Dryden and Sidney’s Thoughts on Poetry (Bite-Sized Study Guide)

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HOW DO DRYDEN’S CLAIMS ABOUT POETRY COMPARE WITH THOSE OF SIDNEY?

Dryden and Sidney are united in their recognition of the poets’ importance. Sidney sees poets as mediators between philosophers and historians, influenced by the Aristotelian view that poetry is ‘more philosophical and… studiously serious than history’[1]. Dryden, too, celebrates poetry’s delightful instruction[2].

However, where Sidney speaks of poets as if second only to Gods (in terms of ability to create), Dryden celebrates the humanity found in imperfection. When expressing fondness for Shakespeare, he refuses to injure him by comparing him to the ‘greatest of mankind’[3], praising his faults (such as occasional degeneration of comic wit).

For Sidney, poets must be skilled in ‘the art of imitation’[4] (Aristotelian ‘mimesis’[5]), mirroring the ‘inconceivable excellencies of God’[6].  Dryden places more importance on the poet’s ability to ‘rectify or purge the passion, fear and pity [of others]’[7].

However, they agree on this: the poet who takes what he needs from both the historical and philosophical world, then turns them into an entirely original creation, is not simply an imitator of the natural and/or social world, but an interpreter of truth. By distaining from attachment to any subjection, he is able to create something entirely different to, or better than, what is provided by nature[8].

This enforces the idea that factual records are more accurate, but poetry ‘weighs what is fit to be said or done’[9]. It elevates the status of certain events in history, because it deals with ‘the universal consideration’ and history with ‘the particular’[10]. In doing so, it finds the most morally appropriate, aesthetic representation of the truth.

Poetry, then, has the power to transform men into heroes. It can allow cruel, bloody battles to transcend the boundary between fact and myth. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (addressed by Dryden in his Preface) transforms the Trojan Hector into a tragic hero, and the ongoing battle between Greece and Troy into a poetic example of how a war caused by one love affair can destroy another[11].


[1] Sir Philip Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (first edition), ed. by V. Leitch, W. Cain, L. Finke & B. Johnson (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), pg337

[2] John Dryden, ‘Preface to Troilus and Cressida’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (first edition), ed. by V. Leitch, W. Cain, L. Finke & B. Johnson (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001),pg 383

[3] John Dryden, ‘An Essay of Dramatic Poesy’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (first edition), ed. by V. Leitch, W. Cain, L. Finke & B. Johnson (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), pg 381

[4] Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, pg331

[5] Aristotle, Poetics (Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 1997), pgs1-60

[6] Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, pg331

[7] Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, pg383

[8] Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, pg330

[9] Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, pg337

[10] Sidney, ‘An Apology For Poetry’, pg337

[11] Gary Taylor, ‘Introduction to Troilus and Cressida’, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (second edition), ed. by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pg743

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