Sir Philip Sidney, ca. 1500s (Public Domain)
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.