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Sidney’s Defense of Poesy and the Question of Poetry’s Power in the Early Modern Period

Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy is perhaps the most significant work of literary criticism in English from the early modern period. Sidney’s literary and political theses represent the synthesis in Elizabethan England of developed humanist thought and developing notions of the power of literature to move the individual, self-conscious reader. The nature of the text in general and how much critical legitimacy modern readers give to Sidney’s sprezzatura approach remains a nexus of critical attention. Some critics have focused on the Calvinist anxiety to be found in the text, or what Alan Sinfield calls a “puritan humanism.” Robert Stillman has countered this notion, suggesting Sidney renders not a limited poetry but instead a poetry that is “a vehicle of liberation”. The critical division on which Sidney is more central in The Defense of Poesy has serious implications on how we render not only Sidney’s literature, but his life and death on the battlefield of the Eighty Years war, and his influence on subsequent English poets and playwrights.

The Defense of Poesy serves as a suitable battleground for these debates on the anxiously Protestant or anti-tyrannical nature of Sidney’s body of work. In it, there is both edenic anxiety on the infection of Adam in all men, and transcendent, nearly-revolutionary depictions of poetry as a catalyst in the stooping of heaven to earth. I will argue here that these latter ambitions that Stillman is keen to highlight are hegemonically tempered in The Defense by an underlying anxiety over the potential of these ideals to be realized. This anxiety hampers a reading akin to Stillman’s anti-tyrannical one, but it also forestalls a strictly Calvinist reading of the text. The coexistence of self-creative ambition and the power of virtue to politically alter the state of affairs in England and a deep anxiety with the “profane wits” of the nation and its popular literature tempers Sidney’s aspirations of poetry away from both ends of this spectrum. As a result, The Defense of Poesy is a conflicted text that from line to line moves from lofty aspirations to an anxiety over those aspirations’ potential to be realized.

The topic of virtue is worth considering in relation to the anxiety found in The Defense as virtue underlies a major concern of early modern English thought. Stillman renders the virtuous task of poetry in Sidney as a heroic one, reading Sidney as seeking a juxtaposition between his project and the national realities of England. Stillman argues, “Unheroic nations, his logic suggests, do not value heroic arts-the best products of the muse. Sidney’s coterie audience may well have recognized in this complaint a specific political implication: unheroic times forestall English military intervention against Spanish tyranny, and such idleness is both shameful and perilous-.” Stillman reads Sidney’s frustration over England’s “hard welcome” of poetry as a reflection of an active ideological desire for English intervention abroad, and the idea can be taken further to simply say that Sidney’s frustration here, for Stillman, begets an active, specific response. Yet action seems to be of some contention in The Defense, as virtue, the mechanism Sidney identifies as a self-creative one, requires intellectual skill to attain and follow. Indeed, scholar JGA Pocock suggests in The Machiavellian Moment that virtue in early modern England was at once an ambitious tool for self-creation and simultaneously a source of much anxiety due to that self-creative nature (Pocock Chapter X). Thus Sidney’s self-creative model of virtue as understood through poetry is not buttressed by his critique of England and its relative political inaction (anti-heroism, to use Stillman’s language) in the Eighty and Thirty Years Wars; it is instead put into crisis by it. By his very invocation of poetic convention and political inaction in the latter sections of The Defense, Sidney simultaneously advocates for action and brings England’s present inaction and lack of innovation anxiously to front of the text. Sidney calls for change as Stillman rightly points out, but the text is self-conscious of the fact that this change may not occur due to the “profane wits” of the English public. It is a crisis Sidney does not defer in the argumentation of The Defense.

The aforementioned edenic reference that is the nexus of Calvinist readings can elucidate the tension I am seeking between these two poles in readings of The Defense. In quick succession, Sidney both outlines his radical ambition for the art of poetry and immediately tempers it with the image of Adam and Sidney’s own, if playful, self-knowledge of the lack of interest the anecdote will evoke in general populations. Writing lines before his reference to Adam, Sidney envisions, “Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grown in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature-.” This is a radical sentiment that encapsulates the simultaneously ambitious and tempered nature of poetry as described in The Defense. On one hand, Sidney renders poetry as able to surpass the natural world. Based in the limitless imagination of the author, poetry can transcend the material world and effect another nature. Yet the catalyst for this transcension is the poet’s “own invention,” a national faculty Sidney spills much “ink” to critique in the second half of the defense. That same crisis of virtue through delight (elicited by poetry) emerges even in the sections that seem to most clearly desire a politicized vision of poetry as a mechanism of liberation (as Stillman suggests).

Just lines later, this dynamic of tempered idealism continues in Sidney’s provocative characterization of humanity’s “infected will.” Adam serves as the central image, and even in Sidney’s humorous declination from the high and mighty implications of what he writes, he invokes the anxiety of the inability of poets and readers to reach his ambitions for poetry. Sidney reflects, “-of that first accursed fall of Adam, since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it. But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted.” The wit of the poet is erected, like virtue, yet hampered by a transient, inescapable infection in human will. Yet what surrounds this peculiar interlude colors the section in a less Calvinist light. Before and after, Sidney makes great pains to illustrate the earthly, material, and social value of poetry. Yet he does stop here to consider the anxiety of his rhetorical construction based on self-creation and poetic skill. If these are the two things poesy must be based on to achieve the lofty ambitions he envisions throughout, a deep sense of doubt is cast on the ability of these ideals to be realized. Like England in the wars of religion, may the English reader be paralyzed and incapable in the face of their critically important, literary task?

The eloquent and rhetorical conclusion to The Defense sheds further light on this anxiety found in critical readings of the text and the text’s early interaction with ambition and edenic limitations. Sidney repeats a set of beliefs, based from Christian authority to Greco-Roman precedent, that he hopes his readers will ascribe themselves to. When he interjects himself in this list, what he says speaks provocatively to the simultaneously ambitious and anxious dynamic of The Defense. Sidney compels his readers, “-to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused.” The mystery of poetry, that which delights in its discovery, exists in this profound admission from Sidney for the purpose of obfuscating the process Sidney has so carefully explained from corrupt interpretations. This hermeneutical crisis, the same that plagues virtue, “right reason,” and “right poetry,” is what Sidney associates with himself in the repetitive rhetoric of the conclusion. In his own historical moment (which Stillman is keen to highlight in The Defense), Sidney brings to the front of the text in its conclusion an edenic anxiety over hermeneutical incapability and error in response to poetry. Yet just on the other end of the turn of phrase is that sublime ambition for poetry to discover those mysteries and transcend that which hampers it.

The Defense of Poesy is a conflicted text that reaches with one stroke of the pen towards a transcendent poetry that can fix the ills of society, oppose continental tyrannism, and reveal personal mysteries in a delightful, pedagogical process. With the next, Sidney anxiously renders an understanding that these ambitions may fail to be realized. It is a contradiction and tension that I have argued needn’t be critically vanquished. Within The Defense we find both a deep desire for anti-tyrannical action on the continent and a Calvinistic anxiety over whether such things can be achieved in this realm. Sidney acknowledges it himself and works to think through it in The Defense. In the end, he asks his reader to “believe with me” that the mysteries of poetry can be delightfully revealed and protected from infected interpretations. Yet as illustrated by the necessity of illustrating the boons of poetry in the final lines of The Defense, Sidney knows that for each one of his readers to believe with him, there is a Stephen Gosson or a Plato.

*Note: I do not include the references to impede plagiarism. If you would like a reference to the Stillman articles, let me know in the comments or via email.

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Filed under Early Modern, Literature