Nonfiction > G. Gregory Smith, ed. > Elizabethan Critical Essays
G. Gregory Smith, ed.  Elizabethan Critical Essays.  1904.
III. The Defence
The argument for the Defence falls into two main divisions—the historical testimony in favour of Poetry, and the excellence of its nature or character. There is, as we shall see, little originality in the general drift or in the illustrations. It is obvious that the Essayists are constantly borrowing from each other, and often verbatim: it is not less obvious from their selection and arrangement of the leading reasons that they are drawing from outside opinion. 1 There are of course degrees of adaptation—from the absolute ‘scissors-and-paste’ method of the Palladis Tamia to the happily disguised borrowings of the Apologie for Poetrie.  1
  On the historical side there are three proofs of the goodness of Poetry: for when it is of hoary antiquity, is found with all peoples, and has enjoyed the favour of the greatest, it is surely good. To those who hold that in the earliest period of the national life men were rather doing things worthy to be written than writing things fit to be done, 2 Sidney says, ‘What that before time was, I think scarcely Sphinx can tell.’ 3 So thinks Lodge, when reflecting on the drama; 4 so Nash, quoting from Cicero; 5 so Puttenham, when he says that the ‘profession and use of Poesy is most ancient from the beginning, and not, as many erroneously suppose, after, but before any civil society was among men.’ 6 The Poets were the first lawgivers, the first philosophers, and, in due course, the first historians. It is a later refinement, specially commendable to King James VI and the courtier Puttenham, which denies them the right to treat of the grave matters of princes. 7  2
  In all nations, too, there has been ‘some feeling of Poetry.’ 8 As it was the most ancient, so was it the most universal. ‘Which two points,’ adds Puttenham, ‘give to all human inventions and affairs no small credit.’ 9 Sidney and he have little difficulty in illustrating this by accounts of the poet-loving Turk, Indian, Dane, ‘the Perusine, and the very cannibal.’ 10  3
  As for the approbation of Poetry by princes and the learned, the citations are certainly ample in Lodge, 11 Sidney, 12 Webbe, 13 Puttenham, 14 Harington, 15 Chapman, 16 and Meres. 17 ‘But to speak of all those … were tedious, and would require a rehearsal of all such in whose time there grew any to credit and estimation in that faculty.’ 18 This favourite argument by testimonial 19 received an exaggerated importance from the fact that the Puritans had made so much of the opinions of the theologians and philosophers. The obvious retort was to count the votes on the other side: yet the defenders were not whole-hearted in the business. Harington, who feels that the defence of poetry is a supererogation, is content to say that he could bring in such an army of approvers ‘as not only the sight but the very sound of them were able to vanquish and dismay the final forces of our adversaries.’ 20  4
  They based their defence with more confidence on the nature of Poetry, on its claims as a moral force and as an artistic pleasure. In this section of their Apology they made their first critical experiments. The argument is worked out on different lines; but in no single author, with perhaps the exception of Sidney, is a complete statement attempted. The main points are these:—  5
  (1) Poetry is of divine origin. ‘Who thinketh not,’ says Lodge, ‘that it proceedeth from above?… It is a pretty sentence, yet not so pretty as pithy, Poeta nascitur, orator fit.’ 21 All poets may not be holy, 22 yet the poet, per se, is vates, diviner, foreseer, prophet. 23 He is possessed of the Platonic furor, 24 or divine rapture. 25 Homer’s poems were written ‘from a free fury.’ 26 Est deus in nobis: agitante calescimus illo. 27 Harington quizzically refuses to admit the point to debate by saying that Puttenham’s ‘parcels’ of his own verse quoted in his treatise are themselves the best proof that poetry is a gift, not an art. 28  6
  (2) Poetry is an art of imitation, and not a mere empiric of sound and form or the refashioning of traditional material. It is, as Sidney and others claim, [poiesis] and [mimesis] in a fuller sense than is allowed by their extremer opponents, or understood by the ordinary practitioners, or by young critics who could accept James VI’s ‘deciphering’ of the perfect poet. 29 This appeal to Aristotelian doctrine, through Horace and especially through Scaliger and the Renaissance critics, is of first importance in its effect on the development of criticism in England. It breaks fresh ground for the study of the bases of poetry: and it foreshadows the introduction of aesthetic theory. Though the argument was classical in origin and classical in its first application, it contained in gremio the justification of romantic freedom. 30  7
  (3) The argument of the moral value of Poetry is to a great extent based on the mediaeval doctrine of the Allegory. ‘For undoubtedly,’ Wilson had said in his Arte of Rhetorique, ‘there is no one tale among all the Poets, but under the same is comprehended some thing that pertaineth either to the amendment of manners, to the knowledge of truth, to the setting forth of Nature’s work, or else to the understanding of some notable thing done…. The Poets were wise men and wished in heart the redress of things.’ 31 This idea runs throughout the essays, alike in the general theory, and in the method used in the interpretation of literary examples. There is, on the one hand, the plain statements of Lodge, following Campanus, 32 or of Stanyhurst, 33 or the more extreme attitude of Chapman, who upholds the views of Spondanus: 34 on the other, the more reasonable and historical explanation offered by Sidney and Harington. Between these two extremes there is perhaps more than a question of degree. In a sense there is a volte-face: or at least the turn has begun. The older view assumes that the moralitas is the kernel, and that the fable and poetic imaginings are an outside means to attract the reader to some hidden good. Or, to borrow the familiar Renaissance metaphors, common with the Elizabethans, Poetry is the sugar-coating of the pill, the candy with the dose of rhubarb. The sugar-coating or the candy is there, because there is the necessary pill or rhubarb. In other words, the allegorical usefulness of poetry is its rationale, and for that reason it is to be defended as a good thing. On the other hand, it is clear that with the progress of the general defence of Poetry this view becomes less important. Thus Sidney, though he refers to it in his claim for the poet as the right popular philosopher, 35 makes little of it: and Harington, in his analysis of the allegorical senses in which poetry may be read, 36 rather emphasizes the attitude of the weaker capacities who take but the pleasantness of the story and the sweetness of the verse. The quite contrary position that imagination first constructs the fable, and thereafter the poet or his commentator or his reader finds the moral, could hardly be established until aesthetic criticism had found its axioms. But we are not far from it, certainly not far from the later theory of poetic freedom. The change was undoubtedly furthered by the increasing attention by the critics to the pleasure-giving function of Poetry. Nor must it be forgotten that the allegorical enthusiasm of the age was of a secondary kind, and that in so far as the majority of writers are interested in the ‘rind within the rind,’ they often show no more than emblematic or anagrammatic curiosity.  8
  (4) In their rough definitions of the purpose of Poetry the defenders are careful not to subordinate the dulce to the utile. The end of Poetry is, with Sidney, ‘to teach and delight.’ 37 It is well known, says Nash, ‘that delight doth prick men forward to the attaining of knowledge, and that true things are rather admired if they be included in some witty fiction, like to pearls that delight more if they be deeper set in gold.’ 38 Webbe’s plea, which he borrows by admission from Horace, is generally accepted. ‘The perfect perfection of poetry is this, to mingle delight with profit in such wise that a reader might by his reading be partaker of both.’ 39 Puttenham goes further in his account of the subject or matter of Poetry 40 when he names, as one of its functions, ‘the common solace of mankind in all his travails and cares of this transitory life’; and claims that ‘in this last sort, being used for recreation only, it may allowably bear matter not always of the gravest or of any great commodity or profit, but rather in some sort vain, dissolute, or wanton, so it be not very scandalous and of evil example.’ 41 Here the friends of poetry found their chief argument: and here too their adversaries, ever suspicious of pleasure, in argument or in practice, found the heresy. For this seductive power as readily leads men to like obscenity as to love honesty. Yet the defenders, though heartily admitting the danger, are in no doubt that the abuse cannot discredit the function or the excellence of its effects. ‘In this their argument of abuse,’ says Sidney, ‘they prove the commendation.’ 42 The result of this consideration by the defence was that, though they did not go quite so far as to separate the dulce from the utile, they appeared to give a primary importance to the former. In Sidney’s reiteration of the ‘delightful teaching’ 43 he appears to be laying more stress on the pleasure than on the profit, and in the memorable passage on the Poet as Monarch he is still less equivocal. The Poet ‘cometh to you with words sent 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.’ 44 Moreover, in Webbe’s opinion, ‘as the very sum or chiefest essence of Poetry did always for the most part consist in delighting the readers or hearers with pleasure, so, as the number of Poets increased, they still inclined this way rather than the other, so that most of them had special regard to the pleasantness of their fine conceits, whereby they might draw men’s minds into admiration of their inventions, more than they had to the profit or commodity that the readers should reap by their works.’ 45 Puttenham caps his fore-quoted defence of toys by a more remarkable passage at the conclusion of his quaint chapter on ‘Proportion in Figure,’ 46 and pushes the Puritan’s logic ad absurdum.
‘All is but a iest, all dust, all not worth two peason:
For why in mans matters is neither rime nor reason.’
  The effect of this separation, or emphasis, of the pleasure-giving function was undoubtedly to quicken the theory of Poetry as an Art. We find hints of this in Sidney, 47 even in writers like Nash, who lay stress on the ‘profit’ in the poetical account. ‘Nothing is more odious,’ says the latter, ‘than the artless tongue of a tedious dolt, which dulleth the delight of hearing, and slacketh the desire of remembering.’ 48 Yet the expression of a general theory is but half-conscious: we shall see the underlying principle more clearly in their practical schemes of reform. Sidney, who reaches nearest to the root of this matter, comes to it by natural sympathy rather than by critical insight. When he points to the danger of poesy which ‘by the reason of his sweet charming force can do more hurt than any other army of words,’ 49 he has no inkling of the problem of the self-destruction of Art. 50 He is merely admitting that abuse is possible.  10
  In support of these views of the character of Poetry the writers added the well-worn comparisons with Philosophy and History, and answered, in more or less stereotyped fashion, the charges of Agrippa, 51 that poets are liars, wantons, and wasters of wise men’s time. The persistency of these comparisons is not less striking than their lack of originality. The defensive character of the Essays probably gave an undue importance to this line of argument, by which they sought to make clear that the Poet must be worthy of honour, if he can be shown to be better than the honoured Philosopher or the honoured Historian. So Sidney makes bold to prove that he is the monarch of all sciences; 52 and Puttenham that he is ‘above all other artificers scientific or mechanical.’ 53 We have perhaps lost the perspective of this interminable squabble from the days of Aristotle; but, though we may think lightly of the whole retort, we must at least acknowledge its historical propriety. We have only to look at the authors represented in such collections as the Artis Penus Historicae 54 to see how the defenders of ‘poor Poetry’ were forced, even as a matter of form, to set the balance aright.  11
  It was probably this historical craze which gave point to the old charge that Poets are liars, and compelled the critics’ reply. Lodge, who finds the imputation supported ‘by no small bird, even Aristotle himself,’ and by ‘severe Cato,’ answers by the aid of his Lactantius. 55 Sidney in his reply is again comparative; ‘the poet is the least liar,’ 56 certainly less so than the Historian, who can ‘hardly escape from many lies.’ 57 The Poet ‘never affirmeth’: 58 he ‘never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes.’ 59 This is endorsed by Harington, who enlarges on the importance of invention or fiction as one of the main components, and the glory, of Poetry. And after all, as Sidney had said, ‘a feigned example hath as much force to teach as a true example.’ 60 Yet the taunt is ever recurring, not only from the natural Puritan who finds consolation in Socrates’s being ‘ill brought up to poesy, because he loved the truth,’ 61 but from others of more generous mind, who are yet strongly prejudiced on some particular point. Thus Nash is seldom more angry than when he is speaking of mediaeval Romance as ‘that forgotten legendary licence of lying.’ 62  12
  That poets are wanton is of course one of the main topics of the Gosson-Lodge controversy, 63 and is fully met by Sidney, 64 Nash, 65 and Harington, 66 who readily admit the danger when Cupido is lawlessly crept in. Gosson’s plea that Poetry makes men effeminate directly inspires Sidney’s memorable countercuff that it, above all things, is the companion of camps. 67 Harington, with Ariosto as his illustration to hand, shows that there may be even literary decorum in ‘the persons of those that speak lasciviously,’ that ‘obscenousness’ may be altogether a matter of good or bad interpretation of the poems, and that the Puritans who so disregard the context convict themselves of the failing of the chaste wife of Brutus. 68 The hackneyed statement that Plato banished poets, so that youth might not be corrupted, is easily answered by several of the writers. 69  13
  To the third, that the study of poetry is a waste of time and a pleasure to fools, Sidney and Harington reply with some word-chopping and sarcasm, which, though not a convincing reply to a Precisian, is reasonably sufficient. Sidney ends the controversy curtly—‘but I still and utterly deny that there is sprung out of earth a more fruitful knowledge’; 70 and Harington concludes his answer by expressing the doubt whether the charge be worth the answering. 71 Puttenham, who is firmly convinced of the dignity of Poesy and approves all manner of toys, even ‘pillars’ and ‘fuzies,’ has of course no doubt of the silliness of the proposition.  14
  The pleas for Poetry in the general are supplemented by others dealing with special forms or subjects, or with topics arising from the consideration of them. The chief interest of these more particular discussions lies, as we shall see, in their critical intention. The essayists, unhampered by the necessity of answering a vaguely expressed attack on the whole art, condescend to the more detailed examination of one or other form; and in these separate studies they give us the positive side of Elizabethan criticism. It is thus in the special analyses of the dramatic forms, or heroic poetry, or the art of translation, that they, to our eyes, not only best express the character of the onslaught of the poet-whippers, but lay the foundations of later speculation on literary principles. In the drama, for example, which is the chief area of conflict, it is a minor matter to learn how they met Gosson’s pronouncement that morality is impossible in the play-house, or the quasi-literary absurdity that the plays of Buchanan or the Christus ascribed to Nazianzen were written ‘dialogue-wise’ for the closet. On the other hand, it is clear that the purpose of the essayists in the detailed treatment of certain portions was less in the interest of critical theory than in support of their side in the controversy with the poet-haters. For they argued that the excellence possible in each and all, whether tragedy, comedy, heroic poetry, pastoral, elegy, satire, epigram, or anagram, had a cumulative value in proving the excellence of Poetry itself. Sidney, Webbe, and the others distinctly imply that the poet is not merely the monarch of all the arts, but that his empire is wide and self-sufficing. Poetry, says Webbe, ‘is not debarred from any matter which may be expressed by pen or speech.’ 72 The consuming sense of the dignity and compass of the art is the most striking characteristic of its most eloquent defenders, who seldom, if ever, forget to refer to these things, even when they bury themselves in professional problems of technique. Though their large assurance sometimes led them into critical blind-alleys, as in their confusion of the functions of verse and prose, it supplied the staying power to these beginnings in criticism, and moreover was thoroughly appropriate to the circumstances. Nor was their superior manner of debate, and an occasional irritation at their opponents, less appropriate to the occasion. In feeling with Harington that the whole matter was but the Sophister’s praise of Hercules, 73 they intimated an intellectual confidence which promised well for an English doctrine of taste.  15
Note 1. 1 See infra, p. lxxi et seq. [back]
Note 2. i. 187. [back]
Note 3. Ibid. [back]
Note 4. i. 80. [back]
Note 5. i. 328. [back]
Note 6. 1 ii. 6. [back]
Note 7. i. 221, ii. 33. [back]
Note 8. i. 153. [back]
Note 9. ii. 10. [back]
Note 10. Ibid. [back]
Note 11. i. 70–1. [back]
Note 12. i. 192–3. [back]
Note 13. i. 232–3. [back]
Note 14. ii. 16–23. [back]
Note 15. ii. 195. [back]
Note 16. ii. 302. [back]
Note 17. ii. 321–2. [back]
Note 18. i. 233. [back]
Note 19. Of which Boccaccio’s De Genealogia Deorum gives an early model. See infra, pp. lxxviii–ix. [back]
Note 20. ii. 195. [back]
Note 21. i. 70–1. [back]
Note 22. e.g., i. 71. [back]
Note 23. i. 154. [back]
Note 24. ii. 3. [back]
Note 25. ii. 297. [back]
Note 26. ii. 298. [back]
Note 27. See i. 232. [back]
Note 28. ii. 197. [back]
Note 29. i. 211. [back]
Note 30. Infra, p. lx et seq. [back]
Note 31. ed. 1562, f. 99v. [back]
Note 32. i. 65. [back]
Note 33. i. 136. [back]
Note 34. ii. 297. [back]
Note 35. i. 167. [back]
Note 36. ii. 202–3. [back]
Note 37. i. 158. [back]
Note 38. i. 329. [back]
Note 39. i. 250. [back]
Note 40. ii. 25. [back]
Note 41. ii. 25. [back]
Note 42. i. 187. [back]
Note 43. e.g. i. 197, 200. [back]
Note 44. i. 172. [back]
Note 45. i. 235–6. [back]
Note 46. ii. 115–16. [back]
Note 47. e.g. i. 183. [back]
Note 48. i. 335. [back]
Note 49. i. 187. [back]
Note 50. Supra, p. xviii. [back]
Note 51. Agrippa, who is named by Sidney, was not the first framer of these, as Boccaccio’s writings show. See infra, p. lxxix. [back]
Note 52. i. 172. [back]
Note 53. ii. 3. [back]
Note 54. 2 vols, Basle, 1579. [back]
Note 55. i. 73. [back]
Note 56. i. 184. [back]
Note 57. Ibid. [back]
Note 58. i. 185. [back]
Note 59. Ibid. [back]
Note 60. i. 169. [back]
Note 61. i. 342. [back]
Note 62. i. 323. [back]
Note 63. i. 73, &c. [back]
Note 64. i. 183, 186. [back]
Note 65. i. 332. [back]
Note 66. ii. 209. [back]
Note 67. i. 188. [back]
Note 68. ii. 209. [back]
Note 69. Cf. infra, lxxii, lxxix. [back]
Note 70. i. 184. [back]
Note 71. ii. 208. [back]
Note 72. i. 249. Cf. Chapman, Epist. to First XII Books of Homer, ll. 118–19. [back]
Note 73. ii. 194. [back]
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