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The Worthy Art of Poetry: A Response to Philip Sydney’s “Defence of Poesy”

In his “Defence of Poesy,” Sir Philip Sydney offers us several reasons why poetry is a worthy art and a worthy subject of study. The primary tenets of his argument are religious, epistemological, and teleological. On a religious level, Sydney argues that the work of poetry honors certain God-given aspects of human nature. On an epistemological level, he argues that poetry offers humans access to certain forms of knowledge. And on a teleological level, he argues that poetry plays a powerful role in moving humans towards their proper end. On one hand, Sidney’s claims are quickly contradicted when considered in a postmodern context; and yet, if we view Sidney’s claims from within certain paradigms—in particular, theistic and teleological paradigms—they provide a powerful defense of the immense value of literature.

The religious underpinnings of Sidney’s argument play an important role in legitimating his assessment of the value literature. Sidney explicitly affirms Plato and Aristotle’s understanding of poetry as mimesis, noting that poesy is “an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis.”[1] For Sidney, the idea that poetry is a form of imitation has important religious ramifications insofar as the “chief”[2] kind of poetry is that which imitates “the inconceivable excellencies of God.”[3] Yet, Sidney goes even further by arguing that the work poets is more than  just a work of imitation; rather the imitation itself is a form of creation by which the poet actually adds to nature. Sidney claims, “Only the poet . . . lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow into effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature . . . her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.”[4] The significance and power of this point comes from the theological context in which Sidney offers it. He suggests that God, “having made man in His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature; which in nothing he showeth so much as poetry, which with the force of a divine breath, he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings . . .”[5] Christian doctrine teaches that God created the world from nothing, and Sydney argues that because humans are made in God’s image, they create art in a way that reflects God’s creative action. In this way, Sidney offers the powerful suggestion that the work of the poets is not only in keeping with the God-given nature of humans, but actually honors and fulfills this nature.

This piece of Sidney’s argument would have been particularly weighty in the religiously saturated world of sixteenth century England, though it is likely not a point which would stand up to modern criticism. For those who maintain rationalistic, materialistic, or agnostic perspectives, the idea that in the act of creating literature poets honor divinely created human nature is not a compelling reason to believe that poetry is worthwhile, let alone more worthwhile than other disciplines. However, for those who already adhere to various kinds of theistic belief, the religious aspect of Sidney’s argument provides a lasting endorsement for the value of literature and the honorable work of artists.

Sidney’s argument, of course, is not exclusively religious but also depends on strong epistemological claims. He argues that poetry offers knowledge in a similar manner to other disciplines such as moral philosophy and history. Specifically, poetry offers knowledge of goodness both positively by creating images of virtue and negatively by creating images of vice. Sidney claims that poets “teach to make [humans] know that goodness whereunto they are moved.”[6] For Sidney, the epistemological function of poetry is not just one facet, but is actually a defining characteristic of a poet. He explains, “it is that feigning of notable images of virtue, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.”[7] For Sidney, the poet is a teacher.

At this point, an interesting paradox arises in Sidney’s argument. Sidney claims that literature offers the most important kind of knowledge—that is, “the knowledge of man’s self”[8]—and in doing so, literature “teacheth what virtue is.”[9] Yet, in responding to the accusation that poetry is “the mother of lies,”[10] Sidney argues that poetry never lies because the poet “never affirmeth”[11]—poetry does not claim to have literal, factual accuracy in the way that history does, and does not claim to tell you “what is or is not”[12] in the way that philosophy does; rather, poetry proposes to say “what should or should not be.”[13] On one level, Sidney is correct to argue that poetry cannot lie in a literal sense because it does not claim to be literally true. But on another more complex level it seems that poetry can certainly misrepresent the truth. If poetry claims to offer knowledge of goodness and virtue, then it is automatically possible for poets to be wrong about what goodness and virtue actually are and to misrepresent them accordingly. Perhaps, then, Sidney is right to say that poetry cannot lie, but fails to recognize that poets can be mistaken and thus lie unwittingly.

Of course, Sidney addresses this problem to a certain extent in his response to the claim that poetry is “the nurse of abuse.”[14] Sidney counters this claim by arguing that a thing cannot be considered bad simply because it may be abused, for it may also be well used, as poetry often is.[15] Further, he argues that poets do not necessarily promote bad ideas, but simply reflect bad ideas that others already believe. In response to Plato’s accusation that poets teach wrong ideas about the gods which cause the youth to be depraved, Sidney explains, “the poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced.”[16] And yet, while the notion that poetry can be ill used or well used is a sturdier and more nuanced position than the claim that poets cannot lie, this idea does not resolve the serious problem being addressed: that poets can do real damage by misrepresenting the truth. If literature truly shapes the way that humans conceive of what is good in the way that Sidney claims it does, then literature has real power to mislead individuals and ultimately to mislead society by presenting false notions of the good. Perhaps a better response to this problem would be to argue that realistically, literature can never be entirely eradicated from society; humans have always and will always formulate ideas about the world through the medium of literature, whether orally or in writing, whether legally or illegally, whether openly or underground. Hence, rather than underrating and underestimating the power of literature, it is better for humanity to continue the ever-ongoing communal work of discerning good literature from bad.

Returning to the meat of Sidney’s argument, the major weight of his defense of poetry lies in its moral, epistemological, and teleological components. Sidney argues that poetry not only teaches humans what virtue is, but actually compels them towards it. He states, “the final end [of poetry] 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.”[17] By this reference to the “perfection” of the human soul, Sidney is indicating human virtue. For Sidney, knowledge of virtue is not enough; rather, the “end of all earthly learning”[18] is “virtuous action.”[19] And for Sidney, poetry has a unique ability to promote that end. He argues that while philosophers can define virtue and historians can provide examples of it, it is poetry alone which actually has the power to move humans towards the development of habitual virtuous action. The weight of this claim depends on an embedded teleological argument about humanity: Sidney implicitly assumes that human souls have a certain trajectory of development, of which the proper end is virtue.

As with the religious underpinnings of Sidney’s argument, any assessment of the validity of his moral or teleological claims will depend on the paradigm from which they are assessed. A postmodern critique of Sidney would likely reject the notion that human beings have a particular end (let alone the notion that this end is virtue) and would thus deconstruct Sidney’s claim on the basis that literature cannot be valued based on its ability to move humans to certain prescribed ends which do not necessarily exist. On the other hand, if the premise of a teleological framework for reality based on virtue is accepted, Sidney’s point becomes a powerful reason why literature is of the utmost value. For indeed, if the development of virtue is as important as Sidney claims, and if poetry is actually able to move humans towards virtue in the way he claims, then poetry is truly a vast source of power.

Of course, it cannot be taken for granted that poetry is actually capable of propelling humans toward virtuous action in this way. One could argue that literature establishes sources of value, and thus shapes what people love—for example, people steeped in Homer will value cunning, bravery, and honor and will thus seek those things in their actions. And yet, it is difficult to say whether literature is truly prescriptive in this way, or whether it is simply descriptive, reflecting value systems that have already been established by other means—in which case, Homer’s stories only reflect an already established valuation of cunning, bravery, and honor. In the end, though, this seems to be a false dichotomy, for whether literature is primarily descriptive or prescriptive, it always achieves at least a bit of both—in describing, it often automatically prescribes, and vice versa. Furthermore, value systems are part of the very fabric of literature and though they may be incredibly subtle or may even be a de-valuing of value itself, they cannot be avoided. Thus, literature will always make suggestions—whether subtle or overt—about what is good and therefore desirable. So while there is no guarantee that literature will always (or even generally) teach people to desire what is good and thus propel them towards virtue, it is fair to say that literature at least has the ability to do so and does so on some occasions.

Ultimately, Sidney’s claims are convincing for those who already adhere to the general paradigms under which he writes. If God really exists and really created humans in his likeness, then poetry is indeed a beautiful emulation of divine creative activity. Likewise, if goodness is an objective reality, then poetry indeed has the power to offer us knowledge about the good through the work of mimesis. And if the chief end of human life really is the development of virtue, then poetry’s ability to help us not only know the good but also love the good and do the good is of inestimably high value.

 

 

End Notes:
[1] Sidney, “Defense of Poesy,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch and William Cain (Norton & Co.: New York, 2010) 258.
[2] Sidney, “Defense of Poesy,” 258.
[3] Ibid., 258.
[4] Ibid., 257.
[5] Ibid., 258.
[6] Ibid., 260.
[7] Ibid., 260
[8] Ibid., 261.
[9] Ibid., 261.
[10] Ibid., 271.
[11] Ibid., 271.
[12] Ibid., 271.
[13] Ibid., 271.
[14] Ibid., 271.
[15] Ibid., 273.
[16] Ibid., 275.
[17] Ibid., 260.
[18] Ibid., 261.
[19] Ibid., 261.

 

 

References:
Sidney, Philip. “Defense of Poesy,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent Leitch and William Cain (Norton & Co.: New York, 2010) 257-275.