Sidney’s Ideal Poet
Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have they their poets who make and sing songs, which they call “Areytos,” both of their ancestor’s deeds and praises of their gods.
Sir Philip Sidney
It has often been my pleasure, upon being asked the question, ‘what do you do?‘ to answer with confidence that I am a Poet, for I love the way a bonnie lady’s ear will perform a slight twitch on first hearing the word. Unfortunately, far from their vision of a romantic, sonnet-wielding frantic & beautiful lover, there is an actual meaning behind the word. Most Poets are indeed excellent lovers, granted, but what does it actually mean to be a poet?
First, a poet’s soul must contain a symphonium of music, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Litereia, writes; The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery,–(even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history),–affecting incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings, and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem,–may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talent and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that “poeta nascitur non fit.”
These musical gifts would then be used by the poet to startle his peers, who would then in wonderment listen to his words. Before long this natural; dynamic elevated the poet to the position of teacher, who would define the universe for them, inventing gods & teaching them morality en route. Of this Edward Kelly, in his prologium to Edmund Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar, tells us (after Plato), ‘the first inuention of Poetry was of very vertuous intent. For…some learned man being more hable then the rest, for speciall gyftes of wytte and Musicke, would take vpon him to sing fine verses to the people, in prayse eyther of vertue or of victory or of immortality or such like. At whose wonderful gyft al men being astonied and as it were rauished, with delight, thinking (as it was indeede) that he was inspired from aboue, called him vatem.’ The Vatem, or Vates, is what the Romans considered a divine seer, whose task it was to raise up men’s mind from the mortal moral morrass & enlighten them with their heavenly-assisted visions, to improve public virtue through divine inspiration. A couple of years later, another Elizabethan poet, Philip Sidney, added;
Among the Romans a poet was called “vates,” which is as much as a
diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words “vaticinium,”
and “vaticinari,” is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent
people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge
These words are contained in the Apologie for Poetry, with which Philip Sidney became the first in a long line of English poet-critics. Written in 1580-81, but printed posthumously for the first time in 1595, it is in these 60-odd pages that exists the best description of what it is to be a poet. He wrote the Apologie after a personal attack on him & his beloved art by Stephen Gosson, whose 1579 treatise, the School of Abuse, sets about;
Conteining a plesaunt inuective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters & such like Catterpillars of a Commonwealth! Setting up the Flagge of Defiaunce to their mischeieuous exercise & ouerthrowing their Bulwarkes by Prophane Writers, Naturel reason & common experience
Perhaps Gosson had a point, for in the Apologie Sidney himself complains that, ‘England, the mother of excellent minds, should be grown so hard a step-mother to poets.’ Sydney’s indeed remonstrates against the squallid depths to which the art amongst the English had degenerated since the heady times of Chaucer, almost two centuries previously. His point is, however, that its not the art that was at fault, but the artists. Using the ancient poets as his models, Sydney hopes to redefine the image of what the Muses & their Ministers actually were. For me, such a bold & beautiful statement holds an impressive resonance in these our modern times, for as we shall see, the vision of a poet as portrayed by Sydney (& thus the ancients) is a far cry from the impedantic disrespect of poetry which litters today’s pages.
Of the Apology, JC Collins writes, ‘a better introduction to the study of poetry could scarcely be conceived, for not only does it put poetry in its proper place as an instrument of education, but it deals with it generally as only a poet himself could deal with it, with illuminating insight, with most inspiring enthusiasm.’ To Sidney, the raison d’etre of poetry was to ‘plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls.’ Little poetry these days comes near to even touching our true divine spark within us all, which has seen a neglect into its overall respect across the human plane. As I said in my first post, these lectures are intended to reset the clock, so to speak, & to do this we must get back to root, to identify the original kernel of the poet. To do this, I shall leave you with a selection of passages from the Apologie, which I hope shall elucidate Sidney vision of an ideal poet in a more palatable fashion.
Poets are Fathers in Learning :
In the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges
Let learned Greece, in any of her manifold sciences, be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history he brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some others are named, who having been the first of that country that made pens deliverers of their knowledge to posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning.
In the Italian language,the first that made it to aspire to be a treasure-house of science, were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower andChaucer; after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed to beautify our mother tongue, as well in the same kind as other arts.
Poet as Creator
Let us see how the Greeks have named it, and how they deemed
of it. The Greeks named him a Poet,which name hath, as the most
excellent, gone through other languages; it cometh of this word poiein
which is ‘to make;’ wherein, I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we
Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker”
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, Cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
Fashions Ideal Models
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation; for so Aristotle termeth
it in the word Mimesis; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting,
or figuring forth: to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this
end, to teach and delight
It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet… but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by
…to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses; if they will
learn aright, why, and how, that maker made him.
…brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; and so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Æneas?
Directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architektonike which stands, as I think, in the knowledge of a man’s self
This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning
The final end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by, their clay lodgings, can be capable of.
Poetry & History
Aristotle himself, in his Discourse of Poesy, plainly determineth this
question, saying, that poetry is philosophoteron and spoudaioteronthat is to say, it is more philosophical and more ingenious than history. His reason is, because poesy dealeth with kathalou, that is to say, with the universal consideration, and the history kathekaston,the particular. “Now,” saith he, “the universal weighs what is fit to be said or done, either in likelihood or necessity; which the poesy considereth in his imposed names; and the particular only marks, whether Alcibiades did, or suffered, this or that:”
if the question be, for your own use and learning, whether it be better to have it set down as it should be, or as it was? then, certainly, is more doctrinable the feigned Cyrus in Xenophon, than the true Cyrus in Justin; and the feigned Æneas in Virgil, than the right Æneas in Dares Phrygius; as to a lady that desired to fashion her countenance to the best grace, a painter should more benefit her, to portrait a most sweet face, writing Canidia upon it, than to paint Canidia as she was, who, Horace sweareth, was full ill-favoured.
Poets just don’t think like Sidney today – none of us really have the designation to create didactic poetry, right. But then again, we would never produce such masterpieces as Sidney’s sonnet sequence, Astrophel & Stella, Shakespeare’s dramatic rendition of the Wars of the Roses, or Spenser’s vast & gorgeous garden of stanzas that is his majesttic Faerie Queen. The first was intended to teach the Elizabethans about petrarchian love, the second was meannt to cement the Tudor dynasty’s place in British society, while the latter was desigend as an epic education in morality. That, I suppose, is the problem with modern poetry, with so much infomation available at the click of a button, for no-one feels like they should be able to teach people very much.
Instead, poetry should no longer deny its original object, & remember that it is the Art’s particular ability to captivate the best words in their best order in order to amaze the audience. It is through this position of intellectual grandeur that mankind may still be taught. It is about the time that the bar got raised : no-one is absorbing long forgotten or as yet undiscover’d foreign forms; no-one is pushing back the boundaries of the art with conviction; no-one – god dammit – is inventing. We have now a sterile pond where bubbling gasses gloop to the surface – cut off by some man-made landslide from the waters of the Parnassian streams.
To rise out of the muck, a poet should instead be a teacher. Knowledge these days is epic, multiplying almost as quickly as the big bang. But poetry’s advantage is its concision, & with it an inherent ability to so arrangements words so beautifully that people actually enjoy the experience of learning. Now i’m not saying the following is beautiful but it was an earlier exercise of my youth, but the point is Iv’e stored some very important information in some rather cute-ish lines.
POETRY FOR COMMON USE
If you have an egg to boil
Heat water up by kettle coil
Then let it bubble in a pan
& add the egg & boil to plan –
A runny egg takes minutes three
Served with soldiers & cup of tea
A hard boil’d egg nine minutes paced
Add mayonnaise & salt to taste
To make a curry hot & tasty
fry your veggies odors free
mix some meat in if you like
fleshy ham to fresh caught pike
Milk & tomatoes make the sauce
Good curry powder puffs the force
Add other seasonings to taste
Then stew awhile, no need for haste
Not awarding-winning stuff, granted, but useful. Anyhow, that’s all for today’s lecture, but I shall leave you with the close of the Apologie, which sees Sidney at his most cockiest & eloquent best;
Since the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue, breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honour poesy, and to be honoured by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverend title of “a rhymer;” but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were the first bringers in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man, than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly deity by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and “quid non?” to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landin, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury. Lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.
Thus doing, your names shall flourish in the printers’ shops: thus doing,
you shall be of kin to many a poetical preface: thus doing, you shall be
most fair, most rich, most wise, most all: you shall dwell upon
superlatives: thus doing, though you be “Libertino patre natus,” you
shall suddenly grow “Herculea proles,” “Si quid mea Carmina possunt:” thus doing, your soul shall be placed with Dante’s Beatrix, or Virgil’s Anchisis.
But if (fie of such a but!) you be born so near the dull-making cataract
of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you
have so earth-creeping a mind, that it cannot lift itself up to look to
the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become
such a Mome, as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish
unto you the ass’s ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as
Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rhymed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets; that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for
lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the
earth for want of an epitaph.