How consistent is Sidney’s practice of ‘poesie’ in the Arcadia(s) with the theory outlined in the Defense?
Since Plato, the social costs and benefits of poetry have been hotly debated. Although Plato chose to banish poets from his Republic for being a corrupting influence in an orderly and just society, he is well known as a great lover of Homer, and indeed consistently uses examples from Homer to illuminate arguments in the dialogues. The debate was similarly double-edged and ambivalent in the English Renaissance. In his tract on education The Schoolmaster (1570), Roger Ascham complained of the corruption of the youth of England by Continental literary imports. He famously maintained that works such as Morte d’Arthur encouraged “bold bawdry and open manslaughter”, and that especially Italian books were a form of covert Catholic propaganda. More particularly, he lamented the fact that England’s youth “have in more reverence the triumphs of Petrarch, than the Genesis of Moses…a tale in Boccaccio than a story from the Bible”1. These arguments, that poetry corrupted the minds and behaviour of young people, and especially that they mislead youth from the precepts of God’s Word, were to be echoed time and again throughout the Elizabethan period. In Ascham’s time, poetry was largely an aristocratic practice, as education, and also the amount of leisure time required to write good poetry, was the preserve of the upper classes. Poetry was sometimes considered as a delightful, and perhaps even useful, acquirement for an aristocratic gentleman that could improve his status at court. However, in the mid 1570s poetry officially became institutionalised as a public discourse in England for the first time. Until the first opening of the Theatre in 1576, the first purpose built theatre in England, most plays had been privately performed in inns, or community spaces under the auspices of the Church, but playing was now a professional institution which attracted large numbers of people from all walks of life. Almost immediately, the theatre came under attack from Puritan preachers who saw the largely autonomous institution of the theatre as in competition with and inimical to their radical Reformist ideals. One of the most famous Puritan attacks on the theatre was in Philip Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuse (1582), an interesting insight into the various vices to which Elizabethan Londoners were prone. He also laments that the theatre tended to lure people away from God, encouraging blasphemous and licentious behaviour, saying that “so often as they go to those houses where players frequent, they go to Venus’ palace, and Satan’s synagogue to worship devils, and betray Christ Jesus”. Furthermore, after delineating a list of virtually any vice imaginable, he says that to learn them, “you need not go to any other school”2 than the theatre. This idea of the theatre as a school for vice had already been taken up in Stephen Gosson’s apostatical invective The School of Abuse (1579). He claims that having been a member of the literary scene and seen the error of his ways as described by the Puritanical St Paul’s preachers, in other words, a Prodigal, he was in a better position than anyone to comment on the misleadingness of poetry. He does not reject poetry outright, declaring that it was once a noble institution, encouraging virtue and valorous action, but that especially “poets in theatres…wound the conscience” and that poetry was “the father of lies”. He argued, in psychological terms of the time, that these public performances of poetry, mixed with “strange comforts of melody”, “costly apparel”, “effeminate gesture”, and “wonton speech”, by the privy entry of the ears, flip down into the heart, and with gunshot of affection gall the mind, where reason and virtue should rule the roost. The School of Abuse sparked off a major literary debate on the social role of poetry, which prompted Gosson to write An Apology of the School...
Bibliography: Ascham, Roger. “The Schoolmaster”. Ed. Judy Boss. Renascence Editions, (1998). 10
March 2006 .
Greville, Fulke. The Prose Works. Ed. John Gouws. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.
Puttenham, George. The Arte of Englishe Poesie. London, 1869.
Sidney, Philip. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Ed. Maurice Evans. London: Penguin,
Worden, Blair. The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics. New
Haven: Yale UP, 1996.
Please join StudyMode to read the full document