Apologizing for pleasure in Sidney's 'Apology for Poetry'

Sir Philip Sidney Portrait, 1576. Penshurst Place

As one of its major strategies for defending poetry, Sidney's Apology describes poetry's capacity simultaneously to teach and to delight, to instruct effectively by appealing to pleasure.(1) According to the Apology, it is pleasure which creates poetry as superior to history and philosophy, for poetry's ability to delight moves readers to virtue, rather than subjecting them to tedious discussions or ambiguous examples. Even in the initial stages of civilization, it was the "sweet delights" (98) of poetry which prepared early peoples to exercise their minds for the reception of knowledge. But on the other side of the Apology's claim that poetry's delight enlivens its teaching lies the inference that the experience of delight must be justified by instruction. This inference becomes explicit in the Apology's limitation of its defense to a definition of poetry as "feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with ... delightful teaching" (103). When separated from its moral function, poetry's pleasure renders it a "nurse of abuse," dangerously capable of eliciting the wrong sort of pleasure to infect its readers with "pestilent desires" (123). By exploring the "nurse of abuse" image, together with other highly gendered figures, this essay advances the following argument: to the explicit charges against which Sidney's Apology defends poetry--that it lies, it promotes immorality, it was banished from Plato's ideal republic, and that it serves no useful purpose--can be added an implicit charge, that the pleasures offered by poetry rendered it dangerously effeminizing.

A reading of Sidney's Apology as defending poetry against charges of effeminacy was perhaps first performed in a passing comment by Walter Ong, who suggested that the anxiety, common among Renaissance humanists, that "literature, and poetry in particular, was actually soft or effeminate" motivated Sidney's claim that the Amadis de Gaule moved men to courage.(2) More recently, M. J. Doherty's gendered reading of the Apology has also linked Sidney's poet and femininity. Interpreting the Apology's Lady Poesy in terms of the ancient figure of Sophia or Wisdom, Doherty's work represents Sidney's poet as appropriating a feminine self-knowledge which poses no threat, however, to his masculinity.(3) Fran Dolan's essay on the dichotomies between art and nature, on the other hand, locates Sidney's Apology within a tradition representing poetry as an erotic threat precisely because of a long-standing association between poetry's "pleasure and desire with the feminine." Dolan claims that, like Puttenham and Montaigne, Sidney uses a "gendered and eroticized" construction of poetry to "convey the vulnerability and impairment of the masculine poet."(4) While much remains to be done with the gendered metaphors and concepts in the Apology, these discussions of the inextricable entanglement of poetry in gender issues provide a radically new approach which promises to recover ideological operations working deeply within the early modern culture and its texts.

Any full-scale rereading of the Apology in terms of gender must first, however, take into account recent work representing a crisis in early modern gender ideology. Since Laqueur uncovered the one-sex model of early modern gender, scholars have newly understood that in this period, in a more literal sense than in modern times, gender was a question of performance--of costume, of gesture, of status--rather than of ontological being.(5) In her study of Gosson's Schoole of Abuse, a work dedicated to Sidney and convincingly claimed as a major impetus for his Apology, Laura Levine describes how this one-sex model created "an unmanageable anxiety that there is no such thing as a masculine self."(6) Thus, for Gosson and others, the spectacle of boys on stage in women's clothing embodied the culture's worst fantasy concerning the reversability of male gender, as adopting the costume and gestures of femininity, the boy actor became in some sense the part he played. Extending Levine's argument, Stephen Orgel discovers an early modern anxiety that heterosexual love can turn men not only into women, but "back into women," for "in the medical literature we all started as women, and the culture confirmed this by dressing all children in skirts until the age of seven or so."(7) Laqueur's performative version of masculinity further explains Orgel's perception of the essential femininity of early modern boys: in his dependence upon women who dominated him, a boy was not yet able to enact his masculinity. But these essays do not account for the source of this threat of infantilization. What within the nature of heterosexual love was understood to propel boys (or men) helplessly back to this degraded, effeminate state?

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