Criticism and Theory I
Class 11: Sir Philip Sidney
Sidney (NATC 323-362)
Reports: Lizz Angello and Ben Gerdts and Lynn Ramsey
Analyze Sidney's Apology for Poetry;
Generally considered the first important treatise of English literary criticism, Sidney's Apology
ranges widely through literary arguments from the classical age through the Renaissance. It is considered a
fine synthesis of Renaissance theories of literature, and it defines the terms of debate on poetry (its social
and moral value, its importance as a field of knowledge, its own aesthetic criteria and hierarchy of values) for generations
to come. We will be considering some of the ways in which it also invokes and adapts the classical theories of the
past, in particular the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
How is the piece structured? Describe the style and organization of the essay. What is the general purpose of the defense? What
is its tone? How effective are these rhetorical elements?
Sidney defines art as based on nature. How does Sidney describe poetry's relation to nature and
what does this definition draw from neoplatonic ideals? (330-1).
He defines poetry as imitation (via Aristotle) with the end of teaching and delighting (via Horace) (331). How is this new? Note
here and throughout how Sidney uses these particular classical writers. What purpose do their quotations serve? How does he position
himself through them?
Sidney claims that the end of learning is to raise the soul toward perfection. The highest form of knowledge -- the architectonike --
is knowledge of self that leads toward the end of "well doing" (333). How do you explain Sidney's drawing on Aristotle here, and his
significant departure (i.e. Aristotle claims the architectonike is politics)?
A significant portion of the treatise is devoted to arguing for poetry's superiority over philosophy and history. Evaluate his
arguments against philosophy and history. What does he assume to be the purpose of these sciences? How does poetry excel them?
Sidney uses many memorable phrases to describe poetry or poets here: "speaking pictures," "right, popular philosophy," "poet-prophet".
What are the implications of these similitudes?
Why does Sidney occasionally separate the art form (poetry) from the artist? What purpose does this serve?
One of the significant limitations of philosophy is that it does not move the audience: "And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may
by this appear: that it is well nigh the cause and the effect of teaching" (340). Again from Aristotle: "it is not gnosis but praxis
must be the fruit" (340). What might be the usefulness of these ideas for teaching literature?
He cites Virgil frequently and the image of Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back several times. In what ways does this support the
notion that poetry is effective in moving the reader to well doing?
If you were to describe the dominant orientation in Sidney's theory of literature (toward the universe, work, artist or audience),
what would you choose and why? How
does this differ from the primary orientation of Aristotle's theory in Poetics? What are the implications of this difference?
What arguments does Sidney make about the distinctive values of individual poetic genres (the parts): pastoral, elegy, satire, comedy,
tragedy, lyric, epic (heroic)? Can you discern a rationale for the hierarchy of genres he embraces?
Sidney claims more than once that verse is not necessary or sufficient cause for poetry, and yet he makes an argument for the meaningfulness
of verse. What is the role of verse in this treatise?
What are the four major arguments against poetry that Sidney refutes?
In particular, how does he answer the charge against the immorality of poetry (350)?
While Plato makes many appearances in this treatise, Sidney specifically addresses the so-called banishment of the poets from the
Republic beginning on p. 352. How does he treat Plato's arguments on poetry and poets? How does this compare with your understanding
of Plato's views on poetry?
According to Sidney, what is the present state of poetry in England? Again, how does this square with your understanding of
Renassance literature and Medieval literature?
Note Sidney's view of laughter. What is laughter and why is it not the appropriate effect of comedy?
Why is the English language particularly well suited to both the ancient (quantified) verse and the modern (rhyming) verse in
contrast to other languages?
Evaluate the peroration, and especially his closing curse.
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