“Poetry’s Defence”

This was my final project in my British Literature course my final semester at Calvin (taught by the inestimable Professor Debra Rienstra), in which we had spent two weeks on Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It’s an attempt to put a (very) small portion of Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry into the form of Spenserian allegory. (You’ll notice that I didn’t even attempt to adopt Spenser’s poetic form; this is, as usual for me, blank verse.) After the poetry I’ll append the prose explanation that accompanied it in the project.

I’m also posting this to my wiki. As always, I invite your feedback of any kind on this<!– or my potential contest entries–>. Thanks for reading, and please review!

The gentle knight was walking through the wood,
His horse behind him, with a fair companion,
The leader of th’immortal Nine, before.
For long the travelers wandered through the trees,
The Muse’s whimsy as their only guide,
Until they chanced upon the forest’s edge.
Far off on the horizon the knight spied,
His visor and hand up to shade his eyes,
A city on a hill besieged by foes.
Mounting his steed, the Muse before him still,
He bent his steps toward that distant sight.

Of the Redeemer’s wars upon that plain,
And of that town, Mansoul, who has not heard?
Christ came in lowly splendor long ago
To place that rebel shire under his crown,
But since, that town has wavered forth and back
From strict devotion in obedience
To new revolts against its rightful King.
Some months before the hero left the wood
A new commander under Evil’s arms
Rose up and occupied the town in force
In his superior Temptation’s name.
The rightful King sent, therefore, what he had
By way of nearby armies to the town,
But sorties, unexpected, drove them off,
So they drew back, made camp, and laid a siege.

But in the woods the gentle knight, who’d roamed
For many days and nights among the trees,
Was led by Muse and fate to seek that war.
Calliope had led him to the wood,
But fair Polyhymnia led him out.
The renowned youth, Chanson, was clad in mail
With a bright helm above his brighter face;
A steel heavy mace dangled from his belt,
But lance, and pili, and a quarterstaff,
The gentler instruments, were on his back.

Three heroes led the bright besieging host
That lay encamped against the town Mansoul:
The first, the chief commander of their force,
Was that fair lady Templar, Arma Matris,
Whose order was begun, in years gone by,
By the renowned and doughty Britomart;
Her shield she had from her bold father’s hand,
Which had it from his father’s, and so on,
A guarded family treasure, for (they said)
A hero of great legend bore it once.
The Templar kept the shield at all times veiled,
That its bright Red Crosse sigil might not blind.

The second hero there among the camp
Was learned scholar Publius the Third,
Of noble family in Byzantium.
He had become converted in the East
Some decades past, then came to the Lord’s court.
There he was trained in every art of war,
Then bent his mind to serve the needs of peace,
For peace there was, until the Enemy
Tried once again to capture poor Mansoul.
This scholar knight was armed most doughtily
With two sharp swords, a piercing rapier, “Wit”,
To prick the flaws in every foe’s defense,
And then a mighty broadsword for his spare,
Great “Ponentis”, to break down any shield;
His brassy armor, burnished ’til it shone,
Was thick but light, and strong at every joint.

The last among the three heroic names
Was that of Tacitus, eldest of them;
This man had learned the arts of war and peace
From listening to tales and reading books,
Then putting into practice what he’d heard.
He had, for many years, made careful search,
And so had found the arms and armor lost
By many a hero’s less proficient heirs,
With which he’d armed himself at every point,
From Ogier Dane’s fabled blade Cortana,
Invulnerable Achilles’ armor,
And the shield of Roland of legend and song
To the green girdle given great Gawaine
After penance one fateful Christmastide.

That morning, when the sun first touched the hills,
That army’s heroes woke to battle sounds.
How swiftly did they pull their armor on!
Fair Arma Matris, with her Red Crosse shield,
The doughty Byzantine in his bright helm,
And last wise Tacitus in his array,
Once they were fully armed, rushed to the field,
Astride their white horses, only to find
Four riders from the enemy’s dark force
Arriving in the sky on winged steeds
On which they had flown through the entire world
Since dawn had kissed the sky some hours ago.

Battle joined; each hero sought a rider,
But in that fight each soon was over-matched.
Wise Tacitus had marked one Xenophon,
A doughty scholar clad in armor black,
Who’d studied all the books and tales he had
But used those facts to lead pupils astray.
This villain soon had hurled him to the ground,
Then sought another target for his blows.
Learned Publius found himself in strife
With Philo Babylonis, who had been
A famed logician, seeker after proofs,
Who long ago turned traitor to the truth.
This evil lawyer feinted with one blade,
Then felled the Byzantine with one more blow.
Last, Arma Matris, comrades felled away,
Came, unprepared, between the last two foes:
First, Iratus Legatus, a fell knight,
False doctor and false saint of a false church;
To aid him came Abutor Poesis,
Sequinned arm swinging his axe heedlessly,
His feathered helm lifted in defiance.
The noble maid stood bravely on the field,
Her covered shield and naked sword outstretched,
And scored two glancing blows on either foe
Before the foppish knight, her coward foe,
Struck at her from behind, leaving her prone,
Her shield beneath her in the field’s grey mud.

Three heroes felled, the villains swept the hill,
Then turned to go in triumph to the town,
When suddenly at last, by Fate or hap,
The young Chanson arrived upon the field.
The Muse Erato then at once withdrew
Her power from the last man of the four
That had cut down the warlike heroes three
As she before her holy sister bowed.
The greater Muse her champion then led
To Arma Matris, helpless on the ground.
Before his foes could reach him, he reached down
To revive her and lift her to her feet.
Once she had risen, they stood back to back
To guard each other from the charging foes.
Their enemies came at them, four at once,
But broke against their upraised shields and swords.
Twice more their foes assailed their stalwart front,
But back to back the heroes stood their ground.

After the third attack, Chanson reached back
And pulled the cover from his ally’s shield.
The glory of the shining Red Crosse sign
Burst forth at once, as day comes out of night,
And for a moment confounded all their foes.
In the great glorious light, his armor shone,
Reflecting as brilliantly as a torch.
The gallant knight strode quickly toward his foes
While his fair ailly held her shield aloft.
Under its glow he bound his enemies
In ethereal chains the Muse produced,
To send them to their Maker on the morn.

Though lovingly ornamented and written in a style that tries to present itself as being merely tossed off with no effort, Sidney’s Apology for Poetry is an amazingly dense essay. There are details of Spenser’s Faerie Queene that require the reader to pore over the work to tease them out, but the main points of the action, and the general idea of many of the themes, do not require that close a reading. In contrast, the Apology requires the reader’s close attention to understand anything except some of the jokes.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion; after all, one of my favorite authors is Charles Williams, who I would tend to describe as nearly as dense and twice as obscure. But the cause of right thought, right faith, and right action requires both kinds of work, the densely inarguable essays to convince the mind and the easily penetrable poems to capture the imagination. (I think that both Sidney and his opponents would agree that whatever the vehicle, only the Holy Spirit can convert the spirit.)

My poetic adaptation above of one of the many ideas in the Apology is an attempt to render that idea in a more penetrable form, though still retaining some of the delightful, playful obscurity of both the original and the Spenserian allegory after which it modeled (and to which it alludes). If my poetry succeeds, it makes the idea available to an audience that might not have been able to wade through enough of Sidney to reach it, and makes the importance of poetry directed toward right ends viscerally as well as intellectually clear. (On the other hand, the Apology is right to meet poetry’s accusers on their own ground rather than in poetic form, and someone bogged down by Sidney’s prose might just as easily trip up on some of my allusions.)

My poem also attempts to illustrate how poetry succeeds where history and philosophy (and the Church herself, which I took poetic license to add) alone fail in securing the human heart for virtuous action, and shows what opposition they face. Notably, Sidney is not clear about what form an “abuse of poetry” would take; certainly anything that fails to “teach and delight” would qualify, but in my poem “abuse of poetry” personified is shown to be at once a fop, preferring to delight without providing substance, and a traitor. Similarly, I think that philosophy and history are just as easily turned to evil ends as poetry, and even misused religion is dangerous.

One of the advantages of poetry is that it gives much more space for tossed-off detail than a closely reasoned essay; there is a reason–beyond the difference in ease of first understanding–that the Faerie Queene is so much more studied than the Apology. I hope that this poem, and the imagined longer allegory of which it might be a part, could help to rectify that imbalance by providing as much rich detail as I could without hindering the story.

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One thought on ““Poetry’s Defence”

  1. Jonathan, in a post this month, I believe it was, you embedded a link to this. I printed it out, read and enjoyed the ‘Defence’ and your comments. I’m happy for you that you had such a great learning experience with a good teacher.

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