An Apology for PoetryClassical Criticism

Nature and Function of Poetry for Philip Sidney

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Sidney’s definition of poetry:

“Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word Memesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture; with this end to teach and delight.”

Nature of Poetic Imitation

Sidney proceeds to elaborate on the view that poetry is an imitation. The poet, like other men of learning, imitates the objects of nature. However, the poet goes beyond nature.

Nature never set forth the earth in such a rich tapestry as poets have done; neither pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely.

The poet, through his invention and imagination, builds up another nature. The poet either makes things better than those that exist in nature or makes new forms that do not exist in nature.

Poet as Maker

Sidney says that the Greeks were fully justified in giving the poet the title of a ‘maker.’ To Sidney, a maker is a creator. Indeed, the creative faculty is found in the poet to a greater extent than in any other kind of man.

Antiquity and Universality of Poetry

Sidney defends poetry by pointing out that poetry was the earliest form of composition everywhere and that for a long time, the philosophers of ancient Greece appeared to the world in the guise of poets. The poet imitates nature, as do other artists and men of learning.

Read About: For Sidney, How Poetry is Superior Over Philosophy and History?

The superiority of Poetry to History and Philosophy

Poetry is superior to philosophy and history because it teaches virtue and urges human beings to live virtuously. The philosopher teaches only by precept, and the historian leads only by example. The philosopher abstractly conveys goodness. But the poet speaks virtue by a concrete portrayal of virtuous characters. The poet is therefore superior to the philosopher. Historian describes virtue and vice through actual historical examples, but he remains tied to what has happened.

Sidney says, quoting Aristotle, that poetry is more philosophical and more profound than history. Poetry is superior to philosophy because it has the power to stir or move the reader’s mind in a way philosophy cannot do.

Poetry as All Branches of Learning

Sidney regards poetry as the most fruitful form of knowledge and, therefore, as a “monarch of all branches of learning.” Sidney glorifies poetry and ranks it above philosophy and history and above the sciences like astronomy and geometry. He goes to the extreme when he says: “I still and utterly deny that there is, sprung out of the earth, a more fruitful knowledge than poetry.”

Kinds of Poetry for Sidney

Sidney explains three kinds of poetry;

i. Divine poetry, found in Bible

ii. Philosophical and moral poetry, produced by ancient poets.

iii. Proper poetry imitates, delights and teaches, and moves the minds to goodness.

The function of Poetry is to Teach and Delight

Sidney points out the power of poetry to move the mind and stir the heart through behavior and conduct. He adds the examples of Homer’s Odyssey and Menenius Agrippa. He is using delight as his instrument influences readers’ minds more effectively than any other art does.

Poetry is not Rhyming and Versing

Sidney says, “it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet, just as it is not a long gown which maketh an advocate.

The poet offers his work by notable images of virtues and vices which imparts both delight and instruction. Its delightful teaching distinguishes the work of a poet.

So, in the end, Sidney takes up the position which links him with romantic poets though, he is a neo-classical critic. The Puritans criticized poetry, and Sidney needed to meet the challenge men like Stephen Gosson were flinging.

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