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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 6. Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie

Gascoigne, however, had been purely prosodic; the current of Elizabethan criticism, increasing very largely in volume shortly after his time, took a different direction, except in so far as it still now and then dealt with the delusion of classical “versing.” George Whetstone, in his dedication of Promos and Cassandra (1578), touched, briefly, on the disorderliness of the English stage, and its contempt alike of unity and probability. But, immediately after this, a quarrel, half critical, half ethical, arose over the subject of drama and poetry generally, a quarrel which is the first thing of the kind in English literary history and which enriched English criticism with its first work of distinct literary importance for authorship, range and quality. The challenge of this quarrel was Stephen Gosson’s famous School of Abuse (1579) with its appendix of pamphlets; the chief feat of arms in it was Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie or Defence of Poesie (not printed till 1595 but certainly written before 1583). Gosson had dedicated his work to Sidney; and Sir Philip, showing a sense of literary manners which, unfortunately, has never been too common, abstains from replying directly to his dedicator, though his whole argument is destructive of Gosson’s. Others were less scrupulous, and, indeed, had less reason for scruple; and Thomas Lodge, in a pamphlet the exact title of which is lost, takes up the cudgel in all but the full tone of Elizabethan “flyting.” This reply, however, as well as Gosson’s original attack and its sequels, has very little real literary criticism in it. Gosson, himself a playwright for some time, seems to have been suddenly convinced, probably by a conversion to puritanism, of the sinfulness of poetry generally, and the line of stricture which he takes is almost wholly moral; while, not unnaturally, he is followed, for the most part, in this line, by Lodge who, however, indulges in a certain amount of rather confused comment and eulogium on the classics. In the time and circumstances it was certain that Sidney would, to some extent, do the same; his strain, however, is not only of a much higher mood but also of a much wider and a more varied.

Beginning, with a touch of humour, on the tendency of everybody to extol his own vocation, he plunges, almost at once, into the stock defence of poetry: from its age and the wonders ascribed to it of old; its connection with philosophy; the way in which Plato is poetical even in his onslaughts upon it; its time-honoured and world-spread vogue; the high and incomparable titles of “poietes,” “vates,” “maker”; its command of every kind of subject, vying with nature in something like creation; its connection with Divinity itself. Then he sketches its kinds, and insists upon the poet’s nobleness as against all competitors, setting him above both philosopher and historian. Examples of excellence for imitation, and of misdoing for avoidance, are given. The poet has all, “from Dante his heaven to his hell,” under the authority of his pen. After much on this, he returns to the kinds—examining and dismissing objections to pastoral, elegy and what not. At this point, he makes a sweep towards his special subject of drama, but touches it lightly and goes off to the heroic, whence, his preamble or exposition being finished, he comes to “poet-haters,” the name, and even the person, of Gosson being carefully left in obscurity. He examines and dismisses once more the stock objections—waste of time, lying, encouragement of evil desires, etc. and, of course, sets the excellence of use against the possibility of abuse. And so, all generalities done (the famous commendation of Chevy Chace, “Percy and Douglas,” has occurred long before), he shapes his concluding course towards English poetry, to find out why England has “grown so hard a stepmother” towards poets; why there is such a hard welcome for poetry here. And, at this point, both the most strictly genuine criticism and the most piquant oddity of the piece begin, though it would be very unfair to Sidney not to remember that he is writing just after The Shepheards Calender had appeared, in the mere overture of the great Elizabethan concert.

“The very true cause,” he thinks, “of our wanting estimation is wanting desert: taking upon us to be poets in despite of Pallas.” Art, imitation and exercise, as well as mother-wit, are necessary for poetry, and English poets use neither art nor imitation rightly. Chaucer “did well but had great wants,” a sentence which surprises the reader less when he finds that A Mirror for Magistrates is “meetly furnished of beautiful parts.” The Shepheards Calender “hath much poetry, indeed worthy the reading.” But Sidney “dare not allow” the framing of even his own familiar friend’s language to a rustic style, “since neither Theocritus in Greeke, Virgill in Latine, nor Sanazara in Italian, did affect it.” Besides these (he had duly praised Surrey), he “remembers to have seen few printed that had poetical sinews in them” and, looking back from 1580 to 1530, as he is evidently doing, one cannot much wonder. Then he accumulates wrath on the infant drama—again, be it remembered, before Peele, before Lyly, before Marlowe, or just when their earliest work was appearing. But his wrath is bestowed upon it for the very things that were to make the greatness, not only of these three, but of Shakespeare and all the rest. Our tragedies and comedies observe rules “neither of honest civility nor of skilful poetry,” excepting Gorboduc, which itself is not faultless. It is faulty in place and time: all the rest are faulty not only in these but in action. And then we have the often quoted passage satirising the “free” drama in all these respects, with a further censure of the mixture of the tragedy and comedy, and an aspiration after the limiting of comedy to Terentian-Plautine types and of tragedy to the “divine admiration” excited by the tragedies of Buchanan. “Our Songs and Sonnets are frigid,” etc., etc. He insinuates, rather than definitely advances, a suggestion that English should use both riming and “versing.” And he ends with a half-enthusiastic, half-satirical peroration on the “planet-like music” of poetry.

The quaint perversity of all this, and the still quainter revenge which time took on it by making the next fifty years and more a flourishing time of English poetry in almost direct consequence of the neglect of Sidney’s censures, is a commonplace. It ought to be as much a commonplace to repeat the sufficient explanation of it—that he lacked the basis and sine qua non of all sound criticism, to wit, a sufficient quantity of precedent good poetry. But, of late, considerable interest has been taken in the question whether he got his principles from specific or general sources; and there has been a tendency to regard him as specially echoing not merely Scaliger but the Italian critic Minturno. There are, no doubt, coincidences with these two, and, especially, with Minturno; but it is the opinion of the present writer that Sidney was rather familiar with the general drift of Italian criticism than following any special authority.