Chapter I. The Classical Conception of the Purpose of Poetry
To say that poetry has a moral effect on the reader is not the same as to say that moral improvement is the purpose of poetry. The following section of this historical study will be devoted to tracing the substitution of the second assertion for the first.
As has been shown, the classical critics were in substantial agreement with Aristotle in defining rhetoric as the faculty of discovering all possible means to persuasion. Although the consensus of classical opinion agreed that poetry does have a moral effect on the reader, it never defined poetry as an art of discovering all means to moral improvement. As will be shown, such a definition of poetry was not formulated previous to the renaissance. Then by combining Aristotle's definition of tragedy from the Poetics with his definition of rhetoric, Lombardus defined poetic as
a faculty of finding out whatsoever is accommodated to the imitation of
actions, passions, customs, in rhythmical language, for the purpose of
correcting the vices of men and causing them to live good and happy
The same definition, derived as Spingarn has shown from the same sources, was formulated by Varchi.
Poetic is a faculty which shows in what modes one may imitate certain
actions, passions, and customs, with rhythm, words, and harmony,
together or separately, for the purpose of removing the vices of men and
inciting them to virtue, in order that they may attain their true
happiness and beatitude.
I propose, after reviewing the classical conception of poetry as an educational agent, to trace briefly the rise of allegorical interpretation of poetry in post-classical times and in the middle ages; to exemplify the tendency of renaissance criticism to borrow the terminology of classical rhetoric when it asserted that the purpose of poetry is moral improvement; and finally, to study in the literary criticism of the English renaissance those moral theories of poetry which derive from the middle ages, from the classical rhetorics, and from the criticism of the Italian renaissance.
2. Moral Improvement through Precept and Example
The ancients believed that great poetry produces moral improvement in the reader. Before the judgment seat of Dionysos, as is recorded in The Frogs of Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Euripides engage in an interesting and instructive dispute. “Come,” says Aeschylus, “tell me what are the points for which we praise a noble poet.” Euripides replies, “For his ready wit and his wise counsels and because he trains the townsfolk to be better citizens and worthier men.” Aeschylus then goes on to show that he has merited well of his countrymen because he has preached the military virtues and his dramas have been full of Ares. Euripides he accuses of softening the moral fibre of the Athenians by introducing on the stage immoral plots and love-sick women. Such drama Aeschylus asserts to be immoral in its effect. “For boys a school teacher is provided; but we, the poets, are teachers of men.”
This represents the well-nigh universal Greek opinion. Poetry inspires, teaches, makes better men. A further example of this idea is furnished by Timocles. “Our spirit,” says one of the characters in the drama, “forgetting its own sorrows in sympathizing with the misfortunes of others, receives at the theatre instruction and pleasure at one time.”
The real opinions of Plato are here difficult to discover. In the Protagoras, however, he puts into the mouth of that famous sophist an exposition of the conventional Greek opinion.
When a boy has learned his letters and is beginning to understand what
is written, as before he understood only what was spoken, they put into
his hands the works of great poets, which he reads sitting on a bench at
school; in these are contained many admonitions, and many tales, and
praises, and encomia of ancient famous men, which he is required to
learn by heart, in order that he may imitate them and desire to become
It is in the Republic, of course, that Plato enunciates his capital objections to poetry. The first objection is that poetry as an imitative art is three removes from truth. The divine powers, for instance, create the idea of a table—the only true table. A carpenter makes a particular table which is not the real, but only an appearance. A graphic artist making a picture of this appearance is only an imitator of appearances. “And the tragic poet is an imitator and therefore thrice removed from the king and from the truth.” The second objection which Plato raises against poetry is that poetry is addressed to the passional element in man. The man of noble spirit and philosophy will not lament his misfortunes, especially in public, while the lower orders of intellect are likely to express all their feelings with greater freedom, and thus furnish the poet with easier subjects for imitation. Consequently poetry has the power of harming the good, for a good man will be in raptures at the excellences of the poet who stirs his feelings most by representing a hero in an emotional condition. As a result, when he himself suffers sorrow or is moved by his own passions, it becomes more difficult for him to repress his feelings. Plato thus examines the popular contention that the study of poetry educates the moral character of a man, and still maintaining that it should be a moral force for good, demonstrates to his own satisfaction that it fails to have the supposed beneficial effect because it is three removes from truth, and because it encourages unrestrained emotionalism in conduct. Plato's moral standard of poetry is even better illustrated, perhaps, by the kind of poetry which he does not ban from his ideal commonwealth. “We must remain firm in our conviction,” he says, “that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our state.” As his utmost concession to poetry, he will admit her if her defenders can prove “not only that she is pleasant, but also useful to states and to human life.” According to a later view, to be sure, Plato has been thought to justify pleasure of a most refined and exalted variety as an end of art. “The view which identifies the pleasant and the just and the good and the noble has an excellent moral and religious tendency.” In view, however, of other pronouncements, such an endeavor to father upon him the hedonistic theory of the purpose of art seems strained and ineffective.
It was to justify poetry against the attacks of Plato that Aristotle advanced a hedonistic view of poetry and propounded his theory of katharsis. Nowhere in the Poetics does Aristotle explicitly state that the function of poetry is to give pleasure. Indirect evidence, however, is plentiful. For instance, Aristotle justifies poetry as an imitative art because children learn by imitation and the pleasure in imitation is universal. Furthermore, plot in tragedy is more important than character; for in painting, a confused mass of colors gives less pleasure than a chalk drawing of a portrait. Beauty in any art depends in a measure on magnitude; therefore a play must not be too short. Most of the tragic poets of Greece derived their plots from a limited number of well known stories. But Aristotle justifies Agathon for departing from this custom and making both his plot and characters fictitious, for the plays of Agathon give none the less pleasure. But not all pleasure, he says, is appropriate to tragedy. In comedy we are pleased to see enemies walk off the stage as friends, but in tragedy the “pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation.” Marvels, too, and wonders in poetry he justifies because “the wonderful is pleasing; as may be inferred from the fact that everyone tells a story with additions of his own, knowing that his hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skilfully.” And at the very end of the Poetics, where he is endeavoring to prove that tragedy is a higher art than epic, he does so by showing that drama has all the epic elements, and in addition music and spectacle, which produce the most vivid of pleasures. Moreover the drama is more compact; “for the concentrated effect is more pleasurable than one which is diluted.” Thus, in the Poetics, Aristotle takes a non-moral attitude toward literature, although in the Politics he grants that poetry and music are eminently serviceable in conveying moral instruction to young people. His mature attitude is well illustrated in contrast with that of Aristophanes. Aristophanes criticises Euripides severely as a perverter of Athenian morality. Aristotle mentions Euripides about twenty times in the Poetics, and frequently criticises him adversely, not, however, for his evil moral influence, but because he uses his choruses badly, and is faulty in character-drawing.
In answer to Plato's second objection to poetry, that it encourages unrestrained emotionalism, Aristotle propounded his theory of katharsis. “Tragedy,” he says, “is an imitation of an action ... through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” That Aristotle had in mind an analogy with medicine is better understood from a passage in the Politics which describes the beneficial effect of music on patients suffering from religious ecstasy. The stimulating music furnishes the patient with an outlet for the expression of his religious fervor. Afterwards, says Aristotle, the patients “fall back into their normal state, as if they had undergone a medical or purgative treatment.” Thus the theory of katharsis seems to have the same basis as the modern psychological theory which encourages the expression of emotions in their milder form lest, if inhibited, they gather added power and finally burst disastrously through all restraints. Consequently, although hedonist theorists have been anxious to establish katharsis on a purely aesthetic foundation, it seems that the theory has inescapable moral implications. To be sure, Aristotle in the same section of the Politics says that the emotional result of katharsis is “harmless joy,” and in the Poetics he says that pity and fear produce the appropriate pleasure of tragedy. Nevertheless Aristotle is answering Plato's objections to unrestrained emotionalism, and by his theory of katharsis endeavors to show not only that the emotional excitation of tragedy is harmless to the spectator, but that it is actually good for him.
But if the spectator is to derive these emotional excitations from tragedy, his aesthetic experience cannot be passive. Aristotle recommends as the ideal tragic hero a man not preeminently good nor unusually depraved, but a man between these extremes; “for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.” Evidently, then, through his imagination the spectator must in a lively fashion participate in the action of the drama. Not only is he present at the action, even when he reads the drama, but he identifies himself with the hero and vicariously experiences his emotions.
But neither the hedonism of Aristotle, nor his defense of poetry on moral grounds through his theory of katharsis, is usual in Greek criticism. Isocrates and Xenophon adhere to the usual opinion. Isocrates believes that Homer was prized by the earlier Greeks because his poems instilled a hatred of the barbarians, and kindled in the hearts of the readers a desire to emulate the heroes who fought against Troy. One might think that the hatred of the barbarians was not the highest degree of morality, but perhaps for the political integrity of Greece it was. That Homer especially was supposed to have a moral influence is illustrated also by Xenophon. Niceratus, in the Symposium, is telling the diners of what knowledge he is most proud. “My father,” he says, “in his pains to make me a good man, compelled me to learn the whole of Homer's poems.”
Strabo in a famous passage records an exceptional hedonism in Greek thought and goes on to expound the conventional belief.
Eratosthenes says that the poet directs his whole attention to the
amusement of the mind, and not at all to its instruction. In opposition
to this idea, the ancients define poesy as a primitive philosophy,
guiding our life from infancy, and pleasantly regulating our morals, our
tastes, and our actions. The Stoics of our day affirm that the only wise
man is the poet. On this account the earliest lessons which the citizens
of Greece convey to their children are from the poets; certainly not for
the purpose of amusing their minds, but for their instruction.
This same moral and educational view of poetry so permeates Plutarch's essay On the Study of Poetry that it is difficult to quote from him without reproducing the whole treatise. The young man who is being taught poetry, Plutarch believes, should be made “to indulge in pleasure merely as a relish, and to seek for the useful and the wholesome,” in his reading. Some believe that, because some of the pleasures of poetry are pernicious, young men should not be allowed to read. This, Plutarch believes, would be every whit as foolish as to cut down the vineyards because some people are addicted to drunkenness. Young men should be taught to use poetry intelligently. “Poetry is not to be scrupulously avoided by those who intend to be philosophers, but they are to make poetry a fitting school for philosophers, by forming the habit of seeking and gaining the profitable in the pleasant.” The profit of poetry he believes to come from two sources: maxims and examples. He praises very highly such sententiae as “Virtue keeps its luster untarnished,” and “know thyself.” Indeed, the moral value of such precepts weighed so heavily with Plutarch that he advocated emending the poets to bring them in more strict accord with the ethics of the Stoic philosophy. For instance:
Thus, why not change such a passage as this, “That man is to be envied
who so aims as to hit his wish,” to read, “who so aims as to hit his
advantage”? for to get and have things wrongly desired merits pity, not
But greater than the moral value of maxims in the poets is that of example. “Philosophers employ examples from history for our correction and instruction, and the poets differ from them only by inventing and presenting fictitious narratives.” For instance, according to Plutarch, Homer introduces the story of Hera's vain endeavor to gain her ends from Zeus by means of wine and the girdle of Aphrodite to show that such conduct is not only immoral, but useless. Again we may conclude that frequenting women in the day time is a shame and a reproach because the only man who does such a thing in the Iliad is that lascivious and adulterous fellow Paris. It is interesting that this essay of Plutarch's, which gives probably the most complete classical exposition of the moral use of poetry, should have been well known in the renaissance and translated into English by Philemon Holland in 1603.
The Romans had very much the same feeling about the moral value in poetry as had the Greeks. The only fundamental difference lay in that the Roman was less philosophical and more practical. This practical element in Roman criticism is well illustrated by Horace, whose statements have sometimes been made to support opinions which Horace did not hold. Let it be noted, for one thing, that Horace is talking not about the purpose of poetry, but about the purpose of the poet.
Poets desire either to profit or to delight, or to tell things which are
at once pleasant and profitable.
His reason for favoring the third view is important.
Old men reject poems which are void of instruction; the knights neglect
austere poems: he who mixes the useful with the sweet wins the approval
of all by delighting and at the same time admonishing the reader. This
book makes money for the book-sellers, and passes over the sea, and
prolongs the reputation of the well-known author.
But aside from the desirability of mingling pleasure with profit in his poetry in order to gain the greatest popularity, the poet does have an educational value in the training of youths by presenting in an attractive manner examples of noble conduct which the young people may desire to emulate.
His lessons form the child's young lips, and wean
The boyish ear from words and tales unclean;
As years roll on, he moulds the ripening mind,
And makes it just and generous, sweet and kind;
He tells of worthy precedents, displays
The example of the past to after days,
Consoles affliction, and disease allays.
Moreover the consensus of conventional opinion in the Roman world was that the study of the poets did succeed in moulding the moral character of the youth. Apuleius, writing of a certain virtuous young man, the hero of one of the episodes of the Metamorphoses, makes the following incidental remark: “The master of the house had a young son well instructed in good literature, and consequently remarkable for his piety and modesty.”
Although Lucretius may not have been assured of the moral value, he was so convinced of the seductive powers of poetry that he deliberately utilized them to make palatable the forbidding thoughts of his essay On the Nature of Things. The long passage is worth quoting entire because his comparison is borrowed so frequently by renaissance critics to illustrate the poetic doctrine of pleasurable profit. Lucretius says:
But as physicians, when they attempt to give bitter wormwood to
children, first tinge the rim round the cup with the sweet and yellow
liquid of honey, that the age of childhood, as yet unsuspicious, may
find its lips deluded, and may in the meantime drink the bitter juice of
the wormwood, and though deceived, may not be injured, but rather, being
recruited by such a process, may acquire strength; so now I, since this
argument seems generally too severe and forbidding to those by whom it
has not been handled, and since the multitude shrink back from it, was
desirous to set forth my chain of reasoning to thee, O Memmius, in
sweetly-speaking Pierian verse, and, as it were, tinge it with the honey
of the Muses.
From this survey of classical opinion we may conclude that the public looked for two things in poetry: pleasure and profit. Eratosthenes took an extreme view in seeking pleasure alone. Both Aristotle and Horace emphasized the pleasure to be derived from poetry, although neither denied that poetry is beneficial. Horace takes almost a cynical view in suggesting that, as some readers seek pleasure in poetry and others improvement, a poet will be more popular and make more money for the book-sellers if he mingles both elements. The extreme view of the moral value of poetry was taken by the educators of youth. This view is well exemplified in the quotations from Aristophanes, Xenophon, Strabo, and especially Plutarch. But even Plutarch, who goes so far as to suggest emending the poets to make their effect more moral, does not suggest that the purpose of poetry is to afford moral instruction. He distinguishes; some poetry is distinctly immoral and should be enjoyed only for its art. Other poetry is moral in its effect, and consequently should be utilized extensively by the school-master in educating young men. For such purposes no poetry was thought to be better than Homer, whose epics furnish so many examples of heroic conduct.
3. Moral Improvement through Allegory
When the Roman arms conquered a new city, the story runs, the commander of the forces took over in the name of the Emperor the gods; but before the gates of Jerusalem this ceremony proved ineffective. The fathers of the Christian church, Tatian, Hermas, Theophilus, and Tertullian, believing that all the truth was contained in Christianity, utterly condemned the philosophy and religion of the Greeks and consequently the poetry which, according to Greek popular belief, was the inspired vehicle for its presentation. Furthermore, the gods of the Greeks were immoral and furnished their worshippers with bad examples of conduct. Long before Tertullian the moral philosophers of antiquity had already attacked the poetry of Greece and Rome on the ground of immorality. Plato in his day called the war between philosophy and poetry “age-long.” The ancient Greeks had considered Homer and Hesiod as the inspired recorders of the facts of religion. They had looked to the poets for moral dogma and example. Of necessity the philosophers condemned the poets for the immorality of their thievish, lying, and adulterous pantheon.
When the Christian fathers were confronted with the Syriac gospel of the youth of Jesus, they called a council to declare it apochryphal. Lest some devout reader should take literally the love poetry of the Canticles, the fathers allegorized it as the love of Christ for his Church. Unfortunately for Greek religion the philosophers did not determine which episodes in the histories of the gods were valid as doctrine and which were fictitious. They did, however, anticipate the fathers in their allegorical interpretations. Socrates in the Phaedrus laughs at allegory; and Plutarch believes that the poets intended to teach a moral idea by example instead of expressing a hidden meaning by allegory. For him allegory involved distortion and perversion. “For some men distort these stories and pervert them into allegories or what the men of old times called hidden meanings á½'Ï€ÏÎ½Î¿Î¹Î±Î¹.” But allegory none the less flourished. Theognis of Rhegium, Anaxagoras, and Stesimbrotus of Thasos, were assiduous and startling in their interpretations. The Greek allegorical interpretations were of two kinds: one an explanation of the secrets of nature, the other the teaching of morality. Although the practice was very old, the word “allegory” is not recorded before Cicero, who says:
When the imagery of the metaphor is sustained for a long time, the
nature of the style assuredly becomes changed. Consequently the Greeks
call this sort of thing allegory.... But he is nearer the truth who
calls all of these metaphors.
From Cicero on, allegory has a long history as a rhetorical figure—a trope. St. Augustine recommends that students of the scriptures study the rhetorical figures so that they may be able to interpret the tropes in the Bible, such as allegory.
The result will always be the same whenever the poets are considered theologians and moral teachers. They will be condemned or allegorized. Fortunate are the poets when they are not believed. “How much better,” exclaims St. Augustine, “are these fables of the poets” than the false religious notions of the Manichees. “But Medea flying, although I chanted sometimes, yet I maintained not the truth of; and though I heard it sung, I believed it not: but these phantasies I thoroughly believed.” For it is only when one believes devoutly that Zeus procured access to Danae in a shower of gold, that his action gives a divine sanction to such traffic in beauty on the agora or in the forum. It is only when the poets make no pretense of recounting facts that they can escape the clutches of the philosophers. It was to save the poets from such attacks that Aristotle asserts that poetry deals with the universal, not with the particular. Or, as Spingarn explains his meaning, “Poetry has little regard for the actuality of specific event, but aims at the reality of an eternal probability.”
4. The Influence of Rhetoric
Thus the general consensus of classical opinion agreed that poetry has inescapable moral effects on those who listen or read. The moralists, especially the Stoics, when confronted with traditional poetry whose literal significance was immoral, leaned toward allegorical interpretations which brought out a kernel of truth. The greater number, however, of Greeks and Romans in the classical period believed that poetry exerted the most potent influence for good when it enunciated crisp moral maxims and afforded examples of heroic conduct which young people could be induced to follow.
In all these respects the classical view of poetic has much in common with classical rhetoric. Allegory has been shown to have had a long history as an extended metaphor—a rhetorical figure. Maxims are considered fully by Aristotle as aids to persuasion in rhetoric. The exemplum is obviously a stock means of rhetoric.
“Examples,” says Aristotle, “are of two kinds, one consisting in the allegation of historical facts, and the other in the invention of facts for oneself. Invention comprises illustration on the one hand and ... fables on the other.” Then he tells how Aesop defended a demagogue by the fable of the fox caught in the cleft of a rock. The fox was infested with dog-ticks which sucked his blood. A benevolent hedge-hog offered to remove the ticks, but the fox declined the kind offer on the ground that his ticks were already full of blood and had ceased to annoy him much, whereas if they were removed, a new colony of ticks would establish themselves and thus entirely drain him of blood. “Yes, and in your case, men of Samos,” said Aesop, “my client will not do much further mischief—he has already made his fortune—but, if you put him to death, there will come others who are poor and who will consume all the revenues of the state by their embezzlements.” “Fables,” continues the shrewd master of those who know, “have this advantage that, while historical parallels are hard to find, it is comparatively easy to find fables.” Quintilian, like Aristotle, believes in the persuasive efficacy of examples. But Quintilian has less faith in the probative value of fictitious examples than he has in those drawn from authentic history. He thinks that fables are most effective with a rustic and ingenuous audience, which “captivated by their pleasure in the story, give assent to that which pleases them.” Thus Menenius Agrippa reconciled the people to the senators by telling them the fable of the revolt of the members against the belly. And Thomas Wilson, in his Arte of Rhetorique, repeats the story, in his section on examples, and ascribes to Themistocles the fox story which Aristotle tells of Aesop.
But Aristotle, Quintilian, and Wilson are talking about rhetoric. Very justly they believe that if one wants to persuade an audience to a course of action, he must interest his audience sufficiently to hold their attention. As Wilson sagely remarks, “For except men finde delite, they will not long abide: delite them and winne them.” Cicero expressed in memorable phrase the relationship between proof and pleasure as instruments to persuasion and added a third element. He classified the aims of an orator as “to teach, to please, to move” ( docere, delectare, movere). The teaching is the appeal to the intellect of the hearer by means of proof. The pleasure is afforded by a euphonious style, and by fables and stories. The audience is moved to action by the appeal to their feelings.
Not until the renaissance did writers on the theory of poetry carry over Cicero's threefold aim of the orator and make it apply to the poet. But already in post-classical times rhetoric had, as Seneca the father clearly shows, vitiated the Latin poetry of the Silver Age. Under the Empire the declamation schools in Rome had a profound influence on literature. It could not be otherwise in a society where the school of rhetoric was the only temple of higher education, for which the grammaticus, or elementary professor of literature, was constrained to prepare his students. Rhetoric was the organon of Roman education, and declamation was the aim of rhetoric. It was such an educational system which prepared Ovid and Lucan for their careers as poets and men of letters. Seneca the father records the brilliant declamations of Ovid as a schoolboy, quoting at some length his plea for a wife who threw herself over a cliff on hearing of the death of her husband, and calling attention to several passages in Ovid's poems where the poet has borrowed the clever sayings of his professors in the school of rhetoric. Ovid makes his characters prove that they are moved by passion instead of being passionate in word and deed. He vitiates his emotions with his wit. This is characteristic of almost all the poets who attended the declamation schools. They talk about situations and characters instead of realizing them. They write as if they were speaking to an audience. One can almost see the gestures, the wait for applause after the enunciation of a noble platitude. Not only historically, but also in the worst modern sense this is rhetoric. It is not unreasonable to conclude that such a preoccupation with rhetoric, such a sustained search for all possible means of persuasion, should have strengthened rather than weakened the utilitarian theory of poetry. The school-master endeavored to mould the characters of his students by examples from heroic poetry; the teacher of rhetoric, in turn, taught them that to persuade an audience they must prove, please, and move, and that ficticious examples were about as persuasive as historical parallels and much easier to find. When the student left school he continued to seek means of persuasion in canvassing votes, pleading in the courts, or deliberating in the senate. If he became a poet, he did not forget the lessons of his youth; or if he became a teacher of literature or a professor of rhetoric, he perpetuated the tradition.