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Chapter IV. Classical Blending of Rhetoric and Poetic

1. The Contact of Rhetoric and Poetic in Style

The coincidence of rhetoric and poetic is in style. They differ typically in movement or composition; they have a common ground in diction. And in this common ground each influenced the other from the beginning of recorded criticism. Aristotle says, for example, that the ornate style of the sophists, such as Gorgias, has its origin in the poets,[86] while the modern student, Norden, asserts that the poets learned from the sophists.[87] The evidence at least points to a very marked similarity between the styles of the sophists and of the poets in the fourth century B.C. This is well illustrated by the literary controversy between Isocrates and Alcidamas, both sophists and both students of the famous Gorgias. Alcidamas reproaches Isocrates because his discourses, so elaborately worked out with polished diction, are more akin to poetry than to prose. Isocrates cheerfully admits the accusation, and prides himself on the fact, affirming that his listeners take as much pleasure in his discourses as in poems.[88]

That there are characteristic differences in style between rhetoric and poetic Aristotle justly shows when he asserts that while metaphor is common to both, it is more essential to poetic. Consequently in theRhetoric he refers to the Poetics for a fuller discussion of metaphor.[89] At the same time he says that metaphor deserves great attention in prose because prose lacks other poetical adornment. Furthermore, epithets and compound words are appropriate to verse but not to prose. And though both verse and oratorical prose should be rhythmical, a set rhythm, a meter, is appropriate only to verse.[90]

A distinction between the style of poetic and of rhetoric similar to that of Aristotle is maintained by Cicero, but the distinction was losing its sharpness. In the Orator he considers the orator and the poet as similar in style, but not identical. Formerly rhythm and meter were the distinguishing marks of the poet, but the orators in his days, he says, made increasing use of rhythm. Meter is a vice in an orator and should be shunned. The poet has greater license in compounding and inventing words. Both prose and verse, he adds, may be characterized by brilliant imagery and headlong sweep.[91] The only essential difference between Cicero's treatment of style and that of Aristotle is that whereas Aristotle had shown imagery to be an integral part of poetic, Cicero felt it both in poetic and in rhetoric to be superadded as a decoration. Whether or not this difference was caused by lack of discrimination on the part of Cicero, his position was at least in line with a tendency which in later criticism received increasing development. Both the poet and the orator, he says, use the same methods of ornament,[92] and the orator uses almost the language of poetry.[93] And again, in a phrase which was taken up and repeated for fifteen hundred years, the poets are nearest kin to the orators.[94]

2. The Florid Style in Rhetoric and in Poetic

But the public interest in style was increasingly comparable to that in athletic agility. As Socrates applauded the dancing girl who leaped through the dagger-studded hoop,[95] the popular audience of imperial Rome was delighted at a clever turn of speech, a surprising rhythm, or a startling comparison. Literary study of style in occasional oratory must have been extensive and extravagant at a very early date, to judge by the rebukes of such practical speakers as Alcidamas. Moreover, such stylistic artifice as was practiced and taught by Gorgias, Isocrates, and other sophists crept into tragedy, says Norden, beginning with Agathon.[96] The result was that with the poets style became as it had become with the sophists, an end in itself. The epideictic orators became less orators and more poets, and the poets cultivated less the characteristic vividness and movement of poetic than those turns of style which began in oratory.

Thus it was very natural that the discussions of artistic prose in the treatises of the later rhetoricians should be copiously illustrated by quotations from the poets, and that the poets should, in turn, be influenced in the direction of further sophistical niceties by the rhetorical treatises on style, such as those of Demetrius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who devoted whole treatises to style alone. The obsession of style is well exemplified by a comparison of Dionysius and Longinus in their discussion of Sappho's literary art. Longinus praises her passion, and her masterful selection of images which realize it for the reader, while Dionysius, no less enthusiastic, points out that in the ode which he quotes there is not a single case of hiatus. Dionysius is here much the more characteristic of his age, as he is in his belief that there is very little difference indeed between prose and verse. Longinus, while showing the relations of rhetoric and poetic, keeps the two apart; Dionysius draws them together. To Dionysius the best prose is that which resembles verse although not entirely in meter, and the best poetry that which resembles beautiful prose. By this he means that the poet should use enjambment freely and should vary the length and form of his clauses, so that the sense should not uniformly conclude with the metrical line.[97] In this regard he would approve of Shakespeare's later blank verse much more than of his earlier because it is freer and more like conversation. Thus, to Dionysius, the diction of prose and the diction of poetry approach each other as a limit.

3. The False Rhetoric of the Declamation School

Later antiquity carried the mingling further in the same direction. As time went on, the over-refinement and literary sophistication of the florid school of oratory became more and more powerful. The puritan reaction of the Roman Atticists in the direction of the simplicity of Lysias defeated itself in over emphasis and ended in establishing coldness and aridity as literary ideals. Such a jejune style could never hold a Roman audience, and Cicero in theory and in practice took as model not only Demosthenes, but also Isocrates. As Roman liberty was lost under the Caesars, style very naturally assumed greater and greater importance. Bornecque has shown that the strife of the forum and the genuine debates of the senate no longer kept tough the sinews of public speech, and the orators sank back in lassitude on the remaining harmless but unreal occasional oratory and on the fictitious declamations of the schools.[98] In these declamation schools under the Empire the boys debated such imaginary questions as this: A reward is offered to one who shall kill a tyrant. A. enters the palace and kills the tyrant's son, whereupon the father commits suicide. Is A. entitled to the reward? In the repertory of Lucian occurs a show piece on each side of this proposition. For two hundred years there had been no pirates in the Mediterranean; yet in the declamation schools pirates abounded, and questions turned upon points of law which never existed or could exist in actual society. The favorite cases concerned the tyranny of fathers, the debauchery of sons, the adultery of wives, and the rape of daughters. In the procedure of the declamation schools the boys arose and delivered their speeches with frequent applause from the other students and from their parents. The master would criticise the speeches and, when the students had finished, would himself deliver a speech which was supposed to outshine those of his pupils and give promise of what he could teach them.[99]

The utter unreality and hollowness of such rhetoric could show itself no better than in contrast with the practical oratory of the law courts. Albucius, a famous professor of the schools, once pleaded a case in court. Intending to amplify his peroration by a figure he said, “Swear, but I will prescribe the oath. Swear by the ashes of your father, which lie unburied. Swear by the memory of your father!” The attorney for the other side, a practical man, rose—“My client is going to swear,” he said. “But I made no proposal,” shouted Albucius, “I only employed a figure.” The court sustained his opponent, whose client swore, and Albucius retired in shame to the more comfortable shades of the declamation schools, where figures were appreciated.[100] But in spite of the ridiculous performance of the professors of the schools when they did come out into the sunlight, in spite of the protests of Tacitus who complained justly that debased popular taste demanded poetical adornment of the orator,[101] style continued to be loved for its own sake, extravagant figures of speech were applauded, and verbal cleverness and point were strained for. As Bornecque has shown, the fact that the rhetoric of the declamation schools was so unreal, so preoccupied with imaginary cases, and so given over to attainment of stylistic brilliancy, in no small measure explains the loss in late Latin literature of the sense of structure. “It is not surprising,” says Bornecque, “that during the first three centuries of the Christian era the sense of composition seems to have disappeared from Latin literature.”[102] Thus Quintilian lamented that in his day the well constructed periods of Cicero appealed less to the perverted popular taste than the brilliant but disjointed epigrams of Seneca.

4. The Contamination of Poetic by False Rhetoric

As style gained this preponderence in rhetoric, it continued to increase its hold on poetic. While the rhetoricians were exemplifying from the poets their schemes and tropes, their well joined words, “smooth, soft as a maiden's face,”[103] the poets on their part were assiduously practicing all the rhetorical devices of style. Thus the literature of the silver-age is rhetorical. The custom of public readings by the author encouraged clever writing and a declamatory manner,[104] even had the poets not received their education in the only popular institutions of higher instruction—the declamation schools. The fustian which passed for poetry and equally well for history is well illustrated by the contempt of the hard-headed Lucian for those historians who were unable to distinguish history from poetry. “What!” he exclaims, “bedizen history like her sister? As well take some mighty athlete with muscles of steel, rig him up with purple drapery and meretricious ornament, rouge and powder his cheeks; faugh, what an object one would make of him with such defilements!”[105] But meretricious ornament was popular, and poets, historians, and orators alike scrambled to see who could most adorn his speech. Quintilian's pleas for the purer taste of a former age fell on deaf ears, and despite his warnings orators imitated the style of the poets, and the poets imitated the style of the orators.[106] Gorgias may or may not have learned his style from the ancient poets of Greece, but the poets of the silver age learned from the tribe of Gorgias.

Not only did poetry and oratory suffer from the same bad taste in straining for brilliance of style, but in practice, as Bornecque has shown, both poetry and oratory suffered for lack of structure. The poets paid so much attention to style that they neglected plot construction and the vivid realization of character and situation. The orators paid so much attention to style that they lost the art of composing sentences, and of arranging sound arguments in such a way as to persuade an audience. In effect there was a tendency for the late Latin writers to ignore those elements of structure and movement wherein poetry and oratory most differ, and stress unduly the elements of style wherein they have the most in common. Indeed, so completely did any fundamental distinction between poetic and rhetoric become blurred that in the second century Annaeus Florus was able to offer as a debatable question, “Is Virgil an orator or a poet?”[107]