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Chapter II. Mediaeval Ideas of the Purpose of Poetry

With the breaking up of the Empire the stream of classical culture was restricted to a narrow channel—the Church. Opposed as it was to pagan morals and theology, the church could honestly retain classical literature only if it were allegorized. This explains the allegorical nature of mediaeval poetry and of poetical theory.

From the beginning the learning of the Church was of pagan origin. St. Augustine was a professor of rhetoric and the author of a treatise on aesthetics before he wrote the City of God, and his Confessions. In fact, he never quite got over being a professor of rhetoric. Clement of Alexandria was a product of the same rhetoric schools and an excellent teacher of his subject before he recognized the divine origin of Christianity. St. Basil was a college friend of Gregory Nazianzen and of Julian, later emperor and apostate, when the three studied rhetoric at Athens. Indeed, the most cunningly cruel decree which Julian later promulgated against the Christians forbade them the use of the ancient pagan literature of Greece and Rome. This decree Basil bitterly resented. “I forgo all the rest,” he says, “riches, birth, honor, authority, and all the goods here below of which the charm vanishes like a dream; but I cling to oratory nor do I regret the toil, nor the journeys by land and sea, which I have undertaken to master it.”[320]

But within the Church the lovers of Greek literature did not have it all their own way. Tatian, Hermas, Theophilus, and Tertullian savagely attacked profane poetry, and in defending it Basil, Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen were forced not unwillingly to rely more and more on the traditional moralistic theory of poetry which was so familiar to them. St. Chrysostom records that in the fourth century Homer was still taught as a guide to morals.[321]

1. Allegorical Interpretations in the Middle Ages

Allegorical interpretation was the main weapon of the apologists for poetry. The basis, indeed, of the Gnostic heresies of the second and third centuries was an allegorical interpretation of the Greek poets and philosophers and of the Scriptures. This soon degenerated into an extravagant system of speculative mysticism. Clement of Alexandria and Origen rejected the extravagances, but sought to retain the mysticism of the Gnostics. They reconciled Greek literature and the Scriptures by allegorizing both, much as today Darwin and Genesis are reconciled by allegorizing Genesis.[322] Thus in the declining years of the Roman Empire the rhetoricians had become ecclesiastics, and the Church had adopted pagan literature with allegorical interpretation.

This tradition dominated the middle ages; Lady Theology reigned over the kingdom of the seven liberal arts, and to make Homer and Virgil theological it was necessary that they be interpreted allegorically. As Vossler has shown, theology and philosophy furnished, during the middle ages, the subject matter of poetry; they were the utile of Horace. The dulce became for them too exclusively the pleasing garment of style and story.[323]

Throughout the middle ages, however, many continued to look askance at poetry, and were skeptical as to its value. To Boethius, weeping in prison, came Philosophy to console him. She found him surrounded by the friends of his youth, the Muses, who now were inspiring him to write dreary verses of complaint. But these poetical Muses Philosophy sent packing. “Who has allowed,” said she, “these common strumpets of the theatre to come near this sick man? Not only do they fail to assuage his sorrows, but they feed and nourish them with sweet venom. They are not fruitful nor profitable. They destroy the fruits of reason, for they hold the hearts of men.”[324] Here Philosophy is voicing the objections of Plato. The arts are attacked because they are not successfully utilitarian, and because they appeal to the emotions instead of to the reason. In a later book Boethius gives a clearer key to the objection. He postulates four mental faculties: sensation possessed by oysters, imagination possessed by higher animals, reason possessed by man, intelligence possessed by God. Consequently man should aspire towards God instead of indulging his faculties of sensation and imagination, which he shares with the lower animals.[325]

But such objections as those of Boethius were usually explained away by allegory. When Isidore of Seville (†633 or 636), for instance, was compiling his book of universal knowledge, the Etymologiae, he incorporated his section on the poets in the chapter entitled Concerning the Church and the Sects. So between a section devoted to the Philosophers of the Gentiles and a section entitled Concerning Sibyls he wrote concerning the poets as follows:

  Sometimes, however, the poets were called theologians, because they used 
  to compose songs concerning the gods. In doing this, however, it is the 
  office of the poets to render what has actually been done in a different 
  guise with a certain beauty of covert figures.[326]

The poet, to Isidore, was the inspired bard who sings of the gods and the eternal verities, not directly, but under the veil of a beautiful allegory. Among these allegorical or indirect means of expression used by the poet to veil truth are fables.

  The poets invent fables sometimes to give pleasure; sometimes they are 
  interpreted to explain the nature of things, sometimes to throw light on 
  the manners of men.[327]

His illustrations of a fable show that he is talking about allegory. For instance, the fable of the centaur was invented to show, by the union of man and horse, the swiftness of human life.

It is very natural, then, that Dante should as the supreme poet of the middle ages furnish the supreme example of allegory. In the Convivio (c. 1306), Dante gives a very full and complete exposition of the proper method of interpreting a text. Any writing, he says, should be expounded in four senses. The first is the literal. The second is called the allegorical, and is the one that hides itself under the mantle of these tales, and is a truth hidden under beauteous fiction.[328] The reason this way of hiding was devised by wise men he promises to explain in the fourteenth treatise, which he never wrote. The third sense, he goes on to say, is the moral, as from the fact that Christ took with him but three disciples when he ascended the mountain for the transfiguration we may understand that in secret things we should have but few companions. The fourth sense is the analogical. Here the text may be literally true, but contain a spiritual significance beyond. That to Dante, however, all but the literal sense naturally coalesced as the allegorical is quite clear from the close of the chapter and from the letter to Can Grande, in which he discusses the interpretations of his Commedia. “Although these mystic senses are called by various names, they may all in general be called allegorical.”[329] That the “beauteous fiction,” the bella menzogna, of allegory is rhetorical in origin is clear from a passage in the Vita Nuova. Dante is defending his personification of Love as one walking, speaking and laughing on the assumption that as a poet he is licensed to use figures or rhetorical colorings. These colorings, however, must have a true but hidden significance. The rhetorical figures are a garment to clothe the nakedness of truth.[330]

2. Allegory in Mediaeval England

England as well as Italy furnished a congenial soil for allegory in the thirteenth century. In his Poetria, John of Garland[331] explains allegorically an “elegiac, bucolic, ethic, love poem” which he quotes. “Under the guise of the nymph,” he says, “is figured forth the flesh; under that of the corrupt youth, the world or the devil; under that of the friend, reason.”[332] In another illustrative poem, this time introduced to show the proper use of the six parts of an oration, John inserts between the “confirmacio,” and the “confutacio,” an “expositio mistica” in which the Trojan War is allegorized in this fashion: “The fury of Eacides is the ire of Satan,” etc.[333]

As late as 1506 Stephen Hawes's Pastime of Pleasure is as mediaeval as the Romance of the Rose.[334] In this allegory of the education and love adventures of Grandamour the young man sits at the feet of Dame Rethoryke to be instructed at great length in her art. To none other of the seven liberal arts, in fact, does Hawes devote so much space. In the chapter on inventio, however, the lady seems to have forgotten all about her traditional past, for instead of discussing the method of finding all possible arguments in favor of a case, she discusses the poets, their purpose, and their fame.

The purpose of poetry is to her what it had been throughout the entire period of the middle ages. The poet presents truth under the guise of allegory.

  To make of nought reason sentencious 
  Clokynge a trouthe wyth colour tenebrous. 
  For often under a fayre fayned fable 
  A trouthe appereth gretely profitable.[335]

This, says Dame Rethoryke, has the sanction of antiquity; for the old poets, who are famous for their wisdom and the imaginative power of their invention, pronounced truth under cloudy figures. This fortified the poets against sloth.

  The special treasure 
  Of new invencion, of ydleness the foo!

Then she addresses herself directly to the poets to laud their virtues.

  Your hole desyre was set 
  Fables to fayne to eschewe ydleness,... 
  To dysnull vyce and the vycious to blame.

Furthermore she praises them for recording the honorable deeds of great conquerors and for furnishing the modern poets with such illustrious models of the poetic art. This praise of the poets is complementary to a condemnation of the foolish public, whose limited intelligence prevents them from seeing the cloaked truth of the poets. Thus the dull, rude people, when they are unable to understand the moral implications of the poet's allegory, call the poets liars, deceivers, and flatterers. This, she insists, is the fault not of the poets, but of the people. If the people would take the trouble to understand these clouded truths, they would praise and appreciate the moral poets.

The conclusion is not difficult. The mediaeval poets are on the defensive, as their brothers had been through all the past. To justify art, the middle ages had to show its usefulness not only to morals, but to theology. Thus Dame Rethoryke in her talk on inventio, is conducting a defense of poetry on the following grounds: it teaches profound truth under the guise of allegory; it blames the vicious and overcomes vice; it is the enemy of sloth; it records the honorable deeds of great men.

The chapter on style only continues the song. It is the art, says Hawes, to cloak the meaning under misty figures of many colors, as the old poets did, who took similitudes from beasts and birds.

  And under colour of this beste, pryvely 
  The morall sense they cloake full subtyly.[336]

The poets write, he continues, under a misty cloud of covert likeness. For instance, the poets feign that King Atlas bore the heavens on his shoulders, meaning only that he was unusually versed in high astronomy. Likewise the story of the centaurs only exemplifies the skill of Mylyzyus in breaking the wildness of the royal steeds. Pluto, Cerberus, and the hydra receive like explanations. The poets feign these fables, of course, to lead the readers out of mischief. A poet to be great must drink of the redolent well of poetry whence flow the four rivers of Understanding, Close-concluding, Novelty, and Carbuncles. These rivers are translatable into: understanding of good and evil, moral purpose, novelty, rhetorical adornment of figures and so forth.

The poets praised—Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate—deserve their fame, he says, for their morality. They cleanse our vices. They kindle our hearts with love of virtue. Lydgate's Falls of Princes is an especially great poem,

  A good ensample for us to dispyse 
  This worlde, so ful of mutabilyte.[337]

Other cunning poets are, however, not so praiseworthy. Instead of feigning pleasant and covert fables, they spend their time in vanity, making ballades of fervent love and such like tales and trifles. This, he insists, is an unfruitful manner in which to spend one's efforts.

This unanimous judgment of the middle ages that the purpose of poetry is to teach spiritual truth and inculcate morality under the cloak of allegory was perpetuated far into the renaissance, especially in England, where, as has been shown, the recovery of classical culture made slow progress.[338]