Monday, February 3, 2014

A Waste of Time?

Stephen Gosson’s four arguments against poetry seem to be excuses to ban – or at least deride – the art of poetry. Gosson claims that poetry is: a waste of one’s time, a “mother of lies,” and “the nurse of abuse.” He says that Plato had been right to ban poets and poetry from the ideal city-state society. However in his Apology for Poetry, Sidney explains reasons why poetry has its merits. He argues that poetry is an eloquent and enticing form of education – providing its readers with entertaining examples of moral virtue, and therefore is not a waste of time. Sidney also explains that the main purpose of the poet is “to tell not what is or is not, but what should or should not be.”  Rather than saying that poetry is “the nurse of abuse,” Sidney argues that is an individual’s mind that abuses poetry. When tackling Gosson’s fourth issue with poetry, Sidney notes that Plato warned against abuse by contemporary poets rather than the actual art of poetry. Sidney’s arguments not only defend poetry as an art form, but also defend against the banning of controversial poetry such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – particularly the Miller’s Tale.

At first glance, The Miller’s Tale is a raunchy, crass, and morally depraved story of the mature-rated misadventures of various middle class characters. It is easy to laugh at the low-brow humor in “This Nicholas anon leet flee a fart,/as greet as it had been a thunder-dent,/ that with the strook he was almost y-blent.” Every character seems so humorously put together – Alison is romantically called a weasel, the carpenter is ignorantly following a foolish plan to hide in a hanging barrel from a flood, etc. Gosson would be quick to argue that the tale is an asinine waste of man’s time and that more intelligent pursuits could be invested in. He would say that the poetry lies and exaggerates certain features and that it abuses its depictions of certain classes. However, Gosson would fail to see the commentary being made about sin within a society and would not notice that Nicholas cries for water to sooth his burnt bum are actually Chaucer’s clever call for the healing and purification of a sin-crazed community. 

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