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Joshua Mcloughlin: Sidney's 'Stuff' - Poetry, humanism and masturbation

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What are poems made of? What presence do they have? What substance or trace of the poet might poems contain? During the English Renaissance, 'poesy', Rayna Kalas argues, was recognised 'as techne rather than aesthetics'. In other words poetry, in this period, was an artisanal craft like any other. But for Philip Sidney, the poet’s peers are not glassmakers, tanners, or masons but other intellectuals: philosophers, lawyers, historians, and scientists. However, in his Defence of Poesie (1595), the poet is different. While ‘other arts’ ‘hath the works of nature for’ their ‘principal object’:

Only the Poet, disdeining to be tied to any such subiectio[n], lifted vp with the vigor of his own inuention, doth grow in effect into an other nature: in making things either better then nature bringeth foorth, or quite a new, formes such as neuer were in nature.

If poets don’t, like ‘other arts’, rework existing ‘formes’, but create ‘a new’, what are poems made of? Sidney explains that the poet ‘bringeth his own stuffe’ and ‘maketh matter for a conceite’. ‘Stuffe’? The poet ‘bringeth [...] stuff ’ to make poems? The word strikes a note of bathos, puncturing a passage asserting the superiority of poetic making over ‘other arts’ and nature itself, which ‘neuer set foorth the earth in so rich Tapistry as diuerse Poets haue done’. The prosaic intrusion of ‘stuff ’ deflates an oration modelled after Renaissance humanist panegyrics on the soaring power of the human intellect – what Christopher Marlowe would later satirise as the overweening ‘mind of man’.

An early example of such an oration is Marsilo Ficino’s Platonica theologia (1482), which valorised man as ‘a sort of God’: a ‘semi-creator’. In his 1481 commentary on Dante, Ficino’s contemporary Cristoforo Landino said ‘poetry’ is a ‘middle term between “to create”, which is appropriate to God [...] and “to make”, which is said of men in every art when they compose something out of matter and form.’ For Landino, the poet is a semi-divine figure, somewhere between God and man, who ‘departs from making and comes very close to creating’ ex nihilo.

The idea of the poet as godlike creator became a commonplace of Renaissance thought. In Julius Caesar Scaliger’s Poetices libri septem (1561), the most influential treatise on poetics in Europe, the poet is ‘almost a second deity’ who ‘seems [...] to create’ as God does. For Torquato Tasso, the poet’s imaginative world-making resembles ‘il supremo artefice nelle sue operazioni’. The most famous humanist panegyric of all, however, is Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s, whose Oration on the Dignity of Man is almost as humble as Ficino and Landino. The exceptionalism Sidney claims for the poet over the ‘other arts’ recalls Pico’s distinction between man and animals:

The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.

That’s Pico pretending to be God, reminding us that wherever there’s humanism, there’s hubris. Sidney’s Defence appears to mobilise the same self-gratifying triumphalism for the poet. Where Pico’s man is ‘impeded by no [...] restrictions’, Sidney’s poet is spirited from ‘subiection’; where Pico’s man, ‘by [his] own free will [...] trace[s] [...] the lineaments of [his] own nature’, Sidney’s poet is ‘lifted up with the vigour of his own invention’ to create a world of ‘forms such as never were’. But the ‘forms’ in this ‘golden’ world of poetry are made out of... ‘stuff’. The word, as you can probably tell, bothered me.

‘Stuff ’ appears more than 30 times in Sidney and Arthur Golding’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s De la vérité de la religion chréstienne, published in London in 1587 as A woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian religion. The title of Chapter 10 in Mornay’s original is:

‘Que Dieu a creé le monde de Rien, c'est a dire, sans matiere’. The translation reads:

‘That God created the world of nothing, that is to say, without any matter, substance, or stuffe whereof to make it.’

Here, ‘stuff ’ is exactly what God did not need to create the cosmos. The poet’s creative manipulation of ‘stuff ’, then, might not be as godlike as it first appeared, and this is the first clue that Sidney’s account of poetic making is no simple cut-and-dry panegyric in the Italian Renaissance mode.

But ‘stuff’ had a range of meanings in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. By 1568, ‘stuff’ was synonymous with ‘bombast’, a coarse cotton wool tailors used for padding. Both ‘stuff ’ and ‘bombast’ originally denoted clothing material, either a base layer to be adorned or a cheaper, inner stuffing designed to puff up fabric and give the illusion of density, weight, and luxury. George Puttenham, for example, in his Art of English poesie (1589) compares poetic ornament to the ‘passements of gold vpon the stuffe of a Princely garment’.

But ‘bombast’ was quickly repurposed as a metaphor to describe poetry or oratory padded out or puffed up with nonsense, redundancy, and pretentious ‘inkhorn terms’ calculated to dazzle and impress. The most famous example is Thomas Nashe’s attack on Christopher Marlowe’s ‘swelling bombast of a bragging blanke verse’. But this metaphorical sense applied to ‘stuff ’, too. In 1579 Stephen Gosson was enraged that, in Seneca the Younger’s Hercules:

Iuno crieth out in Seneca, Tellus colenda est, pellices coelum tenent; ‘Lets dwel in earth, for heauen is full of whores.’ what stuffe is this? wantons in heauen?

In the context of poetry, then, ‘stuff ’, sometimes with its partner-in-crime bombast, sometimes solo, meant poetry that was full of rubbish, hot air, flim-flam, all style and no substance. Looking again at Sidney’s poet, this reading of ‘stuff ’ frames poetry as padded out with meaningless guff: a load of overblown twaddle. But the meanings of ‘stuff ’ don’t end there. Shakespeare also describes a poet using the word ‘stuff’, adding further colour to this antipathetic sketch of poetry.

In Timon of Athens (1604–5), Timon angrily tells the philosopher Apemanthus:

If thou wilt curse; thy Father (that poore ragge) Must be thy subiect; who in spight put stuffe To some shee-Begger, and compounded thee Poore Rogue, hereditary.

(4.3.273-76)

Here, where Shakespeare’s reveals his puerility with a Jacobean ‘your mum’ joke, ‘stuff ’ means ‘semen’, a sense corroborated in Gordon Williams’s glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. But what is he getting at here? Is it what Stephen Guy-Bray calls ‘the familiar reproductive metaphor’ used to imagine poetic creation, ‘according to which the author is the parent of the work and writing a text is like having a baby’, or is Valerie Traub closer to the mark in sayin g that ‘[Shakespeare’s] Sonnets are haunted by ‘desires for and anxieties about “sex without issue”’?

Reading the relationship between poet and poem in this sexual sense, and reading ‘stuff ’ as ‘semen’, let’s see how Timon frames the Poet’s textual production in Act V:

And for thy [i.e. the Poet’s] fiction,
Why thy Verse swels with stuffe so fine and smooth, That thou art euen Naturall in thine Art.

(5.1.82-4)

Poems swell with ‘stuffe’. But since the poet, as Sidney insists, ‘only, only bringeth his own’, the meta- phor here is not reproductive but onanistic. The phrase ‘Thou art even natural in thine art’ might mean something like ‘your art proceeds from you naturally’. Taken with the Poet’s earlier description of poetry as ‘a thing slipped idly from me’, ‘a gum which oozes / From whence ‘tis nourished’, poetic creation starts to sound a lot like masturbation: a form of Traub’s ‘sex without issue’, rather than Guy-Bray’s reproductive textuality.

Pico, Ficino and Landino’s orations are also acts of verbal self-love, but Italian humanism sublimates (if we are being kind) or represses (if we are not) bodily sexuality to celebrate intellectual fecundity: Faustus’s self-pleasuring ‘mind of man’. Sidney and Shakespeare’s ‘stuff ’ goes the other way, turning the life-affirming, crowning glory of all human art and reason into an unproductive, issueless form of carnal self-pleasure. Coupled with the sense of ‘stuff ’ as superfluous or overblown rubbish noted earlier, what first appeared an oration in defence now seems a damning prosecution of poets.

In her 2017 book, On Not Defending Poetry: Defence and Indefensibility in Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, Catherine Bates ‘regard[s] the Defence as a text terminally in conflict with itself ’, in which two voices argue: one presenting the poet as virtuous and poetry as a morally sound and profitable enterprise; the other harbouring an incipient critique of capital and insisting on the poet’s deviance from normative values.

At the risk of trying to out-Bates Bates, then, we can pursue this logic. Based on what we now know of Sidney’s ‘stuff ’, the idealised poet becomes nothing more than a bullshitting wanker whose poems are made from the byproduct of masturbation. Sidney’s Defence, in the offensive spirit of satire, invokes Ficino, Landino, and Pico for a withering critique of hubris, attacking the self-gratifying bombast at the heart of the humanism’s self-image, and reminding the vainglorious ‘mind of man’ of its bodily origins. 

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2019. His work is published or forthcoming in The Times, The Spectator, The London Magazine, The Fence, Review 31 and others.

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