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—as well as 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 as it had not been since the height of ancient Greek civilization. The opening of the essay lays out Sidney’s reasons for defending poetry: he believes poetry is insufficiently esteemed in his society, and as an aristocrat as well as a poet, he feels he must defend his vocation to preserve his honor.
This section serves as the "Introduction" section of a classic, seven-part argument. While some rhetoricians define classical arguments as having five or six parts (the exordium, the narratio, the partitio, the refutatio and/or the confirmatio, and the peroratio), the "digresio" is a seventh part of classical argumentation lauded by several classical philosophers, most famously discussed in Quintillian's Institutio Oratoria.
The essay begins with Sidney revealing the setting to the story. He and another man named Edward Watton were together at the Emperor’s court where they met the horseman John Pietro Pugaliano. The men talked about horses, with Pugaliano arguing that for princes and noblemen, the skill of horsemanship is more important than even the “skill of government.” Pugliano’s “strong affection and weak argument” convince Sidney—an aristocrat and former soldier and horseman—that he should make an argument in favor of poetry, as he has “slipped into the title of a poet."
Sidney claims poetry is valuable because it was the first form of literary art to come into existence. He seeks to prove the historical veneration of poets and poetry, especially in Greek and Roman society.
In this section, Sidney introduces a rhetorical device that he will use throughout the essay: the metaphorical comparison of poetry to horsemanship. Sidney notes that Pugaliano defends horsemanship with such flare that “if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse." Here, Sidney lightly mocks Pugaliano. After talking to Pugaliano, Sidney is reminded that “self love is better than any gilding, to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves be parties." Here, Sidney again mocks Pugaliano, as well as acknowledges that when one passionately loves an art, it is easy to describe it gorgeously; no “gilding” or exaggeration is needed. Scholar Edward Berry notes that Sidney’s own aristocratic upbringing inclines him to defend his new profession as a different kind of soldiering.
Compared to horsemanship, Sidney notes that poetry, once viewed as a noble art, is in England now “the laughing-stock of children." In defending it against these foolish children, Sidney introduces several figures. He notes that poetry was the “first light-fiver to ignorance and the first nurse." He personifies poetry as a mother, giving the “milk” of knowledge to early civilizations. Rhetorical figures abound as Sidney asks his readers if they will be “hedgehogs,” beings who only know one thing, driving their own hosts out of their den, or “vipers” who “kill their parents."
To enforce his point that poetry is the mother of knowledge, Sidney references Musaeus, Homer, and Hesiod, the first writers in “learned Greece." He notes that, in that culture, poets such as Orpheus and Amphion were said to tame beasts and move stones with their poetry. Furthermore, poets have beautified their mother tongues, as Gower and Chaucer did for English. The introduction of all these examples can be considered the rhetorical use of logos to persuade his reader.
Extending this line of argumentation, Sidney briefly compares the poet to the historian and the philosopher (a point that he will take up at length in Section II of the essay). The narrator claims philosophy and history were, in their earliest iterations, presented to the general public as poetry, and even ancient civilizations that are considered by today’s standards as being without any type of culture used poetry. First, he argues that philosophers appeared “under the mask of poets” writing their philosophy in verse. Here, Sidney thinks of poetry as a “skin” on the outside of Plato’s philosophy, decorating and adorning his dialogues. Historians likewise “stole or usurped” poetry’s adornments. Neither could have reached men’s minds without taking the flourishes and style of poetry. This is why, Sidney argues, every nation—including the “barbarous”—has poetry, which “softened and sharpened” dull wits.
Sidney provides further support to his point by introducing evidence of Greek and Roman views towards poets. He notes that Romans called their poets “vates,” or prophets, and notes the ancient practice of flipping through books of verse to alight on one’s fortune. He defends the word “vates” as reasonable in a passage on David’s Psalms, noting that these musical, metrical writings “maketh you...see God coming in His majesty” and thus revealing the divine. Sidney gently mocks himself, a rhetorical technique he returns to throughout the essay noting, stating, “I fear I seem to profane that holy name, applying it to poetry, which is, among us, thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation.” However, as we will see, this professed self-doubt only strengthens his argument. Continuing to discuss the ancient admiration for poetry, Sidney notes that the Greeks called the poet “a maker." While other arts and sciences take nature as their tools, poets create something new: “only the poet...doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature." To elevate man’s wit above the forms of nature, Sidney says, is a way to honor “the heavenly Maker of that maker."
At the end of this section, Sidney has focused largely on the logical defense of poetry based on its historical importance, although he supports his logos-centric argumentation with local instances of simile, metaphor, and personification.
Serving as the exordium/ introduction section in a classical argument, this section establishes that Sidney will make his argument using the tools of classical rhetoric. This is especially significant because Sidney ultimately seeks to group all other literary arts including rhetoric/oration under the umbrella of poetry. In choosing an established form for his argumentation, Sidney pays homage to classical rhetoric, while preparing to take up Quintillian's digresio in particular. While "digression" is often left out of some examples of classical argumentation, the turn away from the main subject of an oration only to return to it may mirror or mimic the structure of creative narratives like epic poems in particular. By considering digression as part of the structure of argumentation rather than a distraction from an argument, Sidney implicitly elevates all literary forms that may seem to digress from a central, important point.