make folks gape at a wretched beggar or a beggarly clown, or, against law of hospitality, to jest at strangers because they speak not English so well as we do? what do we learn? since it is certain:
Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se,
Quam quod ridiculos homines facit.
[Unhappy poverty has nothing in it harder than this:
It makes men ridiculous—ed.]
But rather a busy loving courtier; a heartless threatening Thraso; a self-wise-seeming schoolmaster; a wry transformed traveler: these if we saw walk in stage-names, which we play naturally, therein were delightful laughter and teaching delightfulness,—as in the other, the tragedies of Buchanan do justly bring forth a divine admiration.
But I have lavished out too many words of this playmatter. I do it, because as they are excelling parts of poesy, so is there none so much used in England, and none can be more pitifully abused; which, like an unmannerly daughter, showing a bad education, causes her mother Poesy’s honesty to be called in question.
Other sorts of poetry almost have we none, but that lyrical kind of songs and sonnets, which, Lord if he gave us so good minds, how well it might be employed, and with how heavenly fruits both private and public, in singing the praises of the immortal beauty, the immortal goodness of that God who gives us hands to write, and wits to conceive!—of which we might well want words, but never matter; of which we could turn our eyes to nothing, but we should ever have new-budding occasions.
But truly, many of such writings as come under the banner of unresistible love, if I were a mistress would never persuade me they were in love; so coldly they apply fiery speeches, as men that had rather read lovers’ writings, and so caught up certain swelling phrases—which hang together like a man which once told me the wind was at north-west and by south, because he would be sure to name winds enough—than that in truth they feel those passions, which easily, as I think, may be bewrayed by that same forcibleness, or energia (as the Greeks call it) of the writer. But let this be a sufficient, though short note, that we miss the right use of the material point of poesy.
Now for the outside of it, which is words, or (as I may term it) diction, it is even well worse, so is that honey-flowing matron eloquence appareled or rather disguised, in a courtesan-like painted affectation: one time with so farfetched words, that many seem monsters—but must seem strangers—to any poor Englishman; another time with coursing of a letter [alliteration—ed.] as if they were bound to follow the method of a dictionary; another time with figures and flowers extremely winter-starved.
But I would this fault were only peculiar to versifiers, and had not as large possession among prose-printers, and, which is to be marveled, among many scholars, and, which is to be pitied, among some preachers. Truly I could wish—if at least I might be so bold to wish in a thing beyond the reach of my capacity—the diligent imitators of Tully and Demosthenes (most worthy to be imitated) did not so much keep. Nizolian paper-books of their figures and phrases, as by attentive translation, as it were devour them whole, and make them wholly theirs. For now they cast sugar and spice upon every dish that is served to the table; like those Indians, not content to wear ear-rings at the fit and natural place of the ears, but they will thrust jewels through their nose and lips, because they will be sure to be fine. Tully, when he was to drive out Catiline as it were with a thunderbolt of eloquence, often used that figure of repetition, as Vivit Vivit? Immo vero etiam in senatum venit, etc. [He lives Does he live? In truth, he even comes to the Senate—ed.]. Indeed, inflamed with a well-grounded rage, he would have his words, as it were, double out of his mouth; and so do that artificially, which we see men in choler do naturally. And we, having noted the grace of those words, hale them in sometime to a familiar epistle, when it were too much choler to be choleric. How well store of similiter cadences [rhymes—ed.] doth sound with the gravity of the pulpit, I would but invoke Demosthenes’ soul to tell, who with a rare daintiness uses them. Truly they have made me think of the sophister that with too much subtlety would prove two eggs three, and though he might be counted a sophister, had none for his labor. So these men bringing in such a kind of eloquence, well may they obtain an opinion of a seeming fineness, but persuade few,—which should be the end of their fineness.
Now for similitudes in certain printed discourses, I think all herbarists, all stories of beasts, fowls, and fishes are rifled up, that they may come in multitudes to wait upon any of our conceits, which certainly is as absurd a surfeit to the ears as is possible. For the force of a similitude not being to prove any thing to a contrary disputer, but only to explain to a willing hearer; when that is done, the rest is a most tedious prattling, rather overswaying the memory from the purpose whereto they were applied, then any whit informing the judgment, already either satisfied of by similitudes not to be satisfied.
For my part, I do not doubt, when Antonius and Crassus, the great forefathers of Cicero in eloquence, the one (as Cicero testifies of them) pretended not to know art, the other not to set by it, because [so that—ed.] with a plain sensibleness they might win credit of popular ears, which credit is the nearest step to persuasion, which persuasion is the chief mark of oratory,—I do not doubt, I say, but that they used these knacks, very sparingly; which who doth generally use any man may see doth dance to his own music, and so be noted by the audience more careful to speak curiously than truly. Undoubtedly (at least to my opinion undoubtedly) I have found in divers small-learned courtiers a more sound style than in some professors of learning; of which I can guess no other cause, but that the courtier following that which by practice he finds fittest to nature, therein, though he know it not, doth according to art—though not by art; where the other, using art to show art and not to hide art as in these cases he should do—flies from nature, and indeed abuses art.
But what! me thinks I deserve to be pounded for straying from poetry to oratory. But both have such an affinity in the wordish consideration, that I think this digression will make my meaning receive the fuller understanding:—which is not to take upon me to teach poets how they should do, but only, finding myself sick among the rest, to show some one or two spots of the common infection grown among the most part of writers; that, acknowledging ourselves somewhat awry, we may bend to the right use both of matter and manner: whereto our language gives us great occasion, being, indeed, capable of any excellent exercising of it.
I know some will say it is a mingled language. And why not so much the better, taking the best of both the other? Another will say it wants grammar. Nay, truly, it has that praise that it wants not grammar. For grammar it might have, but it needs it not; being so easy in itself, and so void of those cumbersome differences of cases, genders, moods, and tenses, which, I think, was a piece of the Tower of Babylon’s curse, that a man should be put to school to learn his mother-tongue. But for the uttering sweetly and properly the conceits of the mind, which is the end of speech, that has it equally with any other tongue in the world; and is particularly happy in compositions of two or three words together, near the Greek, far beyond the Latin,—which is one of the greatest beauties that can be in a language.
Now of versifying there are two sorts, the one ancient, the other modern. The ancient marked the quantity of each syllable, and according to that framed his verse, the modern observing only number, with some regard of the accent, the chief life of it stands in that like sounding of the words, which we call rime. Whether of these be the more excellent would bear many speeches; the ancient no doubt more fit for music, both words and tune observing quantity; and more fit lively to express divers passions, by the low or lofty sound of the well-weighed syllable. The latter likewise with his rime strikes a certain music to the ear; and, in fine, since it doth delight, though by another way, it obtains the same purpose; there being in either, sweetness, and wanting in neither, majesty. Truly the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts. For, for the ancient, the Italian is so full of vowels that it must ever be cumbered with elisions; the Dutch so, of the other side, with consonants, that they cannot yield the sweet sliding fit for a verse. The French in his whole language has not one word that has his accent in the last syllable saving two, called antepenultima, and little more has the Spanish; and therefore very gracelessly may they use dactyls. The English is subject to none of these defects. Now for rime [rhythm—ed.], though we do not observe quantity, yet we observe the accent very precisely, which other languages either cannot do, or will not do so absolutely. That cæsura, or breathing-place in the midst of the verse, neither Italian nor Spanish have, the French and we never almost fail of.
Lastly, even the very rime itself the Italian cannot put in the last syllable, by the French named the masculine rime, but still in the next to the last, which the French call the female, or the next before that, which the Italians term sdrucciola. The example of the former is buono: suono; of the sdrucciola is femina: semina. The French, of the other side, has both the male, as bon: son, and the female, as plaise: taise; but the sdrucciola he has not. Where the English has all three, as due: true, father: rather, motion: potion; with much more which might be said, but that already I find the triflingness of this discourse is much too much enlarged.
So that since the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue-breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honor poesy, and to be honored by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverend title of “a rhymer”; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecians’ divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were first bringers—in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the Heavenly Deity by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and quid non? to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landino, that they are so beloved of the gods, that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury; lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.
Thus doing, your name shall flourish in the printers’ shops. Thus doing, you shall be of kin to many a poetical preface. Thus doing, you shall be most fair, most rich, most wise, most all; you shall dwell upon superlatives. Thus doing, though you be libertino patre natus [the son of a freedman], you shall suddenly grow Herculean proles [Herculean offspring—ed]:
Si quid mea carmina possunt
[If my verses can do anything—ed.]
Thus doing, your soul shall be placed with Dante’s Beatrice or Virgil’s Anchises.
But if—fie of such a but!—you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a mome [blockhead—ed.], as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’ ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rimed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse. I must send you in the behalf of all poets:—that while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.
The text used here is from An Apologie for Poetrie, ed Edward Arber (London, 1858), with additional material from Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, ed. J. Churton Collins (Oxford, 1907) and The Defense of Poesy, ed A. S. Cook (Boston, 1890).
About the Author
Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)
The grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and heir presumptive to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, Sir Philip Sidney was not himself a nobleman. Today he is closely associated in the popular imagination with the court of Elizabeth I, though he spent relatively little time at the English court, and until his appointment as governor of Flushing in 1585 received little preferment from Elizabeth. Viewed in his own age as the best hope for the establishment of a Protestant League in Europe, he was nevertheless a godson of Philip II of Spain, spent nearly a year in Italy, and sought out the company of such eminent Catholics as the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion. Widely regarded, in the words of his late editor William A. Ringler, Jr., as “the model of perfect courtesy,” Sidney was in fact hot-tempered and could be surprisingly impetuous. Considered the epitome of the English gentleman-soldier, he saw little military action before a wound in the left thigh, received 23 September 1586 during an ill-conceived and insignificant skirmish in the Netherlands outside Zutphen, led to his death on 17 October, at Arnhem. Even his literary career bears the stamp of paradox: Sidney did not think of himself as primarily a writer, and surprisingly little of his life was devoted to writing.
Philip, the first child of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Mary, née Dudley, was born in 1554 at Penshurst in Kent, “on Friday the last of November, being St. Andrews day, a quarter before five in the morning.” Present at the birth were his royal Spanish godfather and his maternal grandmother, whose husband, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and son Guildford had been beheaded in 1553 following the failure of the Northumberland plan to place Guildford’s wife, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne.
It was an auspicious beginning to an often fatherless childhood. In 1559 Queen Elizabeth appointed Sir Henry lord president of the Marches of Wales, a post that required him to spend months at a time away from home. As painful as his absence from family must have been to Sir Henry, his absence from Penshurst could only have compounded his distress. In the 1590 Arcadia Sidney recalled in the character Kalander’s house the warmth, serviceability, and understated grace of the Sidney home:
The house itself was built of fair and strong stone, not affecting so much any extraordinary kind of fineness, as an honorable representing of firm stateliness; the lights, doors and stairs, rather directed to the use of the guest than to the eye of the artificer, and yet, as the one chiefly heeded, so the other not neglected; each place handsome without curiosity, and homely without loathsomeness, not so dainty as not to be trod on, nor yet slubbered up with good fellowship—all more lasting than beautiful (but that the consideration of the exceeding lastingness made the eye believe it was exceeding beautiful).
The dominance of women in the poet’s early life was doubtless formative. Sidney’s skill in portraying female characters, from the bewitching, multifarious Stella of Astrophil and Stella (1591) to Philoclea and Pamela, the bold, beautiful, and articulate princesses of the Old Arcadia (written circa 1581) and the New Arcadia (1590; written circa 1583-1584) is, as C. S. Lewis notes in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954), without equal before William Shakespeare. The two versions of the Arcadia, Sidney’s most ambitious works, were written under the guiding spirit and often in the presence of Mary Sidney Herbert, his “dear Lady and sister, the Countess of Pembroke,” herself a great patron of writers, to whom the two versions of the Arcadia are dedicated. Mary went on to serve as Sidney’s literary executor after his death.
Nor can the benevolent influence of Sidney’s mother, Lady Mary, be doubted. Lady-in-waiting to the queen, she contracted the smallpox in October 1562 while caring for Elizabeth during her bout with the sickness. Her face severely disfigured, Lady Mary thereafter avoided appearing at court. According to Ben Jonson in the Conversations with Drummond, when Lady Mary could not avoid appearing in public she wore a mask. Four of Sidney’s Certain Sonnets (8-11) that lament the damage done to a beautiful face by disease may owe something to his memory of his mother’s ordeal. And his portrait of the long-suffering Parthenia in the New Arcadia, whose lover Argalus, marries her despite her ruined beauty, clearly echoes his mother’s plight and his father’s continuing devotion.
On 17 October 1564 Sir Henry enrolled the nine-year-old Philip in Shrewsbury School, the same day that Philip’s lifelong friend and biographer, Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke, was enrolled. Although far from Penshurst, Shrewsbury was a logical choice for Sidney’s early education. The town was under Sir Henry’s jurisdiction and boasted a fine grammar school under the direction of its headmaster, Thomas Ashton. The rigors of Elizabethan education—in winter students were at their studies from six o’clock in the morning until four-thirty in the afternoon—suited Sidney’s precocity and his extraordinary self-discipline. The curriculum was almost entirely in Latin, though modern languages seem to have had some place at Shrewsbury. An account of Philip’s expenses at school includes an entry “for two quires of paper, for example books, phrases and sentences in Latin and French.” Another account records expenditures for a book of Virgil and a catechism of Calvin, testifying to the school’s mix of classical and Puritan values. Philip may even have developed his taste and love for drama by acting in the didactic plays that were a staple of many Elizabethan grammar schools, including Shrewsbury.
At school he demonstrated a remarkable mastery of academic subjects. Greville reports that, “even his teachers found something in him to observe, and learn, above that which they had usually read, or taught.” Greville may have appraised Sidney’s accomplishments fairly accurately. The physician Thomas Moffett, a friend of the Sidneys and another early biographer of Philip, notes his mastery of grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, Latin, French, and some Greek. But the remarkable trait of Sidney’s mind was that he saw the aim of human life to be, as he said of poetry in The Defence of Poetry (1595), “well-doing, and not of well-knowing only.” Though Moffett comments that Sidney neglected games and sports “for the sake of literary studies,” he developed into a handsome young man with a natural grace and considerable athletic prowess. His excellent horsemanship would later make him, despite delicate health, a champion in tiltyards and tournaments. Greville’s observation that Philip’s “very play tend[ed] to enrich his mind” seems close to the mark. A similar desire to make all experience educational distinguishes the childhood of Pyrocles and Musidorus, the precocious hero-princes of the Arcadias.
Twice during his school days at Shrewsbury, Sidney traveled to Oxford for ceremonies over which Queen Elizabeth presided. On the first trip, in August 1566, he resided at Lincoln College and must have enjoyed a privileged view of the queen’s activities, as he was in the company of his uncle, Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester and chancellor of the university. Sidney’s servant, Thomas Marshall, recorded that on the return trip to Shrewsbury, his master gave twelve pence to a blind harper at Chipping Norton–a moment Sidney may have recalled years later in The Defence of Poetry, when he reflected on the pleasures of lyric: “I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet is it sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style.” The second trip to Oxford came early in 1568, just before he completed his studies at Shrewsbury. On that occasion, according to his horoscope, he “delivered an oration before her most serene Highness that was both eloquent and elegant.”
Shortly after his 1568 visit, Sidney returned to Oxford as a student at Christ Church, where it seems he studied for three years. He soon established a reputation for excellence in public debate. Richard Carew recalls in his Survey of Cornwall (1602) an incident when “being a scholar in Oxford of fourteen years age, and three years standing, upon a wrong conceived opinion touching my sufficiency I was … called to dispute ex tempore (impar congressus Achilli) with the matchless Sir Philip Sidney, in presence of the Earls Leicester, Warwick, and other great personages.”
During his Oxford years a marriage was proposed between Philip and Anne, Cecil, daughter of Sir William Cecil, that would have linked the Sidneys to one of the most powerful families of the realm. But when Sir William’s investigations revealed that the Sidneys were relatively poor, his enthusiasm waned, and relations between the two families cooled. Anne later married Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Like most men of his rank Sidney left Oxford without taking a degree. After recovering from the plague in the spring of 1572, he may have spent a term at Cambridge. During this time his family was busy with preparations for his first tour of the Continent. A peace treaty between England and France, concluded in April, provided the opportunity. Late the following month he was given permission to travel to Paris as a member the delegation accompanying Lord High Admiral Edward de Fiennes, Ninth Earl of Lincoln, with a license from Elizabeth for “her trusty and well-beloved Philip Sidney, Esquire, to go out of England into parts beyond the seas” for a period of two years. By her instructions he was to attain knowledge of foreign languages. Leicester commended his nephew to Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris, Sir Francis Walsingham, who would become Sidney’s friend, adviser, and father-in-law. Sidney was not yet eighteen years old.
Such trips were rare among Englishmen of Sidney’s day. For him it was to be most fateful, contributing deeply to his education and preparing him for a career in the service of the state. Traveling with Griffin Madox, his Welsh servant, and Lodowick Bryskett, a London-born gentleman of Italian parents, Sidney arrived in Paris in early June. There he participated in official ceremonies marking the Treaty of Blois. He and his companions remained in Paris for the summer, where Sidney cultivated the friendship–and earned the admiration–of an extraordinary variety of people, included Walsingham, the rhetorician Peter Ramus, the printer Andrew Wechel, and perhaps even the distinguished Huguenot Hubert Languet, his future mentor, whose friendship he cultivated later in Strasbourg. But Sidney impressed not only Protestant intellectuals. In early August 1572, King Charles IX created him “Baron de Sidenay”–partly in recognition of his unusual personal appeal and partly in an effort to cultivate powerful English Protestants. Because Elizabeth disliked foreign titles, Sidney did not sign himself “Baron Sidney” in England, though his friends on the Continent regularly addressed him by that title.
This successful summer ended in horror. The marriage in late August of Charles IX’s sister Margaret de Valois to the Huguenot King Henry III of Navarre was designed to end a decade of bloodshed between French Catholics and Protestants. Over the summer soberly dressed Huguenots from the provinces and splendidly attired Catholics of King Charles’s family and the French nobility had flocked to Paris for the wedding. Rumor swelled that the Huguenots would attempt a coup d’état after the wedding. On the Catholic side, even before the wedding, Henri I de Lorraine, Duke of Guise (with the assent of Catherine de’ Médicis), had been plotting the assassination of Adm. Gaspard de II de Coligny, the most able and powerful of Navarre’s advisers.
Sidney witnessed many of the events of the week of 17-23 August 1572: secular and religious wedding ceremonies, important state meetings, and lavish evening entertainments. Festivities ended abruptly on Friday morning, when a sniper’s bullet wounded Admiral de Coligny in the arm and finger. The Guise plot had been irrevocably launched. After a day of well-coordinated planning, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began in earnest just after midnight on Sunday, 23 August. All over Paris, Huguenot men, women, and children were rounded up and killed. The recuperating Coligny was murdered and his body thrown into the street. Peter Ramus was ambushed and butchered, his corpse was hurled from a window, and its entrails were dragged through the city. Languet himself barely escaped a gang of assassins. News of the violence spread beyond the city, and thousands more Protestants were dispatched in Lyons, Orléans, Bordeaux, and other regions.
How much of the slaughter Sidney witnessed in Paris is not known. Perhaps he was among the Englishmen who found refuge with Walsingham at the English embassy outside the city walls. Perhaps he was part of an English group taken to view the mutilated corpse of Coligny. He seems to have been in little danger; there is evidence that influential Catholics were careful to protect their English visitors. Nevertheless, when word of the violence reached England, the queen’s council commanded Walsingham to secure Sidney’s safe passage back to England. These instructions arrived too late, for Walsingham had already spirited Sidney away toward Germany. He never returned to France.
Arriving in Frankfurt via Strasbourg, Sidney had the leisure over the following winter to establish his friendship with the fifty-four-year-old bachelor Hubert Languet, envoy of the elector of Saxony, with whom he was to exchange a voluminous and invaluable correspondence in Latin for more than a decade. The stately and erudite Languet, one of the leading Huguenot figures of Europe, took what now seems a more-than-fatherly interest in Sidney’s personal well-being, the development of his scholarship, and the friendships he established on the Continent. He saw in the brilliant young Englishman a potential leader in an effort he himself regarded as essential: to interest England in an alliance for the protection of European Protestants.
After visiting Vienna for several months in 1573, Sidney set out in late August or early September on a brief trip into Hungary that extended into a three-month stay. His experience there is fondly remembered in The Defence of Poetry in a passage praising lyric songs: “In Hungary I have seen it the manner at all feasts, and other such meetings, to have the songs of their ancestors’ valor, which that right soldierlike nation think one of the chiefest kindlers of brave courage.” In his first letter to Sidney, dated September 1573, Languet chided him for not having revealed his plans: “When you left [Vienna] you said that you would not be gone for more than three days. But now, like a little bird that has forced its way through the bars of its cage, your delight makes you restless, flitting hither and yon, perhaps without a thought for your friends.”
When Sidney announced his intention to visit Italy, Languet, envisioning an even longer and more dangerous separation from his protégé, could win from him only a promise that he would not visit Rome. Some of this anxiety was quite practical: the more tolerant cities of northern Italy were reasonably safe for Protestant travelers, but this was not so farther south, where the Inquisition held sway. But Languet’s letters reveal his fear that Sidney’s youth and tolerant disposition would make him, despite events of the previous summer, susceptible to the persuasion of Catholics.
Because of their reputation for religious and intellectual tolerance, Venice and the university city of Padua were natural destinations for Englishmen who wanted to see Italy. Again traveling with Bryskett and Madox, Sidney reached Venice in early November 1573. He spent most of the following year there and in Padua, with excursions to Genoa and Florence. In letters to Languet from Venice and Padua he recounted meeting his distant cousin Richard Shelley (an ancestor of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a longtime resident of the city), an erudite man who was, in Sidney’s phrase, “sadly addicted to Popery.” In Venice he also met a variety of important Europeans.
Sidney immersed himself in Italian culture–so much so that in one letter Languet addressed him as “you Italians,” and Walsingham began to be concerned that the young man was wavering in his faith. The philosopher Giordano Bruno, who later traveled to Oxford under Sidney’s auspices and dedicated verses to him, recorded that Sidney enjoyed an excellent reputation during this visit. Yet one of Languet’s replies to a now-missing letter suggests that Sidney was not overly smitten with Venice’s fabled charms, and in a 1578 letter to his brother Robert, Sidney roundly criticized the “tyrannous oppression” and “counterfeit learning” he observed in Italy, though he admitted to admiring Italian arms and horsemanship.
By February 1574 Sidney was sufficiently prominent in Venice to sit for a portrait (now lost) by the Venetian master Paolo Veronese. Languet seems to have found it indifferently pleasing. There are now extant only two primary likenesses of Sidney, neither painted ad vivum: the youthful Longleat portrait, dated 1578; and the Penshurst portrait executed for his brother, Robert, probably in the 1590s.
The renowned university at Padua, to which Sidney repaired in January 1574, provided a focus for his voluminous reading and improved his mastery of languages, particularly Latin. At Languet’s suggestion he translated “Cicero into French, then from French into English, and then back into Latin again by an uninterrupted process.” But he demurred at Languet’s recommendation that he study German: “Of the German language I quite despair, for it has a certain harshness about it.” He complained that at his age he had no hope of mastering it, “even so as to understand it.” He seems also to have studied astronomy and geometry–the latter because he had “always had the impression that it is closely related to military science.” His reading included a vast range of subjects. According to John Buxton, he read works on Venetian government (considered the model of European nations), world history, a book on the Council of Trent, and collections of letters by Paolo Manzio, Bernardo Tasso, Pietro Bembo, and Lorenzo de’ Medici–as well as several books on impresa, the emblematic devices that he would put to great creative use in his life and writings.
Sidney also read widely in Italian poetry and criticism, which he chose not to mention to Languet. Like many of his contemporaries he held Italian literature in high esteem, and his work was significantly shaped by Italian influences. His reference in The Defence of Poetry to Dante’s Beatrice (in the Paradiso rather than the Vita nuova) is the first by an Englishman. Jacopo Sannazaro, twice mentioned as an authority in The Defence of Poetry , through his Arcadia (1504) contributed to Sidney’s understanding of pastoral romance. The valiant hero of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, (1532), also twice mentioned in the Defence, helped shape the characters of Pyrocles and Musidorus in the Arcadia . Though he resists the influence of Petrarch and his followers in Astrophil and Stella, Sidney’s awareness of Petrarchism is everywhere apparent.
In August 1574, after ten months in Italy, Sidney left Venice for Languet’s house in Vienna, where he fell seriously ill. Nursed back to health by Languet, he spent the winter of 1574-1575 enjoying the friendship of that city’s important men. His most intimate friend at the time was Edward Wotton, whom Walsingham had appointed to a post in Vienna. The friendship would last until Sidney’s death. At the beginning of The Defence of Poetry he recalls how during his stay in Vienna he and “the right virtuous Edward Wotton” studied horsemanship under the famed John Pietro Pugliano, the Italian maestro of the Emperor Maximilian II’s stables:
according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, [Pugliano] did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplations therein, which he thought most precious…. Nay, to so unbelieved a point he proceeded as that no earthly thing bred such wonder to a prince as to be a good horseman–skill of government was but a pedanteria in comparison. Then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast the horse was … that if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse.
Beneath the levity of this passage–part of the fun is that in its original Greek the name Philip (phil-hippos) denotes love of horses–is a tribute to an art that Sidney, like Wotton, practiced to excellence. That he chose to discourse upon the exercise of the “peerless beast” as an introduction to his work about the “peerless poet” may seem peculiar unless we reader realize how highly he regarded horsemanship as an art of “well-doing” and not of “well-knowing” only. In sonnet 41 of Astrophil and Stella Sidney recalls the satisfaction of “Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance / Guided so well that I obtained the prize.” In the Arcadia he explores the elements of horsemanship in greater detail, portraying the dynamics of control, the unspoken trust and communication between horse and rider, that makes of the two a single composite being.
Instructions from Leicester to hasten his return to England in the spring of 1575 altered Sidney’s planned route through Burgundy and Paris. He followed Languet to Prague in early March, then joined Wotton in Dresden; after stops in Strasbourg and Frankfurt the company reached Antwerp at the beginning of May and arrived in England on the last day of the month–almost exactly three years after his departure.
He found his family well, though still mourning the death, in February 1574, of Philip’s youngest sister, Ambrosia, at the age of ten. This event had prompted from the queen a letter of uncharacteristically intimate condolence, in view of her usually aloof and ambivalent treatment of the Sidneys. The same letter commanded Philip’s sister Mary, not yet fourteen, to court. Sir Henry, who had resigned his post as Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1571, was happily employed as president of the Marches of Wales, but his wife was seriously depressed through bad health, bereavement, and financial problems.
Philip Sidney had left England “young and raw,” in the words of his uncle Leicester; he returned in full manhood, having acquired a vast store of new experience and learning, a network of important Continental friends, and a knowledge of European political affairs that few Englishmen could match. Eager to enter the service of his country, he spent the next eighteen months in England, awaiting assignment. During his first summer at home he and his family witnessed the spectacular entertainments–pageants, speeches, hunts, tilts, games, animal baitings, and more–presented daily to the queen during her three-week visit to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate near Warwick.
Later that summer Sidney saw his father off to Ireland, where–much to Sir Henry’s regret–he had been reappointed Lord Deputy. Neglecting his correspondence with his European friends, Philip spent the autumn and winter in London, where he gave himself over to the pleasures at court; Elizabeth made him her cupbearer. Letters from Languet and other friends on the Continent were addressed to him at Leicester House, and an edition of Ramus’s Commentaries (1555) was dedicated to him. During this period Sidney enjoyed a deepening friendship with Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, Sir Henry’s comrade in Ireland. The following summer he accompanied Essex back to Ireland and was reunited with Sir Henry.
Essex soon fell victim to a plague of dysentery that swept Ireland, and he died on 22 September 1576 in Dublin. Sidney, who had received a letter summoning him to the earl’s bedside, arrived too late. There he found a touching message, written during the earl’s last days, in which he left Philip nothing except the wish that “if God do move both their hearts … he might match with my daughter.” The earl continued, “he is so wise, so virtuous, so goodly; and if he go on in the course that he hath begun, he will be as famous and worthy a gentleman as ever England bred.” This daughter, Penelope Devereux, would become the “Stella” of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.
Although Essex’s agent, Edward Waterhouse, repeated the hope that Philip and Penelope would marry, it is unlikely that Philip, much less his father or any of his mother’s Dudley family, took this proposal seriously at the time. He was a man of twenty-one, Penelope a girl of twelve. Moreover, he longed for a political commission that would allow him to employ the knowledge and skills he had acquired during his three years on the Continent. If Astrophil is naively read as an undeflected representation of Sidney himself, he can be forgiven for his neglect of Penelope, though it is a neglect that he later regretted when she married Lord Robert Rich in 1581. In the second sonnet of Astrophil and Stella, Astrophil explains that his love for Stella was the result of a gradual process. In the thirty-third he blames himself for not having taken advantage of opportunity when it presented itself:
But to myself myself did give the blow,
While too much wit (forsooth) so troubled me,
That I respects for both our sakes must show:
And yet could not by rising Morn foresee
How fair a day was near, o punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish or more wise.
When news of the death of Maximilian II of Austria reached England in late October 1576, Sidney seemed to Elizabeth’s advisers the logical choice to lead a special embassy to extend her condolences to the emperor’s family. Ostensibly, Sidney’s mission would be strictly formal; its informal purpose was entirely political. Hard upon this news came the death of the staunch Calvinist Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate. Political uncertainty deepened when Spanish mercenaries in the Low Countries sacked and burned Antwerp as well as other smaller towns. While Sidney and his entourage visited the courts of Europe, he would use his audiences with heads of state to enlist their support for the creation of a Protestant League–a mission that seemed now more urgent and propitious than before.
After two months of preparations, Sidney’s instructions were delivered on 7 February 1577, and he left for the Continent at the end of the month. Accompanying him were two experienced statesmen, Sir Henry Lee and Sir Jerome Bowes, among other career diplomats, and his personal friends Greville and Sir Edward Dyer, both of whom figure importantly in Sidney’s literary career. At Louvain he charmed the Spanish governor, Don John, who (abetted by a group of English and Scottish exiles) was plotting to overthrow Elizabeth, free Mary, Queen of Scots, and marry her. From Brussels, Sidney’s party traveled up the Rhine to Heidelberg, where he greeted Prince John Casimir, and from thence to Prague, where he accomplished his official mission of extending the queen’s condolences to the family of Maximilian II.
In Prague he also visited Edmund Campion, whom he must have known, if only casually, from their days at Oxford. To his tutor in Rome, Campion described Sidney, mistakenly, as “a poor wavering soul” who might be amenable to conversion to the Roman Church. It is clear that his interest in Sidney was opportunistic. Yet Campion’s words provide no basis for saying, as John Buxton has, that Sidney was cynically “using all his tact and charm to learn from Campion’s own lips how far conversion had led him on the path of disloyalty.” Rather, though Sidney held Campion to be in “a full wrong divinity”–as he said of Orpheus, Amphion, and Homer in The Defence of Poetry–he probably admired the gifted and accomplished Jesuit, as many others did. Sidney genuinely sought “the prayers of all good men” and was happy to assist even Catholics who would ease the suffering of the poor. The catalogue of the long-dispersed library at Penshurst, recently discovered by Germaine Warkentin, lists an edition of the Conference in the Tower with Campion, (1581) published shortly after Campion’s execution. If in fact this book belonged to Philip Sidney, perhaps he hoped to find in it evidence that Campion had discovered the true religion in the hours before his death.
On the return trip to England Sidney met with William I of Orange and discussed plans for a Protestant League. It is a testament to his growing international status–which S. K. Heninger, Jr. believes was so great as to unsettle Elizabeth herself–that William offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage. The promised dowry included the provinces of Holland and Zeeland. Of course, Elizabeth would never have tolerated the marriage of one of her most powerful courtiers to a foreign royal family, no matter how close the interests of England and Orange might be, and the proposal was not advanced.
In Ireland Sidney had witnessed firsthand Sir Henry’s vigorous prosecution of the campaign against the Irish rebels. Returned from the Continent in the fall of 1577, he found himself obliged to defend his father’s policies. To maintain the English garrison Sir Henry had ordered the imposition of a cess, or land tax, against certain lords living within the Pale. The Irish lords resisted the tax and through their effective spokesman, Thomas Butler, tenth Earl of Ormonde, argued their case before Elizabeth and the Queen’s Council. Sidney entered the debate with his “Discourse on Irish Affairs,” which survives only in a holograph fragment.
To the modern reader Sidney’s reasoning seems shockingly brutal, yet the repression he advocates is typical of English attitudes toward the Irish during Elizabeth’s reign. He does argue that a tax that exempted no one would ease the suffering of the many, who had traditionally borne the brunt of taxation: “this touches the privileged … persons [who] be all the rich men of the Pale, the burden only lying upon the poor, who may groan, for their cry cannot be heard.” But this argument seems ingenuous, for further on he advocates a policy of complete subjugation, saying that severe means are more justified in Ireland than lenity. In the end Sir Henry’s fortunes in Ireland worsened, and he was recalled as Lord Deputy in February 1578.
In the years after 1577 Sidney’s political career was frustrated by Elizabeth’s interest in balancing the power of Spain against that of France, a balance she feared would be upset by the creation of a Protestant League. Thwarted in his political ambition, Sidney turned his attention briefly to exploration, investing in three New World voyages by Martin Frobisher. He also began, perhaps as early as 1578, what soon became an intensive writing career.
Among his first literary projects Sidney experimented with a type of drama that would reach its most sophisticated form in the seventeenth-century court masque. In 1578 or 1579, for the queen’s visit to his uncle Leicester’s new estate at Wanstead, he wrote the pastoral entertainment known as The Lady of May. The only published version, included in a 1598 edition of Arcadia, is not a text, but rather a detailed transcription of the production, perhaps done at Sidney’s request. Ostensibly a tribute to Elizabeth, it is a work of some literary merit and considerable political and propagandistic import.
The Lady of May, a young and beautiful maiden much pursued by country bachelors, faces an emblematic choice of marriage between two men she likes but does not love: the wealthy shepherd Espilus, a man “of very small deserts and no faults,” and the pleasing but sometimes violent forester Theron, a man of “many deserts and many faults.” The drama combines several elements that were to figure prominently as themes and issues in Sidney’s later writings, especially Astrophil and Stella and the Arcadias: the Petrarchan stance of stylized veneration of a lady by her lover, the pastoral mode of setting and plot, and some dramatized speculations about the uses and abuses of rhetoric. But like many of his contemporaries, Sidney adapts convention to topicality; and Elizabeth’s own unmarried status together with her apparent pleasure at the courtship of François, Duke of Alençon and (after 1576) of Anjou are deeply implicated in this superficially innocuous entertainment. The action was designed to favor Theron the forester over Espilus the shepherd, in whose country blandness Sidney intended to reflect Alençon. But “it pleased her Majesty to judge that Espilus did the better deserve” the Lady of May. Although Sidney left open the way to such a resolution–the final verses of Espilus and Theron allow for either choice–Elizabeth’s selection of Espilus over Theron illustrates the degree to which Sidney and his queen saw things differently.
Late in 1579 Sidney made his opposition to Alençon’s suit explicit in an open letter to the queen. By that time the issue had focused the divided loyalties of English Protestants and Catholics. The queen had been considering Alençon’s proposal of marriage for some time. Her childlessness invited a bitter struggle over succession, and many English Protestants feared a Catholic consort. Sidney’s faction, which included his father and his powerful uncle Leicester, believed that a French marriage might lead to civil war.
To the modern reader this letter, “Written … to Queen Elizabeth, Touching Her Marriage with Monsieur,” seems remarkably frank and fearless of the displeasure it might bring. Sidney addresses the queen forthrightly as a courtier whose function it is to advise his monarch. He reminds her that the peace of the land, no less than her own power, depends upon the confidence of her subjects, a confidence likely to be eroded by an unpopular marriage. Although he does not mention Alençon’s famed ugliness, as others did, he does rehearse much about her prospective husband that she already knew and did not need to hear from one of her subjects: that Alençon was “a Frenchman, and a papist”; that his mother was the notorious Catherine de Médicis, “the Jezebel of our age” (though he does not directly say that she had engineered the massacre of Huguenots in 1572); that Alençon himself had sacked La Charité and Issoire “with fire and sword”; and that his race was afflicted with congenital “unhealthfulness.” Sidney concludes with the warning that “if he do come hither, he must live here in far meaner reputation than his mind will well brook, having no other royalty to countenance himself with; or else you must deliver him the keys of your kingdom, and live at his discretion.”
There is no evidence that Elizabeth took umbrage at the letter, but it is difficult to imagine that it did anything to smooth the troubled relationship that persisted between the Sidney family and the queen throughout Philip’s lifetime. Perhaps Sidney’s tone in the letter owes something to a liminal resentment he felt because of her niggardly treatment of his father, who, as president of the Marches of Wales and twice as her lord deputy of Ireland, had been among her ablest subjects. Perhaps too it reflects on an incident that embroiled Sidney’s politics with his personal dignity. Greville reports that sometime in 1579 Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a staunch supporter of Alençon’s suit, had ordered Sidney off a tennis court in the presence of the French delegation, calling Sidney “a puppy.” Sidney issued a challenge the next day, but the queen herself intervened to prevent the duel and reminded him of his inferior status–a rebuke that may have recalled to him as well that de Vere had married Anne Cecil after her father had found the Sidney family unworthy.
Sidney was absent from the court the next year and probably spent much of the time at Wilton, his sister’s home, composing the Old Arcadia. When he returned to court after a year in seclusion, Sidney presented Elizabeth with a 1581 New Year’s gift of a “whip garnished with diamonds,” signifying by this astonishing Petrarchan gesture his complete submission to the queen’s will in the Alençon affair. That summer his personal fortunes received a blow when the countess of Leicester bore the earl a son, thereby depriving Sidney of both lands and title that he stood to inherit as Leicester’s heir presumptive. On the following tilt day, Sidney bore the device S-P-E-R-A-V-I (“I hoped”), dashed through.
Around 1578 Sidney had begun writing poetry. It was an “unelected vocation,” as he says in The Defence of Poetry , “in these my not old years and idlest times having slipped into the title of a poet.” None of his works was published before 1590, four years after his death. This fact, together with the brevity and intensity of Sidney’s writing career–no more than seven or eight years, during which he worked simultaneously on different texts–only complicates the problem of determining when his works were composed.
Among Sidney’s earliest ventures, undertaken with his friends Greville and Dyer, were attempts at writing a new kind of English poetry grounded not in accentual stress but in duration of syllables. The work that was in progress by October 1579, when Edmund Spenser reported it in letters to Gabriel Harvey. These experiments in quantitative verse, examples of which Sidney incorporated into the Old Arcadia, were efforts to make English verse conform to the rules of Latin prosody. Although they never exerted a significant influence upon English metrics, they have long interested scholars and critics. The dactylic hexameters of Old Arcadia 13 are an example of what Sidney achieved:
Lady, reserved by the heav’ns to do pastors’ company honor
Joining your sweet voice to the rural muse of a desert,
Here you fully do find this strange operation of love,
How to the woods love runs as well as rides to the palace.
In his correspondence with Harvey, Spenser also claimed that Sidney, Greville, and Dyer had formed an English Academy or Areopagus to advance the cause of the new metrics, a claim that has been investigated many times and is at present widely doubted.
The years 1579 through 1584 represent the peak of Sidney’s literary activity. The winter of 1579-1580 seems the best conjectural date for his composition of The Defence of Poetry , probably written in response to Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse, which was printed in the summer of 1579 and dedicated to Sidney without permission. The connection with Gosson’s work, along with a reference to Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, also published in 1579 and dedicated to Sidney, indicate that Sidney began The Defence of Poetry in that year, whereas the sustained intensity of his argument would seem to make it equally likely that he completed the work in a relatively short time. It did not appear in print, however, until 1595, which saw two editions by different printers. William Ponsonby, the established printer for the Sidney family, entered The Defence of Poetry in the Stationers’ Register on 29 November 1594 but seems to have delayed publication until the next year. Before Ponsonby’s text appeared, another edition, titled An Apology for Poetry, was published by Henry Olney. An unknown number of copies was sold before Ponsonby, claiming precedence, interceded and halted further sales. Ponsonby’s edition was then printed and sold, and the title page of his edition was also fixed to some liberated copies of the Olney edition. The Ponsonby text and the De L’Isle manuscript at Penshurst form the basis of Jan van Dorsten and Katherine Duncan-Jones’s definitive modern edition in Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney. (1973).
The Defence of Poetry is undoubtedly the most important critical treatise on poetry written by an Englishman during the Elizabethan period. It has achieved the status of a classical text. Although it reflects Sidney’s Protestantism, it is nevertheless a worldly work. Drawing on an extraordinary range of classical and Continental texts, Sidney sets out to defend “poor poetry” against its attackers and to argue positively that poetry, whose “final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of,” is the best vehicle for the “purifying of wit.” He disposes his argument according to a traditional seven-part classical structure, beginning with an introduction or exordium and moving through the stages of proposition, division, examination and refutation to a final peroration, and including, as custom permitted, a digressio on a related issue.
Sidney opens his argument by claiming that poetry gave rise to every other kind and division of learning. For this reason the Romans called the poet vates, “which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet,” such as David revealed himself to be in his Psalms. With equal reverence the Greeks called the poet a “maker,” as do the English (from the Greek verb poiein, “to make”). In all cases true poetry makes things “either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.” Nature’s “world is brazen,” Sidney argues; only the poets bring forth a golden one.
Sidney next explains that the poet is able to create this heightened fictive world by coupling an idea with an image: “the skill of each artificer standeth in that idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he had imagined them.” The union of fore-conceit and image results in a poetic event that has extraordinary “energaic” capacity, that is, the power to move the human will and thus to motivate its own reproduction. Xenophon’s Cyrus is then, a poetic creation so forceful that if readers comprehend the character, they will be prompted to reproduce its virtues in their own medium: “so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if [readers] will learn why and how that maker made him.” It is the replicability of the poetic image among those who understand why and how it was created that distinguishes poetry from nature. The ongoing replication of poetic images is what enables our “erected wit” to mitigate against the effects of our “infected will.”
Sidney concludes this narration by presenting his central proposition, the crucial definition of the process of encoding fore-conceits in images to create energaic poetic constructs: “Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis–that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth–to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture–with this end, to teach and delight.” This definition–a tightly composed amalgam of ideas lifted from Aristotle (mimesis), Plutarch (“speaking picture”), and Horace (“teach and delight”)–with its emphasis upon activity, informs all the theoretical matter of The Defence of Poetry.
In the section devoted to the divisions or kinds of mimetic poetry and their practitioners, Sidney conceives three types: divine poets who imitate the “inconceivable excellencies of God,” of whom David, Solomon, and pagan poets–Orpheus, Amphion, and Homer, “though in a full wrong divinity”–are cited as examples; poets who imitate “matter philosophical,” of which there are four subtypes (moral, natural, astronomical, and historical); and “right poets.” Sidney is primarily concerned with the right poets: “these third be they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, has been, or shall be; but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.” They are arrayed in a hierarchy from “the most notable” heroic poets down to pastoral poets “and certain others, some of these being termed according to the matter they deal with, some by the sorts of verses they liked best to write in.” But Sidney is quick to point out that verse is but “an ornament and no cause to poetry.” Rather, the “feigning” of “notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching … must be the right describing note to know a poet by.
The right poet is then set off against other masters of “earthly learning” who claim to lead men to “virtuous action,” an ancient contest developed at length in Aristotle’s Poetics. The poet’s principal competitors are two: the moral philosopher, a figure of “sullen gravity … rudely clothed … casting largess … of definitions, divisions and distinctions” before him; and the historian, “laden with old mouse-eaten records,” who knows more about the past than his own age, who is “a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk.” The philosopher maintains that there is no better guide to virtue than he who “teacheth what virtue is; and teach it not only by delivering forth his very being, his causes and effects, but also by making known his enemy, vice, which much be destroyed, and his cumbersome servant, passion, which must be mastered.” For his part the historian claims a significant advantage over the philosopher in that he teaches an “active” virtue rather than a “disputative” one. The philosopher delivers virtue “excellent in the dangerless Academy of Plato,” but the historian “showeth forth [Virtue’s] honorable face in … battles.” The philosopher “teacheth virtue by certain abstractions considerations,” adds the historian, “but I only bid you follow the footing of them that have gone before you.” Sidney can see no end to this tedious dispute and so interrupts it by noting only “that the one giveth the precept, the other the example.
The poet, of course, “standeth for the highest form in the school of learning” because he is the moderator between the philosopher and the historian. Through the art of mimesis the poet unites in one event the philosopher’s precept and the historian’s example. Rephrasing his earlier argument on fore-conceit and image, Sidney proclaims that the poet gives “a perfect picture” of something, “so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example.” He then lists exemplary precepts that poets encode in speaking pictures: anger, wisdom, temperance, valor, friendship, remorse, pride, cruelty, and ambition. But the greatest of these is “the most excellent determination of goodness,” as in Xenophon’s “feigning” of the prince in Cyrus, in Virgil’s fashioning of a virtuous man in Aeneas and in Sir Thomas More’s representation of an entire commonwealth in his Utopia (1516). The reference to the Catholic More prompts a brief digression in which Sidney states a general tenet of mimesis he has not made before: if the poetic artifact is flawed, the fault lies with the poet, not with poetry. Having made this point, he caps his list by citing the practice of Jesus, who couched his teachings in lively stories.
Because of its forcefulness, the poet’s “feigned example” has as much capacity as the “true example” for teaching what is to be shunned or followed. Moreover, Sidney remarks wryly, by reading a representation of, rather than actually duplicating, the strategy of Darius’s faithful servant Zopyrus, who severed his own nose and ears to persuade the Babylonians that he was a traitor, “you shall save your nose by the bargain.” Conversely, the poet’s “moving is of a higher degree than [the philosopher’s] teaching,” for which he cites as his authority Aristotle’s comments on gnosis (knowing) and praxis (acting, doing) in the Ethics.
The poet emerges from this examination transformed from “moderator” to monarch. “Either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music,” poetry has the capacity to transmute even horrors–“cruel battles, unnatural monsters”–into delightful experience. The effects of poetic invention are such that orators and prophets have employed it for their several purposes. Menenius Agrippa, Livy tells us, calmed the mutinous population of Rome not with “figurative speeches or cunning insinuations” but with a tale of the rebellious body attempting to starve the stomach and so hurting itself. Similarly, the prophet Nathan revealed to David a precept “most divinely true” by means of a feigned discourse.
In a second examination section of The Defence of Poetry, Sidney considers the various subgenres in which poetry is arrayed, with a cautionary comment about overly rigid distinctions. At the very outset he warns against overdetermining such matters, noting that “some poesies have coupled together two or three kinds, as the tragical and comical, whereupon is risen the tragicomical.” Anticipating the design of his Arcadias , he recommends Jacob Sannazaro and Boethius, who “mingled prose and verse,” and others who “mingled matters heroical and pastoral.” If severed genres be good, he concludes, “the conjunction cannot be hurtful.”
Sidney moves up the hierarchy of genres from the lowest to the highest, discussing pastoral, elegy, comedy, lyric, and epic or heroic, “whose very name (I think) should daunt all backbiters.” Characteristically, he reserves his highest praise for the epic, whose champions–Achilles, Cyrus, Aeneas, Turnus, Tydeus, and Rinaldo–“not only teach and move to a truth, but teacheth and moveth to the most high and excellent truth.” Epic is, in short, “the best and most accomplished kind of poetry.” He concludes this second examination with a summary of his major points: that poetry deals with universal considerations; that (unlike the historian and the philosopher) the poet is not confined to already delimited parameters of inquiry but brings his own “stuff” to the act of mimesis, so that he “doth not learn a conceit out of a matter, but maketh a matter out of a conceit”; that poetry teaches goodness and delight; and that the Scriptures–indeed Christ himself–employed poetry. All this indicates that “the laurel crown appointed for triumphant captains doth worthily (of all other learnings) honor the poet’s triumph.”
Yet such reasoning is not likely to dissuade the misomousoi, the poet-haters, who wrongly identify poetry with rhyming and versifying, although, Sidney concedes, poetry often employs verse because “verse far exceedeth prose in the knitting up of memory.” But laying this complaint aside, Sidney begins his refutation with the claim that poetry and poets stand accused of four principal crimes: that they divert men from the pursuit of “other more fruitful knowledges”; that poetry “is the mother of lies”; that poetry “is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires”; and that Plato banished poets from his ideal commonwealth in the Republic.
These charges are, of course, made by straw men whom Sidney will easily hew down. The first charge he has already demonstrated to be spurious, since of all learning poetry alone “teacheth and moveth to virtue.” “I still and utterly deny,” he writes, “that there is sprung out of the earth a more fruitful knowledge.” The second charge, that poetry fosters lies, occasions a spirited rebuttal that anticipates several hallmark concepts of structuralist and poststructuralist assumptions about language, such as arbitrariness and difference. The confidence with which he addresses the third charge, that poetry fosters “not only love, but lust, but vanity, but (if they list [please]) scurrility,” would seem to belie Astrophil’s failed attempt to transmute his desire into spirituality. Nevertheless Sidney maintains that if love poetry leads man astray, we “need not say that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry.” Moreover, rather than enervating the spirit of warriors, implicit in the charge that it is the nurse of abuse, poetry is often “the companion of camps.” Thus, Plutarch tells us, when Alexander went to war he left his teacher Aristotle behind but took Homer with him.
Of the four charges against poets issued by the poet-haters, Sidney devotes the most space to refuting the final one, that Plato banned poets from his ideal republic. “But now indeed,” he begins, “my burden is great; now Plato’s name is laid upon me, whom, I confess, of all philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence,” for Plato “is the most poetical.” Yet if Plato would “defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded,” Sidney says, “let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it.” He claims that philosophers have made a “school-art” out of the matter that poets have conveyed “by a divine delightfulness,” and then cast off their “guides, like ungrateful apprentices.” Yet as Cicero noted, though many cities rejected philosophers, seven cities wished to claim Homer as a citizen. Simonides and Pindar made of the tyrant Hiero I a just king while, and here again Sidney follows Cicero, Plato was made the slave of Dionysius. For a clinching rhetorical effect Sidney, whose debt to Plato is everywhere apparent in The Defence of Poetry, reminds his readers that both Plato (in the Symposium and the Phaedrus) and Plutarch condoned the “abominable filthiness” of homosexuality.
Having thus exposed in Plato crimes far exceeding those of poets, Sidney rehabilitates his straw man. When he claims that in banning the poet from his republic Plato places the onus “upon the abuse, not upon poetry,” one should remember that he began this passage by confessing that Plato was the most poetical of philosophers. Plato’s strictures were directed toward practitioners of mimesis rather than mimesis itself: “Plato therefore … meant not in general of poets … but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity (whereof now, without further law, Christianity hath taken away all the hurtful belief…) nourished by the then-esteemed poets”–as can be seen in the Ion, where Plato “giveth high and rightly divine commendation unto poetry.” Indeed Plato, who “attributeth unto poesy more than myself do, namely, to be a very inspiring of a divine force,” has been misread: witness Plato’s mentor Socrates, who spent his old age turning Aesop’s fables into verse, and Plato’s student Aristotle, who wrote the Poetics–“and why, if it should not be written?” Nor Should one forget Plutarch, who in writing philosophy and history “trimmeth both their garments with the guards of poesy.”
Following this stirring refutation–actually a set piece with unanticipated ramifications for his own later work–Sidney considers, in a relevant digression, the lamentable condition of poetry in England, directing his criticism, characteristically, at poets rather than poetry. “Sweet poesy,” he begins, “that hath anciently [claimed] kings, emperors, senators, great captains,” and which had heretofore flourished in Britain, is in “idle England” now little more than flimflam, poets having “almost … the good reputation as the mountebanks at Venice.” “Base men,” he asserts, “with servile wits undertake it … as if all the Muses were got with child to bring forth bastard poets.” Feigning as burdensome the task of defending poets and their work, only to be “overmastered by some thoughts” and thus yielding “an inky tribute to them,” he defers authority in the matter of poetry to those who practice it. Restating the hugely problematic conditions of mimesis he had already presented in the Cyrus passage, he concludes that “they that delight in poesy itself should seek to know what they do, and how they do and especially look in the unflattering glass of reason” (emphasis added). For poetry must be led gently–or rather it must lead, as it cannot be acquired by “human skill.” “A poet no industry can make,” Sidney claims in a reaffirmation of the poet as vates, “if his own genius be not carried into it.”
Yet there are English poets who warrant commendation. Sidney is typical of his age in praising Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1385) but exceptional in acknowledging that Englishmen of his time had not mastered Chaucerian metrics: “I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this age go so stumblingly after him.” He also approves of the brief tragedies gathered in the Mirror for Magistrates (1563) and commends the lyrics of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who regularized the English sonnet form.
None of this is controversial. However, Sidney’s subsequent discussion of The Shepheardes Calender raises the question of how well, if at all, Sidney and Spenser were acquainted. He acknowledges that Spenser, who dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to him in 1579, “hath much poetry in his eclogues, indeed worthy of reading, if I be not deceived.” In his correspondence with Gabriel Harvey, Spenser claimed to have had Sidney “in some use of familiarity.” The two poets may have met at Leicester House, where Spenser was employed and where Sidney was a frequent guest at the time. Yet they were of vastly different social rank, Sidney being the earl’s nephew and Spenser the earl’s secretary. Sidney does not mention Spenser by name in his discussion of The Shepheardes Calender in The Defence of Poetry. Indeed, after praising its poetry, Sidney criticizes its author for the “framing of his style to an old rustic language.” After his death in 1586, Sidney’s influence upon Spenser was pervasive. Yet his only comments upon Spenser’s work do not suggest the intimacy between them that Spenser claimed to enjoy.
It is noteworthy that Sidney devotes more of his survey of English literature to drama than to poetry. He possessed an instinctive sense of dramatic structure, as The Lady of May demonstrates. Readers since Thomas Nashe have been impressed by the dramatic character of Astrophil and Stella, and the first version of Arcadia is divided into acts. Yet although he offers here the first example of sustained dramatic criticism in English, Sidney’s discussion utterly fails to anticipate the maverick forms of English theater that were to explode with such brilliance in the decade after his death. Except for Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s Gorboduc (1561), the first English tragedy in blank verse, which he endorses with qualifications, and the tragedies of his friend George Buchanan, Sidney dismisses the rest of English drama he has seen as “observing rules neither of honest civility nor skillful poetry.” He criticizes English playwrights for failing to observe the rigid program of unities (time, place, and action), a prescription generally attributed to Aristotle, and he praises ancient exemplars such as Terence (Eunuchus), Plautus (Captivi and Amphitruo), and Euripides (Hecuba).
Though he has claimed to see no harm in mixed poetic genres per se, he is especially harsh in his comments on English tragicomedy, which, he remarks, is guilty of promiscuously “mingling kings and clowns” and “hornpipes and funerals.” English comedy also fails to make the necessary distinction between delight and laughter, a distinction he develops in considerable detail. He concludes that he has spent too much time on plays because “they are excelling parts of poesy” and because “none [other poetry is] so much used in England, and none can be more pitifully abused.”
Just before his peroration Sidney returns to the subject of lyric poetry, “songs and sonnets,” which poets should direct toward the Platonic end of “singing the praises of immortal beauty: the immortal goodness of that God who giveth us hands to write and wits to conceive.” In a passage rife with implications for Astrophil and Stella , he complains of the wooden language of so many love poets who, “if I were a mistress, would never persuade me they were in love.” He attacks pseudo-Ciceronianism at some length, allowing himself to stray “from poetry to oratory.” But he finally excuses the slip because it allows him to include penultimately a tribute to the ease, grace, and beauty of the English language, which “for the uttering sweetly and properly [of] the conceits of the mind … hath not its equal with any other tongue in the world.”
Apparently Sidney was serious in his private, concurrent hopes of introducing a quantitative metrics into English poetry, for he writes that of the two methods of versifying, by quantity and stress, “the English, before any vulgar language I know, is fit for both.” Of other poetic qualities loosely grouped under the heading of rhyme, he argues that English is superior to other modern languages in its use of the caesura and in its ability to rhyme with masculine, feminine, and medial formations.
The brilliant peroration to The Defence of Poetry is a masterly composite of summary, exhortation, and admonition. Every praiseworthy poem is full of “virtue-breeding delightfulness” and possesses all traits of learning; the charges against it are “false or feeble,” and bad poetry is produced by “poet-apes, not poets.” The English language is “most fit to honor poesy, and to be honored by poesy.” Then, in the name of the Nine Muses, Sidney enjoins the reader of his “ink-wasting toy” to believe with Aristotle that poets were the keepers of the Greek divinities; with Pietro Bembo that poets first brought civility to mankind; with Joseph Justus Scaliger that poetry will sooner make an honest man than philosophy; with the German Conrad Clauser that in fables poets communicated “all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and quid non”; with Sidney himself “that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly”; and with Cristoforo Landino that poets are so loved by the gods that “whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury.” Alluding wryly to the often fulsome tone of dedications and patron-seeking prefaces, he reminds potential defenders of poetry that poets will make them “immortal by their verses,” that their names “shall flourish in the printers’ shops,” and that poets shall make laymen “most fair, most rich, most wise,” so that their souls shall dwell with Dante’s Beatrice and Virgil’s Anchises.
His concluding admonition, directed to anyone who might have “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry,” is a masterpiece of tone, combining the witty with the deadly serious for an audience that knew both the triviality of much fashionable rhetoric and the crucial role of literature and language in resisting the monument-destroying power of mutability and relentless time. As for those who refuse to value poetry, in the name of all poets Sidney offers the malediction that “while you live, [may] you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.”
The Defence of Poetry emerges today, in the hindsight of literary history, as a fulcrum in Sidney’s career, gathering, organizing, and clarifying the critical energies developed in his early work (such as The Lady of May and the experiments in quantitative verse) and discharging these energies into the mature creations of the 1580s, Astrophil and Stella and the revised Arcadia . Sidney’s attractiveness as a critic, like that of John Dryden in a later age, derives partly from his authority as a practicing poet who speaks as much from experience with what works and what does not as from familiarity with abstract notions of art. This is not to say, however, that his later works simply actualize conceptual blueprints from The Defence of Poetry.