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A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance

For the poet does not publish his figments as facts


is the beginning of the apologetic side of Sidney's argument. The ancient controversy--ancient even in Plato's days--between poetry and philosophy is once more reopened; and the question is the one so often debated by the Italians,--shall the palm be given to the poet, to the philosopher, or to the historian? The gist of Sidney's argument is that while the philosopher teaches by precept alone, and the historian by example alone, the poet conduces most to virtue because he employs both precept and example. The philosopher teaches virtue by showing what virtue is and what vice is, by setting down, in thorny argument, and without clarity or beauty of style, the bare rule.[469] The historian teaches virtue by showing the experience of past ages; but, being tied down to what actually happened, that is, to the particular truth of things and not to general reason, the example he depicts draws no necessary consequence. The poet alone accomplishes this dual task. What the philosopher says should be done is by the poet pictured most perfectly in some one by whom it has been done, thus coupling the general notion with the particular instance. The philosopher, moreover, teaches the learned only; the poet teaches all, and is, in Plutarch's phrase, "the right popular philosopher,"[470] for he seems only to promise delight, and moves men to virtue unawares. But even if the philosopher excel the poet in teaching, he cannot move his readers as the poet can, and this is of higher importance than
teaching; for what is the use of teaching virtue if the pupil is not moved to act and accomplish what he is taught?[471] On the other hand, the historian deals with particular instances, with vices and virtues so commingled that the reader can find no pattern to imitate. The poet makes history reasonable; he gives perfect examples of vices and virtues for human imitation; he makes virtue succeed and vice fail, as history can but seldom do. Poetry, therefore, conduces to virtue, the end of all learning, better than any other art or science, and so deserves the palm as the highest and the noblest form of human wisdom.[472]

The basis of Sidney's distinction between the poet and the historian is the famous passage in which Aristotle explains why poetry is more philosophic and of more serious value than history.[473] The poet deals, not with the particular, but with the universal,--with what might or should be, not with what is or has been. But Sidney, in the assertion of this principle, follows Minturno[474] and Scaliger,[475] and goes farther than Aristotle would probably have gone. All arts have the works of nature as their principal object, and follow nature as actors follow the lines of their play. Only the poet is not tied to such subjects, but creates another nature better than ever nature itself brought forth. For, going hand in hand with nature, and being enclosed not within her limits, but only by the zodiac of his own imagination, he creates a golden world for nature's brazen; and in this sense he may be compared as a creator with God.[476] Where shall you find in life such a friend as Pylades, such a hero as Orlando, such an excellent man as AEneas?

Sidney then proceeds to answer the various objections that have been made against poetry. These objections, partly following Gosson and Cornelius Agrippa,[477] and partly his own inclinations, he reduces to four.[478] In the first place, it is objected that a man might spend his time more profitably than by reading the figments of poets. But since teaching virtue is the real aim of all learning, and since poetry has been shown to accomplish this better than all other arts or sciences, this objection is easily answered. In the second place, poetry has been called the mother of lies; but Sidney shows that it is less likely to misstate facts than other sciences, for the poet does not publish his figments as facts, and, since he affirms nothing, cannot ever be said to lie.[479] Thirdly, poetry has been called the nurse of abuse, that is to say, poetry misuses and debases the mind of man by turning it to wantonness and by making it unmartial and effeminate. But Sidney argues that it is man's wit that abuses poetry, and not poetry that abuses man's wit; and as to making men effeminate, this charge applies to all other sciences more than to poetry, which in its description of battles and praise of valiant men notably stirs courage and enthusiasm. Lastly, it is pointed out by the enemies of poetry that Plato, one of the greatest of philosophers, banished poets from his ideal commonwealth. But Plato's _Dialogues_ are in reality themselves a form of poetry; and it argues ingratitude in the most poetical of philosophers, that he should defile the fountain which was his source.[480] Yet though Sidney perceives how fundamental are Plato's objections to poetry, he is inclined to believe that it was rather against the abuse of poetry by the contemporary Greek poets that Plato was chiefly cavilling; for poets are praised in the _Ion_, and the greatest men of every age have been patrons and lovers of poetry.

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