The Defence of Poesy

The Defence of Poesy Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Greek and Roman culture (motif)

In making a case for poetry's importance, Sidney uses abundant examples of Greek and Roman poets, poems, and ideas about poetry. This motif contributes to the logos of his argument, suggesting that, because Greeks and Romans venerated poetry, all great civilizations should follow in their stead. Of particular importance are the Roman identification of poets as vates, or prophets, and the Greek understanding of poets as makers. Both of these strengthen his claim that poetry helps man to see truth, and makes new worlds that help us to reflect on our own.

Poetry's Sweetness (motif)

While Puritans called poetry a "sweet poison," Sidney uses the same motif (supported by local instances of metaphor) to defend poetry. He suggests that poetry is able to teach more effectively than philosophy because of its "sweetness." He refers to poetry as the "first milk" for many minds, and writes that "even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things, by hiding them in such other as to have a pleasant taste," poetry's sweetness can conceal important truths and messages. This quality makes verse easily to memorize.

Women's roles and the feminization of poetry (motif)

Sidney defends poetry against three claims (made in particular by Sidney's contemporary Stephen Gosson), and two include references to poetry that personify and feminize the art: that poetry is "the mother of lies" and "the nurse of abuse." Kent Lenhof argues that Sidney counters Gosson's antifeminism in ascribing poetry a positive feminine role. He compares poetry to a beautiful woman: "who, if the saying of Plato and Tully be true, that who could see virtue would be wonderfully ravished with the love of her beauty, this man sets her out to make her more lovely, in her holiday apparel, to the eye of any that will deign not to disdain until they understand." Here as throughout the text, poetry is imagined delighting and softening—even seducing—the minds of men to bring them closer to perfection. Since poetry reveals universal truths, the feminine art does all this in service of the greater good.

Nature (motif)

Important to Sidney's argument is the question of whether poetry is a "natural" or "unnatural" art, and how it works in concert with nature. According to Sidney, all the arts and sciences have their basis in nature: "So doth the astronomer look upon the stars...So do the geometrician and arithmetician in their divers sorts of quantities," and so on. Sidney argues that poetry creates another nature, at certain points seeming to elevate the fictions of poetry above the works of God. Whereas nature itself contains cruelty, poetry creates a perfect realm. However, elsewhere in the essay, Sidney implies that the poet must partner with nature to avoid creating overwrought verse.