The Defence of Poesy

The Defence of Poesy Summary

In The Defence of Poesy, Sir Philip Sydney attempts to uphold poetry as the highest form of art. With several contemporary critics coming up with their propositions against poetry, it became important to shield poetry against attack. The late sixteenth century was a period of political and religious tumult in England. Literature, of which poetry was at the time the most prominent mode, was thought to be divisive and corrupting by the new forms of religious radicalism, such as Puritanism, and many argued that it should be banned. Sidney's Defence sets out not only to defend poetry, but to argue for the moral role of the poet in a society.

Aristotle described poetry as “mimesis”: an art form that merely imitates. Sydney argues that poetry is much more than that. It does not merely imitate the real world, but also shapes it. The subject matter of a poem should not be mistaken as the poem's core meaning; rather, it should be understood as a mode or pathway through which several meanings can be achieved. Hence, it is the poet’s eye that gives the poetry its life.

Defending the fictional realm that poetry creates, Sydney says that the world created by poetry is the epitome of all histories, mythologies, and philosophies. After all, all the classical epics are written in poetic form. Various types of poetic forms like comedy, satire, tragedy, lyric, heroic, and pastoral embody and commemorate a variety of great historical achievements.

Sidney contrasts poetry with history, which gives only one view and traps readers into a limited and limiting view. By contrast, poetry offers a range of views and choices; it gives individuals a sense of freedom. Poetry is designed to express emotions and feelings—which can never be false. How, then, could poetry foster corruption? How could it be irrelevant to society? If one has to study the core of humanity and the world of human beings, poetry is the best literary genre as it will never prejudice the reader’s thoughts. Poets achieve immortality, while those who criticize it, Sidney argues, should rightly be condemned to be forgotten when they die. With this claim, Sydney concludes his masterly work.