Poetry and Virtue in An Apology for Poetry

relationship between poetry and virtue in An Apology for Poetry Philip Sydney

Q. Discuss the relationship between poetry and virtue in An Apology for Poetry (The Defence of Poesy). How does Sidney present poetry as a tool for cultivating moral and ethical values?


Sir Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” a work of literary criticism, argues that poetry has great value. Sidney sees poetry not just as entertainment or art but as a way to teach moral and ethical values.

He believes that poetry can inspire people to live virtuous lives by presenting examples of good behaviour and noble actions. According to Sidney, poetry has the power to educate and improve individuals, making it an important and meaningful form of literature.

The connection between poetry and virtue is a central theme throughout the text, with Sidney asserting that poetry can instruct and improve the reader in virtue and morality.

Sidney’s Perspective on Poetry

To understand Sidney’s argument, we must first understand his perspective on poetry. Unlike the prevalent view of his time, which saw poetry as a mere imaginative diversion, Sidney viewed poetry as an “imitation of life.”

He argued that poetry’s creative imitation of reality shows moral truths and life lessons that the reader can internalize.

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done.

Sidney compares poets’ artistry to the beauty of nature, emphasizing that poetry has the power to create vivid and captivating images. These images can stir emotions and inspire virtuous thoughts and actions.

Poetry Versus History and Philosophy

Sidney differentiates poetry from history and philosophy, stating that while these disciplines provide facts and arguments, poetry communicates through emotionally resonant narratives.

He elaborates on this using the metaphors of the bee and the spider. A spider weaves its web from its body, just as philosophers and historians draw from what is within them. In contrast, a bee collects nectar from various flowers, turning it into honey.

Similarly, a poet borrows from life, nature, and human experience to create a work that is both pleasurable and nutritious to the mind.

Didacticism: Poetry as a Source of Moral Instruction

One way Sidney emphasizes poetry’s role in fostering virtue is by highlighting its capacity for didacticism. He argues that poets, like moral teachers, have the power to impart knowledge and wisdom through their imaginative creations.

He suggests that poetic narratives can communicate moral lessons more compellingly and memorably than dry philosophical treatises or historical accounts. Poetry becomes a potent medium for moral education by combining entertainment and instruction.

The Pleasure and Instruction of Poetry

He suggests that poetry’s unique format allows it to convey moral truths in an engaging and emotionally powerful way.

This mix of enjoyment and learning is important to Sidney’s idea of poetry. He thinks poetry’s entertaining aspects attract readers, making them want to read more.

At the same time, poetry’s moral lessons teach readers about good behaviour and values. Sidney believes this combination of pleasure and instruction makes poetry valuable for education and personal growth.

Reflective Nature

Sidney also suggests poetry is like a mirror, showing human nature’s and society’s complexities. By presenting different characters and situations, poetry helps readers understand the details of human behaviour and the results of actions.

By reflecting on these aspects, poetry allows readers to think deeply about virtue and morality. It helps them understand right and wrong more clearly. This understanding enables readers to make better and more informed ethical choices in their own lives.

Inspiration and Aspiration

Furthermore, Sidney argues that poetry can elevate the human spirit and inspire noble aspirations. By portraying heroes and heroines who embody virtuous qualities, poetry provides models of excellence and ideals to emulate.

Sidney contends that exposure to such virtuous characters can elevate one’s aspirations and motivate individuals to strive for moral excellence in their own lives.

Poetry and Empathy

According to Sidney, poetry can stimulate the reader’s imagination, allowing them to empathize with characters and situations they have not personally experienced. This empathy, he argues, is critical to moral development.

When readers empathize with a character, they can learn from their experiences, internalize their moral struggles, and apply these lessons to their lives.

Ideal Models of Virtue

Sidney also posits that poetry provides ideal models of virtue. The constraints of reality do not bind poets, so they can create characters that embody moral perfection.
These characters serve as aspirational models for the reader. He wrote,

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or, quite anew.

Thus, through these idealized portrayals, poets can present a vision of what is morally excellent to the audience. He, thereby, promotes virtue in a uniquely effective way.

It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet – no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who, though he pleaded in armor, should be an advocate and no soldier. But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by. (Part 1)

Sidney distinguishes between the mere technicalities of poetry (rhyming and versing) and the essence of being a poet.

He emphasizes that true poets are distinguished by their skill in crafting vivid and instructive images of virtues and vices, using delightful teaching methods to impart moral and ethical lessons.

Now, therein of all sciences (I speak still of human and according to the human conceit) is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it. (Part 2)

Sidney, a creative critic, asserts that poetry, more than any other discipline, can guide individuals toward virtue. He suggests that poets not only reveal the path of virtue but also make it appealing to individuals.

The Transformative Power of Poetry

Sidney further emphasizes the transformative power of poetry. Through its unique blend of intellectual and emotional appeal, poetry can affect the reader’s heart and mind and inspire changes in attitudes, behaviours, and values.

By presenting moral dilemmas, ethical debates, and virtuous heroes, poetry encourages readers to reflect on their moral compass and consider their actions in a new light.


In “An Apology for Poetry,” Philip Sidney argues that poetry helps us become better people. It does this by mixing enjoyment with teaching, inspiring us to be virtuous. Poetry shows how people think and feel, helping us understand and care about others.

It also gives us examples of how to be good and noble. Sidney believes that poetry is more than just fun; it has the power to shape our morals and society.