Sidney argues that poetry is the one art form through which humans can move towards a better understanding of self and of the world around oneself. As an English major, I am drawn towards the study of poetry and other forms of literature that constantly question my views of life and of myself; I believe in Sidney’s idea that reading and writing poetry can have a beneficial effect on one’s self understanding. Unlike Sidney, Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” uses the word “pryvetee” to put human understanding on an unattainable level, claiming that humans cannot reach higher levels of understanding because they cannot interfere with God’s “pryvetee”, or his divine privacy. This view of the limits of human knowledge puts into a different perspective all that I am working and studying for and brings up the question of how this adherence to religion can be incorporated, if at all, into a Jesuit education like that found at Loyola.
I originally hated reading and writing poetry because of the lack of structure associated with the processes; I did not know how to read without a background sense of what was taking place and did not understand how one work of literature could leave so much to perspective. Through practice and learning I have overcome most of my fear of the literary form and can now read poetry for enjoyment and for understanding. I understand poetry because I can sense my own views intertwined with those of the poet. Poetry is universal in this sense because anyone can read a poem and find something to relate to, something that by one’s own terms is comprehensible. Writing poetry also requires recognition of self and even of others, for to write relatable poems, one must ask questions about oneself and attempt to answer them or further relay these questions through poetic depictions.
Sidney’s definition of poetry combines most of my beliefs with the idea that poetry is the means of accessing a sense of divine understanding through self knowledge. He claims that the best forms of poetry “were they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God,” (86) that poetry should imitate God through its imitation of nature and of human experience and knowledge. Sidney bases this claim (that poetry can achieve the divine) through his belief in innate goodness, the belief that all humans have a tendency to act justly and morally. Through writing poetry, humans can tap into this inborn sense of morality and display both vice and virtue, further passing on the knowledge of morality and of self. Sidney therefore puts the poet on a level of authority that can be compared to the level of the Divine: “For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it” (92). Refined poems that give a sense of virtue are therefore equated with religious writings, or writings that “show the way”.
Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” puts out the question of “pryvetee”, or God’s privacy. He claims through this tale that humans try to invade God’s pryvetee to reach a divine level of understanding but that humans ultimately are restricted to the human or bodily levels of pryvetee. The Miller warns the reader in the prologue of the tale to avoid those foolish attempts at trying to understand God and his pryvetee, to avoid the imitation of God: “An housbonde shal nat been inquisittyf/ Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf. / So he may fynde Goddes foyson there, / Of the remenant nedeth nat enquire” (67). In a sense, Chaucer therefore advises against writing poetry or at least the divine kind of poetry that Sidney praises, for poetry is an attempt to understand God and the Creation, or an attempt to grasp the incomprehensible.
What would Chaucer therefore say about education, especially about a Jesuit, liberal arts education like that found at Loyola? Loyola’s core program features both philosophy and literature or poetry, subjects that question one’s role in life and do not provide structured answers but rather allow for perspective. Because I am constantly seeking a way of learning, understanding myself, and finding my future life’s goal, I find myself well suited for Loyola’s Jesuit education program that focuses not only on history and philosophy (both of which Sidney believes can be incorporated into poetry) but on the use of the imagination. Chaucer’s view of human understanding through pryvetee advises for structure (through religious faith) rather than the use of the imagination, therefore advising against my learning and the forms of higher education.
Chaucer’s argument seems to bring up the question of fate. Should one accept the fact that “everything happens for a reason”, that God, his pryvetee, and his plan should not be questioned but just accepted? Accepting this idea along with the idea of pryvetee would end one’s search for self understanding and for higher levels of learning. I disagree with Chaucer’s view of understanding and his promotion of divine pryvetee because I think that people should be questioning and furthering their sense of self knowledge. What does one have to live for if one just accepts the basic structure of religion and does not attempt to learn? I think that Sidney’s belief in poetry provides a more positive outlook on life because it allows for one to have a life goal of self knowledge and therefore allows for possibilities.