Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Prophesying
Moore, Roger E., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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. 9-10, 11). Throughout the text he characterizes the poet's productions with references to light and wind or breath, stock imagery of early modern prophetic discourse. Like a prophet, the poet reveals divine truths to sinful humanity and leads them to moral and spiritual renewal.
Of course, a Renaissance reader would not have found the yoking of poetry and prophecy an odd assertion. A belief in the prophetic origins of poetry was common in this period, and Sidney partially relies on Continental sources and old traditions in making his claims. Sidney's contemporaries would have agreed with his praise for "divine poetry" of the kind found in the Bible, and they would have approved of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who often spoke with a highly poetic flair. A host of Protestant and Catholic poets--Edmund Spenser, Pierre Ronsard, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, and Milton among them--believed in divine inspiration and invoked the aid of the Holy Spirit or Muse in their poems.
Many scholars have understood Sidney to eschew prophetic poetry in favor of fictions, even going so far as to deny any inspiration behind "right" poetry. Ronald Levao, for instance, maintains that the ability to create "right" poetry comes from within, not above: "The poet, then, is not really inspired; his heavenly and divine nature is at best metaphorical." (6) S. K. Heninger Jr. claims that "the 'right' poet of Sidney's third category cannot hope to obtain the immediate access to divine knowledge allowed to David" and that "right" poetry is "[an] unmitigatedly human [effort]." (7) But Sidney does not distinguish between prophetic and "right" poetry as rigidly as his interpreters might like. He suggests that the "right" poet "speaks with the force of a divine breath" and "calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention" and, as we will see, even invokes King David as an example of the interdependence of inspired and fictional poetry (pp. 9-10, 34). While Sidney does say that he differs from Plato in that the latter "attributeth unto poesy more than myself do, namely to be a very inspiring of a divine force far above man's wit," this statement does not indicate Sidney's distaste for prophecy (p. 40). Instead, as Andrew Weiner maintains, "It would seem more likely that Sidney is merely distinguishing between the ordinary processes of grace and the kind of divine possession Plato suggests happens in the furor poeticus." (8)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, for whom a claim of divine inspiration was often simply a nod to the classical past or mere rhetorical ornamentation, Sidney seems to have made a more sustained investment in prophecy. He does not consider divine poetry a feature of the dim past nor does he regard it as residing only in the Bible or in works (such as Du Bartas's Sepmaines) that retold biblical stories. His notion of the Spirit is more fluid and potentially more dangerous. For him, prophetic inspiration "bloweth where it listeth" (John 3:8) and appears in unlikely places, even in the works of "right" poets who trade in fictions. (9) By insisting upon the quasi-divine capabilities of contemporary poets who rely on the divine breath to encourage virtuous behavior, Sidney approaches theologically radical territory and comes close to defending the spiritual freedom also claimed by contemporary sectarians and some moderate evangelical prophets.
The Defence is a playful work, and we are right to ask how seriously we should regard some of its exaltations of prophecy. Although Sidney occasionally gets lost in flights of fancy, he never wavers in his basic conviction of the importance of divine inspiration to poetry. His claims seem especially significant when we consider the work was written in the early 1580s at the height of the controversy over prophecy then roiling the English church and very shortly after the queen's actions against the Puritans and the Familists. (10) In speaking pointedly of the poet's prophetic task, Sidney questions the pervasive cultural animosity toward prophetic speech and inspired utterance. The Defence is best known as an answer to those in England who found poetry and art incompatible with reformed religion, but since poetry and prophecy were both regarded as subversive practices, perhaps we should look anew at the work as a defense of prophesying as well. Just when the authorities tried their hardest to suppress prophesying, Sidney exalts it as an important aspect of poetry. For Sidney, prophetic inspiration is a feature not only of divine poetry but also of "right" poetry, and he attempts to rehabilitate contemporary prophecy from a despised and dangerous form into a viable instrument of English reformed culture.
The controversies over prophecy in the late sixteenth century were not isolated marginal phenomena; they touched on the highly sensitive matters of ecclesiastical and political authority and thus were followed carefully by those, such as Sidney, who had a stake in maintaining England's stability. By the late 1570s, Sidney was a rising star of the reformed movement, and he was loyal to his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, and the "hot Protestants" he patronized at Court. He criticized the queen not only for countenancing a marriage to a French Catholic but also for not pursuing the aggressive military agenda in the Low Countries favored by both theologically moderate and radical opponents of Spain in England. (11) In an environment inhospitable to further reformation, Sidney undoubtedly would have been sensitive to the attacks on prophecy, and prophesying exercises in particular, made by the queen and her government; his willingness to link poetry and prophecy indicates some sympathy with the aims of those who claimed a prophetic voice.
But what did the Elizabethans have in mind when they thought of prophecy? In Sidney's time, prophecy or "prophesying" signified a host of separate, but related, practices, all of which presupposed a special gift of the divine breath. Although at the most basic level prophesying meant foretelling the future, most Elizabethans associated it with preaching. The Geneva Bible marginal glosses on several key New Testament passages make clear that prophecy usually refers to preaching. Romans 12:6, "Seing then that we haue giftes that are diuers, according to the grace that is giuen vnto us, whether we haue prophecie, let us prophecie according to the proportion of faith," receives the following gloss: "By prophecying here he meaneth preaching and teaching." When glossing I Thessalonians 5:20, "Despise not prophecying," the editors define prophesying as "the preaching of the worde of God." Every English minister of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would have been familiar with William Perkins's preaching manual, The Arte of Prophecying (1607), which defines a prophet as "a Minister of the Word" and "prophecying" as "a publique and solemne speech of the Prophet, pertaining to the worship of God, and to the saluation of our neighbor." (12) This was the most innocuous definition of prophesying, and no Protestant would have had any quarrel with it.
A prophet could also be anyone who spoke under divine inspiration. (13) Niclaes, the founder of the Family of Love, and his followers in England were prophets in this sense. They claimed an interior illumination whereby they understood God's truth, and they sought to share this esoteric truth as a way …
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Publication information: Article title: Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Prophesying. Contributors: Moore, Roger E. - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 50. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2010. Page number: 35+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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