Philip Sidney and the Defense of Poesy

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 2:19 Astrophel and Stella
  • 3:43 Defense of Poesy
  • 9:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Sir Philip Sidney: courtier, soldier, governor, poet and critic. Learn all about this multifaceted Elizabethan celebrity and his massive effect on the worlds of poetry and literary scholarship.


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.

Astrophel and Stella

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.

Defense of Poesy

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.

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