Poetry, the Road to Virtuous Action

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

I am currently writing a book on—surprise!—how literature can change our lives, and I am currently rereading what some of the world’s great literary theorists have said about literature’s impact. This means that you can expect to get periodic posts on what people in the past have said on the subject. Today you get Sir Philip Sidney, who I am thoroughly enjoying and who is proving to be remarkably relevant.

The Defense of Poesy was written in 1579 (for point of comparison, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were born in 1564), probably as an indirect response to attacks on poetry by Puritan moralist Stephen Gosson. I’ll get to the attacks in a moment.

Sidney believes that the chief end of “earthly learning” should be “virtuous action.” Poetry, he asserts, is more effective than any other endeavor in getting us there.

Sidney sees poetry’s two main competitors as moral philosophy and history, and each comes up short. Moral philosophy, he essentially says, is hard to understand and not much fun to read while history is limited by what actually happened. Only poetry can delve beneath appearance to grasp deep truths and serve them up in ways that we find delightful.

I particularly enjoy the passages where Sidney talks about what we learn from the different literary genres. Comedy, he says, gives us examples of how not to behave (“it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one”), as does tragedy (which “openeth the greatest wounds, and showest forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue”). Lyric poetry, meanwhile, “giveth  praise, the reward  of virtue, to virtuous acts”; sets forth moral precepts and natural problems; and sometimes sings “the lauds of the immortal God.” Finally there is heroical poetry, which Sidney sees as the highest form of poetry. He especially waxes eloquent about The Aeneid. As you read it, recall that Sidney was regarded as the quintessential Renaissance man, a fine poet, courageous soldier, and polished courtier:

For, as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy. Only let Æneas be worn in the tablet of your memory, how he governeth himself in the ruin of his country; in the preserving his old father, and carrying away his religious ceremonies; in obeying the god’s commandment to leave Dido, though not only all passionate kindness, but even the human consideration of virtuous gratefulness, would have craved other of him; how in storms, how in sports, how in war, how in peace, how a fugitive, how victorious, how besieged, how besieging, how to strangers, how to allies, how to enemies, how to his own; lastly, how in his inward self, and how in his outward government; and I think, in a mind most prejudiced with a prejudicating humor, he will be found in excellency fruitful…

The attacks that Sidney mentions being directed against poetry we still see today. They include:

–poetry is a waste of time
–it is the mother of lies
–it is effeminate
–it infects us “with many pestilent desires, with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent’s tail of sinful fancies.”

In this last attack, I think of criticism directed over the ages against such books as Sorrows of Young Werther and Lolita, not to mention current day attack against young adult fiction like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Perks of a Wallflower.

Sidney counters each attack, famously saying in response to the charge of falsehood that the poet doesn’t claim that his stories are literally true but that they reveal a deeper truth. (The poet “nothing affirms.”) At one point he essentially calls Jesus a poet for his use of parables. And while he must acknowledge that his beloved Plato wants to banish all the poets from his ideal republic, he notes that Plato himself uses metaphor, drama, and other literary conceits in his writing.

Sidney concludes his counterattack by asserting that poetry is not

an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage; not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit…

There are questions that Sidney’s argument dodges. To cite one example, he says that virtue is taught by comedy if the comedy is used right, which begs the question of when comedy is used wrong. I’m actually open to the argument that a distinction between right and wrong use could help us distinguish between great and not-so-great literature, but that’s a topic I’ll return to on another day. It’s enough to note here that Sidney’s essay indirectly raises the issue, even if it doesn’t explore it.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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