Philip Sidney : Defence Of Poetry Notes | EduRev

: Philip Sidney : Defence Of Poetry Notes | EduRev

 Page 1


Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie is an attempt to raise poetry above the criticism that had been directed at it by 
contemporary critics and to establish it as the highest of the arts, best fitted both to please and to instruct, the two aims 
stated by Horace in his Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.). The first part of Defence of Poesie is primarily theoretical; Sidney 
weighs the respective merits of philosophy, history, and poetry as teachers of virtue. In the final section, he surveys the 
state of English literature soon after 1580. 
The importance of Sidney’s Defence of Poesie can best be appreciated by understanding the political climate of the late 
sixteenth century. A growing number of religious leaders were condemning the production of imaginative literature; lyric 
and dramatic works were viewed as little more than tools for corruption. Furthermore, much of the writing being 
produced in England was hackneyed and trite. Nevertheless, Sidney, a student of the classics and a poet himself, 
believed there was both aesthetic and moral value in poetry, which he defined broadly to include all imaginative 
literature. Well versed in Greek and Roman literature, familiar with both classical and Renaissance defenses of the arts, 
the courtier-artist took it upon himself to champion the practice of writing. The task proved formidable, since no earlier 
justification seemed to be able to counter the charges that imaginative literature was simply a vile distraction that 
promoted idleness at best, immorality at worst. Sidney found that the only way to defend the practice of poetry was to 
redefine its function and assign it a more significant aesthetic role. Modeling his work on both classical and 
Renaissance predecessors, Sidney constructs in the Defence of Poesie a formal argument, in a style reminiscent of the 
Roman orator Cicero and his followers in the practice of rhetoric, to explain the value of poetry and to delineate those 
qualities that make the poet a valuable teacher. 
Sidney’s first argument for the supremacy of poetry is that it was the “first light-giver to ignorance”; the first great works 
of science, philosophy, history, and even law were poems. Both the Italian and English languages were polished and 
perfected by their poets, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch on the one hand, Geoffrey Chaucer and 
John Gower on the other. Even Plato illuminated his philosophy with myths and dramatic scenes. 
Both the Hebrews and the Romans gave high distinction to poets, considering them prophets, messengers of God or 
the gods. The Greeks called their writers “makers,” creators, who alone could rise above this world to make a golden 
one. Sidney writes of the poet: “So as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her 
gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.” 
The aim of poetry, of all earthly knowledge, is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, 
made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” The moral philosopher feels himself the best teacher, for he 
can define and discuss virtue and vice and their causes; the historian argues that his examples from the past are far 
more effective instructors than the abstractions of the philosopher. Sidney finds the virtues of both combined in the poet, 
who can give precept and example. He cites Homer’s demonstration of wisdom personified in Ulysses; of valor, in 
Achilles; of anger, in Ajax. The poet is free to portray the ideal, while the historian must be faithful to his subjects, and 
they, being human, mingle faults with their virtues. The poet may show evil punished and good rewarded; the historian 
must record the vagaries of fortune, which allows the innocent to suffer and the vicious to prosper. 
The poet has other advantages over the philosopher; however true the philosopher’s statements may be, they are hard 
to follow. The poet “doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet prospect into the way as will entice any man to 
enter into it.” People will willingly listen to stories of Aeneas or Achilles, unaware of the lessons they are learning. 
Having established the superiority of poetry to his own satisfaction, Sidney analyzes both the pleasing and the 
instructive aspects of the various literary genres, trying to determine what faults may have brought poetry into disrepute. 
The pastoral can arouse sympathy for the wretchedness of the poor or illustrate civil wrongs in fables about sheep and 
wolves; satire makes one laugh at folly and thus reform. Comedy, which has been disgraced by “naughty play-makers 
and stage-keepers,” is valuable for the ridicule it casts upon people’s faults, which people scorn as they laugh. Tragedy, 
stirring up feelings of wonder and pity, “teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden 
roofs are builded.” 
Sidney finds nothing to criticize in the work of the lyric poet, who lauds virtuous acts, gives moral precepts, and 
sometimes praises God, and he defends epic poetry as the greatest of all the genres: “For, as the image of each action 
Page 2


Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie is an attempt to raise poetry above the criticism that had been directed at it by 
contemporary critics and to establish it as the highest of the arts, best fitted both to please and to instruct, the two aims 
stated by Horace in his Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.). The first part of Defence of Poesie is primarily theoretical; Sidney 
weighs the respective merits of philosophy, history, and poetry as teachers of virtue. In the final section, he surveys the 
state of English literature soon after 1580. 
The importance of Sidney’s Defence of Poesie can best be appreciated by understanding the political climate of the late 
sixteenth century. A growing number of religious leaders were condemning the production of imaginative literature; lyric 
and dramatic works were viewed as little more than tools for corruption. Furthermore, much of the writing being 
produced in England was hackneyed and trite. Nevertheless, Sidney, a student of the classics and a poet himself, 
believed there was both aesthetic and moral value in poetry, which he defined broadly to include all imaginative 
literature. Well versed in Greek and Roman literature, familiar with both classical and Renaissance defenses of the arts, 
the courtier-artist took it upon himself to champion the practice of writing. The task proved formidable, since no earlier 
justification seemed to be able to counter the charges that imaginative literature was simply a vile distraction that 
promoted idleness at best, immorality at worst. Sidney found that the only way to defend the practice of poetry was to 
redefine its function and assign it a more significant aesthetic role. Modeling his work on both classical and 
Renaissance predecessors, Sidney constructs in the Defence of Poesie a formal argument, in a style reminiscent of the 
Roman orator Cicero and his followers in the practice of rhetoric, to explain the value of poetry and to delineate those 
qualities that make the poet a valuable teacher. 
Sidney’s first argument for the supremacy of poetry is that it was the “first light-giver to ignorance”; the first great works 
of science, philosophy, history, and even law were poems. Both the Italian and English languages were polished and 
perfected by their poets, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch on the one hand, Geoffrey Chaucer and 
John Gower on the other. Even Plato illuminated his philosophy with myths and dramatic scenes. 
Both the Hebrews and the Romans gave high distinction to poets, considering them prophets, messengers of God or 
the gods. The Greeks called their writers “makers,” creators, who alone could rise above this world to make a golden 
one. Sidney writes of the poet: “So as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her 
gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.” 
The aim of poetry, of all earthly knowledge, is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, 
made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” The moral philosopher feels himself the best teacher, for he 
can define and discuss virtue and vice and their causes; the historian argues that his examples from the past are far 
more effective instructors than the abstractions of the philosopher. Sidney finds the virtues of both combined in the poet, 
who can give precept and example. He cites Homer’s demonstration of wisdom personified in Ulysses; of valor, in 
Achilles; of anger, in Ajax. The poet is free to portray the ideal, while the historian must be faithful to his subjects, and 
they, being human, mingle faults with their virtues. The poet may show evil punished and good rewarded; the historian 
must record the vagaries of fortune, which allows the innocent to suffer and the vicious to prosper. 
The poet has other advantages over the philosopher; however true the philosopher’s statements may be, they are hard 
to follow. The poet “doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet prospect into the way as will entice any man to 
enter into it.” People will willingly listen to stories of Aeneas or Achilles, unaware of the lessons they are learning. 
Having established the superiority of poetry to his own satisfaction, Sidney analyzes both the pleasing and the 
instructive aspects of the various literary genres, trying to determine what faults may have brought poetry into disrepute. 
The pastoral can arouse sympathy for the wretchedness of the poor or illustrate civil wrongs in fables about sheep and 
wolves; satire makes one laugh at folly and thus reform. Comedy, which has been disgraced by “naughty play-makers 
and stage-keepers,” is valuable for the ridicule it casts upon people’s faults, which people scorn as they laugh. Tragedy, 
stirring up feelings of wonder and pity, “teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden 
roofs are builded.” 
Sidney finds nothing to criticize in the work of the lyric poet, who lauds virtuous acts, gives moral precepts, and 
sometimes praises God, and he defends epic poetry as the greatest of all the genres: “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.” 
Concluding his defense, Sidney takes up the most frequently repeated criticisms of poetry: that it is merely rhyming and 
versifying; that there are other kinds of knowledge that are worthier of one’s time; that poetry is “the mother of lies”; that 
it inspires evil lusts; and that Plato banished it from his commonwealth. Against the first objection Sidney reiterates his 
statement that poetry is not exclusively that which is written in verse, although he defends the use of verse on the 
grounds that it is a great aid to the memory and that it is “the only fit speech for music.” 
The second argument has already been answered; if poetry be the greatest of teachers and inspirations to virtue, it 
must be worthy of the greatest share of people’s attention. To the contention that poets are liars, Sidney replies that 
since they never affirm their subjects to be literally true or real, they cannot lie. Although they do not reproduce details of 
life from specific incidents, neither do they attempt to prove the false true. They call upon the imagination for the “willing 
suspension of disbelief” and tell not “what is or is not, but what should or should not be.” 
Sidney confesses that there is some justice in the condemnation of poetry for its scurrility, but he imputes the fault to 
bad poets who abuse their art, rather than to poetry itself. He suggests that Plato, in banishing poets from his Republic, 
was barring those bad writers who corrupted youth with false pictures of the gods, not the art of poetry itself. 
Satisfied with these answers, Sidney then turns to the specific problems of literature in England in his own day. He sees 
no reason for poetry to flourish in Italy, France, and Scotland, and not in his own nation, except the laziness of the poets 
themselves. They will neither study to acquire ideas nor practice to perfect a style for conveying these ideas. A few 
English writers and works are, however, worthy of a place in world literature. Sidney praises Chaucer and the lyrics of 
the Earl of Surrey, and he finds that Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) “hath much poetry in his 
eclogues,” although he objects to Spenser’s use of rustic language, on the grounds that neither Theocritus nor Virgil, the 
most famous classical writers of pastoral, employed it. For the rest of English poetry, Sidney has only scorn, for it 
seemed to him meaningless: “One verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first what should be at the last; 
which becomes a confused mass of words, with a tinkling sound of rime, barely accompanied with reason.” 
The public criticism of drama seems to him justified, with a very few exceptions. He commends Gorboduc (1561), a 
melodramatic Seneca-type tragedy by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, for its “stately speeches,” “well-sounding 
phrases,” and “notable morality,” but he is disturbed by the authors’ failure to observe the unities of time and place. The 
rest of the tragedies of the age seem absurd in their broad leaps in space and time, spanning continents and decades in 
two hours. A true Aristotelian in his views on drama, Sidney is convinced that stage action should be confined to one 
episode; other events may be reported in the dialogue to provide necessary background for the central events. He 
objects, too, to the presence of scurrilous comic scenes, chiefly designed to evoke loud laughter from the audience, in 
the tragedies. 
Sidney’s last target is the affected artificial diction of lyric poetry, especially of love poetry. He believes that the wildly 
imaginative conceits of the Euphuists are tedious, and he praises, in contrast, the sense of decorum, of fitting diction 
and imagery, of the great classical orators. 
After a few comments on the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative verse and on types of rhyme, Sidney 
addresses his readers, promising fame and blessings to those who will appreciate the values of poetry and laying this 
curse on those who will not: “While you live you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when 
you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.” 
Readers familiar with classical conceptions of poetry may find a disturbing dissonance in Defence of Poesie; at times, 
Sidney seems to speak in theoretical terms borrowed from Plato (who questioned the value of poetry); at other times he 
seems to focus, as did Aristotle, on the task of defining the elements of imaginative literature and championing poetry’s 
moral value. In actuality, Sidney is attempting to synthesize the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of poetry and to 
integrate them with the new neoclassical concept of criticism as a practical endeavor intended to assess the worth of 
individual works. Like Aristotle, Sidney stresses the importance of the poem as a made object. Significantly, however, 
he also emphasizes the importance of the imagination in the creation of art; poets rely not simply on what they see 
Page 3


Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie is an attempt to raise poetry above the criticism that had been directed at it by 
contemporary critics and to establish it as the highest of the arts, best fitted both to please and to instruct, the two aims 
stated by Horace in his Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.). The first part of Defence of Poesie is primarily theoretical; Sidney 
weighs the respective merits of philosophy, history, and poetry as teachers of virtue. In the final section, he surveys the 
state of English literature soon after 1580. 
The importance of Sidney’s Defence of Poesie can best be appreciated by understanding the political climate of the late 
sixteenth century. A growing number of religious leaders were condemning the production of imaginative literature; lyric 
and dramatic works were viewed as little more than tools for corruption. Furthermore, much of the writing being 
produced in England was hackneyed and trite. Nevertheless, Sidney, a student of the classics and a poet himself, 
believed there was both aesthetic and moral value in poetry, which he defined broadly to include all imaginative 
literature. Well versed in Greek and Roman literature, familiar with both classical and Renaissance defenses of the arts, 
the courtier-artist took it upon himself to champion the practice of writing. The task proved formidable, since no earlier 
justification seemed to be able to counter the charges that imaginative literature was simply a vile distraction that 
promoted idleness at best, immorality at worst. Sidney found that the only way to defend the practice of poetry was to 
redefine its function and assign it a more significant aesthetic role. Modeling his work on both classical and 
Renaissance predecessors, Sidney constructs in the Defence of Poesie a formal argument, in a style reminiscent of the 
Roman orator Cicero and his followers in the practice of rhetoric, to explain the value of poetry and to delineate those 
qualities that make the poet a valuable teacher. 
Sidney’s first argument for the supremacy of poetry is that it was the “first light-giver to ignorance”; the first great works 
of science, philosophy, history, and even law were poems. Both the Italian and English languages were polished and 
perfected by their poets, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch on the one hand, Geoffrey Chaucer and 
John Gower on the other. Even Plato illuminated his philosophy with myths and dramatic scenes. 
Both the Hebrews and the Romans gave high distinction to poets, considering them prophets, messengers of God or 
the gods. The Greeks called their writers “makers,” creators, who alone could rise above this world to make a golden 
one. Sidney writes of the poet: “So as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her 
gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.” 
The aim of poetry, of all earthly knowledge, is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, 
made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” The moral philosopher feels himself the best teacher, for he 
can define and discuss virtue and vice and their causes; the historian argues that his examples from the past are far 
more effective instructors than the abstractions of the philosopher. Sidney finds the virtues of both combined in the poet, 
who can give precept and example. He cites Homer’s demonstration of wisdom personified in Ulysses; of valor, in 
Achilles; of anger, in Ajax. The poet is free to portray the ideal, while the historian must be faithful to his subjects, and 
they, being human, mingle faults with their virtues. The poet may show evil punished and good rewarded; the historian 
must record the vagaries of fortune, which allows the innocent to suffer and the vicious to prosper. 
The poet has other advantages over the philosopher; however true the philosopher’s statements may be, they are hard 
to follow. The poet “doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet prospect into the way as will entice any man to 
enter into it.” People will willingly listen to stories of Aeneas or Achilles, unaware of the lessons they are learning. 
Having established the superiority of poetry to his own satisfaction, Sidney analyzes both the pleasing and the 
instructive aspects of the various literary genres, trying to determine what faults may have brought poetry into disrepute. 
The pastoral can arouse sympathy for the wretchedness of the poor or illustrate civil wrongs in fables about sheep and 
wolves; satire makes one laugh at folly and thus reform. Comedy, which has been disgraced by “naughty play-makers 
and stage-keepers,” is valuable for the ridicule it casts upon people’s faults, which people scorn as they laugh. Tragedy, 
stirring up feelings of wonder and pity, “teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden 
roofs are builded.” 
Sidney finds nothing to criticize in the work of the lyric poet, who lauds virtuous acts, gives moral precepts, and 
sometimes praises God, and he defends epic poetry as the greatest of all the genres: “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.” 
Concluding his defense, Sidney takes up the most frequently repeated criticisms of poetry: that it is merely rhyming and 
versifying; that there are other kinds of knowledge that are worthier of one’s time; that poetry is “the mother of lies”; that 
it inspires evil lusts; and that Plato banished it from his commonwealth. Against the first objection Sidney reiterates his 
statement that poetry is not exclusively that which is written in verse, although he defends the use of verse on the 
grounds that it is a great aid to the memory and that it is “the only fit speech for music.” 
The second argument has already been answered; if poetry be the greatest of teachers and inspirations to virtue, it 
must be worthy of the greatest share of people’s attention. To the contention that poets are liars, Sidney replies that 
since they never affirm their subjects to be literally true or real, they cannot lie. Although they do not reproduce details of 
life from specific incidents, neither do they attempt to prove the false true. They call upon the imagination for the “willing 
suspension of disbelief” and tell not “what is or is not, but what should or should not be.” 
Sidney confesses that there is some justice in the condemnation of poetry for its scurrility, but he imputes the fault to 
bad poets who abuse their art, rather than to poetry itself. He suggests that Plato, in banishing poets from his Republic, 
was barring those bad writers who corrupted youth with false pictures of the gods, not the art of poetry itself. 
Satisfied with these answers, Sidney then turns to the specific problems of literature in England in his own day. He sees 
no reason for poetry to flourish in Italy, France, and Scotland, and not in his own nation, except the laziness of the poets 
themselves. They will neither study to acquire ideas nor practice to perfect a style for conveying these ideas. A few 
English writers and works are, however, worthy of a place in world literature. Sidney praises Chaucer and the lyrics of 
the Earl of Surrey, and he finds that Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) “hath much poetry in his 
eclogues,” although he objects to Spenser’s use of rustic language, on the grounds that neither Theocritus nor Virgil, the 
most famous classical writers of pastoral, employed it. For the rest of English poetry, Sidney has only scorn, for it 
seemed to him meaningless: “One verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first what should be at the last; 
which becomes a confused mass of words, with a tinkling sound of rime, barely accompanied with reason.” 
The public criticism of drama seems to him justified, with a very few exceptions. He commends Gorboduc (1561), a 
melodramatic Seneca-type tragedy by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, for its “stately speeches,” “well-sounding 
phrases,” and “notable morality,” but he is disturbed by the authors’ failure to observe the unities of time and place. The 
rest of the tragedies of the age seem absurd in their broad leaps in space and time, spanning continents and decades in 
two hours. A true Aristotelian in his views on drama, Sidney is convinced that stage action should be confined to one 
episode; other events may be reported in the dialogue to provide necessary background for the central events. He 
objects, too, to the presence of scurrilous comic scenes, chiefly designed to evoke loud laughter from the audience, in 
the tragedies. 
Sidney’s last target is the affected artificial diction of lyric poetry, especially of love poetry. He believes that the wildly 
imaginative conceits of the Euphuists are tedious, and he praises, in contrast, the sense of decorum, of fitting diction 
and imagery, of the great classical orators. 
After a few comments on the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative verse and on types of rhyme, Sidney 
addresses his readers, promising fame and blessings to those who will appreciate the values of poetry and laying this 
curse on those who will not: “While you live you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when 
you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.” 
Readers familiar with classical conceptions of poetry may find a disturbing dissonance in Defence of Poesie; at times, 
Sidney seems to speak in theoretical terms borrowed from Plato (who questioned the value of poetry); at other times he 
seems to focus, as did Aristotle, on the task of defining the elements of imaginative literature and championing poetry’s 
moral value. In actuality, Sidney is attempting to synthesize the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of poetry and to 
integrate them with the new neoclassical concept of criticism as a practical endeavor intended to assess the worth of 
individual works. Like Aristotle, Sidney stresses the importance of the poem as a made object. Significantly, however, 
he also emphasizes the importance of the imagination in the creation of art; poets rely not simply on what they see 
around them, but also on that inner quality that gives them the capacity to create people, places, situations, and 
emotions much like those of the everyday world, but in some ways better or worse, to serve as models for human 
behavior. 
The Defence of Poesie presents principles generally accepted by the critics throughout the Renaissance: The author 
leans heavily upon the dicta of the most-noted classical critics, Aristotle, Plato, and Horace, and his standards are 
echoed by the major English critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and 
Samuel Johnson. The notion that the poet is somehow an agent for good inspired not only the writers of Sidney’s own 
day, but also those of succeeding generations; the great English Romantics—among them William Wordsworth, Samuel 
Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—are the inheritors of Sidney’s belief that poetry has the power 
of moving people to do good. It is but one small step to move from Sidney’s assertion in Defence of Poesie that the final 
end of poetry is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection . . . as our degenerate soules” can reach, to Shelley’s 
pronouncement in his own Defence of Poetry that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” 
Sidney’s essay is one of the most polished and interesting pieces of Elizabethan prose, and his comments on the 
writing of his own time have been borne out by the judgment of the centuries. Although this work is the first major piece 
of English literary criticism, it has seldom been surpassed in the centuries since Sidney’s death. 
In response to Stephen Gosson’s narrowly moralistic condemnation of poetry The Schoole of Abuse, Sidney’s Defence 
of Poesie sets forth a large-minded justification of literature as a legitimate pleasure that is at the same time an incentive 
to the practice of virtue. He leads up to this moral defense with a series of lesser, but nevertheless important, defenses, 
beginning with poetry’s long-standing reputation. In nations long admired, such as classical Greece and Rome, poetry 
was a “nurse” and a “lightgiver,” the kind of thing that was presented to young children as a preface to “tougher 
knowledges.” If societies such as these gave precedence to poetry, it surely must be a worthy thing. 
Closely related to reputation are the good names that poetry has borne. In Rome, Sidney says, the poet was a vates, 
which signifies a seer or prophet. In other words, he or she was considered to be a person who possessed a special 
fund of knowledge like that of those who were able to predict the future. In Greece he was a poieten, which meant 
“maker” and which forms the basis of the English word “poet.” Thus, the poet is both a seer and a maker. 
Sidney goes on to consider the “principal object” of poetry in relation to other occupations, all of which have some 
aspect of the natural world as the object of their attention. Astronomers study the stars; musicians, sounds; physicians, 
the human body. The poet, however, “not tied to any subjection,” ranges throughout nature for his or her material and 
even goes beyond nature, because he or she can imagine things better than nature has actually produced. Poets are 
the maker of makers, and therefore the Greek name for a poet is particularly appropriate. 
Sidney then gathers together two of the most famous definitions of poetry from the ancient world. Aristotle thought of 
poetry as a mimetic art—that is, an art of imitation. Horace defined it as an art that both teaches and delights. For 
Sidney, these two notions are quite compatible, and it remains for him to reinterpret these Aristotelian and Horatian 
concepts according to his own understanding of poetic art. 
Before undertaking this task, Sidney classifies poets into three categories. The first category, religious poets, includes 
David in his Psalms and Homer in the hymns attributed to him. Philosophical poets are those such as the Roman 
Lucretius, who wrote the philosophical treatise De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682), which 
sets forth an atomic theory of the day. The last category, however, the one that interests Sidney the most, he refers to 
as “indeed right poets.” They imitate, for the purpose of teaching and delighting, not merely what has been, is, or will be 
in the world, but also what may be and what should be. 
In this respect, the poet as a teacher has great advantages over philosophers, who guide people in thinking, including, 
of course, thinking about morality, but who do not normally inspire them to act, and over historians, who can supply 
many examples of virtuous activity in the past but who do not provide precepts for guidance. These teachers have other 
defects, as well. Philosophers, for example, are often obscure and difficult, while historians must report incidents of 
wickedness going unpunished, which might actually encourage wickedness in the reader. Like the philosopher, the poet 
is concerned with moral precepts; like the philosopher, the poet’s art is concrete and able to stir the audience with 
accounts of deeds and events expressed in vivid images. The poet, however, suffers none of the disadvantages of 
Page 4


Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie is an attempt to raise poetry above the criticism that had been directed at it by 
contemporary critics and to establish it as the highest of the arts, best fitted both to please and to instruct, the two aims 
stated by Horace in his Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.). The first part of Defence of Poesie is primarily theoretical; Sidney 
weighs the respective merits of philosophy, history, and poetry as teachers of virtue. In the final section, he surveys the 
state of English literature soon after 1580. 
The importance of Sidney’s Defence of Poesie can best be appreciated by understanding the political climate of the late 
sixteenth century. A growing number of religious leaders were condemning the production of imaginative literature; lyric 
and dramatic works were viewed as little more than tools for corruption. Furthermore, much of the writing being 
produced in England was hackneyed and trite. Nevertheless, Sidney, a student of the classics and a poet himself, 
believed there was both aesthetic and moral value in poetry, which he defined broadly to include all imaginative 
literature. Well versed in Greek and Roman literature, familiar with both classical and Renaissance defenses of the arts, 
the courtier-artist took it upon himself to champion the practice of writing. The task proved formidable, since no earlier 
justification seemed to be able to counter the charges that imaginative literature was simply a vile distraction that 
promoted idleness at best, immorality at worst. Sidney found that the only way to defend the practice of poetry was to 
redefine its function and assign it a more significant aesthetic role. Modeling his work on both classical and 
Renaissance predecessors, Sidney constructs in the Defence of Poesie a formal argument, in a style reminiscent of the 
Roman orator Cicero and his followers in the practice of rhetoric, to explain the value of poetry and to delineate those 
qualities that make the poet a valuable teacher. 
Sidney’s first argument for the supremacy of poetry is that it was the “first light-giver to ignorance”; the first great works 
of science, philosophy, history, and even law were poems. Both the Italian and English languages were polished and 
perfected by their poets, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch on the one hand, Geoffrey Chaucer and 
John Gower on the other. Even Plato illuminated his philosophy with myths and dramatic scenes. 
Both the Hebrews and the Romans gave high distinction to poets, considering them prophets, messengers of God or 
the gods. The Greeks called their writers “makers,” creators, who alone could rise above this world to make a golden 
one. Sidney writes of the poet: “So as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her 
gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.” 
The aim of poetry, of all earthly knowledge, is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, 
made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” The moral philosopher feels himself the best teacher, for he 
can define and discuss virtue and vice and their causes; the historian argues that his examples from the past are far 
more effective instructors than the abstractions of the philosopher. Sidney finds the virtues of both combined in the poet, 
who can give precept and example. He cites Homer’s demonstration of wisdom personified in Ulysses; of valor, in 
Achilles; of anger, in Ajax. The poet is free to portray the ideal, while the historian must be faithful to his subjects, and 
they, being human, mingle faults with their virtues. The poet may show evil punished and good rewarded; the historian 
must record the vagaries of fortune, which allows the innocent to suffer and the vicious to prosper. 
The poet has other advantages over the philosopher; however true the philosopher’s statements may be, they are hard 
to follow. The poet “doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet prospect into the way as will entice any man to 
enter into it.” People will willingly listen to stories of Aeneas or Achilles, unaware of the lessons they are learning. 
Having established the superiority of poetry to his own satisfaction, Sidney analyzes both the pleasing and the 
instructive aspects of the various literary genres, trying to determine what faults may have brought poetry into disrepute. 
The pastoral can arouse sympathy for the wretchedness of the poor or illustrate civil wrongs in fables about sheep and 
wolves; satire makes one laugh at folly and thus reform. Comedy, which has been disgraced by “naughty play-makers 
and stage-keepers,” is valuable for the ridicule it casts upon people’s faults, which people scorn as they laugh. Tragedy, 
stirring up feelings of wonder and pity, “teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden 
roofs are builded.” 
Sidney finds nothing to criticize in the work of the lyric poet, who lauds virtuous acts, gives moral precepts, and 
sometimes praises God, and he defends epic poetry as the greatest of all the genres: “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.” 
Concluding his defense, Sidney takes up the most frequently repeated criticisms of poetry: that it is merely rhyming and 
versifying; that there are other kinds of knowledge that are worthier of one’s time; that poetry is “the mother of lies”; that 
it inspires evil lusts; and that Plato banished it from his commonwealth. Against the first objection Sidney reiterates his 
statement that poetry is not exclusively that which is written in verse, although he defends the use of verse on the 
grounds that it is a great aid to the memory and that it is “the only fit speech for music.” 
The second argument has already been answered; if poetry be the greatest of teachers and inspirations to virtue, it 
must be worthy of the greatest share of people’s attention. To the contention that poets are liars, Sidney replies that 
since they never affirm their subjects to be literally true or real, they cannot lie. Although they do not reproduce details of 
life from specific incidents, neither do they attempt to prove the false true. They call upon the imagination for the “willing 
suspension of disbelief” and tell not “what is or is not, but what should or should not be.” 
Sidney confesses that there is some justice in the condemnation of poetry for its scurrility, but he imputes the fault to 
bad poets who abuse their art, rather than to poetry itself. He suggests that Plato, in banishing poets from his Republic, 
was barring those bad writers who corrupted youth with false pictures of the gods, not the art of poetry itself. 
Satisfied with these answers, Sidney then turns to the specific problems of literature in England in his own day. He sees 
no reason for poetry to flourish in Italy, France, and Scotland, and not in his own nation, except the laziness of the poets 
themselves. They will neither study to acquire ideas nor practice to perfect a style for conveying these ideas. A few 
English writers and works are, however, worthy of a place in world literature. Sidney praises Chaucer and the lyrics of 
the Earl of Surrey, and he finds that Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) “hath much poetry in his 
eclogues,” although he objects to Spenser’s use of rustic language, on the grounds that neither Theocritus nor Virgil, the 
most famous classical writers of pastoral, employed it. For the rest of English poetry, Sidney has only scorn, for it 
seemed to him meaningless: “One verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first what should be at the last; 
which becomes a confused mass of words, with a tinkling sound of rime, barely accompanied with reason.” 
The public criticism of drama seems to him justified, with a very few exceptions. He commends Gorboduc (1561), a 
melodramatic Seneca-type tragedy by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, for its “stately speeches,” “well-sounding 
phrases,” and “notable morality,” but he is disturbed by the authors’ failure to observe the unities of time and place. The 
rest of the tragedies of the age seem absurd in their broad leaps in space and time, spanning continents and decades in 
two hours. A true Aristotelian in his views on drama, Sidney is convinced that stage action should be confined to one 
episode; other events may be reported in the dialogue to provide necessary background for the central events. He 
objects, too, to the presence of scurrilous comic scenes, chiefly designed to evoke loud laughter from the audience, in 
the tragedies. 
Sidney’s last target is the affected artificial diction of lyric poetry, especially of love poetry. He believes that the wildly 
imaginative conceits of the Euphuists are tedious, and he praises, in contrast, the sense of decorum, of fitting diction 
and imagery, of the great classical orators. 
After a few comments on the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative verse and on types of rhyme, Sidney 
addresses his readers, promising fame and blessings to those who will appreciate the values of poetry and laying this 
curse on those who will not: “While you live you live in love, and never get favor, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when 
you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.” 
Readers familiar with classical conceptions of poetry may find a disturbing dissonance in Defence of Poesie; at times, 
Sidney seems to speak in theoretical terms borrowed from Plato (who questioned the value of poetry); at other times he 
seems to focus, as did Aristotle, on the task of defining the elements of imaginative literature and championing poetry’s 
moral value. In actuality, Sidney is attempting to synthesize the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of poetry and to 
integrate them with the new neoclassical concept of criticism as a practical endeavor intended to assess the worth of 
individual works. Like Aristotle, Sidney stresses the importance of the poem as a made object. Significantly, however, 
he also emphasizes the importance of the imagination in the creation of art; poets rely not simply on what they see 
around them, but also on that inner quality that gives them the capacity to create people, places, situations, and 
emotions much like those of the everyday world, but in some ways better or worse, to serve as models for human 
behavior. 
The Defence of Poesie presents principles generally accepted by the critics throughout the Renaissance: The author 
leans heavily upon the dicta of the most-noted classical critics, Aristotle, Plato, and Horace, and his standards are 
echoed by the major English critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and 
Samuel Johnson. The notion that the poet is somehow an agent for good inspired not only the writers of Sidney’s own 
day, but also those of succeeding generations; the great English Romantics—among them William Wordsworth, Samuel 
Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—are the inheritors of Sidney’s belief that poetry has the power 
of moving people to do good. It is but one small step to move from Sidney’s assertion in Defence of Poesie that the final 
end of poetry is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection . . . as our degenerate soules” can reach, to Shelley’s 
pronouncement in his own Defence of Poetry that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” 
Sidney’s essay is one of the most polished and interesting pieces of Elizabethan prose, and his comments on the 
writing of his own time have been borne out by the judgment of the centuries. Although this work is the first major piece 
of English literary criticism, it has seldom been surpassed in the centuries since Sidney’s death. 
In response to Stephen Gosson’s narrowly moralistic condemnation of poetry The Schoole of Abuse, Sidney’s Defence 
of Poesie sets forth a large-minded justification of literature as a legitimate pleasure that is at the same time an incentive 
to the practice of virtue. He leads up to this moral defense with a series of lesser, but nevertheless important, defenses, 
beginning with poetry’s long-standing reputation. In nations long admired, such as classical Greece and Rome, poetry 
was a “nurse” and a “lightgiver,” the kind of thing that was presented to young children as a preface to “tougher 
knowledges.” If societies such as these gave precedence to poetry, it surely must be a worthy thing. 
Closely related to reputation are the good names that poetry has borne. In Rome, Sidney says, the poet was a vates, 
which signifies a seer or prophet. In other words, he or she was considered to be a person who possessed a special 
fund of knowledge like that of those who were able to predict the future. In Greece he was a poieten, which meant 
“maker” and which forms the basis of the English word “poet.” Thus, the poet is both a seer and a maker. 
Sidney goes on to consider the “principal object” of poetry in relation to other occupations, all of which have some 
aspect of the natural world as the object of their attention. Astronomers study the stars; musicians, sounds; physicians, 
the human body. The poet, however, “not tied to any subjection,” ranges throughout nature for his or her material and 
even goes beyond nature, because he or she can imagine things better than nature has actually produced. Poets are 
the maker of makers, and therefore the Greek name for a poet is particularly appropriate. 
Sidney then gathers together two of the most famous definitions of poetry from the ancient world. Aristotle thought of 
poetry as a mimetic art—that is, an art of imitation. Horace defined it as an art that both teaches and delights. For 
Sidney, these two notions are quite compatible, and it remains for him to reinterpret these Aristotelian and Horatian 
concepts according to his own understanding of poetic art. 
Before undertaking this task, Sidney classifies poets into three categories. The first category, religious poets, includes 
David in his Psalms and Homer in the hymns attributed to him. Philosophical poets are those such as the Roman 
Lucretius, who wrote the philosophical treatise De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682), which 
sets forth an atomic theory of the day. The last category, however, the one that interests Sidney the most, he refers to 
as “indeed right poets.” They imitate, for the purpose of teaching and delighting, not merely what has been, is, or will be 
in the world, but also what may be and what should be. 
In this respect, the poet as a teacher has great advantages over philosophers, who guide people in thinking, including, 
of course, thinking about morality, but who do not normally inspire them to act, and over historians, who can supply 
many examples of virtuous activity in the past but who do not provide precepts for guidance. These teachers have other 
defects, as well. Philosophers, for example, are often obscure and difficult, while historians must report incidents of 
wickedness going unpunished, which might actually encourage wickedness in the reader. Like the philosopher, the poet 
is concerned with moral precepts; like the philosopher, the poet’s art is concrete and able to stir the audience with 
accounts of deeds and events expressed in vivid images. The poet, however, suffers none of the disadvantages of 
philosopher or historian. As Sidney summarizes the poet’s superiority, “He doth not only show the way, but giveth so 
sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.” 
Sidney professes himself unable to understand the sort of criticism that Gosson (whom he never mentions by name) 
has made of poets. He reviews—very favorably, of course—the various forms that “right poetry” can take: heroic, lyric, 
tragic, comic, satiric, pastoral, and others. He finds nothing to justify the charges of poetry’s enemies. While it is true, he 
concedes, that comedy shows people misbehaving, the effect of a good comedy is to arouse contempt for such people. 
A classical oration must contain a substantial refutation of charges by opponents, so Sidney patiently answers 
Gosson’s. Perhaps the most interesting is Plato’s banning of poets from his ideal republic. To Sidney, Plato himself is 
“most poetical” of all philosophers; therefore, Sidney would hate to confess him to be an enemy of poetry. He argues, 
however, that Plato did not intend to ban all poets but only those who spread false religious ideas, and that, in 
his In (399-390 b.c.e.; Ion, 1804), Plato spoke more favorably of poetry. 
It remains for the patriotic Sidney to survey briefly the history of English poetry—the first such survey of its type. From 
the medieval period he mentions only Geoffrey Chaucer, who was indeed the only poet before the Renaissance who 
was well known in the era of Queen Elizabeth I. From his own century Sidney praises the earl of Surrey, like Sidney a 
writer of sonnets, his friend Spenser, and Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc (pr. 1561; pb. 1565), a play 
usually considered the first English tragedy. At the time of the composition of Defence of Poesie, of course, 
Shakespeare was only a youth, and many of the other great achievements of the English literary renaissance were yet 
to come. 
Sidney closes his defense with a highly charged summation that reiterates his deep conviction (one that he shared with 
Spenser) that poetry does not merely lead its audience to accept virtuous principles but also motivates people to the 
practice of virtue. At the very end, he utters a semiserious curse against the person who cannot appreciate poetry: that, 
owing to lack of skill in sonnet writing (so important in winning the heart of a loved one), such a person will “never get 
favor” and, after death, will be forgotten “for want of an epitaph.” 
 
 
 
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