Sir Philip Sidney – The Defense of Poesy (ctd.)

In this fragment Sidney continues his defense of poetry by etymological arguments. The Romans called a poet “vates”, which means “a prophet”, and indeed. they had a habit of fortune-telling by opening (or, I guess, unrolling) The Aeneid and pointing to a random line. And even though, adds Sidney, backtracking a little, it was a superstitious practice, it shows how they respected poetry. And talking of prophets, is not King David, the author of Psalms, both a poet and a prophet? The Greeks, in turn, called a poet… you guessed it, a poet, but the word comes from “poiein” which means “to make”. So the poet is literally “the maker”, which happened to be also a word used in 16th-c. English to call a poet.

And the poet is, Sidney argues, literally the maker of new worlds. What is more, poetry is far superior to all the arts and sciences because they have to follow nature. Sidney uses the word “nature” in a special way, not only meaning “the physical world around us”, but also “the norm”. So he argues, for instance, that musicians tell you about which rhythms “in nature agree, which not”, which I guess wouldn’t hold true for much of modern music and goes against the widespread contemporary belief that it is music which is the most abstract of arts.

The poet, not being bound by the need to imitate nature, can create people who far surpass any real ones – the best friend like Pylades, the most valiant knight like Orlando, the best all-round man like Aeneas and so on. And they are not only fantasies, because they inspire people with their examples to imitate them. Unfortunately, our nature tainted by the original sin cannot always reach these ideals, but it is a sign of our divine origins that at least we can create these ideals.

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