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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 11: Sir Philip Sidney

Reading Assignment:

    Sidney (NATC 323-362)
    Report: Patrick McGowan; Response: Gerard Bogin

Class Objectives:

  • Analyze Sidney's Apology for Poetry;
  • Discuss Patrick McGowan's report and Gerard Bogin's response.

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 of this work of theory (universe, work, artist or audience), what would you choose and why? How does this differ from the primary orientation of Aristotle's 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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