1581 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Defence of Poesie.

The Defence of Poesie. By Sir Phillip Sidney, Knight.

Sir Philip Sidney


The Shepheardes Calender (though not Spenser) is briefly mentioned in a foundational work of English literary criticism: "The Shepheards Kalender, hath much Poetrie in his Eclogues: indeed worthy the reading if I be not deceived." Spenser's "old rustick language," however, receives its earliest censure. The Defence of Poesie was written about 1581 and posthumously published in two separate editions in 1595. Sir Philip Sidney, of course, was the dedicatee of the Shepheards Calender. It has been suggested that Sidney suppresses Spenser's name in order to protect his anonymity.

John Hughes: "the Language of the Shepherd's Calendar, which is design'd to be rural, is older than that of his other Poems. Sir Philip Sidney however, tho' he commends this Work in his Apology for Poetry, censures the Rusticity of the Stile as an Affectation not to be allow'd. The Author's profess'd Veneration for Chaucer partly led him into this; yet there is a difference among the Pastorals, and the Reader will observe, that the Language of the Fifth and Eighth is more obsolete than that of some others; the reason of which might be, that the Design of those two Eclogues being Allegorical Satire, he chose a more antiquated Dress, as more proper to his Purpose" Works of Edmund Spenser (1715) 1:ciii-iv.

John Upton: "Spenser began in his most early writings to affect the old English dialect; and though gently rebuked by his beloved Sidney, yet he knew from no bad authorities, that the common idiom should be often changed for borrowed and foreign terms; and that a kind of veneration is given to antiquity even in phrases and expressions" Faerie Queene (1758) 1:xxxiii.

Joseph Warton: "There are few rules and few excellencies of Poetry, especially epic and dramatic, but what Sir Philip Sidney, who had diligently read the best Latin and Italian commentaries of Aristotle's Poetics, has here pointed out and illustrated with true taste and judgment" preface (1787) in Nichols, Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 6:173.

Henry John Todd: "Congenial as we may suppose the studies of Sidney and Spenser to have been, Sidney has not however given unqualified praise to the Calender. Yet Webbe, in his Discourse of English Poetry, can find no blemish existing in it; and Francis Meres, in his Wit's Treasury, says, 'As Theocritus is famed for his Idyllia in Greek, and Virgil for his Eclogs in Latin; so Spenser, their imitator in his Shepheards Calendar, is renowned for the like argument, and honoured for fine poetical invention and most exquisite wit.' The Poem indeed gained so many admirers as to pass through five editions while Spenser lived" Works of Spenser (1805) 1:xi-xii.

Isaac D'Israeli: "Sidney had diligently read the best Latin and Italian commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics, and these he has illustrated with the most correct taste and the most beautiful imagery. It is a work of love; and the luminous order of criticism is embellished by all the graces of poetry" in Review of Zouch, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Sir Philip Sidney; Quarterly Review 1 (February 1809) 92.

Retrospective Review: "There is nothing equal to it in the whole circle of critical exposition, nothing which is at once so judicious, yet so poetical; so inimitable, yet so easy. What has been said of the criticisms of Longinus may, with much more justice, be applied to this composition, that it is itself a living exemplification of the highest excellence of the art it treats of. To those who can read it without feelings of delight and admiration, we can only apply the malediction against the contemners of poesie, with which Sir Philip Sidney concludes it" 2 (1820) 5.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "His apology for poetry appeared at a most dark and inauspicious season; yet that stream of sweetly-uttered knowledge, to employ his own words, did not flow in vain; those high-erected thoughts found echoes in other hearts. Of the dignified and Christian strain of his eloquence, you have only to open his Defence to be convinced. The harp of Sion has never been lauded in more glowing or beautiful eulogies" 1833; in Robert Aris Willmott, "S. T. Coleridge at Trinity" in Conversations at Cambridge (1836) 36.

Henry Hallam: "The great praise of Sidney in this treatise is, that he has shown the capacity of the English language for spirit, variety, gracious idiom, and masculine firmness" Literature of Europe (1837-39, 1882) 2:290.

John Payne Collier: "Spenser merely subscribed his poetical dedication of the Shepheardes Calender Immerito; and his young patron, speaking of the work in his Defence of Poesie (first published eight or nine years after the death of its author) says nothing to disturb the poet's incognito.... Perhaps Sidney felt some reserve in applauding too highly a work dedicated to himself, as stated in large type on the title-page; but, on the other hand, it was Sidney's own error to be too imitative of existing examples, and therefore to be afraid of 'Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme'" Poetical Works of Spenser (1862; 1875) 1:xxxi-ii.

W. J. Courthope: "Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry (1581) is not so much a treatise on Prosody as an Apology for the Art as a whole, having been written mainly in consequence of Stephen Gosson's attack on the stage. He proves that the purpose of poetry is moral and didactic; shows the high estimation in which poets have always been held; defines the various orders of poetry; points out the distinction between Poetry, on the one hand, and Divinity, Philosophy, and History on the other; after which he passes on to the subdivisions of poetry, and then examines the objections brought against the art. The concluding portion of his treatise, devoted to an examination of the contemporary state of English poetry, and of the language in general, contains some very interesting observations" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 2:294.

Herbert E. Cory: "Among Spenser's other friends Sidney's generous praise is a matter of both fact and tradition. In his Apology for Poesie he saw in the anonymous author of The Shepheards Calender a great poet in an age of little achievement, although he disapproved of 'that same framing of his stile to an old rustick language.' Tradition, too, has it that the terrible picture of Despair, in the ninth canto of the first book of The Faerie Queene, opened the floodgates of Sidney's generous praise and loosened the tassels of his purse" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 92.

George Saintsbury: "His main object, indeed (though he does not know it), is the defence, not so much of Poetry as of Romance. He follows the ancients in extending the former term to any prose fiction: but it is quite evident that he would have, in his mimesis, a quality of imagination which Aristotle nowhere insists upon, and which is in the best sense Romantic. And of this poetry, or romance, he makes makes one of the loftiest conceptions possible. All the hyperboles of philosophers or of poets, on order, justice, harmony, and the like, are heaped upon Poetry herself, and all the Platonic objections to her are retorted or denied" History of English Criticism (1911) 54.




Chaucer, undoubtedly did excellently in hys Troylus and Cresseid; of whom, truly I know not, whether to mervaile more, either that he in that mistie time, could see so clearely, or that wee in this cleare age, walke so stumblingly after him. Yet had he great wants, fitte to be forgiven, in so reverent antiquity. I account the Mirrour of Magistrates, meetely furnished of beautiful parts: and in the Earle of Surries Liricks, many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble minde. The Shepheards Kalender, hath much Poetrie in his Eclogues: indeed worthy the reading if I be not deceived. That same framing of his stile, to an old rustick language, I dare not alowe, sith neyther Theocritus in Greeke, Virgill in Latine, nor Sanazar in Italian, did affect it. Besides these, doe I not remember to have seen but fewe, (to speake boldely) printed, that have poeticall sinnewes in them: for proofe whereof, let but most of the verses bee put in Prose, and then aske the meaning; and it will be found, that one verse did but beget another, without ordering at the first, what should be at the last: which becomes a confused masse of words, with a tingling sound of ryme, barely accompanied with reason.


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