“An Apology for Poetry” is an influential work in the field of literary criticism written by Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney wrote “An Apology for Poetry” in 1580 but it was published posthumously in 1595.
Sidney’s reason for writing “An Apology for Poetry” was that Sidney wished to defend poetry from the allegations imposed by English satirist Stephen Gosson and other critics of that time. In “An Apology for Poetry” Sidney also gives his own theory or concept of poetry while defending poetry.
Sidney’s definition of poetry in An Apology for Poetry:
“Poetry is an art of imitation, a representating, counterfeiting or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, speaking picture, with this end, – to teach and delight…”(Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry). For Sidney, Poetry is an imitation of the world, and the purpose of this poetry is to “teach and delight.” Aristotle also identified poetry as imitation. But Sidney’s theory of “imitation” is different from the Aristotelian concept of imitation. According to Sidney, the poet does not imitate reality directly but imitates the unseen truth behind them. For Sidney, the poet’s ideal world is more important because it is a superior and finer world than the real world. And the poet portrays this ideal world in such a manner that the reader too gets impressed by it and tries it in his real life. So the Aristotelian concept of imitation was limited to the poet but Sidney’s concept of imitation shifted from the poet to the reader. “The poet does not imitate but creates; it is the reader who imitates what the poet creates”. (David Daiches 58-59).
According to Sidney, the poet essentially has a sublime capacity of creation, and is capable of bettering nature by way of his or her imaginative power, establishing a link between actual nature and his or her concept of ideal nature. By rejecting the classical concepts, Sidney said that the poet not only copies the external world but he or she can also better it. Out of all the creations of God, the poet is the most marvelous example of human excellence.
The Poet as ‘Vates’
Because poets were the first who brought knowledge to humankind that is why Sidney believes that poets were also the earliest philosophers and thinkers. Sidney also asserts how we used to give respect to poets in the ancient past. The Romans label poets as ‘Vates’ which denotes “a diviner, a foreseer or a prophet”. They maintained that good poetry could predict their fate. Romans also felt that souls were directed by verses, like those of Virgil. On the whole, Romans considered poetry as a divine power.
Like Longinus, Sidney also says that the main purpose of poetry is to teach and delight and it should inspire man to do good deeds. So along with giving us pleasure, poetry should also give us some ethical knowledge.
The Poet as ‘Maker’
According to Sidney, all the branches of knowledge imitate the external world, for example, the musician explains the harmony of nature. The Physician attempts to discover the function of the human body. The astronomer studies stars, examines their motion, and records the sequence in which they move. So in this way, all the branches of knowledge hinge on nature and imitate nature.
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But the poet constructs a brand new nature that is superior to this nature. He produces such forms which were not in this world before. His characters, angels, gods, demigods, etc., are his own genuine formations that are finer than the forms available in nature. The poet presents more attractive and more pleasing trees and more fragrant flowers than are found in nature through his poems. The poet turns this lovely nature more lovelier. Hence Sidney says: “Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.” (Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry).
Superiority of poetry over philosophy and history:
Sidney considered poetry better and loftier to not only philosophy and history but also to other branches of knowledge. Sidney says that philosophers use very difficult language and their ideas are so abstract that the common man does understand them. But poetry can be apprehended even by those who are not accomplished. Whereas historians explain us virtue using instances collected from past incidents. Thereby, the historian is limited to definite facts. Historians also cannot show poetic justice. He is forced to manifest a sinful king flourishing and a good and honest man encountering his downfall because they cannot change facts.
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Those who are philosophers educate through percepts and those who are historians educate us using instances collected from past incidents. But both do not have both and that is why we can call both imperfect. The Poet has both examples and concepts. That is why poets are superior to philosophers and historians.
For that reason poetry combines philosophy’s power to explain moral concepts with history’s power to provide definite examples. This molds the poet into the perfect virtuous philosopher because he or she is capable of conveying morality to everyone by way of his or her ability to incorporate philosophical ideas in definite examples.
Sidney claims that poetry is superior considering its power to unify the finest sections of philosophy and history in authentic, gratifying, and unforgettable examples. All of these examples educate readers as well as listeners regarding morality and righteousness at times without them even knowing.
In the end we can say that Sidney has very logically shown the significance and superiority of poetry as compared to other branches of knowledge. Sidney has shown that poetry gives us pleasure and also makes us virtuous by inspiring us to do good deeds. “An Apology for Poetry” is not only the justification of a theoretical idea of poetry but also the criticism of the English poetry of Sidney’s own time. Thus, through “An Apology for Poetry” Sidney gave his concept of poetry and justified the greatness and superiority of poetry.
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