Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy,”〖Harvard Classics, xxvii, 5ff.〗 like Shelley’s, is a reply to an attack, but neither poet is very angry, nor does either believe that his opponent has done much harm. Shelley’s antagonist was a humorously Philistine essay by his friend Peacock. Sidney is answering somewhat indirectly a fellow Puritan, Gosson, whose “School of Abuse” (1579) had attacked the moral shortcomings of ancient poetry and the license of the contemporary stage. Yet Sidney’s “pitiful defense of poor poetry,” as he playfully terms his essay, is composed in no narrowly controversial spirit, but rather in a strain of noble enthusiasm. He brings to his task a sufficient learning, a knowledge of the poetics of Plato and Aristotle, and an acquaintance with the humanistic critics of Italy and France. He knows his Homer and Virgil, his Horace and Ovid, but he does not on that account despise the “old song of Percy and Douglas.” The nobility of Sidney’s tone and his beauty of phrasing are no less notable than the clear ordering of his thought. In one close-packed paragraph after another, he praises the poet as a teacher and creator, compares poetry with history and philosophy, and finds, as Aristotle has done before him, that it is nobler than either. He discusses the various types of poetry, testing their capacities for teaching and moving the reader. Then, after a skillful refutation of the current objections against poetry, he turns, like a true Englishman, to the poetry of his own race, which was just then beginning, though Sidney did not foresee it, its most splendid epoch. He condemns, for instance, as being “neither right tragedies nor right comedies,” that type of tragi-comedy which Shakespeare was soon to make illustrious. This opinion is now reckoned, of course, a heresy, as is Sidney’s other opinion that verse is not essential to poetry. Yet no one who loves Sidney can quarrel with him over this or that opinion. His essay has proved itself, for more than three centuries, to be what he claimed for the beautiful art which he was celebrating—a permanent source of instruction and delight.

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