An Apology For Poetry - Influence


Sir Philip Sidney’s influence can be seen throughout the subsequent history of English literary criticism. One of the most important examples is in the work of the poet and critic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley’s modern argument for poetry is cast in a Romantic strain in his critical work titled A Defence of Poetry. In 1858, William Stigant, a Cambridge-educated translator, poet and essayist, writes in his essay "Sir Philip Sidney" that Shelley's "beautifully written Defence of Poetry" is a work which "analyses the very inner essence of poetry and the reason of its existence, - its development from, and operation on, the mind of man". Shelley writes in Defence that while "ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created," and leads to a moral civil life, poetry acts in a way that "awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought".

Sidney’s influence on future writers could also be analyzed from the standpoint of his handling of the utilitarian viewpoint. The utilitarian view of rhetoric can be traced from Sophists, Joseph Justus Scaliger, Petrus Ramus and humanists to Sidney. For instance, Sidney, following Aristotle, writes that praxis (human action) is tantamount to gnosis (knowledge). Men drawn to music, astronomy, philosophy and so forth all direct themselves to "the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architectonike" (literally, "of or for a master builder")," which stands, according to Sidney, "in the knowledge of a man's self, in the ethic and political consideration, with the end of well doing and not of well knowing only". Sidney’s program of literary reform concerns the connection between art and virtue. One of the themes of the Apology is the insufficiency of simply presenting virtue as a precept; the poet must move men to virtuous action. Poetry can lead to virtuous action. Action relates to experience. From Sidney, the utilitarian view of rhetoric can be traced to Coleridge's criticism, and for instance, to the reaction to the Enlightenment. Coleridge's brief treatise On Poesy or Art sets forth a theory of imitation which bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Sidney.

The contemporary impact of Sidney’s Apology is largely derivative of the humanistic precepts that inform the work, and its linkage of the rhetorical with the civic virtue of prudence. Prudence offers a middle ground between two extremes. Prudence, as a virtue, places a greater value on praxis than gnosis. Action is thus more important than abstract knowledge. It deals with the question of how to combine stability with innovation

Sidney’s influence on future critics and poets relates more closely to his view of the place of poets in society. Sidney describes poetry as creating a separate reality. The Romantic notion, as seen in Wordsworth, is that poetry privileges perception, imagination and modes of understanding. Wordsworth seeks to go back to nature for moments recollected in tranquility. Sidney, like Shelley and Wordsworth, sees the poet as being separate from society. To Sidney the poet is not tied to any subjection. He saw art as equivalent to "skill," a profession to be learned or developed, and nature as the objective, empirical world. The poet can invent, and thus in effect grows another nature.

Sidney writes that there “is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object”. The poet then does not depart from external nature. His works are "imitation" or "fiction," made of the materials of nature, and are shaped by the artist's vision. This vision is one that demands the reader's awareness of the art of imitation created through the "maker," the poet. Sidney's notion of "fore-conceit" means that a conception of the work must exist in the poet's mind before it is written. Free from the limitations of nature, and independent from nature, poetry is capable of "making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature".

Sidney’s doctrine presents the poet as creator. The poet’s mediating role between two worlds – transcendent forms and historical actuality – corresponds to the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation. A complement to this doctrine is the concept of return or catharsis, which finds a parallel in Sidney’s contemplation of virtue, based on man’s rational desire.Apology contains only elements of Neoplatonism without adhering to the full doctrine.

Thirdly, Sidney implies a theory of metaphoric language in his work. A recurring motif in Apology is painting or “portraiture”. Apology applies language use in a way suggestive of what is known in modern literary theory as semiotics. His central premise, as was that of Socrates in Plato's The Republic, is that poetry is an art of imitation, that is a “representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth” not unlike a “speaking picture”. Sidney pays his homage to Aristotle also. Yet he develops his own idea of metaphoric language, one that it is based on an analogy through universal correspondences. Sidney’s humanist poetics and his tendency to harmonize disparate extremes – to seek mediation – find expression in poetic works by John Donne.

The life and writings of Sir Philip Sidney remain a legacy. In 1819, Thomas Campbell concludes that Sidney's life was "poetry in action," and then in 1858 William Stigant wrote that "Sidney's real poem was his life, and his teaching was his example". Sidney, the man, is apparent everywhere in his works: a study of Sidney's works is a study of the man.

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