Sunday, March 18, 2012

Philip Sidney: "An Apology for Poetry" (2)

In the Apology for Poetry, there are many references to classical books and sophisticated words. Such references are not for studying. 
The writer, Philip Sidney, repeats himself; every three or more paragraphs, there is one idea.
The selections represent the main ideas in the essay. These ideas are very simple. 

The First Section:

Inn this section, Sidney tries to define poetry (what is poetry and who is the poet).
  1. He says the poetry is the teacher of all sciences. All the learning of the West in the Renaissance went back to the Greek civilization where even philosophical and scientific books were written in rhyme. So, poetry is the source of all knowledge.
  2. Poetry can be found among all civilization. There is no civilization that does not know poetry in a form or another.
  3. The Romans use the same word for both the "poet" and the "prophet". The word used for the poet in Latin means "Prophet". which shows his importance. Moreover, the Greek word for the poet means "Creator". This shows that poetry is not something trivial; it is very importance.
Then, Sidney talks about the definition of poetry with reference to Aristotle who says that poetry "is the mimetic, or imitative, use of language". The reference to Aristotle shows that this man was still influential. 

An important aim of this course is to try to trace the development of criticism. One important point is what the similarities are between Aristotle and Sidney. The first similarity is their definition.
Poetry, according  to Sidney, is "a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture - with this end, to teach and delight."
Sidney gives several words for the same concept. He has this habit of giving many synonyms for the same word as a kind of explaining. 
  • "This end" means the aim, goal or purpose.
  • "Teach and delight" are two important words. Both of these concepts counterbalance each other. According to Sidney, a good literary work should have a message and should also delight. A work may teach but not delight, so this is not poetry. Likewise, if a poem delights, but does not teach, it will not be a real poem.
After that, Sidney moves from defining poetry to dividing it into many parts and categories. In the rest of the section, Sidney simply says that, according to him, there are three kinds of poetry;

  1. The first kind is religious. That is, the Old Testament and the New Testament are poetry. Also, the psalms of David are very poetic in nature.
  2. The second is philosophical. It is not literature, but is written in a literary form to make it easier to memorize. This is not what Sidney looks for. Any kind of knowledge can be written in verse, but this does not make it poetry. Poetry is meant to teach and to delight, but religious and philosophical poetry does not delight.
  3. The third is imitative poetry or true and creative poetry.
Sidney means to define and classify. He wants to be very clear about what he is going to discuss to avoid confusion. 
The second step in the essay is marking the territory (this is something to do before starting an argument). When we deal with a text. we should look at the ideas and the form (or the logical development). There is a very strong argument here. The way he writes in is very organized and well-planned. Sidney does not write randomly. The essay is very well studied and written.

After dividing poetry into "religious, philosophical, and imitative poetry", Sidney divides creative poetry into sub-divisions.
P.332 "These be subdivided ... "
Here, Sidney divides poetry into several kinds. The difference between tragic and comic poetry is in content while the difference between lyric and iambic poetry is in form. Sidney wants to say that not all poets who write in verse are poets. One can writes a text that does not rhyme, but it is still poetical. That is, not all verse is poetry, and not all poetry is verse.
Sidney is not a light writer. He is an All Rounder Man who studies the classical in their languages. He highlights an idea in the passage and then elaborates it more. He gives a definition in a paragraph and then gives more examples for it in the following paragraphs. Then, he gives another idea with more examples until he becomes sure that the reader understands him well. Sidney tries to establish the importance and excellence of poetry. Although the essay is very long, Sidney never loses the main purpose. He uses many tactics to defend poetry because he wants to make sure that the reader understands his point.

The Second Section:

Sidney returns once again to the main purpose. After the section that defines poetry, there is one about the comparison between poetry and philosophy and between poetry and history. He gives a description of history and its characteristics with a description of philosophy and its characteristics. Then, he makes a comparison between them and poetry.

Sidney objection against philosophy is that it is exclusive, not for the general masses. Philosophy appeals to the educated and is read by people who already know it. So, it is not useful. It is for very well-educated people. It is a discipline that is very difficult to understand. In comparison, Poetry teaches the same ideas of philosophy but in  a concrete way. Through it, you can learn about truth, honesty etc. which is available in poetry, but in a simple form and with concrete examples. Here, Sidney establishes his defense.

History, according to Sidney, is not very creative. It gives us what has already happened without any imagination. History is very specific while poetry is very open. It does not show any universal truth. It is very difficult to extract a value from a historical fact. Poetry takes facts and adds imagination to them. The poet does not tell what has happened but what might have happened. Thus, poetry is richer and more beneficial to people because it is more effective in teaching moral lessons. Because facts are represented in a more pleasurable way, they have a deep influence on people. Sidney says that "Poetry is the noblest of all sciences."

P.337 " ... For conclusion, I say the philosopher ... " The style may be little bit difficult, but the ideas are straightforward.

P.339 "So then the best of the historian .... " 

The best  part of history is the subject matter or the raw materials of poetry. 
"Bound to recite" means to tell". Poetry, with its imitation, takes any historical matter and makes it its own. 
Dante is the author of The Divine Comedy which is a very famous poem from the middle Ages. Dante is the Shakespeare of Italy. It is about some people who go to the underworld which is divided into several layers. In each layer, there is a kind of bad people some of whom are from his age like corrupted politicians. There are also characters from history like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. They go through all these layers and return again to the world. This is what is meant by "from his heaven to his hell", i.e. from the extreme to the extreme.

The Third Section:

After the comparison between history and poetry and between philosophy and poetry, Sidney turns to the definition of the different genres of poetry. Sidney uses the same technique and methodology used by Aristotle. 

P. 346 "Sith then poetry ... "

All civilizations knows poetry. Here, he sums up an idea he has just introduced at the very beginning of the essay. The essay is long, but one of the techniques Sidney uses to connect his essay is by rementioning the ideas he present at the very beginning. This is a different style of writing an essay. This was an art form and a literary skill at this time. People read essays not for the content, but also for the style. It was a kind of entertainment. Sidney says that the name "maker" is very suitable for the poet. That is, the poet makes a matter out of a conceit "story", and not a story out of a matter. If one is  a poet, he will not need any other things. Poetry comes from his heart and imagination. 

The Fourth Section:

Sidney moves to the refutation of the different accusations against poetry.

P.348 "'Now then ..."
Sidney depends on Aristotle here. He refers to both of Aristotle and Plato, but the way he looks at each one of them is different. He mentions Aristotle to agree with, but mentions Plato to refute him. Aristotle is mentioned to support as an evidence.

There are four accusations against poetry mentioned in The School of Abuse.
  1. The first is that poetry is useless and so is a waste of time.
  2. The second is that poetry is the mother of lies.
  3. The third is that poetry has a corrupting influence.
  4. The fourth is that Plato had banished poets from his ideal city.
Sidney answers the four objections
  1. First, poetry is not something to waste our time. It gives us virtue. He already answers this in the previous sections where he makes the comparison. This is considered an answer for this accusation. Poetry is deeper and more accessible. It is in the middle between philosophy and history. He adds ideas to history and facts to philosophy.
  2. Concerning the second accusation, Sidney has a very simple answer. The poet cannot be a liar because he does not pretend to say facts. He does not say he gives real stories. He does not pretend to say truth in the first place. Yet, the physicians lies because if he says that someone has a weak heart, one has to believe him because he has no option. On the other hand, believing poetry is optional because the poet does not force any one to believe him
  3. Regarding to the third accusation that poetry is immoral, Sidney says that poetry is like any other discipline. Some people use it in a bad way and others in a good way. This defense is a different strategy. He admits the point and says that some parts of literature are immoral and some are not. Similarly, we have an immoral philosopher, and we have an immoral poet as well.
  4. To the fourth accusation, Sidney says that Plato does not banish all poets. He talks only about the effect of the immoral poet. Plato is himself a poet because he writes in a very artistic way.
This section is very important; it is  in the heart of the essay.

The Last Section: p.356 - 357

This is the practical section of the essay. It introduces the old debate about the nature of tragedies and comedies. In this section, Sidney criticizes contemporary writers who do not follow one of the important rules which comes down from the time of Greeks. This is the rule of the three unities of time, place and action. Aristotle sets it in his Act of Poetry in the fourth century B.C.  Sidney wrote the sixteenth century. The main playwright in the Renaissance was Shakespeare. Many of his plays violates the unities of time and place. Yet, he was not the only playwright who did this. It was a common phenomenon. Sidney was concerned with following the principles of Aristotle. 

Also, there was a lack of central action. Besides, he criticizes those whose works do not have a clear message. He attacks the immortality of some writers during his time. Sidney mentions some writers and works by name. He looks at the plays of his contemporaries and criticizes them according to his principles.

p. 366 " Now of time ... "
Here, Sidney is very ironical. He mentions a plot of a play in summary. Many things happen in two hours which is the period of the play. It is very absurd. Yet, writers do this all the time, contradicting all what ancient thinkers taught about writing plays. Sidney says that those, who asks how a story with many places and times can be set, forget that tragedy is literature, not history. When one writes literature, he has freedom to select specific situations and focus on them. On the other hand, historian writers should mention all the events and details. Literary writers can combine events. This is Sidney's view that these rules are important and must be followed.

Mid-Term Exam:

"Sidney's Apology for Poetry is a continuation for an old debate about the value of poetry."
How does Sidney refute the main accusations against poetry? and what are the Aristotelian elements in the defense?

  • In the introduction, you have to talk about the rubric very generally with the development of the debate. 
  • The first question: Introduce every accusation with its answer (waste of time - mother of lies - nurse of abuse - Plato's condemnation of poetry).
  • The second question is a comparison. Introduce the similarity and common points in both writers.