A Defence of Poesie and Poems

Author: Philip Sidney


Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst, in Kent, on the 29th of
November, 1554. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, had married Mary,
eldest daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and Philip was the eldest of their family of three sons and four daughters.
Edmund Spenser and Walter Raleigh were of like age with Philip
Sidney, differing only by about a year, and when Elizabeth became queen, on the 17th of November, 1558, they were children of four or five years old.

In the year 1560 Sir Henry Sidney was made Lord President of Wales,
representing the Queen in Wales and the four adjacent western counties, as a Lord Deputy represented her in Ireland. The official residence of the Lord President was at Ludlow Castle, to which
Philip Sidney went with his family when a child of six. In the same year his father was installed as a Knight of the Garter. When in his tenth year Philip Sidney was sent from Ludlow to Shrewsbury
Grammar School, where he studied for three or four years, and had among his schoolfellows Fulke Greville, afterwards Lord Brooke, who remained until the end of Sidney’s life one of his closest friends.
When he himself was dying he directed that he should be described upon his tomb as "Fulke Greville, servant to Queen Elizabeth,
counsellor to King James, and friend to Sir Philip Sidney." Even
Dr. Thomas Thornton, Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, under whom
Sidney was placed when he was entered to Christ Church in his fourteenth year, at Midsummer, in 1568, had it afterwards recorded on his tomb that he was "the tutor of Sir Philip Sidney."

Sidney was in his eighteenth year in May, 1572, when he left the
University to continue his training for the service of the state, by travel on the Continent. Licensed to travel with horses for himself and three servants, Philip Sidney left London in the train of the
Earl of Lincoln, who was going out as ambassador to Charles IX., in
Paris. He was in Paris on the 24th of August in that year, which was the day of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. He was sheltered from the dangers of that day in the house of the English Ambassador,
Sir Francis Walsingham, whose daughter Fanny Sidney married twelve years afterwards.

From Paris Sidney travelled on by way of Heidelberg to Frankfort,
where he lodged at a printer’s, and found a warm friend in Hubert
Languet, whose letters to him have been published. Sidney was eighteen and Languet fifty-five, a French Huguenot, learned and zealous for the Protestant cause, who had been Professor of Civil
Law in Padua, and who was acting as secret minister for the Elector of Saxony when he first knew Sidney, and saw in him a future statesman whose character and genius would give him weight in the counsels of England, and make him a main hope of the Protestant cause in Europe. Sidney travelled on with Hubert Languet from
Frankfort to Vienna, visited Hungary, then passed to Italy, making for eight weeks Venice his head-quarters, and then giving six weeks to Padua. He returned through Germany to England, and was in attendance it the Court of Queen Elizabeth in July, 1575. Next month his father was sent to Ireland as Lord Deputy, and Sidney lived in London with his mother.

At this time the opposition of the Mayor and Corporation of the City of London to the acting of plays by servants of Sidney’s uncle, the
Earl of Leicester, who had obtained a patent for them, obliged the actors to cease from hiring rooms or inn yards in the City, and build themselves a house of their own a little way outside one of the City gates, and wholly outside the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction.
Thus the first theatre came to be built in England in the year 1576.
Shakespeare was then but twelve years old, and it was ten years later that he came to London.

In February, 1577, Philip Sidney, not yet twenty-three years old,
was sent on a formal embassy of congratulation to Rudolph II. upon his becoming Emperor of Germany, but under the duties of the formal embassy was the charge of watching for opportunities of helping forward a Protestant League among the princes of Germany. On his way home through the Netherlands he was to convey Queen Elizabeth’s congratulations to William of Orange on the birth of his first child, and what impression he made upon that leader of men is shown by a message William sent afterwards through Fulke Greville to Queen
Elizabeth. He said "that if he could judge, her Majesty had one of the ripest and greatest counsellors of State in Philip Sidney that then lived in Europe; to the trial of which he was pleased to leave his own credit engaged until her Majesty was pleased to employ this gentleman, either amongst her friends or enemies."

Sidney returned from his embassy in June, 1577. At the time of his departure, in the preceding February, his sister Mary, then twenty years old, had become the third wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of
Pembroke, and her new home as Countess of Pembroke was in the great house at Wilton, about three miles from Salisbury. She had a measure of her brother’s genius, and was of like noble strain.
Spenser described her as

"The gentlest shepherdess that lives this day,
And most resembling, both in shape and spright,
Her brother dear."

Ben Jonson, long after her brother had passed from earth, wrote upon her death the well-known epitaph:-

"Underneath this sable herse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another,
Learn’d, and fair, and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee."

Sidney’s sister became Pembroke’s mother in 1580, while her brother
Philip was staying with her at Wilton. He had early in the year written a long argument to the Queen against the project of her marriage with the Duke of Anjou, which she then found it politic to seem to favour. She liked Sidney well, but resented, or appeared to resent, his intrusion of advice; he also was discontented with what seemed to be her policy, and he withdrew from Court for a time.
That time of seclusion, after the end of March, 1580, he spent with his sister at Wilton. They versified psalms together; and he began to write for her amusement when she had her baby first upon her hands, his romance of "Arcadia." It was never finished. Much was written at Wilton in the summer of 1580, the rest in 1581, written,
as he said in a letter to her, "only for you, only to you . . . for severer eyes it is not, being but a trifle, triflingly handled.
Your dear self can best witness the manner, being done in loose sheets of paper, most of it in your presence, the rest by sheets sent unto you as fast as they were done." He never meant that it should be published; indeed, when dying he asked that it should be destroyed; but it belonged to a sister who prized the lightest word of his, and after his death it was published in 1590 as "The
Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia."

The book reprinted in this volume was written in 1581, while sheets of the "Arcadia" were still being sent to Wilton. But it differs wholly in style from the "Arcadia." Sidney’s "Arcadia" has literary interest as the first important example of the union of pastoral with heroic romance, out of which came presently, in France, a distinct school of fiction. But the genius of its author was at play, it followed designedly the fashions of the hour in verse and prose, which tended to extravagance of ingenuity. The "Defence of
Poesy" has higher interest as the first important piece of literary criticism in our literature. Here Sidney was in earnest. His style is wholly free from the euphuistic extravagance in which readers of his time delighted: it is clear, direct, and manly; not the less,
but the more, thoughtful and refined for its unaffected simplicity.
As criticism it is of the true sort; not captious or formal, still less engaged, as nearly all bad criticism is, more or less, with indirect suggestion of the critic himself as the one owl in a world of mice. Philip Sidney’s care is towards the end of good literature. He looks for highest aims, and finds them in true work,
and hears God’s angel in the poet’s song.

The writing of this piece was probably suggested to him by the fact that an earnest young student, Stephen Gosson, who came from his university about the time when the first theatres were built, and wrote plays, was turned by the bias of his mind into agreement with the Puritan attacks made by the pulpit on the stage (arising chiefly from the fact that plays were then acted on Sundays), and in 1579
transferred his pen from service of the players to attack on them,
in a piece which he called "The School of Abuse, containing a
Pleasant Invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, and such like Caterpillars of a Commonwealth; setting up the Flag of Defiance to their mischievous exercise, and overthrowing their Bulwarks, by
Profane Writers, Natural Reason, and Common Experience: a Discourse as pleasant for Gentlemen that favour Learning as profitable for all that will follow Virtue." This Discourse Gosson dedicated "To the right noble Gentleman, Master Philip Sidney, Esquire." Sidney himself wrote verse, he was companion with the poets, and counted
Edmund Spenser among his friends. Gosson’s pamphlet was only one expression of the narrow form of Puritan opinion that had been misled into attacks on poetry and music as feeders of idle appetite that withdrew men from the life of duty. To show the fallacy in such opinion, Philip Sidney wrote in 1581 this piece, which was first printed in 1595, nine years after his death, as a separate publication, entitled "An Apologie for Poetrie." Three years afterwards it was added, with other pieces, to the third edition of his "Arcadia," and then entitled "The Defence of Poesie." In sixteen subsequent editions it continued to appear as "The Defence of Poesie." The same title was used in the separate editions of
1752 and 1810. Professor Edward Arber re-issued in 1869 the text of the first edition of 1595, and restored the original title, which probably was that given to the piece by its author. One name is as good as the other, but as the word "apology" has somewhat changed its sense in current English, it may be well to go on calling the work "The Defence of Poesie."

In 1583 Sidney was knighted, and soon afterwards in the same year he married Frances, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. Sonnets written by him according to old fashion, and addressed to a lady in accordance with a form of courtesy that in the same old fashion had always been held to exclude personal suit—personal suit was private, and not public—have led to grave misapprehension among some critics. They supposed that he desired marriage with Penelope
Devereux, who was forced by her family in 1580—then eighteen years old—into a hateful marriage with Lord Rich. It may be enough to say that if Philip Sidney had desired her for his wife, he had only to ask for her and have her. Her father, when dying, had desired—
as any father might—that his daughter might become the wife of
Philip Sidney. But this is not the place for a discussion of
Astrophel and Stella sonnets.

In 1585 Sidney was planning to join Drake it sea in attack on Spain in the West Indies. He was stayed by the Queen. But when Elizabeth declared war on behalf of the Reformed Faith, and sent Leicester with an expedition to the Netherlands, Sir Philip Sidney went out,
in November, 1585, as Governor of Flushing. His wife joined him there. He fretted at inaction, and made the value of his counsels so distinct that his uncle Leicester said after his death that he began by "despising his youth for a counsellor, not without bearing a hand over him as a forward young man. Notwithstanding, in a short time he saw the sun so risen above his horizon that both he and all his stars were glad to fetch light from him." In May, 1586, Sir
Philip Sidney received news of the death of his father. In August his mother died. In September he joined in the investment of
Zutphen. On the 22nd of September his thigh-bone was shattered by a musket ball from the trenches. His horse took fright and galloped back, but the wounded man held to his seat. He was then carried to his uncle, asked for water, and when it was given, saw a dying soldier carried past, who eyed it greedily. At once he gave the water to the soldier, saying, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine." Sidney lived on, patient in suffering, until the 17th of
October. When he was speechless before death, one who stood by asked Philip Sidney for a sign of his continued trust in God. He folded his hands as in prayer over his breast, and so they were become fixed and chill, when the watchers placed them by his side;
and in a few minutes the stainless representative of the young manhood of Elizabethan England passed away.


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Chicago: Philip Sidney, "Introduction," A Defence of Poesie and Poems, ed. Sutherland, Alexander, 1853-1902 and trans. Seaton, R. C. in A Defence of Poesie and Poems (New York: George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892), Original Sources, accessed November 28, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGWYQNSF2XFT5X8.

MLA: Sidney, Philip. "Introduction." A Defence of Poesie and Poems, edited by Sutherland, Alexander, 1853-1902, and translated by Seaton, R. C., in A Defence of Poesie and Poems, New York, George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Original Sources. 28 Nov. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGWYQNSF2XFT5X8.

Harvard: Sidney, P, 'Introduction' in A Defence of Poesie and Poems, ed. and trans. . cited in ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, A Defence of Poesie and Poems, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 28 November 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CGWYQNSF2XFT5X8.