Monday, September 28, 2009

Sidney: Poetry Missions

According to Sidney all humans, mainly us English lovers, owe a lot to poetry. He believes that in the absence of the written word the only form of literature that can survive is poetry (chants, sing-songs, word of mouth), while at the same time poetry is the catalyst for the creation of the written word. In my cultural anthropology class we are examining the lives of many “primitive” or “barbaric” tribes living on remote islands. They are classified as such mainly because of their lack of a modern industrially economic society and their dependence on a hunting-gathering lifestyle. If Sir. Philip Sidney was the anthropologist examining these tribes I would assume that he would believe these people to be climbing up the economic society ladder. These people chant, have important ritual sing-songs, and pass down stories from generation to generation by word of mouth. All of this Sidney would deem Poetry.
The way Sidney describes poetry in this piece is quite beautiful, calling it the first “light giver to ignorance.” (p. 83) He emphasizes that Poetry did a lot to educate and form early human peoples, or rather “primitive minds.”(p. 83) This idea mirrors the same idea that many missionaries had when going to convert these barbaric tribes. Western missions thought that by introducing Christianity to these tribes would save them from a life void of culture and sophistication. Poetry, for Sidney, is just as powerful as religion because the moral value of poetry influences society. It “purifies” intellect, “enriches” memory, and “enlarges” our capacity to think imaginatively. It is hard for me to imagine why Sidney’s Apology for Poetry would be banned because I happen to agree with him. Perhaps not entirely on the influence of Poetry, but on the influence of literacy, writing, and grasping onto something divine in cultures that previously had no idea such things existed.
Poetry also works as an international connector of cultures. Sidney points out that many different nations, although they are different all have poetry in common. He references that Turkey has no other writers but poets, Ireland even though their “learning goeth very bare”(p. 84) their poets are held in the most devout reverence, and “Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians where no writing is, yet have they their poets…their hard dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delights of Poetry.”(p. 84) This missionary-based style tactic of literature is reflective of Poetry’s divine qualities. The Ancient Greeks called God a Poet, a word of very high regard that comes from the word Poiein which is “to make.”
What is interesting is that Sidney seems to be celebrating the triumph of wittiness, cleverness, and creativity or perhaps the ability to “make”, rather than will or the use of logic. As we see in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales there is a tension between the clever characters and the ones who focus more on philosophy and knowledge. Using The Nun’s Priest Tale as an example, the fox uses his clever antics to lure Chauntecleer into the water while Pertelote’s advice is left unheeded. Sidney praises Chaucer in his Apology, saying he doesn’t know whether he should “marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk so stumblingly after him.”(pg. 102)
There are the obvious reasons why tales such as Chaucer’s would be banned, the bawdy nature of the Miller’s Tale for example, but the underlying tenderness of this subject must be the implied call to action for people to stop using their heads so much and to gain common sense. Also, by women reading characters such as Alison and Pertelote might realize that they can gain mastery over the men in their lives, which I assume at the time would be a big no-no. Even today, in last week’s discussion, we reflected on the fact that men still have an issue with accepting their wife’s success. Many still would be offended or have their pride shattered if they were asked to be the stay at home parent, and relationships fail because of female success and male failure.

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