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Chapter I. Introductory

By definition the renaissance was primarily a literary and scholarly movement derived from the literature of classical antiquity. Thus the historical, philosophical, pedagogical, and dramatic literatures of the renaissance cannot be accurately understood except in the light of the Greek and Roman authors whose writings inspired them. To this general rule the literary criticism of the renaissance is no exception. The interpretation of the critical terms used by the literary critics of the English renaissance must depend largely on the classical tradition. This tradition, as the labors of many scholars, especially Spingarn, have shown, reached England both directly through the publication of classical writings and to an even greater degree indirectly through the commentaries and original treatises of Italian scholars.

The indebtedness to the Italian critics is well known and has been widely discussed. Although the present study does not hope to add to what is known of the influence exerted on the literary criticism of the English renaissance by the Italians, it does propose to show the English critics to have been more indebted than has been supposed to the mediaeval development of classical theory. For this relationship to be clear it will be necessary to review classical literary criticism and to trace its development in post-classical times and in the middle ages as well as in the Italian renaissance. Only by such an approach will it be possible to show in what form classical theory was transmitted to the English renaissance.

As the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne of England inaugurated a new period in English criticism, during which English critical theories were largely influenced by French criticism, this study will stop short of this, restricting itself to the years between the publication of Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique in 1553 and that of Ben Jonson's Timber in 1641. Throughout this period the English mediæval tradition of classical theory was highly important, losing ground but gradually as the influence first of the rhetoric newly recovered from the classics and then of Italian criticism produced an increasingly stronger effect on English criticism. I hope to show that the English critics who formulated theories of poetry in the renaissance derived much of their critical terminology, not directly from the rediscovered classical theories of poetry, but through various channels from classical theories and practice of rhetoric. The tendency to use the terminology of rhetoric in discussing poetical theory did not originate in the English renaissance, but is largely an inheritance from classical criticism as interpreted by the middle ages. Both in England and on the continent this mediæval tradition persisted far into the renaissance. Renaissance English writers on the theory of poetry use to an extent hitherto unexplored the terminology of rhetoric. This rhetorical terminology was derived from three sources: directly to some extent from the classical rhetorics themselves; indirectly through the influence of classical rhetoric upon the terminology of the Italian critics of poetry; and indirectly, to a considerable extent, through the mediæval modifications of classical and post-classical rhetoric.

1. The Distinction between Rhetoric and Poetic

Aristotle wrote two treatises on literary criticism: the Rhetoric and the Poetics. The fact that he gave separate treatment to his critical consideration of oratory and of poetry is presumptive evidence that in his mind oratory and poetry were two things, having much in common perhaps, but distinguished by fundamental differences. With less philosophical basis these fundamental differences were maintained by nearly all the classical literary critics. It is important, therefore, to review briefly what the classical writers meant by rhetoric and by poetic, and to trace the modifications which these terms underwent in post-classical times, in the middle ages, and in the renaissance, in order better to show that in the literary criticism of the English renaissance the theory of poetry contained many elements which historically derive from classical and mediaeval rhetoric.

Literature—the spoken and the written word—was divided by the classical critics into philosophy, history, oratory, and poetry. Thus Aristotle, in addition to treating the theory of poetry and the theory of oratory in separate books, asserts that even though the works of philosophy and of history were composed in verse, they would still be something different from poetry.[2] Lucian severely criticises the historians whose writings are like those of the poets.[3] Quintilian advises students of rhetoric against imitating the style of the historians because it is too much like that of the poets.[4] Clearly these critical writers are insisting on some fundamental difference between the forms of communication in language—a difference which they thought their contemporaries were in some danger of ignoring.

If the number of critical writings devoted to these different forms of communication is taken as a criterion, rhetoric ranks first, poetry second, and history third. This preponderance of rhetoric may be one reason for the tendency of the critics who wrote on the theory of poetry to use much of the terminology of rhetoric, and for the ease with which a modern student can formulate the classical theory of rhetoric, as compared with the difficulty he has in formulating the theory of poetry.

To the Greeks and Romans rhetoric meant the theory of oratory. As a pedagogical mechanism it endeavored to teach students to persuade an audience. The content of rhetoric included all that the ancients had learned to be of value in persuasive public speech. It taught how to work up a case by drawing valid inferences from sound evidence, how to organize this material in the most persuasive order, how to compose in clear and harmonious sentences. Thus to the Greeks and Romans rhetoric was defined by its function of discovering means to persuasion and was taught in the schools as something that every free-born man could and should learn.

In both these respects the ancients felt that poetic, the theory of poetry, was different from rhetoric. As the critical theorists believed that the poets were inspired, they endeavored less to teach men to be poets than to point out the excellences which the poets had attained. Although these critics generally, with the exceptions of Aristotle and Eratosthenes, believed the greatest value of poetry to be in the teaching of morality, no one of them endeavored to define poetry, as they did rhetoric, by its purpose. To Aristotle, and centuries later to Plutarch, the distinguishing mark of poetry was imitation. Not until the renaissance did critics define poetry as an art of imitation endeavoring to inculcate morality. Consequently in a historical study of rhetoric and of the theory of poetry separate treatment of their nature and of their purpose is not only convenient, but historical. The present discussion, therefore, considers various critics' ideas of the nature of poetry in Part I, and then separately in Part II their ideas of its purpose. The object of this division is not to make an abstract distinction between nature and purpose. Such a distinction cannot, of course, be made.

The same essential difference between classical rhetoric and poetic appears in the content of classical poetic. Whereas classical rhetoric deals with speeches which might be delivered to convict or acquit a defendant in the law court, or to secure a certain action by the deliberative assembly, or to adorn an occasion, classical poetic deals with lyric, epic, and drama. It is a commonplace that classical literary critics paid little attention to the lyric. It is less frequently realized that they devoted almost as little space to discussion of metrics. By far the greater bulk of classical treatises on poetic is devoted to characterization and to the technic of plot construction, involving as it does narrative and dramatic unity and movement as distinct from logical unity and movement.

It is important that the modern reader bear these facts in mind; for in the nineteenth century text-books of rhetoric came to include description of a kind little considered by classical rhetoricians, and narrative of an aim and scope which they excluded. Thus the modern treatise on rhetoric deals not only with what the Greeks would recognize as rhetoric, but also with what they would classify as poetic. Furthermore, narrative and dramatic technic, which the classical critics considered the most important elements in poetic, are now no longer called poetic. What the ancients discussed in treatises on poetic, is now discussed in treatises on the technique of the short-story, the technique of the drama, the technique of the novel, on the one hand, and in treatises on versification, prosody, and lyric poetry on the other. As these modern developments were unheard of during the periods under consideration in this study, and as the renaissance used the words rhetoric and poetic much more in their classical senses than we do today, it must be understood that throughout this study rhetoric will be used as meaning classical rhetoric, and poetic as meaning classical poetic.

Many modern critics have found the classical distinction between rhetoric and poetic very suggestive. In classical times imaginative and creative literature was almost universally composed in meter, with the result that the metrical form was usually thought to be distinctive of poetry. The fact that in modern times drama as well as epic and romantic fiction is usually composed in prose has made some critics dissatisfied with what to them seems to be an unsatisfactory criterion. On the one hand Wackernagel, who believes that the function of poetry is to convey ideas in concrete and sensuous images and the function of prose to inform the intellect, asserts that prose drama and didactic poetry are inartistic.[5] He thus advocates that present practise be abandoned in favor of the custom of the Greeks. On the other hand Newman, while granting that a metrical garb has in all languages been appropriated to poetry, still urges that the essence of poetry is fiction.[6] Likewise under the influence of Aristotle, Croce differentiates between the kinds of literature not because one is written in prose and the other in verse, but because one is the expression of what he calls intuitive knowledge obtained through the imagination, and the other of conceptual knowledge obtained through the intellect.[7] Similar to the distinction expressed by Croce in the words imaginative and intellectual, is that expressed by Eastman in the words poetical and practical.[8] And according to Renard, Balzac distinguishes two classes of writers: the writers of ideas and the writers of images.[9]

In view of these modern efforts to make a more scientific differentiation between kinds of literature than is possible on the basis of the traditional distinction between prose and poetry, the present historical study of the distinction made by Aristotle and other Greek writers between rhetoric and poetic may be suggestive.