BOCCACCIO BATTLES SIDNEY

Philip Sidney: loved Christ, poetry and Plato

BOCCACCIO:

They say that poetry is absolutely of no account , and the making of poetry a useless and absurd craft; that poets are tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars; that they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manners and polish. They say, besides, that their poems are false, obscure, lewd, and replete with absurd and silly tales of pagan gods, and that they make Jove, who was in point of fact, an obscene and adulterous man, now the father of the gods, now king of heaven, now fire, or air, or man, or bull, or eagle, or similar irrelevant things. They cry out that poets are seducers of the mind, prompters of crime, and, to make their foul charge fouler, if possible, they say they are philosophers’ apes, that it is a heinous crime to read or possess the books of poets; and then, without making any distinction, they prop themselves up with Plato’s authority to the effect that poets ought to be turned out-of-doors.

Poetry proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervor of poetry is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adores the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction. Further, if in any case the invention so requires, it can arm kings, marshal them for war, launch whole fleets from their docks, nay, counterfeit sky, land, sea, adorn young maidens with flowery gardens, portray human character in its various phases, awake the idle, stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal, and distinguish excellent men with their proper meed of praise: these, and many other such, are the effects of poetry. Yet if any man who who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a laudable poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be wrought out are wanting—I mean, for example, the precepts of grammar and rhetoric.

 

SIDNEY:

 

Now for the poet, he doesn’t affirm, and therefore never lies.

The poet never makes any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He cites not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calls the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be.

Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Poetry may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of its sweet charming force it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused.

Now Plato his name is laid upon me, whom I must confess, of all the philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with great reason, since of all philosophers he is the most poetical. Yet if he will defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded, let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it. First, truly a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets: for indeed, after the philosopher had picked out of the sweet mysteries of poetry the right discerning true points of knowledge, they forthwith putting it in method, and making a school-art of that which the poets did only teach by a divine delightfulness, beginning to spurn at their guides like ungrateful apprentices, were not content to set up shops for themselves but sought by all means to discredit their masters; which, by the force of delight being barred them, the less they could overthrow them, the more they hated them.

Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry. Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence, and therefore would not have the youth depraved with such opinions. The poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced. For all the Greek stories can well testify that the very religion of that time stood upon many and many-fashioned gods, not taught so by the poets, but followed according to their nature of imitation. One may read in Plutarch the discourses of Isis and Osiris, of the cause why oracles ceased, of the divine providence, and see whether the theology of that nation stood not upon such dreams, which the poets indeed superstitiously observed, and truly (since they had not the light of Christ) did much better in it than the philosophers, who shaking off superstition, brought in atheism. Plato therefore (whose authority I had much rather justly construe than unjustly resist) meant not in general of poets to misuse, but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity (whereof now, without further law, Christianity hath taken away all the hurtful belief), perchance (as he thought) nourished by the then esteemed poets. And a man need go no further than to Plato himself to know his meaning: who, in his dialogue called Ion, gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.

 

We love how Sidney understands that “Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry.”  Sidney is more subtle than Boccaccio, handling the same theme: poets are bad/good. If only poetry had a monopoly on “lewd;” it would be more popular: Boccaccio is right of course, as is Sidney, poetry can be naughty or nice; it isn’t poetry that is ever the problem—the question is, who is using it and what are they using it for? Today we don’t ask this question: we merely whine that no one reads it—without defining what it is.

 

WINNER: SIDNEY

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