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Volume 9, Issue 4: The Puritan Eye

Defense of Poesy

Sir Philip Sydney

Compare the poet with the historian and with the moral philosopher: and if he go beyond them both, no other humane skill can match him. For as for the divine, with all reverence it is ever to be excepted, not only for having his scope as far beyond any of these, as eternity exceeds a moment: but even for passing each of these in themselves. . . . The philosopher therefore and the historian, are they which would win the goal, the one by precept the other by example.

For the philosopher setting down with thorny arguments, the bare rule, is so hard of utterance, and so misty to be conceived, that one that has no other guide but him, shall wade in him till he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge stands so upon the abstract and general, that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy, that can apply what he does understand. On the other side, the historian wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be, but to what is, to the particular truth of things, that his example draws no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine.
Now does the peerless poet perform both, for whatsoever the philosopher says should be done, he gives a perfect picture of it by some one, by whom he presupposes it was done, so as he couples the general notion with the particular example. A perfect picture I say, for he yields to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestows but a wordish description, which does neither strike, pierce, nor possess, the sight of the soul so much, as that other does. For as in outward things to a man that had never seen an elephant, or a rhinoceros, who should tell him most exquisitely all their shape, color, bigness, and particular marks, or of a gorgeous palace an architecture, who declaring the full beauties, might well make the hearer able to repeat as it were by rote all he had heard, yet should never satisfy his inward conceit, with being witness to it self of a true lively knowledge: but the same man, as soon as he might see those beasts well painted or that house well in model, should straightaways grow without need of any description to a judicial comprehending of them, so no doubt the philosopher with his learned definitions, be it of virtues or vices, matters of public policy or private government, replenishes the memory with many infallible grounds of wisdom, which notwithstanding lie dark before the imaginative and judging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of poesy.
Tully takes much pains, and many times not without poetical helps to make us know the force love of our country has in us. . . . Anger the Stoics said, was a short madness: let but Sophocles bring you Ajax on a stage, killing or whipping sheep and oxen, thinking them the army of Greeks, with their chieftains Agamemnon and Menelaus, and tell me if you have not a more familiar insight into anger, than finding in the schoolemen his genus and difference. See whether wisdom and temperance in Ulysses and Diomedes, valor in Achilles, friendship in Nisus and Eurialus, even to an ignorant man carry not an apparent shining: and contrarily, the remorse of conscience in Oedipus; the soon repenting pride in Agamemnon; the self devouring cruelty in his father Atreus; the violence of ambition, in the two Theban brothers; the sour sweetness of revenge in Medea; and to fall lower, the Terentian Gnato, and our Chaucer's Pander so expressed, that we now use their names, to signify their trades: And finally, all virtues, vices, and passions, so in their own natural states, laid to the view, that we seem not to hear of them, but clearly to see through them.
But even in the most excellent determination of goodness, what philosophers counsel can so readily direct a Prince, as the feigned Cirus in Xenophon, or a virtuous man in all fortunes, as Aeneas in Vergil, or a whole commonwealth, as the way of Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia. I say the way, because where Sir Thomas Moore erred, it was the fault of the man and not of the poet: for that way of patterning a commonwealth, was most absolute though he perchance has not so absolutely performed it. For the question is, whether the fashioned image of poetry, or the regular instruction of philosophy, has the more force in teaching? Wherein if the philosophers have more rightly showed themselves philosophers then the poets, have attained to the high top of their profession (as in truth Mediocribus, esse poetis non Dii, non homines, non concessere columnae [Mediocrity in poets is permitted neither by the gods, nor men, nor booksellers]) it is not the fault of the art, but that by few men that art can be accomplished.
Certainly even our Savior Christ could as well have given the moral common places of uncharitableness and humbleness, as the divine narration of Dives and Lazarus or of disobedience and mercy, as the heavenly discourse of the lost child and the gracious Father, but that his thorough searching wisdom, knew the estate of Dives burning in hell, and Lazarus in Abraham's bosom would more constantly, as it were, inhabit both the memory and judgment. Truly for my self I see before mine eyes, the lost child's disdainful prodigality, turned to envy a swine's dinner: which by the learned divines are thought not to be historical acts, but instructing parables. For conclusion, I say the philosopher teaches, but he teaches obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him, that is to say, he teaches them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs, the poet is indeed, the right popular philosopher.

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