Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
Do you ever go to the movies and you find yourself annoyed by a friend who just will not keep his/her opinions to himself/herself? 'I liked it when Edward sparkled' or 'the werewolves were so fake' or 'I would be Team Jacob if he wasn't such a butterface.' These are all things one might say about Twilight. This is why I go to the movies myself; I don't really enjoy going with other people because they just annoy me. These are basically the marks of a budding critic - a friend who might say something like this. Critics take their pens to everything - high literature, pop culture, really anything. One of my favorite Youtube series is 'Alex reads Twilight' - it's a bunch of 5-minute video in which the titular Alex reads Stephanie Meyer's Twilight and rips into it.
If you hate stuff like this - and I honestly don't know how you could - and you hate people telling you what to think or why what you think is stupid, then you have Sir Philip Sidney to blame for all of this.
Sidney lived in 16th century England and was one of the more important figures of the Elizabethan era - literature-wise and otherwise. Scholars refer to him as the 'consummate courtier,' which basically means that he was good at everything. He was educated, he was well-rounded, and he was versed in poetry, politics, military strategy, aesthetics and philosophy - all good stuff. He did everything; he was a jack-of-all-trades. His professional life saw him in various professions; he was a poet, he was a soldier and he ended up governor. Most importantly for our purposes (since this is an English literature course and not a soldiering or politics course), he was a really important early English-language critic. His 1579 tract The Defense of Poesy is basically an argument for the virtues of the fictional arts. He pioneered a trail for English literary criticism that persists today and gives students all over the world massive headaches but also paves the way for people like Alex.
So, we'll get to the Defense of Poesy in a second, but besides that, Sidney contributed at least one other important work to the history of literature, and this is the poem called Astrophel and Stella. It's actually not one poem, it's a 'sonnet cycle' containing 108 sonnets (plus 11 songs that he just threw in there) that track the rise and fall of a courtly love relationship. Usually in class we love sonnets because they're only 14 lines long, but don't be fooled. A sonnet cycle means a boatload of sonnets. It's not short; don't celebrate when you have to read this one. It was really one of the first famous English sonnet sequences, predating Edmund Spenser, Lady Mary Wroth and Shakespeare by several years. He did this whole massive sonnet thing first.
In it, a courtier, Astrophel, pleas to his beloved Stella for recognition but is eventually rejected. I think we can all kind of relate to that a little bit. Critics have pointed out that it's important not to read this poem 100% earnestly. As much as it's entertaining, it's also maybe a subtle critique of love in general and of love poetry. It contains reflections on the nature of poetry and the nature of love. It may be meant to be a bit of a satire.
All of this stuff (the nature of poetry and whatnot) was obviously on Sidney's mind, because he wrote The Defense of Poesy. I almost forgot that because we're talking about nonfiction, I have to put on the nonfiction glasses - we're getting serious, getting real. The Defense of Poesy was published posthumously in 1595. Posthumously means that it's sad because he's dead when it's published; he doesn't get to see its wonderful effects on the world. As we noted, it's an early work of English criticism, and it sees Philip Sidney arguing for the role of 'poesy' in a virtuous society. It's important to note that by 'poesy' Sidney doesn't just refer to poetry (although that's his favorite example) but all kinds of fictionalized arts, including drama and prose. It's not a pocket full of posies from 'Ring Around the Rosie,' although it does sound like that.
In The Defense, Sidney basically takes up a judicial response to those who would attack poetry - people like Plato and Puritan Stephen Gosson (Puritans are no fun; they're always trying to shut down poetry and nice things like that). These people basically argue that poetry is nothing but lies that lead society astray. Sidney takes the exact opposite stance; he says that fiction actually can't lead anyone astray because 'The poet he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.' I think it's a bit like saying 'you can't lose if you don't compete.' In contrast, he's saying that other written disciplines - history and philosophy are his favorite targets in this - can totally be faulty and can truly lead men astray because they're trying to say things that are true and they might fail, whereas poetry combines the best of both of those studies and then drives men toward virtue instead.
How does this work? First, Sidney strikes out against historians because they can lie. Their business is asserting the truth; they have the potential to say something that is absolutely wrong about what happened in the world. The other thing is that their work is 'brazen' (that's the word that Sidney uses), which basically means it's made up of things that happened to happen. History is full of things that happened by chance with no overarching intention or goal - it just happened. Historians' only goal is to tell us that, so it doesn't have any meaning, it's just relaying things that occurred. Poets, on the other hand, concern themselves with possibilities. They create and things in their poem don't just happen by chance, they happen with the guiding hand of the poet. So they drive imagination and spirit forward rather than wallowing in the past and figuring out what happened, even though what happened didn't have a point or an overarching guiding hand to it.
As for philosophers, who Sidney does not want to leave uncriticized, he says, 'The philosopher showeth you the way… but this to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive studious painfulness… (The poet) doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect to the way as will entice any man to enter into it.' In other words (even though I think Sidney himself could be accused of this), philosophy is boring! No one wants to read it except other philosophers, whereas poetry is fun and interesting! Maybe you can sympathize with this or at least identify with the idea that it's more fun to watch the movie Troy than it is to sit around in history class and listen to somebody lecture. Hopefully it's more fun to watch me than it is to read The Defense of Poesy. I don't know, we'll see.
Sidney takes down what he sees as poetry's biggest two competitors. He does it cleverly. He doesn't hold back from putting other disciplines in their place either. This giant passage from Defense pretty clearly spells out Sidney's thoughts on the matter:
'The lawyer saith what men have determined; the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest persuade, thereon give artificial rules… Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature… Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers (sic) poets have done.'
Ponder that for a second. In other words, what he's saying is poetry is the best because it has the power to create. It can make new worlds; it can make Earth better than nature even intended. That's a pretty mighty claim, but it's one that would actually take hold strongly in Sidney's followers, especially the Romantic poets that came much later, like Wordsworth and Keats. It's the idea that imagination is really important as a distinguishing feature of poetry. But, more importantly, Sidney's careful analysis of an entire style of literature has long-lasting effects on academia. It paves the way for people studying literature at all and thinking about it as important even though it wasn't true in the sense that other disciplines were. He's probably responsible for you watching this video right now to be perfectly frank. So feel as you will about that.
In summary, Philip Sidney is an accomplished poet in his own right. He wrote Astrophel and Stella, which is a sonnet cycle that is worth reading. What he's best known for is The Defense of Poesy, which is an early work of literary criticism that really paves the way for not only how we think about poetry and the value of fiction work in general, but is also the forerunner of the whole genre of literary criticism that emerges most prominently in the 20th century. So you can thank Sir Philip Sydney for all of that.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets