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Poetry and Horseplay in Sidney's Defence of Poesie

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The playful discussion of 'horsemanship' that opens Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie has been variously interpreted as a straightforward anecdote about the chivalric arts, or an oblique rhetorical flourish, or something in between. This essay suggests a new context for Sidney's exordium by focusing primarily on its affiliation to the genre of the 'Art of Poetry'. In Horace's Ars poetica and other classical, scholastic and Renaissance treatises, horse-men and other unnatural hybrids embody the tension between decorum and poetic liberty. Three major traditions inform this trope: by the Renaissance the centaur could be an allegory of reason's struggle with the passions, an emblem of the poetic imagination, or a figure for compositional hybridity associated, especially, with Lucianic satire. Reading Sidney in the light of these traditions, finally, this essay explores aspects of the centaur's significance in the Defence and the Arcadia, and suggests that this kind of attention to metaphor might provide a bridge between critical and creative modes of Renaissance poetic thought.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Cambridge, Trinity College

Publication date: December 1, 2016

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  • The JWCI is intended as an interdisciplinary forum for scholars specialising in art history, the history of ideas, and cultural history. It publishes articles based on new research, normally from primary sources. Topics include the arts in their various forms, religion, philosophy, science, literature and magic, as well as intellectual, political and social life, from Antiquity to the dawn of the contemporary era. Usually the subjects discussed either centre on or have some connection with Western, typically European cultures; therefore, too, the JWCI provides a home for research into the many interconnections between those cultures and others which have flourished beyond European borders - particularly, but by no means limited to, the cultures and learning of the Near East.

    Founded in 1937 as one of the first publishing projects of the Warburg Institute following its arrival in London, the Journal of the Warburg Institute became the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes two years later and has flourished as a collaborative enterprise since that time. Still produced in-house at the Warburg, the JWCI relies on Editorial and Advisory Board members drawn from both the Warburg Institute and the Courtauld Institute of Art, and on our two institutions' extensive scholarly libraries, research facilities and international links and networks.

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