An Apology for Poetry is one of the most important contributions to literary theory written in English during the Renaissance. Sidney advocates a place for poetry within the framework of an aristocratic state, while showing concern for both literary and national identity. Sidney responds in Apology to an emerging antipathy to poetry as expressed in Stephen Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse. Gosson offers what is in essence a puritan attack on imaginative literature (Griffiths 5). What is at stake in Sidney’s argument is a defense of poetry’s nobility. The significance of the nobility of poetry is its power to move readers to virtuous action. True poets must teach and delight – a view that dates back to Horace.
In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function. Among Sidney’s gifts to his contemporaries were his respect for tradition and willingness to experiment. An example of the latter is his approach to Plato. He reconfigures Plato’s argument against poets by saying poets are “the least liar”.Poets never claim to know the truth, nor “make circles around your imagination,” nor rely on authority. As an expression of a cultural attitude descending from Aristotle, Sidney, when stating that the poet "never affirmeth," makes the claim that all statements in literature are hypothetical or pseudo-statements. Sidney, as a traditionalist, however, gives attention to drama in contradistinction to poetry. Drama, writes Sidney, is “observing neither rules of honest civility nor of skillful poetry” and thus cannot do justice to this genre.
In Sidney's day anti-theatricality, an aesthetic and ideological concern, flourished among Sidney’s circle at court. Theatre became a contentious issue in part because of the culmination of a growing contempt for the values of the emergent consumer culture. An expanding money economy encouraged social mobility. Europe, at this time, had its first encounter with inflation. London's theatres at that time grew in popularity so much that by 1605, despite the introduction of charges, London commercial theatres could accommodate up to eight thousand men and women. Sidney had his own views on drama. In Apology, he shows opposition to the current of his day that pays little attention to unity of place in drama, but more specifically, his concern is with the "manner" that the "matter" is conveyed. He explains that tragedy is not bound to history or the narrative but to "laws of poesy," having "liberty, either to feign a quite new matter, or to frame the history to the most tragical conveniency".
Sidney employs a number of strategies to assert the proper place of poetry. For instance, he argues against the way in which poetry was misaligned with youth, the effeminate and the timorous. He does so by introducing the idea that “poetry is the companion of camps” and by invoking the heroes of ages past. Sidney’s reverence for the poet as soldier is significant because he himself was a soldier at one time. Poetry, in Apology, becomes an art that requires the noble stirring of courage.
Sidney writes An Apology for Poetry in the form of a judicial oration for the defense, and thus it is like a trial in structure. Crucial to his defense is the descriptive discourse and the idea that poetry creates a separate reality. Sidney employs forensic rhetoric as a tool to make the argument that poetry not only conveys a separate reality, but that it has a long and venerable history, and it does not lie. It is defensible in its own right as a means to move readers to virtuous action.
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