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Sidney's Definition of Poetry

Virginia Riley Hyman
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Vol. 10, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 1970), pp. 49-62
Published by: Rice University
DOI: 10.2307/449695
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/449695
Page Count: 14
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Sidney's Definition of Poetry
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Abstract

Before arriving at his own definition of poetry as "that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else," Sidney summarizes many other theories of the nature and function of poetry. Contrary to previous critical assumptions, these theories are not simply rhetorical embellishments, but are an integral part of his own definition. Ranging over the whole corpus of literary theory, he continually selects those elements necessary for his own position and rejects or ignores the rest. His definition is, therefore, not only a description, but, corresponding to the older meaning of the term, "a setting of boundaries," "a delimiting." Just as, in the exordium, he makes his aim seem modest and rational by contrasting it with Pugliano's exaggerated praise of horses, so in the narration he cites other theories of the nature and function of poetry to indicate his own more rational and modest claim. By using what is necessary for his definition and avoiding the pitfalls implicit in the more ambitious claims for poetry, Sidney proceeds in an ever-narrowing arc until he arrives at the single point of his own definition. The poet, he believes, creates "images of virtues and vices" to stimulate men to "right action." By tracing the series of steps by which he arrives at this conclusion, we can see that his "definition" is the sum of the other theories reduced to their ethical and rational level.

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