Sidney's Definition of Poetry and how does he establish its superiority over Philosophy and History

P -  367
DATE - 19th December 2023

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How does Sidney define poetry?

S(caps)ir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry is the veritable epitome of literary criticism of the Italian Renaissance. He is considered the herald of Neo-classicism in England. He is essentially a theorist of the imaginative exuberance. His ‘Apology’ is comprehensive enough to incorporate all the forms of poetry existing at his age. He carefully gives his views on the nature and function of poetry. Following Minturno he says that poetry is the first light giver to ignorance. It flourished before any other art or science. The first philosophers and historians were poets; and such supreme works as the ‘Psalms’ of David and the ‘Dialogues’ of Plato are in reality poetical. Among the Greeks and the Romans, the poet was regarded as a sage or prophet. According to Sidney, poetry is an art of imitation, representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth, to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end – to teach and delight. This object of all arts and sciences is to lift human life to the highest attitudes of perfection and in this respect, they are all servants of the sovereign, or poetry. Whose end is well done and not well known only. Here Sidney sets us to prove that the poet, more than anyone else, fulfils this end.

In the ‘Apology’ we get deliberate description of the function and its utility, of poetry, Sidney always gives his superiority of poetry to history and philosophy. He goes on saying that the philosopher teaches by percept alone, the historian by example but he poet (teaches) conducts by both these. The philosopher teaches virtue by showing what virtue is and what vice is, the historian teaches virtue by showing the experience of past ages. The poet alone performs this dual task. What the Philosopher says should be done is by the poet, pictured most perfectly in someone by whom it has been done, thus coupling the general notion with the particular instance. The Philosopher, moreover, teaches the learned only but the poet teaches all and so is in Plutarch’s phrase – “the right popular philosopher”. He seems only to promise delight, and moves men to virtue unawares. But even if the philosopher excels as the poem can, and this is of higher importance than teaching. Moreover, the poet improves upon history, he gives examples of vices and virtues for human imitation, He makes virtue succeed and vice fail, and this history can seldom do. Poetry does not imitate nature it is the reader who imitates the example of perfection presented to him by the poet.

Distinction between Poet & Historian

The basis of Sidney’s distinction between the poet and the historian is the famous passage in which Aristotle explains why poetry is more philosophic and more value than history. The poet deals not with the particular but with the universal with what should be, not with what is or has been. But Sidney in the assertion of this principle, follows Minturno and Scaliger, and goes further than Aristotle would probably have gone. All arts have the works of nature as their principal objects of imitation and follows nature, as actors follow the lines of their play. Only the poet is not tied to such subjects, but creates another nature better than nature herself. For going hand in hand with nature and being enclosed not within her limits but only by the Zodiac of his own imagination”, he creates a golden world in place of Natures brazen and in the sense,  he may be compared as a creator with God.

Sidney defends poetry

Furthermore, Sidney defends poetry vigorously against the “puritan’s charges, and says that it is not the mother of lies, it is the oldest of all branches of learning and removes ignorance". It delights as well teaches. Poetry does not misuse and debase the mind of man by turning it to wantonness and by making it unmarital and effeminate: it is man’s wit that abuses poetry, and poetry that abuse man’s wit, and as to making men effeminate this charge applies to all other science more than to poetry, which in its description of battles and praises of valiant men stirs courage and enthusiasm. Lastly, it is pointed out by the enemies of poetry that Plato, one of the greatest of philosophers banished poets from his ideal common wealth. But Plato’s ‘Dialogue’ is in reality themselves a form of poetry. So, Sidney goes on praising all forms of poetic for imagination in his An Apology for poetry.

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