The Sound of Virtue: A Recording of Sidney’s Defence of Poesy

For a few years now (since 2007), I’ve taught an advanced introductory course on Elizabethan poetry. I mean ‘poetry’ in the broadest possible sense, beyond even Sir Philip Sidney’s meaning — of any fictional narrative that teaches and delights, that creates “notable images of virtues, vices, or what else.” I mean ‘poetry’ as all specimens of non-dramatic writing, as my curriculum designers would have it.

Each year, my students have begun the course by reading all of Sidney’s treatise on the meaning and functions of poetry. It’s like Northrop Frye once said about classical mythology, or the Bible (I forget which): when you know these stories well, when they have sunk to the bottom of your consciousness, every story you read thereafter gets layered on top of their landscape of narratives and images. It may be old-fashioned, but Sidney works this way for Elizabethan poetry. After The Defence of Poesy, my students read lyric and pastoral and tragical verse against their immediate intellectual history, and in light of “this purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgement, and enlarging of conceit.”

I also have a writing assignment I use in the first month. It goes something like this:

Many times in The Defence of Poesy, Sidney cites Xenophon’s Cyropaedia—a biography of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great. How does Sidney use Xenophon’s example to define the characteristic functions of poetry, and what are those functions? And how do the effects of this “absolute heroical poem” contrast with the “bare ‘was'” of history, with its true, less “doctrinable” Cyrus?

This gets students thinking about poetry versus history, and about how Sidney repeatedly uses a single text (Xenophon’s) to build his case. And it rewards the attentive student, willing to read a long prose text carefully enough to isolate these citations from a seemingly random jumble of unrecognized classical names. Maybe you can see why I like this assignment.

This year (in January 2014) I have to miss the first three classes of term, so I set about designing a creative way to get students familiar with Sidney’s Defence in my absence. I’m supposed to be doing other things right now, but preparing for next term is one of them. I’ve used podcasts in the past to introduce concepts — pastoral, Shakespeare’s theatre — before we apply them to common readings, but this time I wanted students to linger over Sidney’s text.

apology-for-poetry-or-the-defence-of-poesy--sir-philip-sidneySo I’ve recorded the whole of Sidney’s Defence. Its 19 000+ words comprise about 2 hours and 10 minutes. I used R.W. Maslen’s 2002 edition, more for its footnotes than for its editorial principles — but the Defence has few editorial cruxes.

Why make a recording? It had never been done before — but that’s true of many things. At least, if it had been done before I couldn’t find a copy, and a query to the Sidney-Spenser research community returned no leads.

But the main reason was to see what Sidney’s argument sounded like out loud. He divided it into parts with discrete purposes, following the tenets of classical rhetoric: from the exordium (opening anecdote) to the refutation (dismantling counter-arguments) to the stirring conclusion, or peroration. If I were really organized I would have split my recording into those parts identified in van Dorsten and Duncan-Jones’s 1973 Oxford edition. Someday, perhaps. But the point isn’t to hear an oration’s structure, but an argument that tries to persuade with using well-weighed syllables and emotive language — to persuade you to value poetry above history or philosophy, above all other human arts and sciences. Works for me.

So here are my three parts. You can also download all of them in a single .zip file.

  1. Part 1 of 3 (58:03)
  2. Part 2 of 3 (42:19)
  3. Part 3 of 3 (32:56)

Finally: the title of this blog post is an homage to Blair Worden’s inestimable book on Sidney’s Old Arcadia. Which also stands unrecorded, now that I mention it…

One Response to “The Sound of Virtue: A Recording of Sidney’s Defence of Poesy”

  1. Karen Saupe

    Thanks for sharing this recording. I encourage my literature students to listen to our assignments as much as they can, so this is most welcome.


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