The Poet, the Skeptic, his Witches, and their Queen: Political Theology and Poetic Charms in Sidney’s Defence

ENGLISH LITERARY HISTORY 81.3 (2014): 733-756

Abstract: This article puts the Defence of Poesy’s critique of poetic prophecy alongside the efforts of contemporary Protestants like Reginald Scot to disenchant the idols and thereby undermine certain aspects of Tudor political theology. The political theology of sovereignty thrived on the belief that witches, charms, and idols were real conduits of spiritual evil. The idea that idolaters represented devils on earth gave support to the notion that sovereigns gained their authority directly from God. Yet demonology was also profoundly destabilizing; to suggest that the nation was afflicted with demonic influence was to suggest that the queen failed to do her divinely ordained duty. Hoping to cure the nation of such dangerous illusions, Scot and others maintained that the idol’s power was only a trick of the imagination: put your trust not in fancy, they suggested, but in magistrates. Sidney likewise criticizes prophetic poetry as an illusion. Yet if Sidney disenchants poetry on the level of metaphysics, unlike Scot and the skeptics he embraces the imaginative power of the poetic charm, channeling the idol’s imagined energy into a device promoting civic virtue. He thereby turns the mechanics of the idol to a positive use—only now images channel moral, rather than metaphysical, authority. In this way, Sidney’s Defence doubles as a critique of political theology, replacing its demonological authority with a human alternative grounded in the autonomous authority of the imagination.