« PreviousContinue »
ART. IV.-The Defence of Poesy, by Sir Philip Sidney, Knt. 12mo. 1752.
Some time ago-(we are almost afraid to remember how long)—we held forth a sort of half promise, that Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesy should form the subject of a paper in our work. We now proceed to the fulfilment of that promise;-not, however, without taking something like blame to ourselves for having so long delayed it,-for if ever there was a work more than most others calculated to delight and benefit general readers, and at the same time less than most others known and appreciated by them, it is the Defence of Poesy. Indeed the somewhat cold and metaphysical character of Sir Philip Sidney's poetry, and the "high fantastical" style which he chose to adopt in his great work, the Arcadia, however they might be suited to the taste of the times in which he lived, were pretty sure to sink his writings generally into an undeserved obscurity, in an age like the present, the characteristic of whose literary style is simplicity-not to say an affectation of it. And in withdrawing themselves from that general gaze which they never courted, and for which, indeed, they were never intended, the above works- (viz. the Arcadia and the Poems of Sidney)-have carried with them one which in fact was written expressly for the public, and which, as far as its style is concerned, might have been written for the public of the present day. Be it our business, therefore, to present it to that public afresh; and in doing so, let us be allowed the privilege of saying a few words as to the character and pretensions of the stranger we are introducing.
One would think, that to write a " Defence of Poesy," were something like writing" an Apology for the Bible." And yet it appears that this was considered necessary, by the most poetical person of the most poetical age that England, or any other country, ever knew. It must be remembered, however, that the exact period to which we are now referring was but the early dawn of the bright Elizabethan day,-Shakspeare and the great dramatists having scarcely as yet commenced their immortal labours, and Sidney himself being, with the exception of Spencer, the best poet of the time. That this noble defence of his high art had some share in bringing forward the glories that followed so close upon its appearance, as well as in preparing the way for the due reception and appreciation of those glories, is what can scarcely be doubted; and that it was intended and calculated so to do, is certain: for, of all the characteristics that
belong to it, that of a fervid sincerity, speaking from the heart to the heart, is its most striking. In other respects, the excellencies of this admirable Essay are equally conspicuous, whether we regard the purity and simplicity of its style, the strength and soundness of its reasoning, the rich fervor of its eloquence, or the variety and aptness of its illustrations. In short, nothing is wanting to make the Defence of Poesy a piece of writing that, in a similar space, is not to be paralelled in our language. And regarding it as an Essay on the nature, objects, and effects of Poetry as an art, it is also beyond comparison the most complete work of the kind which we possess, even up to the present day;-which is not a little singular, considering that it was written before we had achieved a poetry of our own, and at a period, too, when it appears that the art itself was held in but slight respect at all events, if not in mere contempt. Unless there was a little of affectation in Sir Philip Sidney's estimate of the respect, or rather the disrespect, that was paid to poets and to poetry in his day-if he was not purposely placing them at a lower ebb than they had actually reached, in order that he might claim the more credit for stepping forward to their aid— (and that he could be guilty, even unconsciously, of such insincerity, is scarcely to be believed of him)-then must there, indeed, have been occasion for his interference, and the work before us was not unduly named a " Defence of Poesy." Hear what he says on this part of the subject: "And yet I must say, that as I have more just cause to make a pitiful defence of poor poetry, which, from almost the highest estimation of learning, is fallen to be the laughing-stock of children, &c."-" But, truly, now, having named him, (David,) I fear I seem to prophane that holy name, applying it to poetry, which is, amongst us, thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation."-" And now, that an over-faint quietness should seem to strew the house for poets, they are almost in as good estimation as the mountebanks at Venice.".
If such was the condition of poetry and its practicers at the period in question, it was worthy the romantic and chivalrous spirit of Sir Philip Sidney to step forward in their behalf; and, indeed, it was no more than was to be looked for from him, as a sworn friend to beauty and virtue in distress, and one who was always ready to break a lance in their cause not to mention that cause being in some degree his own-for, he says, at the outset of his Essay, "I will give you a nearer example of myself, who, I know not by what mischance, in these my not
old years and idlest times, having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in defence of that my unelected vocation, &c."
We see, from this, that his heart was in the cause; and therefore, while we are the better prepared to expect the hearty and efficient manner in which he pleads it, we are the less entitled to suppose that he would speak of it as holding a lower place in public estimation than it actually did hold.
Sir Philip Sidney, in the opening paragraph of his Essay, gives himself out as "a piece of a logician;" and, in fact, the Defence of Poesy may be regarded as a logical discourse, from beginning to end-interspersed here and there with a few of the more flowery parts of eloquence, but every where keeping in view the main objects of all logic and of all eloquence— namely, proof and persuasion. It is, in fact, contrary to the general notion that prevails concerning it in the minds of those who do not take the trouble of judging for themselves,-a sober and serious disquisition, almost entirely rejecting the foreign aid of ornament," and equally free from dogmatism and declamation. It is evidently the result of a deep conviction in the mind of the writer, and a strong desire to impress that conviction upon others-to impress it, however, in a manner that shall render it not merely a sentiment of the heart, or a theory of the brain, but a settled and active belief of the reason and the judgment. To this end Sir Philip Sidney not only examines the nature and objects of poetry as an art, and brings forward all the arguments that have been urged in its favour, but he weighs and examines those arguments fairly, and contrasts them with those which have been or may be alledged on the opposite side of the question; and finally rejects or admits, as the proofs may seem to preponderate. He begins by shewing the antiquity of poetry, and arguing for the consequent inference, that it was the parent and source of all other learning; and this he addresses to those learned of his own and of other days who have inveighed against poetry as a vain thing. "And will you play the hedge-hog, (says he) that being received into the den, drove out his host? or rather the vipers, that with their birth kill their parents?-Let learned Greece, in any of her manifold sciences, be able to shew me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod-all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history be brought, that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill-as Linus, Orpheus, and some others, are named, who having been the first of that country that made pens deliverers of their knowledge to posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning." And so he goes on, through the earliest
writers of all civilized countries; and concludes the enumeration thus: "In our neighbour country, Ireland, where truly learning goes very bare, yet are their poets held in devout reverence. Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians," (only the next remove to the Irish, as he seems to think)— "where no writing is, yet have they their poets, who make and sing songs, which they call Arentos,' both of their ancestors' deeds, and praises of their gods. A sufficient probability that, if ever learning came among them, it must be by having their hard, dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delight of poetry; for until they find a pleasure in the exercise of the mind, great promises of much knowledge will little persuade them that know not the fruits of knowledge." He next proceeds to contrast poetry generally, as an art, with all other arts and sciences, in the following skilful and highly eloquent
"There is no art delivered to mankind, that hath not the works of nature for its principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth. So doth the astronomer look upon the stars, and by that he seeth set down what order nature hath taken therein. So doth the geometrician and arithmetician, in their divers sorts of quantities. So doth the musician, in tunes tell you which by nature agree, which not. The natural philosopher thereon hath his name, and the moral philosopher standeth upon the natural virtues, vices, or passions of man: And follow nature,
saith he, therein, and you shall not err. The lawyer saith what men have determined. The historian, what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech, and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which are still compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of man's body, and the nature of things hurtful or helpful to it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he indeed build upon the depth of nature."
How extremely accurate are the thoughts, in all this; and with what felicitous simplicity are they expressed! Now mark the fine burst of enthusiasm by which the argument is applied and summed up.
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demigods, cyclops, chymeras, furies, and such like, so as he
goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely: her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." "Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison, to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of nature; but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man to his own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature, which in nothing he shewed so much as in poetry -when, with the force of a divine breath, he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings; with no small arguments to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam.-Since our erect wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it."
He now proceeds to arrange poetry under various artificial divisions and subdivisions; shewing, however, that they all do and must lead to the same great end, of bettering mankind by means of delighting them. We shall not follow him minutely through this part of the subject, but may mention, in passing, that he here announces, and in some degree developes, those views in regard to versification and diction, the mere revival of which has been thought a stroke of genius in our own times.
The next step our author takes in his eloquent disquisition on the value and virtue of poesy, is to contrast it somewhat circumstantially with the other high sciences, and demonstrate its comparative superiority over them all. Those who only know Sir Philip Sidney as a chivalrous soldier, an inditer of extravagant verses, and a builder-up of the most romantic romance that ever represented things and persons as they are not, will be surprised to observe the extraordinary accuracy of thought, as well as of feeling, which pervades all the definitions and descriptions that occur in this part of the Essay. Let the reader take the following as proofs, that acute penetration and thorough good sense are in no degree incompatible with the most fervid enthusiasm and the most lofty imagination.
"So that the ending of all earthly learning being virtuous action, those skills that most serve to bring forth that, have a most just title to be princes over all the rest; wherein, if we can shew it rightly, the poet is worthy to have it before any other competitors: among whom, principally to challenge it, step forth the moral philosophers; whom methinks I see coming towards me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by day-light; rudely clothed, for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things; with books in