In Defense of Poets – Who are not Liars

Sir Philip Sidney again, making the very reasonable point that as poets do not claim to be telling the truth, they cannot be accused of lying.

Now then goe we to the most important imputations laid to the poore Poets, for ought I can yet learne, they are these. First, that there beeing manie other more frutefull knowledges, a man might better spend his time in them, then in this. Secondly, that it is the mother of lyes. Thirdly, that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires, with a Sirens sweetnesse, drawing the minde to the Serpents taile of sinfull fansies; and herein especially Comedies give the largest field to eare, as Chawcer saith, how both in other nations and in ours, before Poets did soften us, we were full of courage given to martial exercises, the pillers of man-like libertie, and not lulled a sleepe in shadie idlenes, with Poets pastimes. And lastly and chiefly, they cry out with open mouth as if they had shot Robin-hood, that Plato banisheth them out of his Commonwealth. Truly this is much, if there be much truth in it. First to the first. That a man might better spend his time, is a reason indeed: but it doth as they say, but petere principium. For if it be, as I affirme, that no learning is so good, as that which teacheth and moveth to vertue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as Poesie, then is the conclusion manifest; that incke and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose imployed. And certainly though a man should graunt their first assumption, it should follow (mee thinks) very unwillingly, that good is not good, because better is better. But I still and utterly deny, that there is sprung out of the earth a more fruitfull knowledge. To the second therfore, that they should be the principall lyers, I answere Paradoxically, but truly, I think truly: that of all writers under the Sunne, the Poet is the least lyer: and though he wold, as a Poet can scarecely be a lyer. The Astronomer with his cousin the Geometrician, can hardly escape, when they take upon them to measure the height of the starres. How often thinke you do the Phisitians lie, when they averre things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of soules drowned in a potion, before they come to his Ferrie? And no lesse of the rest, which take upon them to affirme. Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie, is to affirme that to bee true, which is false. So as the other Artistes, and especially the Historian, affirming manie things, can in the clowdie knowledge of mankinde, hardly escape from manie lies. But the Poet as I said before, never affirmeth, the Poet never maketh any Circles about your imagination, to conjure you to beleeve for true, what he writeth: he citeth not authorities of other histories, even for his entrie, calleth the sweete Muses to inspire unto him a good invention. In troth, not laboring to tel you what is, or is not, but what should, or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not: without we will say, that Nathan lied in his speech before alleaged to David, which as a wicked man durst scarce say, so think I none so simple, wold say, that Esope lied, in the tales of his beasts: for who thinketh Esope wrote it for actually true, were wel wothie to have his name Cronicled among the beasts he writeth of. What childe is there, that comming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old Doore, doth beleeve that it is Thebes? If then a man can arrive to the childes age, to know that the Poets persons and dooings, are but pictures, what should be, and not stories what have bin, they will never give the lie to things not Affirmatively, but Allegorically and figuratively written; and therefore as in historie looking for truth, they may go away full fraught with falshood: So in Poesie, looking but for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative groundplat of a profitable invention.


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