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Chapter VII. Renaissance Poetic

1. The Reestablishment of the Classical Tradition

In concluding his authoritative study, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance, Spingarn asserts that before the sixteenth century, “Poetic theory had been nourished upon the rhetorical and oratorical treatises of Cicero, the moral treatises of Plutarch (especially those upon the reading of poets and the education of youth), the Institutions Oratoriae of Quintilian, and the De Legendis Gentilium Libris of Basil the Great.”[174] With the turn of the century, he goes on to say, a great change was brought about by the publication of the classical critical writings, especially the Poetics of Aristotle. Then the mediaeval criteria of doctrina and eloquentia were superseded by many new ones.

The development of Aristotelian poetic in the Italian renaissance is a separate inquiry, which has been made extensively, and need not be gone into here. The results which bear upon the present inquiry may be summarized as follows:

The recovery of Aristotle's Poetics brought about a complete change in poetical theory, and stimulated in Italy a great body of critical writing and discussion, the results of which did not reach England until almost a hundred years later.

The Poetics had been known to the middle ages only through a Latin abridgment by Hermannus Allemanus. This was derived from a Hebrew translation from the Arabic of Averroes, who, in turn, knew only a Syriac translation of the Greek.[175] Although the Poetics was not included in the Aldine Aristotle (1495-8), the Latin abstract by Hermannus was printed with Alfarabi's commentary on the Rhetoric for the first time at Venice (1481). Valla published a Latin translation in 1498. The Greek text was first published in the Aldine Rhetores Graeci (1508)[176] badly edited by Ducas. A Latin translation made by Pazzi in 1536 appears in the Basel edition of Aristotle's Opera (1538) with Filelfo's version of the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, falsely attributed to Aristotle, and George of Trebizond's (Trapezuntius) translation of the Rhetoric. Robortelli edited it in 1548. Segni translated it in 1549. It was edited again by Maggi in 1550, by Vettori in 1560, by Castelvetro in 1570, and by Piccolomini in 1575. It had inspired the De Poeta (1559) of Minturno and the Poetics (1561) of Scaliger. But in England its critical theories were ignored before Ascham, who cites them in the Scholemaster (1570), and never elucidated before Sidney's Defense of Poesie (c. 1583, pub. 1595).

But with all the changes which were worked in the literary criticism of the renaissance by the recovery of Aristotle's Poetics, renaissance theories of poetry were nevertheless tinged with rhetoric. Vossler has summarized renaissance theories of the nature of poetry as passing through three stages: of theology, of oratory, and finally of rhetoric and philology.[177] While the influence of Aristotle is most clearly seen in the new emphasis on plot construction and characterization, the importance the renaissance attached to style is in no small measure a survival of the mediaeval tradition of classical rhetoric. Moreover, as Spingarn has pointed out, there was a tendency in the renaissance for the classical theories of poetry to be accepted as rules which must be followed by those who would compose poetry. If a poet followed these rules and modeled his poem on great poems of classical antiquity, some critics suggested, he could not go far wrong. Thus one should follow the precepts of Aristotle for theory, and imitate Virgil for epic and Seneca for tragedy. The rhetorical character of these poetical models is significant. Both are stylists, of a distinct literary flavor. Both recommended themselves to the renaissance because they too were imitators of earlier literary models.

Although with good taste as well as classical erudition Ascham preferred Sophocles and Euripides to the oratorical and sententious Seneca, his view was not shared by the renaissance. Scaliger, preoccupied as he was with style, found his ideal of tragedy not in the plays of the great Greeks, but in the closet dramas of the declamatory Spaniard. Seneca appealed to the renaissance not only on account of his verbal dexterity and point, but also on account of his moral maxims or sententiae. In England the two greatest literary critics, Sidney and Jonson, followed Scaliger in this high regard for Seneca. Sidney found only one tragedy in England, Gorbuduc, modeled as it should be on his dramas. Its speeches are stately, its phrases high sounding, and its moral lesson delightfully taught.[178] And Jonson conceived the essentials of tragedy to be those elements found in Seneca: “Truth of argument, dignity of person, gravity and height of elocution, fullness and frequency of sentence.”

The middle ages conceived of poetry as being compounded of profitable subject-matter and beautiful style. The English renaissance never entirely evacuated this position. Consequently the Aristotelian doctrine that the essence of poetry is imitation was either entertained simultaneously, as in Sidney, or interpreted to mean the same thing, as in Jonson. The commoner renaissance idea of imitation is not that of Aristotle, but that of Plutarch, whose speaking picture so often appears in the critical treatises.

Robertelli thought poetic might be either in prose or in verse if it were an imitation; Lucian, Apuleius, and Heliodorus were to him poets.[179] Scaliger, on the other hand, insisted that a poet makes verses. Lucan is a poet; Livy a historian.[180] Castelvetro probably came nearest to Aristotle in asserting that Lucian and Boccaccio are poets though in prose, although verse is a more fitting garment for poetry than is prose.[181] Vossius anticipates Prickard's explanation of Aristotle by defining poetry as the art of imitating actions in metrical language. To him verse alone does not make poetry. Herodotus in verse would remain a historian; but no prose work can be poetry.[182] These are only a few examples typical of the general tendency which Spingarn has so thoroughly studied.

2. Rhetorical Elements

This tendency to follow Aristotle in allowing that the vehicle of verse was not characteristic of poetry tended to preclude any vital distinction between rhetoric and poetic. The renaissance had inherited from the middle ages the belief that poetry was composed of two parts: a profitable subject matter (doctrina) and style (eloquentia ). If the definition goes no further, then the only difference between the poet and the orator lies in the Ciceronian dictum that the poet was more restricted in his use of meter. Consequently, when Aristotle's theory that poems could be written in either prose or verse was accepted, there remained no stylistic difference at all. In fact, there is very little. But throughout the middle ages this common focus on style had led to undue consideration of style as ornament. In the renaissance this same tendency appears in Guevara, for instance, and in Lyly. The Euphuistic style, as Morris Croll has pointed out, is more largely than was formerly supposed to be the case, derived from mediaeval rhetoric.[183]

In the theoretical treatises on poetry produced on the continent there is frequent use of rhetorical terms. It was to be expected that scholars whose education had been largely rhetorical should carry over the vocabulary of rhetoric into what was on the rediscovery of the Poetics practically a new science. The rhetorical influence is readily recognized in Vida's preoccupation with the mechanics of poetry and in Scaliger's over-analysis and extensive treatment of the rhetorical figures, the high, low, and mean styles, the three elements (material, form, and execution) of poetry. Lombardus makes poetry include oratory.[184] Maggi[185] and Tifernas[186] echo Cicero that the poet and the orator are the nearest neighbors, differing only in that the poet is slightly more restricted by meter. J. Pontanus insists that epideictic prose and poetry have the same material,[187] that poets should learn from the precepts of rhetoric to discriminate in their choice of words.[188]

As an interpretation of classical doctrine this is not illegitimate; but Pontanus runs into confusion by applying to the narrative of epic the narratio of classical rhetoric, which meant the lawyer's statement of facts. Confusing the narratio of oratory with narrative, Pontanus says:

  There are three virtues of a narration, brevity, probability and 
  perspicuity. The epic poet should diligently strive to attain the second 
  and third, and may learn how to do it from the masters of rhetoric.[189]

Thus a poet should seek in an epic the same qualities which an orator is supposed by classical rhetorics to strive for in the statement of facts of his speech.[190] Furthermore, says Pontanus, one can write very good poetry by paraphrasing orations in verse.[191] No wonder Luis Vives complained in his De Causis Corruptarum Artium,

  The moderns confound the arts by reason of their resemblance, and of two 
  that are very much opposed to each other make a single art. They call 
  rhetoric grammar, and grammar rhetoric, because both treat of language. 
  The poet they call orator, and the orator poet, because both put 
  eloquence and harmony into their discourses.[192]

From this brief summary, derived for the most part from the exhaustive studies of Vossler and Spingarn, one may recognize some of the rhetorical elements in the theories of poetry current in the Italian renaissance. The Aristotelian studies of the Italian scholars very largely accomplished the overthrow of the mediaeval theories of poetry and the re-establishment of the sounder critical theories of classical antiquity. Their service to subsequent criticism has been so great and their critical thinking on the whole so sound that it may seem ungracious to call attention to a few cases where they were unable to shake themselves entirely free from the mediaeval tradition of classical rhetoric.