A Defence of (Prose) Poetry

National Portrait Gallery

Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesie (printed in 1595) made the following distinction between poetry and verse. While conceding that most poets use verse as the vehicle for their work, he insists that “there have bene many most excellent Poets that never versified, and now swarme many versifiers that need never answere to the name of Poets.”

He then went on to illustrate his argument with examples of prose works that he considered to be poetry. For Sidney, it wasn’t verse that made a poem, but the quality of imaginative creation in a piece of writing. Poets, for Sidney, are makers first and foremost and poetry is distinguished from non-poetry by its faculty of inventing new worlds that are superior to the merely descriptive nature of non-poetry, in verse or prose.

It’s odd to think that Sidney could produce such a straightforward defence of prose poetry more than 400 years ago, given the reluctance of many readers to recognise its validity now.

The most notable be the Heroick, Lyrick, Tragick, Comick, Satyrick, Iambick, Elegiack, Pastorall, and certaine others: some of these being tearmed according to the matter they deale with, some by the sort of verse they liked best to write in, for indeed the greatest part of Poets, have apparelled their poeticall inventions, in that numbrous kind of writing which is called vers. Indeed but apparelled verse: being but an ornament and no cause to Poetrie, since there have bene many most excellent Poets that never versified, and now swarme many versifiers that need never answere to the name of Poets. For Xenophon who did imitate so excellently as to give us effigiem justi imperii, the pourtraiture of a just Empyre under the name of Cyrus, as Cicero saith of him, made therein an absolute heroicall Poeme. So did Heliodorus, in his sugred invention of that picture of love in Theagenes & Chariclea, and yet both these wrote in prose, which I speake to shew, that it is not ryming and versing that maketh a Poet, (no more than a long gown maketh an Advocate, who though he pleaded in Armour, should be an Advocat and no souldier) but it is that faining notable images of vertues, vices, or what els, with that delightfull teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a Poet by. Although indeed the Senate of Poets hath chosen verse as their fittest raiment: meaning as in matter, they passed all in all, so in manner, to go beyond them: not speaking table talke fashion, or like men in a dreame, words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peasing each sillable of eache word by just proportion, according to the dignitie of the suject.

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