Page images

rhetorical stateliness. Never before were the humorous and didactic, each in most appropriate expression, so pleasingly harmonized.

As an essay in criticism nothing in English in any way comparable to it had appeared before. Elyot, Wilson, Cheke, and Ascham had indeed some pretention to the name of critics, but their criticism had confined itself to the discussion of form and verbal expression, and there was literally nothing in their writings on which Sidney could draw. It was to the ancient Classics and to the writers of Renaissant Italy that he betook himself for inspiration and instruction. The works which influenced him most were, in order of importance, Aristotle's Poetics, with which he was intimately familiar and which he probably read in a Latin translation, having, however, enough Greek to follow the original: with some of the Italian commentators on Aristotle's treatise, particularly with Castelvetro (see note, 52, 5), he was evidently familiar. Next to Aristotle came Plato, on whose Republic and Ion he frequently draws. He had evidently read the essays in Plutarch's Morals which treat of poetry, such as the essay on 'How Young Men should Read the Poets'. The modern works on which he has chiefly drawn are Julius Caesar Scaliger's once famous Poetics, an elaborate treatise on poetry in seven books published in 1561, and a somewhat voluminous treatise entitled De Poetâ, published in 1559 by one Antonio Sebastiano calling himself Minturno. Both of these works he uses largely With Homer, Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch among the Greeks, and with the Roman Classics generally, particularly with Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, he was plainly well acquainted, and his reading in modern Italian literature, both Latin and vernacular, was extraordinarily wide and multifarious. And yet it would be no paradox to say that all this practically detracts but little from the originality of the treatise. Its arresting charm, its distinguishing characteristic, is its genuine and all-pervading enthusiasm, which fuses into unity the main thesis and makes the work both in the effect of its general impression and in its central purpose absolutely unique.

It is not a little singular that this little work should have been produced at the particular time it was produced, on the very dawn of the most glorious epoch of our national poetry, immediately after Spenser had given the first faint promise of the Faerie Queene, and just as the genius of Shakespeare, then a boy of seventeen or eighteen, was beginning to awake. Of all the great countries of Europe, England in 1581 stood lowest both in the quantity and in the quality of what had been achieved in poetry. One poet only of classical rank had appeared-Geoffrey Chaucer. Gower and Langland, Lydgate, Hawes and Skelton, the Company of Courtly Makers, and the contributors to The Mirror for Magistrates, of whom one only-Sackville—had any pretention to genius, these and a few other mediocrities made up the tale. Nothing memorable, with the exception of Gorboduc had been produced in the drama. In less than twentyfive years after the composition of Sidney's treatise our drama was without rival in the ancient and modern world; our epic had in the Faerie Queene disputed the supremacy, with the single exception of the Divine Comedy, of anything which had been produced since the Aeneid, and there was scarcely any branch of poetry in which immortal fame had not been earned.

The treatise may for purposes of convenience be divided into nine sections, but, as a running analysis accompanies the text, it is not necessary here to discuss it in detail or indeed to do more than indicate its main drift. First comes the semi-humorous prologue-- if the art of horse. manship merits so eloquent a eulogy and vindication, surely poetry, if decried and vilified, merits eulogy and vindication too. To attack poetry is to attack nothing less than culture and intelligence generally, for the earliest philosophers, historians, and religious legislators were poets, and of these Sidney gives instances from the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. Next he proceeds to define what a poet is—he is a maker or creator, and poetry itself is the art of imitation or representation. The various kinds of poetry are then classified, and it is pointed out that poetry need not necessarily express itself in metre. The relation of poetry both to philosophy and to history is then explained, and the reason of its superiority to both demonstrated-examples and illustrations of all this being given in a running commentary. The various species of poetry, pastoral, elegiac, iambic, satiric, comic, tragic, lyric, and heroic, are next considered, and the objections which have been raised to them answered:--it is not useless, it is not deceptive, and if it be immoral that is not its use but its abuse and perversion : to accuse poetry, as some have done, of tending to make a nation effeminate is to bring a charge against it which may be brought with equal justice against all learning, and it is a charge refuted by facts, for poetry has always been the favourite companion of soldiers and men of action. He then proceeds to deal with Plato's objection to poets as members of his ideal commonwealth--showing that what Plato really objected to was not poetry regarded in relation to its proper functions but in relation to its improper. Next he deals with the low repute into which poetry had fallen in England, attributing it partly to a sort of lethargy in the people and partly to the inferiority of its representatives, nature not inspiring them. He then reviews the state of poetry in England from Chaucer to his own time, dwelling especially on the degradation of the popular drama and censuring Gorboduc, the only praiseworthy attempt at drama, for the violation of the Unities. He goes on next to discuss Tragedy and Comedy, showing how necessary it is that they should observe the Unities and not be confounded, and emphasizing the fact that Comedy should not only amuse but morally instruct. From discussing Comedy and Tragedy he passes to lyric poetry and to style and diction generally, both as it applies to prose and as it applies to verse, censuring the style in vogue as too artificial and too studious of conceits. Lastly he treats of prosody, dwelling on the great advantage possessed by the English language in admitting both the unrhymed quantitative system of the ancient poetry and the rhyme peculiar to modern languages, and discussing the caesura. The treatise concludes with a peroration summing up the claims of poetry to veneration and honour, with a semi-humorous blessing on those who love and appreciate it and a semi-humorous denunciation of those who are insensible of its charms and its importance.

We must not expect more from this little work than it promises to give. Sidney is not so much a critic as an interpreter and prophet; his business is not with analysis and judicial discrimination ; it is simply to vindicate the educational importance and that in the widest sense of the term of poetry, of an art popularly associated only with its secondary and subordinate functions and recently vilified and misrepresented. His object is to show that it should be to us and to the modern world what it was to the Greeks and the ancient world, but that it can never be this till we conceive worthily of it and distinguish between its higher and lower forms of expression.

The history of the text is briefly this. As I have already noticed, the treatise was not published till nine years after Sidney's death, when in 1595 two editions appeared, one printed for William Ponsonby under the title of The Defence of Poesie and another for Henry Olney under the title of An Apologie for Poetrie. There are considerable differences between the readings of the two editions, probably in consequence of their being printed from different manuscripts, and which came nearest to Sidney's autograph it is impossible to say. As a rule Olney's text is preferable, and it is Olney's text which is the basis of that here reprinted. In 1598 Ponsonby reprinted the treatise in the folio volume containing the Arcadia, and in the following year it appeared in a similar volume published at Edinburgh by Robert Waldegrave, and this edition follows the readings of the two Ponsonby editions. After this it was frequently reprinted both independently and as a part of Sidney's collected works.

« PreviousContinue »