One of the major themes in Sidney's Defence is the idea that poetry is extremely important and has a value that can’t be easily explained. According to Sidney, the value of poetry lies in particular in its ability to teach. While history and philosophy can both improve man's mind as well, poetry is the mother of all knowledge. It, in fact, prepares the minds of men for other kinds of learning. While some fail to see the value of poetry, this is because they misunderstand it, thinking only of the poor verses they've seen from their contemporaries. They fail to recognize that, while individual poets may lack talent, poetry itself is the highest form of literature (encompassing verse, plays, philosophy, and even the Bible). Thus, poetry and those who write it must be appreciated and even elevated to higher places in society because of their contribution to society.
Poetry and Religion
Sidney suggests that one of the functions of poetry is to teach men about God's greatness. He analyzes both his own religion, Christianity, and older ones, such as Greek and Roman polytheism. From almost the beginning of the essay, he emphasizes the godliness of poetry, preemptively laying the groundwork for a defense against the chief accusation against poetry: that it is "mother of lies." When discussing the historical veneration of poetry, Sidney notes that poetry once served the main purpose of praising God or gods. He remarks that David's Psalms "[make] you...see God coming in His majesty." Likewise, he discusses biblical allegories, including Christ's own allegories, as instances of poetry. Through his analysis, the narrator aims to prove that poetry has a deep connection with religion. Man's ability to make entire worlds out of poetry shows the brilliance of his divine maker.
Important to the understanding of this theme is the essay's historical context. Sidney wrote the essay in part to defend against the anti-poetry claims of Puritans, radical Protestants who were gaining influence in 16th-century England.
Poetry, History, and Philosophy
Sidney discusses the difference between poetry, philosophy, and history at several points in the essay. He imagines historians and philosophers immediately objecting to the claim that poetry is the medium best-suited to teaching and transmitting knowledge. He suggests that representatives of both disciplines would claim to be superior. Poetry, however, has the power to bring the two together and to unite them in a peaceful manner. Poetry can teach lessons based on history, and then use them to convey how man should be, rather than how he is. Unlike philosophy, poetry can do this in an approachable, even delightful manner. Thus, in this manner, poetry is presented once more as being superior.
A story about horsemanship begins the essay, introducing a parallel between horsemanship and poetry, as well as between language and horses, that persists throughout Sidney's argument. Part of Sidney's motivation is related to his status and social milieu; listening to Pugliano's praise of the art of horsemanship, Sidney is reminded how much debate there is around the value, seriousness, and nobility of his field of expertise, poetry. As an aristocrat and former soldier, Sidney seemingly bristles at the idea that a horse would garner more respect than a poem. However, as the essay progresses, he does not make fun of or put down horsemanship. Rather, he compares the two arts, noting that "poesy must not be drawn by the ears, it must be gently led, or rather it must lead." Here, comparing the art of poetry to the art of leading a horse (or other animal), Sidney imagines poetry as a being in its own right, one which collaborates with man to achieve great feats.
Sidney is not only making an argument for the value of poetry, but particularly for the potential value of English poetry. He writes that "the very earth laments" the fact that poetry is not respected in England. After all, the English language is uniquely suited to poetry: unlike romance languages, it allows for masculine and feminine rhymes, as well as caesura in the middle of lines. While there are some examples of excellent English poetry—Chaucer, in particular, is mentioned several times, along with Gower—the nation is failing to produce the beautiful art that it could. While great civilizations of the past, including Greece and Rome, knew the value of poetry and produced volumes that endure into Sidney's time, England has failed to respect the art. Because of this failure, gentlemen and men of talent are not writing poetry. Sidney implicitly suggests throughout that, to be a truly great civilization, England must begin to produce its own great poetry.
The Defence of Poesy Questions and Answers
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