Stephen Gosson: Unhinged by Lit

Gosson's attack would be forgotten but for Sidney's response

Sir Philip Sidney, whose response memorialized Gosson’s tract


In my research on how theorists over the ages have seen literature’s impact upon audiences, I’ve delved into an obscure tract by one Stephen Gosson entitled The School of Abuse: Containing a pleasant Invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of the Commonwealth (1579). Since we’re so accustomed to people to saying good things about literature’s impact, it’s instructive to see someone loading invective upon it. Especially in the over-the-top manner in which Gosson does so.

Gosson was an ex-playwright-turned-Puritan and it’s not clear whether he attacked literature because he found God or because he himself was a failure as a playwright. There may be a sour grapes element to his attack. In any event, the piece is significant because it triggered one of the world’s great treatises on literature, Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (1579). To Sidney’s horror, Gosson had dedicated his treatise to him and Sidney had to set the record straight.

Gosson writes in what is known as the “ephuistic style,” pioneered by John Lyly. The styled is noted for its excessive ornamentation and, as Wikipedia notes, it employs ”in deliberate excess a wide range of literary devices such as antitheses, alliterations, repetitions and rhetorical questions. “ It also specializes in classical learning and remote knowledge.

In other words, part of the treatise’s entertainment value is it’s over-the-top attack, whether you agree with it or not. Gosson spares no one. Pindar, Virgil, Ovid, Homer, they all come in for abuse.

Have I prepped you sufficiently? Here is Gosson attacking Pindar, Virgil and Ovid for writing about improper subjects:

[Pindar’s writing,] following the course of amorous Poets, dwelleth longest in those points, that profit least and, like a wanton whelp [untrained hunting dog] leaveth the game to run riot.  The scarab [beetle] flies over many a sweet flower and lightes in a cowsherd.  It is the custom of the fly to leave the sound places of the horse and suck at the botch (anus); the nature of colloquintida, to draw the worst humors to itself; the manner of swine, to forsake the fair fields, and wallow in the mire.  And the whole practice of Poets, either with fables to show their abuses, or with plain terms to unfold their mischief, discover their shame, discredit themselves, and disperse their poison through all the world.  Virgil sweats in describing his Gnat: Ovid bestirreth him to paint out his Flea : the one shows his art in the lust of Dido, the other his cunning in the incest of Myrrhaand [in] that trumpet of bawdry, the Craft of Love [Ars Amatoria].

Gosson then makes a number of classic allusions to demonstrate how poetry, despite its promising appearance, leads us astray. Citing Plato, he predicts that, upon close examination, poetry will horrify us:

But if you look well to Epæus horse [the Trojan horse], you shall find in his bowels the destruction of Troy; open the sepulchre of Semiramis, whose title promiseth such wealth to the Kings of Persia, you shall see nothing but dead bones; rip up the golden ball that Nero consecrated to Jupiter Capitollinus, you shall have it stuffed with the shavings of his beard: pull off the visor that Poets mask in, you shall disclose their reproach, betray their vanity, loathe their wantonness, lament their folly, and perceive their sharp sayings to be placed as peerless in dunghills, fresh pictures on rotten walls, chaste matrons’ apparel on common courtesans.  These are the cups of Circe that turn reasonable creatures into brute beasts, the balls of Hippomenes, that hinder the course of Atalanta, and the blocks of the Devil that are cast in our ways to cut off the race of toward wits [persons with potential].  No marvel though Plato shut them out of his school and banished them quite [completely] from his commonwealth as effeminate writers, unprofitable members, and utter enemies to virtue.

Tullie [Cicero] was accustomed to read them with great diligence in his youth, but when he waxed graver in study, older in years, riper in judgement, he accounted them the fathers of lies, pipes of vanity, and schools of abuse [invective].

You may read some of Sidney’s defense in my blog essay on the subject. Although Gosson’s thinking would prevail during the Puritan revolution, Sidney’s defense ultimately has carried the day.

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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.

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