Vital Signs

In Defence of Poesie

My title, borrowed from Sir Philip Sidney, is deliberately misleading; that is, it does not mean here what he intended when he used it for his posthumous work (1595), known in another edition as The Apologie for Poetrie.  In the past, poetry needed no defense—if that means pleas to a hostile or indifferent audience.  Sidney, a member, along with Spenser, of an important poets’ club, was also a royal appointee and a soldier, who, as a volunteer, received a fatal wound in an attack on the Spanish fleet for the relief of Zutphen, in the Netherlands.  His influential treatise offered an examination of poetry in his time and considerations on the essence and principles of the art, especially in relation to philosophy and history.  His contemporary Sir Walter Ralegh was likewise a military man and explorer, as well as a poet.  To know, appreciate, even write poetry was, for many, part of the gentleman’s role; and it was entirely compatible with vigorous action and manliness.  What was “defended” in treatises was the distinctiveness of poetry, its aims, means, effects, and appeal.  Advice, both general and particular, was offered; models were proposed and aesthetic principles set out.

The high standing of poets endured for three more centuries.  Dryden and Pope were honored, and the latter was even a “celebrity.” ...

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