Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Prophesying

Article excerpt

Roger E. Moore, Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Prophesying

Sidney writes the Defence of Poesy at a time of considerable anxiety over prophetic speech: Queen Elizabeth had recently suppressed prophesying exercises and banned the prophetic Familist movement. Sidney's continual references to the relationship between poetry and prophecy, therefore, seem provocative. This essay explores Sidney's engagement with late-sixteenth-century controversies over inspiration and argues that he seeks to rehabilitate prophecy as a useful form of moral instruction. Sidney establishes (he prophetic character of "right" poetry and comes close to defending the spiritual freedom also claimed by contemporary sectarians and some moderate evangelical prophets.


While biblical tradition tells us that prophets are not honored in their own countries, in the case of sixteenth-century England, it would be more appropriate to say that prophets were not honored at home or anywhere else. In the 1570s and 1580s especially, prophecy was dangerous business. Prophets were regarded as fomenters of rebellion in the church and state, and a host of prophetic movements caused great anxiety. Members of the Family of Love, a prophetic sect founded by Hendrik Niclaes, disturbed the authorities by proclaiming they were "godded with God." Early Puritans fostered "prophesying exercises" in which individuals interpreted and discussed complex biblical passages; such exercises, authorities feared, might lead these prophets into speculations dangerous to the commonwealth. (1) While in 1563 Queen Elizabeth had issued a proclamation against "fonde and phantasticall" political prophecies, by the late 1570s, the threat of prophetic activity seemed acute, and she took specific measures to suppress the Puritan prophesyings (1576) as well as the Familist prophecies (1580).

Something of the contemporary fear of prophets emerges in Thomas Nashe's picaresque novel, The Unfortunate Traveller (1593), when the protagonist Jack Wilton enters the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster in 1535. Here Wilton discovers a land of prophets for whom "inspiration was their ordinary familiar, and buzzed in their ears like a bee in a box every hour what news from heaven, hell and the land of whipper-ginnie." (2) The novel's account of the bloody horrors of Munster closely follows the historical record; heeding these prophetic illuminations rather than "the ancient gold of the Gospel" leads to great carnage. (3) Nashe's hero voices the opinions of many in England who feared prophecy when he concludes his description: "Hear what it is to be Anabaptists, to be Puritans, to be villaines. You may be counted illuminate botchers for a while, but your end will be 'Good people, pray for us.'" (4) The Munster Anabaptists had seized control of the city and attempted to create the new Jerusalem based on the prophetic insights of their leaders, Jan Beuckels and Jan Matthijs. For generations of early modern Europeans, Munster was the ultimate symbol of the dangers of prophecy, and Nashe's denunciation of the Anabaptists is a thinly veiled warning to an English culture shaken by fin-de-siecle prophetic excitement.

Considering the suspicion in which prophecy was held in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, Sir Philip Sidney's emphasis on the prophetic nature of the poet in The Defence of Poesy is intriguing. Sidney implies an ongoing prophetic role for the poet suggestive of biblical and Protestant discourse on prophecy. Very early in the text Sidney asserts an ancient link between poet and prophet. He acknowledges, "Among the Romans a poet was called votes, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer or prophet"; he invokes "the oracles of Delphos and Sibylla's prophecies"; and he praises the biblical David for "his handling his prophecy." (5) The "right" poet creates "with the force of a divine breath" and ranges "into the divine consideration of what may be and should be" (pp. …