Thursday, September 6, 2007

On "An Apology for Poetry" by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86)

Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, first published in 1595, marks the reappearance of Aristotelian notions of drama after centuries of disuse. But Sidney’s apology is not simply the reformulation of formal “rules” of poetry developed by Aristotle; rather, by making his case in both moral and aesthetic terms, Sidney defends poetry from the puritanical claim that it is a corrupting influence. After establishing the moral legitimacy of poetry, he then turns to the ancient quarrel over which of the three great arts― philosophy, poetry, or history― is the "architectonic," and, rather predictably, argues that poetry is the “highest end of mistress-knowledge” because “in the ethic and politic consideration” only it has “the end of well doing not of well knowing only.” In other words, of the three arts only poetry serves all purposes―moral, aesthetic, political―at once.

First, Sir Philip Sidney responds to the “imputations” laid to poetry, namely that it is a waste of time, since there are many far more valuable pursuits; that it is “the mother of lies” (see Plato’s Illusionism); that it is “the nurse of abuse” and promotes sin; and that it was rightly banned from Plato’s Republic.

Sidney responds to the first claim by stating that the poet, though he may present untruths in dramatic form, is in fact the “least of liars,” since “he nothing affirms, and therefore never Lieth.” This is to be compared with the historians who are fraught with inaccuracies, with astronomers who are limited to their imperfect tools, and with physicians who inadvertently misdiagnose. Poets, by contrast, are creators of hypothetical, utopian worlds, and their poems “are but pictures of what should be.”

Plato argued that poetry, being the representation of a representation, or what he called “the shadow of a shadow,” is twice removed from the “ideal form,” and therefore dismissed it as the furthest from “ultimate truth.” Sidney, however, argues that this “second nature” inventively created by the poets is, in fact, a good thing. “Only the poet,” he writes, “doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclopes, Chimeras, Furies, and such like.” According to Sidney, then, shadows are of no less value than that which casts them― in fact it seems that each shadow improves with its duplication.

Plato, much like today’s Tipper Gore’s of the world, worried that excessive exposure to the lewder forms of entertainment― Homer was Plato’s main target― would encourage sinful and unlawful behavior. Sidney, too, seems to be no less concerned, and he promotes in his defense a poetry that, echoing Horace, should both “teach and delight.” Yet, given Sidney’s earlier claim that the poet should make no affirmations, how is it possible to instruct while still affirming nothing? Sidney unfortunately provides no satisfying solution in this defense, and we are left to suppose that he would have advocated a sort of implicit didacticism― i.e., the indirect instruction through the manipulation of dramatic voices― which would allow him to avoid having to make any explicit affirmations.

Finally, as for which of the three fields of human knowledge can claim to be the “architectonic," Sidney gives the prize to poetry. He calls history the “less fruitful” of the three, since it deals only with particulars and empirical data, and ranks philosophy second, since it deals at least with “precepts,” “universals,” and rational a priori argument, whereas history does not. Sidney reasons that poetry is the superior form because only it “coupleth the general notion with the particular example,” and, furthermore, because only it can “move” the audience and compel them to seek the unrealized possibilities presented in his work, where “virtue [is] exalted and vice punished.” This of course contrasts with history, where evil often goes unpunished. The poet’s task is thus utopian: to “maketh matter for a conceit,” or, to put it differently, to make concrete and applicable examples that correspond to universal moral precepts, with the end goal being the realization of the utopian vision.

As we can see, the poetry advocated here by Sidney is a far cry from the aestheticism of Kant or the early nineteenth-century Romantics, or, for that matter, from the pathos-centered anti-realism of Zeami and Chikamatsu. Perhaps we can say that, if such utopian didacticism can be likened to anything we have discussed so far, it most resembles the “Great Preface” to The Book of Songs, which also holds poetry to be of explicitly moral intent.

This article is copyrighted © 2005 - 2007 by Renaldo&Co.

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