The Defence of Poesy Background

The Defence of Poesy Background

Perhaps no work in English goes under quite as many slightly varied titled as Philip Sidney’s signature work. Variously known as a Defence of Poesyy, Defense of Poesy, Defense of Poetry, Apology for Poetry, Apologie for Poesy and all the myriad different ways of putting those words together, the one thing that all titles have in common is the reference to a passionate defense of the value of poetry during an age which saw it being attacked unlike it had been since the height of ancient Greek civilization.

Most likely written in 1579, but not published until 1595, the need to craft a new response to attacks upon the validity of poetry as a worthwhile endeavor was sparked by the much the same charges which had been leveled against the literary arts by Plato in The Republic. Just as Plato was ready to jettison most poetry from his utopian ideal on the basis of poets treating it with a lack of responsibility and charges that its disconnect from reality would inevitably lead to confusion between what is fiction and what is real, so were these concerns taken up with vigor by many activist religious groups gaining power through the volume of their voice in Britain.

At the center of this religious assault upon the validation of poetry were a particular group of religious extremists who power seemed perched on the edge of growing wildly out of proportion to their numbers: the Puritans. One particular spokesperson for the Puritan claim to the moral high ground was especially central to Sidney’s decision to craft his defense: Stephen Gosson. As often happens in these cases, Gosson was himself a playwright, but excused his own writing from the attacks he made against poetry on the grounds that they were of a higher moral order than the bulk.

Sidney was just one writer of the time to take exception to this hypocrisy, but it is his Defence of Poesy which has stood the test of time. Indeed, many scholars regard his eloquent defense of the attacks made against poetry by both Plato and Gosson to be the first real example of literary criticism.

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