A physicist loose among the liberal arts

The Defence of Sidney

Last week’s reading assignment for class included an unexpectedly entertaining essay: “The Defense of Poesy” by Sir Philip Sidney.  Sir Philip starts out with a thing that’s certain to win me over:  He runs down a list of the reasons people take up the study of science, music, mathematics, etc. … and he gets them right.  It’s not to be taken for granted that a poet will understand that.  But then we get to the fun parts.

First thing I loved:  Sidney spends a paragraph denouncing people who write with “painted affectation”, among whose sins are using too much alliteration (“coursing of a letter,” he calls it).  And the very next sentence he writes has six “p”-words in it!

But I would this fault were only peculiar to versifiers, and had not as large possession among prose-printers, and, which is to be marveled, among many scholars, and, which is to be pitied, among some preachers.

Second thing: He makes his case, and then finishes up the essay with a curse on anyone who doesn’t believe him.

…if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, … thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets:  while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

I think everyone should do this.   A curse on the unconvinced should be a formal part of academic writing, like a warrior’s boast in Anglo-Saxon, or invoking a Muse at the start of classical poems, or mentioning a season in a haiku.

But that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram, “We are all in the gutter; some of us are looking at the stars.”  It turns out that I never understood that line. I was thinking of the gutter as where we habitually spend our time (“get your mind out of the gutter”).  Now I know that Wilde pinched that image from Sir Philip, who wrote, “But when by the balance of experience it was found that the astronomer, looking to the stars, might fall into a ditch …”.   Yeah, I’ve done that.  Of all the images used in Elizabethan literature, this one might have gained the most relevance for the XXI Century.  Were he writing today, Wilde might rather have said,

We are all in the gutter, but most of us were looking at our phones.


Computer Paleography


The Ideal Reader


  1. A little known secret is that the alliteration threshold is only crossed at the seventh instance. So Sidney is within the pale.

    • Joe

      Paging Dr. Eco; Dr. Eco to the comment thread:
      “And this? Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Listen to this page: ‘Primitus pantorum procerum poematorum pio potissimum paternoque presertim privilegio panegiricum poemataque passim prosatori sub polo promulgatas.’ … The words all begin with the same letter!”
      “The men of my islands are all a bit mad,” William said proudly.

      Guess you’re right.

  2. Man, I seriously like the idea of ending each writing with a curse or something similar. How much more potent the writing would seem 😀

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