Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney has always been remembered as one of the greatest figures of the Elizabethan age, despite the relative humility of his accomplishments and the brevity of his life. As a courtier, statesman, soldier, and poet, he was hard-working and moderately successful, but his continuing reputation seems to lie more in who he was than in what he accomplished.

People loved him. If there was one perfect knight of the Elizabethan court, one Sir Galahad, it was Sir Philip Sidney: sincere in religion, brilliant in intellect, generous and impulsive in battle. During a three-year tour of the Continent in the early 1570s, he was discipled by the Huguenot Hubert Languet and witnessed the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris. Later, he returned to England to take up the Puritan political cause, rebuking the Queen for considering a marriage to the Duke of Alencon (a brother of the Romanist French King) and working hard for a grand European Protestant alliance against the Roman Catholics.

Meanwhile he became a patron of the arts. His essay The Defence of Poesy, which I'm going to review today, is now considered the greatest work of Elizabethan literary criticism in an age stuffed with literary giants. It is a defence of the art of fiction against its detractors; and I was interested to read it.

Let me begin with a definition of "poesy", or poetry, since the definition is not quite what it is today. Sidney explains that he does not mean rhyme and verse, but fiction. Indeed, the scholar of ancient literature will soon realise that song and fiction were almost indistinguishable up until the Enlightenment.
[I]t is not riming and versing that maketh a poet—no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who, though he pleaded in armor, should be an advocate and no soldier—but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.
In response to some current literary objections to the art of fiction, Sidney set out to provide a legal-style defence of the art. Amazingly, most of the Elizabethan objections to fiction are the same as those made today; and much of Sidney's response still rings true, although I could wish it appealed more often to Scripture and less often to Homer and Virgil.

Sidney begins with his arguments in favour of poetry. First, he argues, stories and songs exist across the world, in all societies. This fiction and song are the only learning which primitive cultures know, and will provide the key for future learning among these people. Then, turning to the Romans, he explains that the Roman word for storyteller was vates, which he translates to mean "prophet, diviner." This, he believes, is a just reflection of Scripture: the psalms of David are poetry, and the psalmist is a prophet:
For what else is the awaking his musical instruments, the often and free changing of persons, his notable prosopopoeias, when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in His majesty, his telling of the beasts’ joyfulness and hills’ leaping, but a heavenly poesy, wherein almost he showeth himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith?
This alone, Sidney says, demonstrates that poetry "deserveth not to be scourged out of the church of God."

Sidney then goes on to the Greeks, and demonstrates that the Greek word for a poet can be translated as "maker." Like Tolkien after him, Sidney argues for a subcreative right: as God created the world, so man may imitate his Creator, and subcreate new worlds. I'm a little suspicious of Sidney's reasoning here: he says that creation, or nature, is "brazen", while the creations of the poets are "golden." A similar problem crops up later, when he argues that fiction is better than history.

Then Sidney makes his argument for poetry as mimesis:
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, [...] that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end,—to teach and delight.
Fiction, in this definition, is imitation of life with the double purpose of teaching and delighting the reader. Sidney classifies it into three categories:

1. Poetry written to praise God, such as the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and so on.
And this poesy must be used by whosoever will follow St. James’ counsel in singing psalms when they are merry; and I know is used with the fruit of comfort by some, when, in sorrowful pangs of their death-bringing sins, they find the consolation of the never-leaving goodness.
2. Poetry dealing with philosophical, moral, or historical matters.

3. Fiction. Instead of depicting reality as it is, Sidney explains, the task of fiction writers is to depict reality as it might or should be. This is the kind of poetry the essay is written to defend, since, as Sidney argues, no other kind of teaching has such power to move us to virtue:
For these, indeed, do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved:—which being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed, yet want there not idle tongues to bark at them.
For Sidney, the primary use of fiction is to teach, and the aim of all teaching is "virtuous action". Therefore the question arises, is fiction useful for teaching virtuous action? Isn't moral philosophy a much better means of teaching? Or if we must have stories, what about the stories we find in history?

But neither, according to Sidney, can teach as well as fiction can teach:
The philosopher therefore and the historian are they which would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, setting down with thorny arguments the bare rule, is so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade in him till he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and general that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy that can apply what he doth understand. On the other side, the historian, wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things, and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine. 
Philosophy falls short because a man can describe a bird in flight, or Westminster Abbey, to you in hundreds and thousands of words without you getting an inkling of what he means; while if he were only to give you a picture of the thing he means, you could grasp it in an instant. "The poet is indeed the right popular philosopher," Sidney explains. His words "strike, pierce, possess the soul." Fiction has a power which nothing else can attain to.
Certainly, even our Saviour Christ could as well have given the moral commonplaces of uncharitableness and humbleness as the divine narration of Dives and Lazarus; or of disobedience and mercy, as that heavenly discourse of the lost child and the gracious father; but that his thorough-searching wisdom knew the estate of Dives burning in hell, and of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, would more constantly, as it were, inhabit both the memory and judgment.
History, too, Sidney says, falls short. And it falls short because history is not as "doctrinable" as fiction: in works of history, we must depict men as they are or were, but in fiction we are free to depict them as they should be. On the face of it, I agree with him--I think there's a great need for reading fodder designed to give people an ideal to live up to. Howard Pyle did just this sort of thing in his awfully good yarn, Men of Iron, and GA Henty did it in everything he wrote. Other authors write more flawed characters for the purpose of showing how that flaw can be addressed. Fiction, as opposed to history, does make the work of teaching through story easier, since if it is difficult to find a person who thoroughly embodies all the lessons we wish to teach, we can much more easily make him up--just as the prophet Nathan, in rebuking King David, was obliged to invent a rich man and a ewe lamb.

However Sidney's argument becomes shakier as he alleges that historians can't show any reason behind the flow of events in their stories, but that too often in history we see good people punished and evil people promoted. This ignores the sovereign rule of Providence over history and makes the study of history futile. It's also a self-defeating argument. If we give history up and turn to fiction as the only place to see vice punished and virtue rewarded, then we may learn virtue, but we will have little reason to want to apply it to our lives if we are not trained to see Providence punishing vice and rewarding virtue throughout history. The argument scrambles onto firmer ground when Sidney states it in terms of our inability to say for sure what the meaning of a particular historical event is. However, Scripture gives us an interpretive lens for history and a reason to believe in Providence.

Fortunately we readers of fiction don't need the argument from history to prove that fiction has a place in the Christian life. As Sidney points out, the Lord used fiction all the time to teach doctrine, and he mentions the story of the prophet Nathan a couple of times:
The application most divinely true, but the discourse itself feigned; which made David (I speak of the second and instrumental cause) as in a glass to see his own filthiness, as that heavenly Psalm of Mercy well testifieth.
By this Sidney concludes that fiction is the best way to teach virtue:
I think it may be manifest that the poet, with that same hand of delight, doth draw the mind more effectually than any other art doth. And so a conclusion not unfitly ensueth: that as virtue is the most excellent resting-place for all wordly learning to make his end of, so poetry, being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman. 
From here, Sidney proceeds to dismiss five common objections to fiction:

1. That there are better ways to spend one's time. Sidney's answer is that there's nothing better one can do with one's time than to be moved to virtue by fiction, which is more powerful to do so than any other tool.

2. That poets are liars. Sidney replies that poets never pretend to be telling the truth, but plainly admit that they are spinning fictions.
And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not; without we will say that Nathan lied in his speech, before alleged, to David.
3. That fiction trains readers to escapism, or as Sidney puts it, "abuseth men's wit, training it to wanton sinfulness and lustful love." He admits that yes, fiction can do this, but this is an abuse of fiction: used properly, fiction is just as powerful in training men to virtue:
Nay, truly, though I yield that poesy may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of his sweet charming force, it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused, that contrariwise it is a good reason, that whatsoever, being abused, doth most harm, being rightly used—and upon the right use each thing receiveth his title—doth most good.
4. That fiction diverts readers from real-world, gainful employment. Sidney, quite rightly, points out that all peoples in all times have had fiction, including many vigorous and enterprising societies, and adds that if this is an objection to fiction, then it must also be an objection to every kind of book-learning.

5. The fifth objection is that Plato intended to outlaw fiction in his Republic! This is very interesting--it shows the extent to which even the early Reformers (of the kind objecting to fiction) still leaned on pagan philosophers with repugnant ideas like Plato's. Sidney handily disposes of this objection by pointing out that Plato's objection to fiction was based on its use in his days to 'defame' the gods--a nice historical point, but not relevant enough to talk about here. Still, I think it's very interesting that the Great Authority called on in opposition to fiction is Plato, while the Great Authority upon whom Sidney calls in support of fiction is Our Lord.

In conclusion, I found Sidney's The Defence of Poesy a really interesting discussion of some, but not all, of the questions surrounding the right uses of fiction. One rather amusing tid-bit was the historical detail that the ancient Romans used to play what's known today as "Bible roulette"--you know, the thing where you let the book flop open, and whatever verse you come up with is The Lord's Word To You For Today! Only, the ancient Romans played this game with Virgil's Aeneid, not with Scripture. Sidney calls it "a very vain and godless superstition"!

Personally, I disagree with Sidney that fiction is the best way of teaching virtue. I entirely agree with him that it is a powerful and important tool for teaching virtue, but one simply cannot do away with moral philosophy either. The Lord Christ used both in His ministry on earth, from the moral philosophy contained in the Sermon on the Mount to the fictitious parables previously mentioned. Both are equally important, complementary, and indispensible.

Bartleby.com etext

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