The challenges to any form of art or literature are persistent in our ages too. When religion was a dominating power, or wherever it is today, literature has always needed to defend itself from the charges related to immorality and blasphemy; in our age, however, the question regarding its utility with regards to social contribution is a common one. Among all the people who have defended poetry, Philip Sydney stands as one of the pioneers.
In his essay, ‘The Defence of Poetry’, Sydney criticizes Plato’s The Republic for banning the poets and claims Poetry to be a better medium of learning than Philosophy. The common charges that literature has been fighting against since centuries are: it’s a leisure activity, it has no function or utility and pointlessness of aesthetics.
With the rise of neo-platonic ideas in the society of medieval times, artists tried to connect poetry to spiritual function. It was Horace that mixed profit and pleasure to defend poetry when he said that “Poets wish either to benefit or to delight or to say things that are both pleasing and apply to life”. Sydney uses the same model to defend poesy.
In 1579, Stephen Gosson, a Puritan minister attacked poetry in The School of Abuse. Sydney rejected the claims made by him and defended poetry by the discussing the questions of the function of poetry, the nature of imitation and concept of nature with the help from literary critics like Aristotle, Horace and Boccaccio.
In the essay, Sydney tells draws on the tradition of poetry and how historically poetry has been used. After commenting that even Plato, who had criticized poetry, used poetry to write, he says: “neither philosopher nor historiographer, could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgement if they had not taken a great passport of poetry”.
In order to make another argument in defence of poetry, he goes back to the Roman definition of the word poet, where the poet was called vates, which translates as the prophet. On the base of this definition, he argues that Psalms of David are a “divine poem”. In other words, he considers poets to be equivalent of prophets for prophets are also poets; hence, poetry has a divine function.
The ancient Greek word from which the English word, Poet, originates is more important for him. The Greek word translates into ‘to make’, which, for Sydney, has a unique connotation.
Sydney argues when any other creator, say a carpenter, makes something he is bound by the rules of nature. Poet, on the other hand, is not, according to Sydney, is dependent on nature; therefore, his (poet’s) creation is superior to nature.