Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle terms it in his word mimēsis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end,—to teach and delight.
Poetry is described in the essay as being an imitation of reality. Other forms of art, including paintings, are also understood as imitations, but Sidney claims that poetry is the highest form of imitation. Here, Sidney's definitions may look contradictory; while "counterfeiting" might imply making a false replica, "figuring forth" suggests the process of making clear what was not already visible. He leaps from calling poetry an imitation to a form of "teaching," something that paintings, for example, might not be expected to do. Here, it is important that poetry is a speaking picture: while poems are imitations, they put into words truths that might not already be evident.
This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning...lead[s] and draw[s] us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clay lodgings, can be capable of.
Here, Sidney summarizes the purpose of poetry, namely to elevate the soul to a state of perfection. He describes poetry as the highest form of art, one that expands the mind in a number of ways, purifying, enriching, and expanding it through its lessons. Here, Sidney draws on Christian religion and the fall of man: he notes that, while we are "degenerate" in spirit, and trapped within "clay" or sinful flesh, poetry alone is capable of exposing us to truths larger than ourselves, as well as raising the soul and bringing it nearer to God and perfection. This is especially important because Sidney seeks to defend poetry against its Christian detractors.
He teaches virtue by certain abstract considerations, but I only bid you follow the footing of them that have gone before you. Old-aged experience goes beyond the fine-witted philosopher.
This quote is imagined to belong to a historian who is comparing himself to a philosopher. Sidney seeks to draw a parallel between the historian and the philosopher, and to show the defects of both. Here, rather than insulting philosophers directly, Sidney imagines the historian stating that the philosopher teaches in such a manner that can’t be understood by using abstract considerations and by refusing to use simple words and terms. The historian boasts that his method is simpler, and that he only makes his readers look at the past and then decide whether to follow the same path or another one, different from the one taken by the past generations.
But truly now having named him, I fear I seem to profane that holy name, applying it to poetry, which is among us thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation.
In a typical rhetorical move, Sidney half-apologizes after calling the holy Psalms of the Bible a "divine poem." He anticipates that his audience might find his comparison offensive, since poetry is looked down upon. However, while noting that poetry currently has a "ridiculous estimation," he does not take back the comparison. He slyly suggests that in fact poetry has been profaned in being lowered so far beneath its true value.
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature,...Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
Here, Sidney expands on his definition of poetry. Having previously called it a mimetic act, here, he expands his claims for the art, now suggesting that poetry forms something beyond nature—in fact, "another nature." Springing from human minds, poetry, too, is a part of nature, but it stands beyond it and, Sidney implies, even above it. While nature itself is brazen, or shameless, the poets create a world that reflects only goodness. When Sidney refers to the earth as the "too-much-loved earth," he seems to imply that Nature receives too much praise, while poetry receives too little.
For poesy must not be drawn by the ears, it must be gently led, or rather it must lead...And therefore is it an old proverb: Orator fit, poeta nascitur [the orator is made, the poet is born]. Yet confess I always that, as the fertilest ground must be manured, so must the highest-flying wit have a Dædalus to guide him.
In this famous quote, Sidney mixes several metaphors, comparing poetry to a horse, and the poet's mind to both a field and a chariot. Here, Sidney's main point is that poets are not bred, they are born. Poetry must lead; that is, it must choose the poet. Of course, he admits that the poet's mind, like a field, must be fertilized for anything to grow in it; furthermore, in order to learn to fly without suffering the fate of Icarus, he must follow others. This quote is especially important in light of Sidney's feigned humility. Early in the essay, Sidney states that his vocation as poet was not chosen ("I slipped into the title of poet"). Here, though, he suggests that all poets are divinely chosen, himself perhaps included.
...I will not wish unto you the ass’ ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rimed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse. I must send you in the behalf of all poets:—that while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.
After beginning his essay with logic and reason, Sidney ends it with a curse. He will not wish the poet-hater death by poetry. Rather, he wishes that such men are never able to successfully find love, and that they will die without being remembered. By this stage in the poem, Sidney has asserted that poetry can make a man almost immortal, since his name will be remembered throughout history. His wish for those who speak out against poetry is that they suffer in life and in death. This curse is perhaps not the logical conclusion of Sidney's thus-far careful defense, but rather a passionate display of his sincere belief in his own art.
The Defence of Poesy Questions and Answers
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