What charges are brought against poetry and how does Sydney defend those?

Introduction: Vindication in favor of poetry is the prime segment of the first practical literary criticism of English literature “An Apology for Poetry” by Elizabethan poet and critic Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1886). 

Sidney has given his logical and convincing answers against all the objections to poetry. There is no 

exaggeration in the essay but are strong references to defend poetry out and out.

Objections or imputations to poetry:  Sidney mentions the blames of poetry in a very fantastic way:

Now then go we to the most important imputations laid to the poor poets

It is generally believed that Sidney was motivated by Stephen Gosson’s “The School of Abuse” in which

Stephen Gosson brought the following accusations against poetry.

Poetry is the waste of time

Poetry is the mother of lies

It is nurse of abuse

Plato has rightly banished the poets from his ideal state or commonwealth.

Beside these major objections, there are some preliminary imputations mentioned and answered in the essay.

Read More: How does Johnson compare Cowley and Milton as a poet?

Sidneys replies to the blames against poetry:  Sir Philip Sidney’s scholarly recounts to suppress the imputations to poetry are detailed here with reference 

to “An Apology for Poetry”.

Response to the preliminary objections: First of all, Sidney solves the preliminary objections which are raised against poetry. He asserts that poetry is condemned by those who try to win praise for themselves by dispraising others. Sidney calls them jesters and clowns. However, some critics are serious in their censure because of rhyme and meter of poetry. Sidney replies to such attackers:

One may a poet without versifying or a versifier without poetry.

The most lucrative source of knowledge: In connection with the first major charge or grievance of poetry that is “poetry is the waste of time”, Sidney 

explains that someone can spend better time in achieving fruitful knowledge by studying poetry. Poetry teaches us virtue and moves the mind of human beings to pursue virtuous action.

For indeed poetry ever setteth virtue so out in her best colours ,

making fortune her well-waiting handmaid that one must needs be enamoured of her.

There is no other branch of knowledge including philosophy and history which can perform these two functions more effectively than poetry from time immemorial. Thus, poetry is conserved and certainly given high prestige by Sidney.

Prophetic status of the poets: The second discontent is “poetry is the mother of lies” that is vehemently rejected by Sidney. He not only denies this grievance but also confers the prestige of the poets as diviner or prophet by mentioning the Latin word “Vates” which means a diviner or prophet.

For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet prospect into the way

He also cites the Greek word “Poiein” that refers to maker. A series of disquisitions has been referred to the favor of poetry. Thus, poetry can never be mother of lies.

The use and misuse of poetry: Sidney then turns to third charge against poetry “It is nurse of abuse” which stands for that poetry is accused of abusing men’s wit. Poetry infects the readers with vicious desires such lustful love and so on. In this 

respect, comedy is believed to be the greater culprit because of the abundance of amorous conceits which it contains. Sidney also laments for the misuse of this pure branch of knowledge. He cites examples. Medicine that is used to cure disease can be fatal if it is misused. Law which ensures justice must foster and increase injustice in case of malfunctioning. So, poetry itself is not responsible for abuse but the rogue poets.

Unfair reference of Plato’s allegation: Sidney restrains and suppresses the fourth objection of poetry in a handy way. He says that it is generally believed that Plato was against poetry since he was a philosopher. But Plato himself is a borrower of poetic technique because his language is highly poetic. He has not banished poetry from his ideal state but the misuse or abuse of poetry has been thrown away from his commonwealth. He regards poetry as the product of divine inspiration. Sidney therefore regards Plato not as an adversary of poets but as their patron.

Read More: Eliot refutes the remarks of Johnson on the poet whom he classified as metaphysical

Conclusion: It must be asserted and praised that Sidney has paved the new way for poetry. If there is no Sidney in the history of English literary criticism, there is no safeguard for poetry. The attackers must consume this delightful teaching branch of knowledge through jealousy and conservativeness. 

Mottaleb Hossain
Mottaleb Hossain

This is Motaleb Hossain, working on studying, a researcher on English literature and Theology.

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