16th-Century Clapback: The Manipulation of Poetic Devices in Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry

By Adeola P. Egbeyemi
2021, Vol. 13 No. 04 | pg. 1/1


Often thought to be a recent development of pop culture, writers have been using biting clapbacks in response to criticism since antiquity. This essay will explore how poet and scholar Sir Philip Sidney effectively manipulated poetic devices in An Apology For Poetry‚Äč to respond to criticism about the usage of poetry for education. This will be done through a description of the devices found in what Sidney considered to be the key types of poetry: verse, philosophical poetry and biblical hymns. Then, the paper will reveal the presence of these devices in Apology itself. Finally, this paper will assert that this approach was incredibly persuasive, considering the wider cultural context in which it was written. In essence, Sidney did not merely state poetry was best to educate audiences, but also wove the usage of poetry into his educational text to further prove his statement, making the text a sharp 16th-century clapback.

In sitting to read Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry, I did not expect to be laughing aloud hours later, shocked at the zealous energy of the text. The function of Apology was to argue for poetry to be at the foundation of education because it moves to virtuous action. Sidney argues that poetry should be at the foundation of education based on the Christian psychological model of man that “our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it” (Sidney 114), reaching perfection. Since only poetry sees virtue exalted and in doing so, moves us toward virtue, it should be used to educate.

I assert that the form of Apology follows its function, that one way in which Sidney argues for the educational power of poetry is by manipulating the language and adding poetic elements to Apology. More specifically, the text adds these elements by defining three types of poetry—verse, philosophical poetry and biblical hymns—and embedding their respective characteristic poetic devices—imagery, allusion and diction—within the language of the text. Sidney’s method is meaningful because the text is a defense, rather than an offense, of the idea of poetry being at the foundation of education in the Elizabethian era. While the era’s domination of literature may suggest that Apology, as a spirited clapback1, would be subject to the widespread disapproval of Elizabethian intellectuals who doubted the value of poetry, Apology can maintain its defensive because of this skillful control of poetic devices. Sidney’s masterful manipulation of poetry exemplifies the power his argument holds, enabling him to convince his audience of his defense.

For convenience, Apology can be divided into halves. The first half of Apology contains the prologue, definitions of poetry and arguments for the superiority of poetry over philosophy and history. The second half deals with the objections to poetry, Sidney’s counterclaims to those objections, as well as topics of drama, poetry in England and the advantage of the English language before it concludes. This essay will only be considering the first half of Apology, as to keep the focus on where poetry as the best educator is being asserted. After defining diction, allusion and imagery, with reference to the examples Sidney provides, I will show how they are characteristic to biblical hymns, philosophical poetry and verse, respectively. The bulk of my argument will be an analysis of the display of these same devices in Apology and an assertion of how this inspires readers. Finally, in considering the Elizabethian society of the English Renaissance in which Sidney is situated, I will explain why the language of Apology is his tactic, as opposed to a more conventional text.

Sidney claims that there have been three kinds of poetry, one of which is verse. Sidney subdivides verse into more specific types such as “the Heroic, Lyric, Tragic, Comic, Satiristic, Iambic, Elegiac [and] Pastoral” (Sidney 115). An example of verse provided is from the poet Heliodorus in his “sugared invention of that picture of love in Theagenes and Chariclea” (Sidney 116). The Heroic verse of the novel Theagenes and Chariclea begins with the phrase “the light of day had just begun to smile” (Heliodorus 1). This is imagery, the poetic device that appeals to our senses and is often built on other literary devices such as diction, metaphor—or personification, in this case. Theagenes and Chariclea is a fitting example for Sidney to use. Its opening scene of an “enigmatic tableaux” (Telò 581) of a vessel lying at anchor to a beach covered with recently massacred men to a young girl upon a rock surveying this scene (Heliodorus 2) appeals to our sight, writes as with eagle’s eye view imagery. Imagery is characteristic to verse, and Sidney skillfully weaves his language in Apology to appeal to the reader's senses as well.

After defining poetry as “a maker,” Sidney argues that there is no art in humankind that does not have the work of Nature as his principal object (Sidney 113). However, only poetry is not dependant on what Nature has already set forth and can “grow in effect another nature” by making things better than Nature or bringing new forms that never existed before (Sidney 113). Sidney says that Nature has never beautifully depicted the earth as well has poetry has—“neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (Sidney 114). This imagery employed here with evocative adjectives of “pleasant,” and “fruitful” and “sweet-smelling” facilitates visualization of how poetry depicts the earth, showing that it is the best to represent Nature.

Sidney even uses imagery to caricature poetry’s two principal challengers: the moral philosopher and historian. Although all three endeavour to make men good, poetry does this best. In introducing the philosopher, Sidney says he sees them “coming towards me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by daylight, rudely clothed for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things” and who “casting largesses as they go of definition, divisions, and distinctions, with a scornful interrogative do soberly ask” (Sidney 117). The historians are described as he who works “laden with old mouse-eaten records” (Sidney 117). Through choice words such as “sullen gravity,” “rudely clothed” and “scornful interrogative,” Sidney has painted philosophers as stern and monotonous academics, and historians as old and obsolete, with the memorable negative description of “mouse-laden.” This manipulation clearly visualizes their negative characteristics, as opposed to merely telling readers that philosophers are stern and historians are old. Sidney also asserts that “the poet is the food for the tenderst stomachs,” (Sidney 120) conjuring nourishment and sustenance, in another metaphorical display of the superiority of poetry. Seeing virtue exalted is best done by poetry, Sidney maintains, as “Poetry ever setteth virtue so out in her best colours, making Fortune her well-waiting handmaid...” (Sidney 122). The personification of Poetry, Virtue and Fortune paints a clear picture: poetry compliments virtue and makes wealth subservient to it. Poetry is described to show the way to virtue “as if your journey should lie through a fair vineyard, at the first give you a cluster of grapes, that, full of taste, you may long to pass faster” (Sidney 124). This imagery of poetry being a guide through a vineyard, giving you fruit and urging you forward allows a reader to see Sidney’s argument, of poetry as the best educator, more clearly. Finally, in describing what Sidney considers the most excellent form of verse, the Heroical poems’ “image of each action stirreth and instructed the mind, so the lofty image of such worthless most inflammeth the mind with desire to be worthy” (Sidney 129). So vivid is the description of how Heroical poems guide individuals to worthiness. The diction of the mind being “stirred” and “inflamed with desire” helps to visualize the dominance of the Heroical poem. The use of imagery in Apology better visualizes arguments for the reader and because of this use of poetic devices, maintains Sidney’s argument that poetry is the best to educate.

The second kind of poetry Sidney describes are “them that deal with matters philosophical” (Sidney 115). He gives examples of moral, natural, astronomical and historical poetical philosophers and an example of one philosophical poem: Virgil’s Georgics. Consider the first stanza of the first section of Georgics, in which nineteen allusions2 are made, including Roman and Greek gods, mythological beasts, places and rulers (“The Internet Classics Archive”).

Allusion is particularly characteristic to philosophical poetry and Sidney embeds this same device in Apology. Sidney says man has never “brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes, so constant a friend as Pylades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus” (Sidney 114) or so virtuously depicted other men as poetry has. In referring to these prominent literary figures, virtuous in love, friendship and valour, Sidney provides a deeper understanding of poetry’s power and thus shows the reader that poetry is indeed the device to educate with. Next, the power of poetry over that of the philosopher and the historian, sees “wisdom and temperance in Ulysses and Diomedes, valour in Achilles, friendship in Nisus and Euryalus,” (Sidney 119) shown, even to an ignorant man. Showing well-known literary figures to provide a deeper understanding of poetry’s power is further proof that poetry should be used for education. After presentation of all the previous examples allusions, Sidney maintains that the poet is the best educator with an example of how “Aesop’s tales give good proof: whose pretty allegories, stealing under the formal tales of beasts, make many, more beastly than beasts, begin to hear the sound of virtue” (Sidney 120). Again, this reference to the fables of the famous storyteller—and poet, according to Sidney’s definition—solidifies the argument.

To argue that poetry not only exalts virtue, but punishes vice, Sidney alludes to the hero Ulysses, who occasionally may be placed “in a storm, and in other hard plights; but they are but exercises of patience and magnanimity, to make them shine the more in the near-following prosperity” (Sidney 122). This is opposed to real-life history where we see “the just Phocion and the accomplished Socrates put to death like traitors; the cruel Severus live prosperously” (Sidney 123). There is a comparison of historically good people receiving bad outcomes and historically bad people receiving good outcomes in history, but good people receiving good outcomes in poetry. This comparison serves to clearly show an example of poetry more truly turning men towards virtue. Perhaps the best allusion is to an official of the Roman Republic, Menenius Agrippa, as proof of the virtuous effects of poetry. When the whole city of Rome was conspiring to divide themselves from the Senate, Sidney says, Agrippa told a story to the people. The story was poetry, of a body who conspired against the belly because the body had the most nutrients. In the end, though, in harming the belly, the whole body suffered. The state of Rome “wrought such effect in the people, as I never read that ever words brought forth but then so sudden and so good an alteration; for upon reasonable conditions a perfect reconcilement ensued” (Sidney 125). This allusion is an easily understandable demonstration of the power of poetry to educate. Thus, through allusions characteristic to philosophical poems, Sidney provides a deeper understanding of poetry’s power, allowing education on Sidney’s assertion. This education through allusion proves Sidney’s assertion that poetry should be used to educate men to virtue.

Sidney says the final type of poetry “were they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God” (Sidney 114). Biblical hymns are the dominant poetic form for Sidney and he gives examples of these hymns from David in Psalms, Solomon in Song of Songs and Proverbs and Job in his hymns. The characteristic poetic device for biblical hymns is that of an elevated and exalting diction, created by word choice, hyperbole and rhetorical questions. Consider the psalms “Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing out the honor of His name; Make His praise glorious” (King James Version, Psalm 66.1) and “I will extol You, my God, O King; And I will bless Your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless You…” (Psalm 145.1). These magnified statements are as prevalent as rhetorical questions, such as the hymn “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?” (Job 11.7).

In Apology, as Sidney argues for the superiority of poetry by saying, “compare we the poet with the historian, and with the moral philosopher; and if he go beyond them both, no other human skill can match him” (Sidney 118). Sidney does indeed prove that poets go beyond the historian and moral philosopher, and thus proclaims an exaltation of “no other human skill’ can match poets. This diction exalts poetry as reigning above all, guiding readers more smoothly to the conclusion that poetry does indeed have superiority over history or moral philosophy. Since poetry can guide smoothly to this conclusion, Sidney assertion of poetry as the best educator is maintained. When Sidney asks, “who readeth Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back, that wisheth not it were his fortune to perform so excellent an act?” (Sidney 124), we see the use of the rhetorical question found in biblical hymns. The rhetorical question moves a reader to consider the statement and proves that no one could not be moved to virtue after reading poetry of Aeneas. Sidney concludes his argument of poetry over history or moral philosophy by stating that since “Poetry, being the most familiar to teach [Virtue], and more princely to move toward it, in the most excellent work is the more excellent workman” (Sidney 126). The vocabulary used in this phrase—“most familiar,” “more princely” and “most excellent”—is indicative of exaltation. This exaltation again allows for readers to more quickly arrive to Sidney’s assertion of poetry as the most powerful for education that leads to Virtue.

In the following section of Apology, for about three pages, Sidney crafts the diction into many rhetorical questions in asking what faults can be found with specific parts of verse poems. Sidney asks “is it then the Pastoral Poem which is misliked?,” “is it the lamenting Elegiac, which in a kind heart would move rather pity than blame? (Sidney 126) or “is it the bitter, but wholesome Iambic, which rubs the galled mind, in making shame the trumpet of villainy with bold and open crying against naughtiness?” (Sidney 127) and more. These questions are the clearest examples in which Sidney uses rhetorical questions to show it to be impossible to find fault in these forms of poetry, as such unquestionably perfect demonstrations of virtue. Sidney concludes this look into the specific kinds of verse poems by asserting that “since then poetry is of all human learning the most ancient and of the most fatherly antiquity…I think the laurel crown appointed for triumphing captains doth worthily honour the poet’s triumph” (Sidney 130). Sidney uses the same worshiping language to exalt poetry, as one might see God or the divine exalted in biblical hymn, with the words “most ancient,” “laurel crown appointed,” “honour” and “triumph.” This diction illuminates poetry more clearly as the best discipline in which to educate with. Thus, the usage of biblical diction allows readers to be more easily led to the conclusion of poetry as the most powerful tool for education. This guiding to Sidney’s assertion through diction proves that poetry is best to education in itself.

In 1579, writer Stephen Gosson penned School of Abuse, a pamphlet criticizing poets, among other writers, to expose them as a shortcoming of England and, through humor, shame them into reform. It is believed that Sir Philip Sidney wrote An Apology for Poetry in response to this work. This context not only uniquely situates Apology as a text on the defensive but is likely the reason why Sidney resorts to this tactic of language manipulation, through the addition of poetic devices. The usage of poetic devices aims to capture the goodwill of his audience, which Sidney would have known was likely to include critics. These devices would stir even the most hardened heart against poetry, or in the least, not turn the heart more against poetry in reading the text. This is evident from the title of the work itself as an “apology.” It is cleverly phrased as an acknowledgement that poetry has done something wrong, inviting audiences and critics alike to approach the text. Then readers are kept reading the text through an ardent offense and defense of poetry with the poetic devices making the argument clearer.

Sidney is not suggesting a small thing by asserting that poetry should be at the foundation of education for individuals and rulers alike. The weight of Apology only becomes larger, considering it was written in response to existing critique of poetry. It follows, then, that not only would Sidney take care to strengthen his argument for the educational power of poetry, but also strengthen the way in which he goes about asserting these arguments. This essay has highlighted some aspects of how he asserts his argument, with the usage of imagery characteristic to verse, allusion found in philosophical poetry and diction found in biblical hymns. These devices allowed Sidney to be more animated in what is truly a strong vindication and defense for poetry. Sidney uses poetry to educate us on his argument, one way in which he proves that poetry is the rightful discipline for education. It would be hoped that with the employment of poetic diction, Apology could overcome the critics of poetry and truly turn people toward the purest education, in order to move readers toward virtuous action.


Heliodorus. “The Aethiopica.” Internet Archive, Privately Printed for the Athenian Society, 1 Jan. 1897, https://archive.org/details/aethiopica00cologoog/page/n82.

Sidney, Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Avenue to Learn pdf, pp. 108—140, https://avenue.cllmcmaster.ca/d2l/le/content/218490/viewContent/1810594/View

Telò, Mario. “The Eagle's Gaze in the Opening of Heliodorus' Aethiopica.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 132, 2011, pp. 581–613. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41415777.

“The Internet Classics Archive: The Georgics by Virgil.” The Georgics by Virgil, http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/georgics.1.i.html.


  1. Clapback is a phrase of today’s youth and often done by celebrities on social media, according to Mariam Webster, “clapback” is “a quick, sharp, and effective response to criticism”
  2. Allusion is “a brief, intentional reference to a historical, mythic, or literary person, place, event, or movement” (Website 2019).

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