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In Defense Of Poetry

Sometimes life offers up delightful surprises. I remember the first time I met Dorothy Sayers’s detective Lord Peter Wimsey, the first time I heard Dr George Grant speak of education as wonder, my first Circe conference in Memphis, the first season of LOST, my introduction to iambic pentameter via The Taming of the Shrew. While not the bigger moments of my, life such as meeting my husband or seeing my own grandchild smile at me, they are delightful all the same.

This week I had one of those moments when I met the Christian, Protestant, Elizabethan author who wrote A Defense of Poesy. Sir Philip Sidney wrote this little book to defend poetry and imaginative literature from the criticism of the Puritans (and Plato). Sidney’s defense claims that poetry is superior to History (fact) and Philosophy because it has the power to provoke virtue. In fact, fictions can be more true than either history or philosophy because they are true in essence apart from facts.

Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, given to...

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“Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth…”

“Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his 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.”

“…that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what so much good doth that teaching bring forth – I speak still of moral doctrine – as that it moveth one to do that which it doth teach?”

Sidney goes on to almost say something that I often say about poetry. It is my belief that poetry is the bridge between the trivium and the quadrivium. While all the subjects of the trivium and quadrivium provide particulars, poetry provides us with the universals that make sense out of those particulars. Poetry is not only the bridge but the thread that runs through the entire tapestry.

“He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margins with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness. But he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music; and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner, and, pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue.”

Those are just a few morsels of the delights awaiting you in this old treasure freely available on the Internet. I hope it will be especially helpful to those of the more scientific bent who cannot conceive the purpose or use of poetry or who relegate it to an elective for Bohemian students. Give Sidney a chance to convince you otherwise.

“He well found he received more bravery of mind by the pattern of Achilles, than by hearing the definition of fortitude.”

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