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In the long essay, “A Defense of Poesy,” Sir Philip Sidney responds to the attempts of repression by the Puritan Movement on poets and their work by characterizing poetry as the roots of culture and intelligence. Sidney uses mythical allusions and historical references to various cultures in order to create an all-encompassing argument promoting the continued development of poetry in society, as well as defending its current and past existence. Sidney’s work is considered to be one of the most critical and influential literary criticisms of its time.
The Puritan Movement lasted between the 16th and 17th centuries and was characterized by the desire to purify the church from the Catholic clergy’s corruption. At this time in history, the church was a largely influential part of government, and much of this corruption stemmed from the intertwining of the two. In addition, the Catholic Church had begun to sell items known as Indulgences, which were purchased relics sold by the Church in order to forgive one’s sins, or even forgive future sins at a higher cost. The invented rituals of the Church, which were not found in the Bible, outraged many people who believed in the raw interpretation of the Bible, especially with the literacy rate growing which allowed more people to be able to read the Bible for themselves, as opposed to being told what was written by a priest or other esteemed member of the Catholic Church. One result of this outrage was the formation of the Puritan Movement. Puritans held extremely strict views on people’s actions and works and their compliance with the Bible. Poets and playwrights were especially criticized by the Puritans, who said that such fiction-making would only lead to moral corruption and increased materialism, both of which they found to be detrimental to society’s progress.
In order to refute the attacks by Puritan writers, Sidney composed “A Defense of Poesy.” He argues that poetry does, in fact, bring about moral good in society. He continues to refer to poetry as a tool to exercise and expand the imagination. The imagination, he believes, is the source of man’s sympathy, compassion, and love. He goes on to say that there are three different types of poetry: religious poetry, philosophical poetry, and poetry functioning as an imaginative treatment of life and nature. He states that even in the most primitive societies, such as the American Indians, poets have always been in existence and in a place of respect. Poetry has been used to preserve the memories of historical events, cultural values, ideas, and wisdom since its inception. He writes that poets are superior to regular historians and philosophers, due to their ability to convey history and ideas in an imaginative and creative way which appeals to the human condition. It can present factual information in a way that people can understand. Sidney states that the philosopher teaches “so as the learned only can understand him” (955).
Poetry is also different from history and philosophy in its ability to move and give incentive for virtuous action. Sidney goes on to mention that many great philosophers, whose ideas are held highly and generally respected at this point in time, were in fact poets. Plato is one of the most notable examples of a great philosopher and poet. An interesting and clever fact pointed out by Sydney is that the word “poet” in Greek and Roman times actually meant “Maker” or “profit.” This coincides with his argument that all throughout history, poets have been respected and thought of reverently by members of society, and makes a strong point with the Puritans reading his essay by citing the comparison between poets and profits, appealing to their strong religious roots. Sidney once again appeals to the Puritans’ religious beliefs by stating that poets take part in the divine creation process. The talent of poets comes from their ability to create something new by using a pre-conceived idea known as the fore-conceit. Poetry links the real with the ideal, thus providing a link between the two worlds. Poets even have the ability to make the most unpleasant of things, such as war and death, appear pleasant through the means they use when presenting them.
The Puritans often found poetry to be lewd, hence why they denounced it. What was ironic about this, however, was that their arguments against it seemed to be less of a religious matter, but more social, political, and personal. The Puritans had the view that poetry should be entirely eliminated from their society, as opposed to the view held by poets like Sidney that when vice was found in poetry, one should simply take away the vice. He believed that poetry in itself could do no harm.
Sir Phillip Sidney wrote “A Defense of Poesy” as a response to Stephen Gosson’s “School of Abuse.” Gosson was a Calvinistic Puritan man, as his religion demanded, he detested all laughing matters. Puritans believed that laughter distracted people from proper function and hard work, and that laughter in itself is a distraction, deviating from the proper way. They thought that laughter in excess corrupted the Puritan virtues of efficiency, diligence, order, and rationality; it was a degradation of ethics. Laughter was also considered to be a display of lack of control over the bodily function and therefore lack of civility; “laughter is by courtesy a violation and indecency” (Gosson 4).
As stated, Gosson’s work led an attack on theatre, but he also came up with several grounds on which he condemned poetry, more specifically, Sidney’s poetry. The first claim he makes is that a man can employ his time more usefully than in poetry. This point stems directly from the Puritan values of hard work with little leisure time. The Puritans viewed poetry as a waste of valuable energy with a destructive result. He goes on to state that poetry is the mother of all lies, calling poets themselves “fathers of lies, pipes of vanities and schooles of abuse” (Gosson 11). This statement is reflective of the Puritans’ disapproval of any fiction-making. Once again, such behavior was viewed as adding no value to society and feeding false ideas into particularly impressionable members of society, such as young people. Thirdly, he refers to poetry as the “nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires.” This statement demonstrates his belief that poetry degrades one’s virtue and morality, being why corrupt and immoral poetry is written. Sidney refutes this argument in saying that the abuse of poetry should not condemn the entire art; poetry is not to blame for the abuses committed against it by bad poets. His final argument is that Plato had banished poets from his ideal commonwealth. This point, however, can be refuted by more closely examining Plato’s intentions behind his writing, where he banished instead the abuse, not the practice in itself. He agreed with Sidney in saying that by being wary of poetry’s power, one could honor poetry rather than condemn it.
Altogether, the Puritan Movement was the historical event that inspired Sidney to write “A Defense of Poesy.” Sidney successfully defends poetry against the Puritans’ repression by characterizing it as a holistic part of society vital to its culture and heritage.
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