Considering the opening lines of Richard Barnfield’s Sonnet 11 from Cynthia, ‘Sighing, and sadly sitting by my love,’ it may seem on the surface that Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy, would not be up to the task of defending the openly homosexual poem by Barnfield. After all, Sidney was arguing for poetical freedom against the attacks of Puritan moralizers who ‘called into question the morality of any fiction-making.’ Defending sodomy may have proved the point of such narrow-minded people, though anti-sodomy laws were very rarely prosecuted, and allowed for the strictly religious to argue for renewed persecutions of those who would dare to ‘come out.’
A difficult line to walk, for certes, but one which Sidney’s Defense manages to carry off quite well. But with some room to maneuver, on Sidney’s part, for purposes of seeming to uphold the efficacious benefits of Poesy. First off, Sidney begins by relying upon the ancient Romans and Greeks to set the poet upon a pedestal ‘as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, … so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge.’ It is debatable whether Barnfield, as read through Sonnet 11, can be said to measure up to such a lofty stature. Indeed, the particular sonnet in question seems more a self-centered mope than any great revelation upon the ofttimes inadequacies of love: ‘He asked the cause of my hearts sorrowing.’
However, Sidney does not stop there, but delves deeper into all that a poet can provide, and as an apparent salve to the critics, proposes that he is ‘content not only to decipher him by his works, … but more narrowly will examine his parts.’ Now, Sidney may be outwardly talking here of different ‘kinds’ of poetry, but there is something beneath the surface that he calls upon to the defense of poets in general because of the worth that an individual may bring to his or her fellow human beings. In the same vein, Sidney calls out the critics’ irrationality: ‘But truly it falleth out with these poet-whippers, … so the name of poetry is odious to them, but neither his cause nor effects, neither the sum that contains him, nor the particularities descending from him, give any fast handle to their carping dispraise.’ Is Barnfield a poet to be whipped?
Barnfield is not giving Sidney’s Defense a great deal of assistance in refuting some of the main charges laid against poetry, ‘He straight perceived himself to be my lover.’ Oh my, a male poet referring to his imagined, or real, lover as ‘He?’ And here Sidney has gone to the trouble of answering specific charges against poets, and poetry, in particular: ‘that it is the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires.’ This is probably rather high on the list of those malign attributes that the critics assigned to poetry. But Sidney rallies with perhaps his most famous and seemingly irrefutable defense, ‘Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.’ It is difficult to argue with or accuse someone who is merely ‘making things up,’ it would seem.
Sidney goes to the ultimate source for the beneficence of poetry: ‘the immortal goodness of that God who giveth us hands to write and wits to conceive; of which we might well want words, but never matter; of which we could turn our eyes to nothing, but we should have new-budding occasions.’ And ‘occasions’ did Barnfield make of his when he wrote of that which he felt separated him from the almighty, ‘Love is the cause, and only love it is That doth deprive me of my heavenly bliss.’
It would seem, though, that Sidney, reserved his final opprobrium for the end when he turns the tables entirely and exonerates all poets such as Barnfield, throwing down the gauntlet: ‘since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets.’ No matter what their perceived merits, poets are as poets do.