Sidney’s Aesthetic of Delight

Presented at one of several sessions on “Renaissance Aesthetics” at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Toronto (22-25 October 1998), this paper has not previously been published.


This essay first took shape as a contribution to a sequence of conference sessions on the subject of “Renaissance Aesthetics”—a title which I must confess causes me some uneasiness. While I do not share Tony Bennett’s brusquely dismissive view of aesthetics as “really useless ‘knowledge’,”1 it does seem to me that that there may be something more than a little problematic about our application of the term to Renaissance or early modern texts.

The discourse of aesthetics arose in the eighteenth century, as Terry Eagleton has rightly insisted, as “a discourse of the body” that was “centrally concerned to elaborate” a “notion of autonomy and self-referentiality” which would provide the rising middle class “with just the ideological model of subjectivity it require[d] for its material operations.” There is, as Eagleton very astutely recognizes, an intriguing doubleness to this discourse. For the category of the aesthetic “signifies a creative turn to the sensuous body, as well as an inscribing of that body with a subtly oppressive law; it represents on the one hand a liberatory concern with concrete particularity, and on the other hand a specious form of universalism.”2

Any application of this category to Renaissance texts therefore involves the risk of several distinct forms of historical misprision. The notion of autonomy that is so intimately a part of the discourse of aesthetics may prevent one from recognizing in the early modern context a quite divergent attitude towards human autonomy; one may also fail to recognize quite different constructions of subjectivity, and quite different organizations of the body’s sensual and perceptual pleasures—or, for that matter, of its punishments through the progressive internalization and fixation of law by which, as Francis Barker has argued, the body and its passions were disciplined and outlawed.3 The result may very well be a critical discourse marked by “a specious form of universalism.”

I have, nonetheless, let the word “aesthetic” stand in my title—on the theory, let us say (I here insert one of the provisional axioms around which this essay is constructed), that there may be more pleasure, and perhaps also more benefit, to be derived from explorations of the swerve, the deviation, or the deliberate risk than from any declaration, in language however theoretically inflected, of the unadorned truth, whatever one may take that to be.

But the emphasis here will fall upon the last word of my title: “delight.” As A. C. Hamilton observed in the late 1970s, this is “a key word” in Sidney’s Defence of Poesy.4 Somewhat more recently, James Devereux has focussed attention on the centrality of delight in Sidney’s understanding of the threefold purpose of poetry: docere, movere, delectare,5 documenting with helpful clarity Sidney’s insistence that it is through its capacity to delight that poetry succeeds both in teaching and in moving its auditors or readers to virtuous action. At two points in the course of his argument Devereux acknowledges the usefulness of Geoffrey Shepherd’s introduction to his 1965 edition of An Apology for Poetry. I would like to make a similar acknowledgment of the same passages, in which Shepherd analyzes Sidney’s deployment of delight, and then suggests that the common understanding among Medieval and early modern theorists of poetry of a convergence of Ciceronian and Horatian recommendations on instruction, delight and motivation was assisted by certain of the writings of St. Augustine.6 I make this acknowledgment because I believe that this sequence contains a hint of some value for our own appreciation of Sidney’s text—even if it is one that appears to have been ignored by Sidney scholars in the long decades since Shepherd wrote.

One of the recurrent commonplaces of critical commentary on Sidney’s Defence has been that—rhetorical seductions aside—its argumentative structure is, well, commonplace. According to Shepherd himself, the “main ideas” of Sidney’s text are borrowed, “though the arrangement of the argument is his own.”7 Or as O. B. Hardison, Jr. wrote, “There is nothing particularly original in Sidney’s arguments. Many of them had been a part of the humanist tradition in criticism since Boccaccio, while others, particularly the emphasis on the supra-rational nature of poetry, are colored by the aesthetic”—that word again!—“theories of the Florentine neo-Platonists.” What we hear in much of Sidney’s text, then, is “the familiar voice of humanist poetics.” Hardison proposes that when in the latter part of the Defence another voice, “that of incipient neo-classicism,” makes itself heard, a quick recourse to Scaliger or Castelvetro will suffice to show that Sidney is again borrowing from an established critical discourse, if in this case a more recent one.8 Somewhat more generously, John C. Ulreich, Jr. suggested that Sidney’s text “is justly famous as a compendium of Renaissance aesthetic commonplaces,” and goes on to argue that the work is “not a mere syncretism, but an active synthesis.”9 Similarly, D. H. Craig found that “the originality of ... Sidney’s theory of poetry ... lies not in its elements,” but rather in their synthesis, in the text’s “hybrid quality.”10

I want to propose, on the contrary, that in one crucial respect at least Sidney’s argument is distinctively novel. His handling of the commonplace of delight involves a key element that, to the best of my knowledge, is not developed in a similar way in any other early modern discussion of poetry and poetics. In one of the most often-cited passages of the Defence, Sidney tells how the poet,

lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature ... so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.11

Sidney is not jesting in asking whether nature has (for example) “brought forth ... so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus,” for the poet's “delivering forth”

is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say of them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus on the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.

Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man’s wit with the efficacy of nature; but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man to his own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature: which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry, when with the force of a divine breath he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings—with no small argument to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam, since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.12

Sidney immediately adds, “But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted.”

Alas, how true. In William Temple’s Ramist Analysis (c. 1584) of Sidney’s Defence, this passage is noted—“Hinc e divino afflatu ingenii & depravat[a] voluntate, id est, duobus hominum adjunctis argumentum colligis primi lapsus” [“Then from this divine breath of wit and from the infected will, i.e., from two of mankind’s adjuncts, you make an argument concerning the fall of man”]13—but with no suggestion that Temple has perceived its significance.

It is of course in the gap between “erected wit” and the “infected will” that Sidney finds a space within which to legitimize poetry, in terms of the poet’s power to move us through delight: “For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect unto the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.”14 Andrew D. Weiner argued, I think convincingly, that the appropriate context within which to understand this opposition between capable understanding and perverse will is that of the Calvinistic orthodoxy of Elizabethan England. However, I believe that he is mistaken in thinking that at this point “Sidney switches contexts, moving from this theological overview to a 'more ordinary opening'” of his subject.15

The primary scriptural statement of the paradoxical situation which Sidney enunciates is St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 7: 14-24. In these verses Paul contrasts his knowledge of divine law as spiritual and good, and his impotent desire to fulfil the law, with a perverse power that dwells within him and makes his own acts unintelligible to him: “For I allow not that which I doe (ho gar katergazomai ou ginosko; Quod enim operor, non intelligo): for what I would, that do I not: but what I hate, that doe I” (Rom. 7: 15).16 Though he himself delights in the law of God (sunidomai gar to nomo tou theou; Condelector enim legi Dei [Rom. 7: 22]), he finds himself made captive by another law in his members that is at war with the law of his mind (Rom. 7: 23), and cries out: “O wretched man that I am, who shal deliver me from the body of this death!” (talaiporos ego anthropos tis me rhusetai ek tou somatos tou thanatou toutou; Infelix ego homo, quis me liberabit de corpore mortis hujus? [Rom. 7: 24]).

Sidney may well appear to be tiptoeing around this issue. But if, when he claims that it is the poet’s labour to bring us “to be moved to do that which we know, or to be moved with desire to know,” he is careful to insist that he is speaking only of human sciences, “and according to the human conceit,”17 this caution is surely understandable. For in dealing with a problematic that is recognizably akin to that of Paul’s anguished question, he is in some danger of being thought to hold up the delightful enticements of secular fiction as an answer to that question.

Insofar as Sidney frames the issue in terms of an opposition of two mental faculties or abstractions, wit and will, thereby avoiding the somatic or corporeal terminology of St. Paul, he might be said, with some degree of historical accuracy, to be engaged in a proleptic aestheticizing of the question. He is also, I think, negotiating a way around the disabling position into which (as Andrew Weiner showed) the dominant Calvinist theology pressed his contemporary George Gascoigne when he attempted to legitimize poetry.18 Gascoigne could represent poetry as his calling, and remind readers of St. Paul’s injunction that “All that is written is written for our instruction” [cf. Rom. 15: 4], but in considering the moral impact of poetry he was reduced to acknowledging it as “a two edged swoorde” in his readers’ “naked hands.”19

I would suggest that Sidney’s strategy in the Defence involves an implicit appeal from Calvin to a no less unimpeachable authority, St. Augustine. The notion of delight is at least marginally present in St. Paul’s discussion of the perverse bondage of the will (“For I delite in the Law of God” [Rom. 7: 22]); and in St. Augustine’s first major attempt to grapple with the questions raised by St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, his Ad Simplicianum de diversis quaestionibus, delight becomes a concept of primary importance in understanding the movements of the human will. But although Calvin is often described as a neo-Augustinian theologian, there is little if any place for delight in his thinking about human actions and their motivation.20 In advancing the delights of poetry as an answer to the problem posed by our fallen, infected wills, Sidney is escaping from the grim constraints of Calvinism into a mental universe that is in several respects more hospitable to works of the imagination. (It was, for example, Augustine who most clearly recognized that Plato’s attack upon poetry, and art in general, as imitative, derivative and therefore false, rests upon what we would now call a category-mistake: a horse and the picture of a horse are different things, he insisted: unde vera pictura esset, si falsus equus non esset? “How could it be a true picture, unless it was a false horse?”)21

As Peter Brown writes, Augustine expresses in his Ad Simplicianum the view that “'Delight' is the only possible source of action, nothing else can move the will. Therefore, a man can act only if he can mobilize his feelings, only if he is 'affected' by an object of delight.”22 However, movement from delight to action is itself problematic:

For it is just this vital capacity to engage one’s feelings on a course of action, to take “delight” in it, that escapes our powers of self-determination...: “The fact that those things that make for successful progress towards God should cause us delight is not acquired by our good intentions, earnestness and the value of our own good will—but is dependent on the inspiration granted us by God....”23

Delight is therefore, as Brown writes, “discontinuous, startlingly erratic.” And if it first presents itself as offering a solution to the question of how a self entangled in perversity is able to orient itself towards the divine, it cannot subsequently prevent the return, at another level, of that same perversity. In Augustine’s own words, “Who can embrace wholeheartedly what gives him no delight? But who can determine for himself that what will delight him should come his way, and, when it comes, that it should, in fact, delight him?”24

This psychology of delight reappears in Augustine’s account of his conversion in Book VIII of the Confessions. He analyzes there the monstrosity of a condition in which the mind, though instantly obeyed when it commands the body, is resisted when it commands itself to will.25 As he approaches the moment of irrevocable commitment, two contrary delights appeal to him—the first imaged in terms of his fleshly habits:

The very toys of toys, and vanities of vanities, my ancient mistresses, still held me; they plucked my fleshly garment, and whispered softly, “Dost thou cast us off? and from that moment shall we no more be with thee for ever? and from that moment shall not this or that be lawful for thee for ever?” And what was it which they suggested in that I said, “this or that,” what did they suggest, O my God? Let Thy mercy turn it away from the soul of Thy servant.26

But a contrary image draws him away from these temptations, an image of “the chaste dignity of Continency, serene, yet not relaxedly gay, honestly alluring me to come, and doubt not; and stretching forth to receive and embrace me, her holy hands full of multitudes of good examples.” This figure, who evidently overlaps with Augustine’s mother Monica, urges him to cast himself upon her husband, the Lord—and, when he delays, exhorts him to stop his ears against his earthly members: “They tell thee of delights, but not as doth the law of the Lord thy God.”27 The maternal figure of Continence is as much the alma redemptoris mater in this psychomachia of contrary delights as the Mother of God would become in the devotional imagery of later generations. She is, in effect, exhorting Augustine to free himself from the “fleshly garment” of his masculine sexuality, and to cast his essential (feminized) self, the anima within, into the embrace of the Lord.

I wonder whether it is altogether too extravagant to suggest that this Augustinian moment of conversion may be parodied and inverted in Book 2 of Sidney's Arcadia, in the erotic entanglement in which Zelmane/Pyrocles finds herself. Basilius, Zelmane’s secular Lord, does indeed invite her to cast herself upon him, while the Arcadian queen, Gynecia (womanly, if hardly continent), exhorts her no longer to conceal under a woman’s garment the masculine self which she has detected: “There is no one beame of those thoughts you have planted in me, but is able to discerne a greater cloud than you doo goe in. Seeke not to conceale your selfe further from me, nor force not the passion of love into violent extremities.”28 The infatuated Lord and the incontinent mother have thus inverted the Augustinian scene; their invitations and proffered embraces are overtly sexual. But in this case delight draws Zelmane in one direction only—to their daughter, her mistress, unto whom her soul cleaves,

both thorow the ivory case of her body, and the apparell which did over-clowd it. All the bloud of Zelmanes body stirring in her, as wine will do when suger is hastely put into it, seeking to sucke the sweetnes of the beloved guest; her hart, like a lion new imprisoned, seeing him that restraines his libertie, before the grate; not panting, but striving violently (if it had bene possible) to have leapt into the lappe of Philoclea.29

It is not a division within the self, but rather constraints of an explicitly social nature that prevent Zelmane from openly declaring her love, and inner masculinity, much earlier than she does.

My suggestion, then, is that Sidney is aware not just of the applicability of an Augustinian psychology of delight to the problem of legitimizing poetry, but also of the fact that, once applied, it may be less likely to lead one into the chaste embrace of Continence than into a warm involvement with the folds and protrusions of the beloved’s, and one’s own, fleshly garment—with the “this or that” which Augustine begged God in his mercy to turn away from the soul of his servant. Sidney’s “aesthetic of delight,” if we can call it that, is therefore—paradoxically, given the tendency of the discourse of aesthetics towards disembodiment—an aesthetic of corporeality, and one which in its deliberately teasing relationship with the reader reminds her of her own embodiment.

I have cited William Temple as one early reader of Sidney who, in his Ramist fever of dichotomizing, appears to have missed the point of the Defence. I will conclude by mentioning another later reader of Sidney who, for all his very considerable eccentricity, seems to have been more perceptive. I refer to Thomas Vaughan, who in Magia Adamica (1650) compared his own strange alchemical philosophizing to Sidney’s fiction: “As for the work it self, it is no way troublesome, a Lady may reade the Arcadia, and at the same time attend this Philosophie without disturbing her fansie.”30 In the verse envoy which concludes this text, Vaughan returns to this theme; addressing his own book, he writes:

Th’art a fine Thing and little: it may Chance 
Ladies will buy thee for a new Romance
Oh how I’le envy Thee! when thou art spread
In the bright Sun-shine of their Eyes, and read
with Breath of Amber [ ... ] 
When from their white hands they shall let thee fall 
Into their Bosomes, which I may not call
Ought of Misfortune, Thou do’st drop to rest
In a more pleasing place, and art more blest. 
There in some silken, soft Fold thou shalt lye
Hid like their Love, or thy own Mysterie.31

In aligning his text with the Arcadia’s genre of romance, Vaughan is also making clear its designs upon the (female) reader. The open secret of romance is its drift, through narrative folds of dilation and deferral, toward a jouissance that is unmistakably corporeal and sexual. The challenge to an Augustinian psychology of delight—or what the orthodox might want to call an inversion or perversion of that psychology—has been made explicit, though others might prefer to locate the perversity in Augustine’s denial of his sexuality and corporeality.

In either case, the secret—which, like Poe’s celebrated purloined letter, was only ever ‘hidden’ by being left in full view—is out.




1  Tony Bennett, Outside Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 143-66.

2  Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 13, 9.

3  See Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984); I am paraphrasing a sentence from p. 59.

4  A. C. Hamilton, Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 117.

5  James A. Devereux, S.J., “The Meaning of Delight in Sidney's Defence of Poesy,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 15.1 (Spring 1982): 85-97.

6  Devereux, 85, n. 3, 88. See Geoffrey Shepherd, ed., An Apology for Poetry (London: Nelson, 1965), pp. 67-69, 70-71.

7  Shepherd, p. 16.

8  O. B. Hardison, Jr., “The Two Voices of Sidney's Apology for Poetry,” ELR 2.1 (1972); rpt. in Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Arthur F, Kinney (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986), pp. 78, 87.

9  John C. Ulreich, Jr., “'The Poets Only Deliver': Sidney's Conception of Mimesis,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 15.1 (1982); rpt. in Kinney, ed., Essential Articles, pp. 135, 142.

10  D. H. Craig, “A Hybrid Growth: Sidney's Theory of Poetry in An Apology for Poetry,” ELR 10.2 (1980); rpt. in Kinney, ed., Essential Articles, p. 113.

11  The Defence of Poesy, in Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 216.

12  Ibid., pp. 216-17.

13  William Temple's “Analysis” of Sir Philip Sidney's “Apology for Poetry”, ed. John Webster (Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1984), pp. 80-81.

14  Defence, ed. Duncan-Jones, p. 226.

15  Andrew D. Weiner, “Moving and Teaching: Sidney's Defence of Poesie as a Protestant Poetic,” The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2.2 (1972); rpt. in Kinney, ed., Essential Articles, p. 100.

16  I am quoting from The Geneva Bible (The Annotated New Testament, 1602 Edition), ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989). Here and in Romans 7: 22 and 7: 24 I have inserted readings of the Greek and Vulgate texts in places where the wording is relevant to the issues of knowledge, delight and embodiment treated here. I have used the texts of The Greek New Testament, ed. Barbara Aland et al. (4th revised ed., Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001), and Bibla Sacra Vulgatae editionis (Tournay: Desclée Lefebvre, 1881).

17  Defence, ed. Duncan-Jones, p. 226.

18  See Weiner, pp. 92-97.

19  Qtd. from Weiner, p. 95.

20  See for example Calvin's Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie, ed. D. W. and T. F. Torrance (1960; rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 153. One will look in vain in the subject index of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), for “delight” or similar words.

21  Augustine, Soliloquies, II. x, in Patrologia latina, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1832), vol. 32, col. 893; qtd. from A. D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 18.

22  Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (1967; 2nd revised ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p. 148.

23  Ibid., quoting Ad Simplicianum, I, qu. ii, 21.

24  Ad Simplicianum, I, qu. ii, 21; qtd. in Brown, p. 149.

25  Augustine, Confessions, VIII [ix.] 21.

26  The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. E. B. Pusey (London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1910), VIII [xi.] 26, p. 169.

27  Ibid., VIII [xi.] 27, p. 170.

28  Arcadia, II. 1, in The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (4 vols., 1912; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), vol. 1, pp. 149-50.

29  Ibid, II. 4, Works, vol. 1, p. 167.

30  Thomas Vaughan, Magia Adamica, in The Works of Thomas Vaughan, ed. Alan Rudrum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 220.

31  Ibid., p. 233.