Ulf Egeberg


Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry
Sir Phillip Sidney was a courtier, soldier, statesman, amateur scholar and a poet in his days of the 16th century. In our context of literary criticism, he is known for his essay named An Apology for Poetry, where he both explores the core concepts and answers to earlier criticism of poetry. The text itself deals with three major topics: The dignity – or power – of poetry and the addressing of general critique against poetry, especially those of Plato, and an examination of the current state of English literature1. In this essay I will provide some background for Sidney’s literary criticism and explore these topics, and see how it fits with similar theories.

We need to go back in time for fully understanding the background that Sidney wrote his text against. While Plato (ca. 427 – 247 B.C.E.) did not write any explicit literary theories, he criticized poetry through his texts, mainly Ion and Republic. This was based on a scepticism regarding poetical representation of forms or ideas, as this would distance one from the timeless ideals. In the idea-world of Plato, every physical chair is a copy of the mere idea of the chair, and a drawing of that chair is a copy of a copy of the original idea. This model applies to poetry in the same way2, and for Plato (or Socrates) was not poetry any form of art, but merely “a form of divinely inspired madness.”3 But Plato’s and Socrates’ critique against poetry must be seen in the light of the society they lived in, where it was common belief “that poets know all crafts, all human affairs.”4 On the other hand, Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, took one step further in area of literary criticism by writing a text about poetry itself, Poetics. In this text he explores poetry, but most important, he defines it as a craft. An Apology for Poetry (1595) was written in a 16th century renaissance literary climate that was concerned about the aesthetic problems regarding the object and purpose of poetry’s representation. Therefore, Sidney’s definition of poetry as a craft or “art of imitation” is highly relevant, but not original, as it draws heavily on a number of theorists, all the way back to Aristotle. 5

1 2

Vincent B. Leitch, The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 324 Ibid: 33 3 Ibid: 35 4 Ibid: 36 5 Ibid: 324


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When Sir Pilip Sidney wrote his essay, it is considered that it was an answer to the attack on theatres called The School of Abuse by Stephen Gosson, which was published in 15796. This text draws upon the arguments of Plato’s Republic, and therefore, in a modern context, where Republic is much more well-known than The School of Abuse, An Apology can be read as a direct answer to the Republic. The answers to Plato’s criticism can be read through the text, and early on he accuses Plato for being hypocritical:
And Truly, even Plato, whosoever well considereth shall find that in the body of his work, though the inside and strength were philosophy, the skin as it were and beauty depended most of poetry, for all standeth upon dialogues, (…) besides his poetical describing the circumstances of their meetings, (…) which who knoweth not to be flowers of poetry did never walk into Apollo’s garden. (…)7

While this seems like an easy attack on Plato, it leads us towards one of Sidney’s main arguments:
[N]either philosopher nor historiographer could have entered into the gates of popular judgements if they had not taken a great passport of poetry [.]8

Sidney states that poetry – as Aristotle labelling it as mimesis, representing, counterfeiting – has a mission of “teach and delight”9 in several ways. Simply put, Sidney argues that poetry is above both history and philosophy because “it combines the moral precepts of the one with the entertaining examples of the other, all while cloaking its lessons with the pleasurable devices of art”10 . He does that through a variety of passages, most explicitly here:
The philosopher (…) and the historian (…) would win the goal, the one by percept, the other by example. But both not having both, do both halt. (…) Now doth the peerless poet perform both[.]11

Poetry is superior to the other two in teaching human virtues, but poetry as an art or craft, building upon Aristotle’s definition of poetry, is also superior to every other:

6 7

Vincent B. Leitch, The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 323 Sir Phillip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry in The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 328 8 Ibid: 328 9 Ibid: 331 10 Vincent B. Leitch, The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 324 11 Sir Phillip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry in The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 336


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There is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature as his principal object, without which they could not consist. (…) Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such objections, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, (…) not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her [nature] gift12 [T]he poet, with the same hand of delight, doth draw the mind more effectually than any other art doth.13

In the next part of the essay, Sidney argues against specific critiques of poetry. Most noteworthy is the accusation of poets being liars, put forward by Ovid in Remedia Amorris:
I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar, and, though he would, as a poet can scarcely be a liar. (…) Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. (…) The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes.14

Simply put, by denouncing the mere prerequisite for the accusation – a poet intends to state the truth (or a truth) – Sidney argues that the statement is invalid. But while a poet may not be able to lie, Sidney does not fight the notion of poetry being abused. But that would be using the poetry in the wrong way, in other words “that man’s wit abuseth poetry”15. He elaborates, and at the same time builds upon his argument of poetry being superior to other methods of teaching virtues:
Nay truly, though I yeld that poesy may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reasons of his sweet charming force it can do more hurt than any other army of words, (…) that whatsoever being abused doth most harm, being rightly used (…) doth most good.16

Later, Sidney also directly addresses Plato’s reasons for objecting to poetry through a passage:
[L]et us boldly examine with what reasons he did it. First, truly a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets: for indeed, after the philosopher (…) [was] making a school-art of that [virtues, knowledge] poets did only teach by divine delightfulness, (…) [they] sought by all means to discredit their masters.

Sidney goes on with the argument of poetry and poets being superior to philosophy and philosophers, also with the curious note of poets not authorizing “abominable filthiness” (homosexuality) and a community including women.17

12 13

Sir Phillip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry in The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 330 Ibid: 342 14 Ibid: 349 15 Ibid: 350 16 Ibid: 350 17 Sir Phillip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry in The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 352


Ulf Egeberg


We can easily draw some conclusions on Sidney’s view upon poetry. He leans towards Aristotle definition of the craft or art, and objects heavily to Plato’s categorisation. Poetry is not a copy of a copy of the ideal or idea; poetry may exist only for itself, as a way of conveying images. Its definition holds no boundaries for the poet, and he is free to use any means for creating images. The images used by the poet may represent the nature, or be superior to the representation given by nature, or only be the poet’s creation. In the context of the history of literary criticism, we can see Sidney’s influence in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s later text A Defence of Poetry (1840). But while the two theorists seems to have similar opinion on the surface, like the one of poetry combining images with teaching, and the poets being the earliest authors; teachers of religion and prophets. Shelley argues famously that the poets are the ones that invents and develops the language, the “unacknowledged legislators of the World”18; the poetry exists – and therefore language – as an extension of the human creative mind, not the rational. This is not unlike Sidney’s theories about the poet being the only craftsman and artist that is not limited by boundaries set by the nature. Both theorists define poetry and set it superior to nature itself, and defend poetry against its objectors.

But although Sidney and Shelley seem to agree on most topics, they differ on a fundamental basis: Sidney believes that poetry teaches “doctrines [that exists] in some legislatively competent authority itself”19, but Shelley on the other hand states that poetry itself can be a source of motives for good actions:
[P]oetry (…) awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering the receptable of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. (…) The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.20

In this essay I have provided historical context and pointed out Sidney’s main arguments in An Apology for Poetry, and how he argues against Plato’s criticism against poetry. Further on, I have given examples from the source text, explained and tied them together, before comparing Sidney’s Apology to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry.

18 19

Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001: 717 William K. Winsatt Jr. & Cleanth, Brooks, Literary Criticism – A Short Story, Routledge 1970: 422 20 Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001:700


Ulf Egeberg


Leitch, Vincent B., The Norton Antology of Theory and Criticism, Norton 2001 Shelley, Percy Bysshe, A Defence of Poetry Sidney, Sir Phillip, An Apology for Poetry Winsatt, William K. Jr. & Brooks, Cleanth, Literary Criticism – A Short Story, Routledge 1970


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