Among the English critics, Philip Sidney holds a very important place. His Apology for Poetry is a spirited defence of poetry against all the charges laid against it since Plato. He considers poetry as the oldest of all branches of learning and establishes its superiority.
Poetry, according to Sidney, is superior to philosophy by its charm, to history by its universality, to science by its moral end, to law by its encouragement of human rather than civic goodness. Sidney deals with the usefulness of other forms of poetry also. (The pastoral pleases by its helpful comments on contemporary events and life in general, the elegy by its kindly pity for the weakness of mankind, the satire by its pleasant ridicule of folly, the lyric by its sweet praise of all that is praiseworthy, and the epic by its representation of the loftiest truths in the loftiest manner).
Reply to four charges
Stephen Gosson in his School of Abuse, leveled four charges against poetry. They were : (i) A man could employ his time more usefully than in poetry, (ii) It is the ‘mother of lies’, (iii) It is immoral and ‘the nurse of abuse’ and (iv) Plato had rightly banished poets from his ideal commonwealth.
Sidney gallantly defends all these charges in his ‘Apology for Poetry’. Taking the first charge, he argues that poetry alone teaches and moves to virtue and therefore a man cannot better spend his time than in it. Regarding the second charge, he points out that a poet has no concern with the question of veracity or falsehood and therefore a poet can scarcely be a liar. He disposes of the third charge saying that it is a man’s wit that abuses poetry and not vice versa. To the fourth charge, he says that it is without foundation because Plato did not find fault with poetry but only the poets of his time who abused it.
Sidney’s Apology is the first serious attempt to apply the classical rules to English poetry. He admires the great Italian writers of Renaissance (Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch). All his pronouncements have their basis either on Plato or Aristotle or Horace. In his definition of poetry he follows both Aristotle and Horace : ‘to teach and delight’.
Sidney insists on the observance of the unities of time, place and action in English drama. He has no patience with the newly developed tragi-comedy. (His whole critical outlook in the unities and the tragi-comedy was affected by the absence of really good English plays till his time). He also praises the unrhymed classical metre verse. Poetry according to him, is the art of inventing new things, better than this world has to offer, and even prose that does so is poetry. Though he has admiration for the classical verse he has his native love of rhyme or verse. His love of the classics is ultimately reconciled to his love of the native tradition.
The Value of his Criticism
Though Sidney professes to follow Aristotle, his conception of poetry is different from Aristotle’s. To Aristotle, poetry was an art of imitation. To Sidney, it is an art of imitation for a specific purpose : it imitates ‘to teach and delight’. (Those who practise it are called makers and prophets).
Sidney also unconsciously differs with Aristotle in the meaning he gives to imitation. Poetry is not so much an art of imitation as of invention or creation. (It creates a new world altogether for the edification and delight of the reader). This brings him again close Plato. According to him, the poet imitates not the brazen world of Nature but the golden world of the Idea itself. So, Plato’s chief objection to poetry is here answered in full. Sidney makes poetry what Plato wished it to be – a vision of the idea itself and a force for the perfection of the soul.