Chapter VIII. Theories of Poetry in the English Renaissance
1. The Rhetorical Period of English Criticism
Spingarn has carefully traced the introduction of the theories of poetry formulated by the Italian critics into England at the end of the sixteenth century. It is the purpose of this study not to go over the ground which Spingarn has so admirably covered, but to point out in English renaissance theories of poetry those elements which derive from the mediaeval tradition and from the classical rhetorics, and to trace the gradual displacements of these elements by the sounder classical tradition which reached England from Italy.
“The first stage of English Criticism,” say Spingarn, “was entirely given up to rhetorical study.” In his period he includes Cox and Wilson, the rhetoricians, and Ascham, the scholar. Of the second period, which he characterizes as one of classification and metrical studies, he says, “A long period of rhetorical and metrical study had helped to formulate a rhetorical and technical conception of the poet's function.” These two periods have so much in common that they may readily be considered together.
Throughout this period in England there was no abstract theorizing on the art of poetry. The rhetorics of Cox (1524) and Wilson (1553) were rhetorics and made no pretence of treating poetry. This is significant of a direct contact with classical rhetoric. Because Cox founded his treatise on the sound scholarship of Melanchthon, and Wilson wrote with the text of his Cicero and his Quintilian open before him, neither was so completely under the mediaeval influence as were most of the subsequent writers on rhetoric in England.
Another scholar in classical rhetoric was Roger Ascham, whose Scholemaster (1570) contains the first reference in England to Aristotle's Poetics. But except as a teacher of language and of literature Ascham does not treat of poetry. Following Quintilian, he classifies literature into genres of poetry, history, philosophy, and oratory, each with its appropriate subdivisions. Both Ascham and Quintilian are interested in literature as professors who must organize a field for presentation to students; and as is frequently the case, the result is apt to become arid, schematic, and lifeless. In his criticism of individual poems, also, Ascham praises the authors less for creative power than for adherence to certain formal tests. Watson's Absolon and Buchanan's Iephthe he considers the best tragedies of his age because only they can “abide the trew touch” of Aristotle's precepts and Euripides's example. They were good because they were according to rule, and in imitation of good models. Watson he especially praises for his refusal to publish Absolon because in several places an anapest was substituted for an iambus. Thus far we have the influence of classical rhetoric urging as an ideal for poetry formal correctness.
The rhetoric of Gascoigne, however, was not derived from the classical treatises, but from the middle ages. His Certayne Notes of Instruction (1575) marks the beginning of the period of metrical studies. Now in the English middle ages, prosody had consistently been treated as a part of grammar, following the classical tradition; but in France prosody had regularly been discussed in treatises bearing the name of rhetoric. As Spingarn has shown, this tradition of the French middle ages persisted in the works of Du Bellay and Ronsard, whose works in turn inspired Gascoigne.
Following Ronsard, Gascoigne devotes a great deal of attention to what, borrowing the terminology of rhetoric, he calls “invention.” But whereas Ronsard had meant by invention high, grand, and beautiful conceptions, Gascoigne means “some good and fine devise, shewing the quicke capacitie of a writer.” That Gascoigne takes invention to mean a search for fancies is illustrated by his own example.
If I should undertake to wryte in prayse of a gentlewoman, I would neither praise her christal eye, nor her cherrie lippe, etc. For these things are trita et obvia. But I would either find some supernaturall cause whereby my penne might walke in the superlative degree, or els I would undertake to answer for any imperfection that shee hath, and thereupon rayse the prayse of hir commendacion.
By far the greater part of Gascoigne's treatise is devoted to metrics and to style. One can use, he says, the same figures or tropes in verse as are used in prose. It is noteworthy that in this treatise on making verses Gascoigne restricts himself to externals of form and style. When he does discuss the subject-matter of poetry, instead of emphasizing the seriousness of content, he talks about his mistress' “cristal eye.”
What has been said about Gascoigne applies almost equally well to the Schort Treatise (1584) of James VI which was modeled on it. Like Gascoigne's Notes, it is rhetorical and concerned with only the externals of poetry. The treatise is almost entirely a metrical study, although the author does call attention to three special ornaments of verse, which are comparisons, epithets, and proverbs. The other figures of rhetoric which are so appropriate to poetry James says may be studied in Du Bellay. In both these writers, poetry is treated in the categories of the middle ages. Poetry to them is composed of subject-matter and style. The characteristic structure and movement of poetry is not considered at all.
2. The Influence of Horace
Thus far there had been no fundamental criticism of poetic in England, no attempt to arrive at the basis of critical theory. Horace had been known long before, but not until Drant's translation of the Ars Poeticainto English in 1567 is its influence seen to be definite and extensive in England. One of the earliest published evidences of this influence is George Whetstone's Dedication to Promos and Cassandra (1578). The passage is short, but contains two very important points in the creed of classicism. Whetstone inveighs against the English dramatist who “in three howers ronnes throwe the worlde, marryes, gets children, makes Children men, men to conquer kingdomes, murder Monsters, and bringeth Gods from Heaven, and fetcheth Divels from Hel.” This is the earliest record in England of an insistence on unity of time and place. Then he urges the claims of decorum in comedy. The poet should not make clowns the companions of kings, nor put wise counsels into the mouth of fools. “For, to worke a comedie kindly, grave olde men should instruct, yonge men should showe the imperfections of youth, Strumpets should be lascivious, Boyes unhappy, and Clownes should speake disorderlye.”
It is interesting that this conception of the characters in a drama should ultimately trace back through many perversions to Aristotle's rhetorical theory. There are three kinds of proof, says Aristotle in theRhetoric: the character of the speaker, the production of a certain disposition in the audience, and the argument of the speech itself. The last kind of proof is derived from logic; the first two, from psychology. Consequently, Aristotle devotes almost a third of his Rhetoric, the second book, to an elaborate exposition of the passions (Ï€ÎÎ¸Î·) of men, so that the orator may know how to excite or allay them according as the necessities of his case demand, and a full explanation of the character (á¤¦Î¸Î¿Ï) of men, that the speaker may know how to impress upon his audience his own trustworthiness, and adapt his arguments to the character of the particular audience which he is addressing. Varieties of character in an audience depend upon its passions, its virtues and vices, its age or youth, and its position in life. Aristotle's generalizations on the character of young people and old, of the wealthy, noble and powerful, display penetrating acumen. That flesh and blood character realizations in drama or story could be attained by this method Aristotle never intended. He is talking of public address. But the study of characterization as part of the education of an orator became fixed in the curriculum of rhetoric schools. The boys were supposed to study certain types of persons and then write character sketches to show their sharpness of observation. Theophrastus, Aristotle's favorite student and successor as head of the school in Athens, wrote his Characters to show how it was done, and did it with such ability as to elevate the school exercise to a literary form. These “characters” were epitomized in the Latin rhetorics and the school exercises continued. The rhetoric Ad Herennium calls them notatio, Cicero, descriptio, and Quintilian, mores.
Quintilian furthermore makes interesting comments on the use of the character sketches by the poets. Character (Greek: á¤¦Î¸Î¿Ï) in oratory, he says, is similar to comedy, as the passions (Ï€ÎÎ¸Î¿Ï) are to tragedy. Professor Butcher calls attention to the early influence of the character sketches on the middle comedy. Here the “humours,” to anticipate Ben Jonson, give names not only to the characters of the play, but to the plays themselves. As adopted by the drama, the orator's view that people of a certain age and rank are likely to behave in certain fashions was perverted to the dramatical law ofdecorum, that people of certain age or rank must on the stage act up to this generalization of what was characteristic. This law of decorum was formulated by Horace in his Ars Poetica, whence it was derived by the renaissance. Thomas Wilson, in his Arte of Rhetorique, gives a Theophrastian character sketch as an illustration of the figure descriptio.
“As in speaking against a covetous man, thus. There is no such pinch
peney on live as this good fellowe is. He will not lose the paring of
his nailes. His haire is never rounded for sparing of money, one paire
of shone serveth him a twelve month, he is shod with nailes like a
Horse. He hath bene knowne by his coate this thirtie Winter. He spent
once a groate at good ale, being forced through companie, and taken
short at his words, whereupon he hath taken such conceipt since that
time, that it hath almost cost him his life.”
In 1592 Casaubon edited Theophrastus in Latin. Thereafter the character sketch became a literary form, as in Hall, Overbury, and Earle, instead of remaining merely a rhetorical exercise. In the theory of the drama the rhetorical method of characterization, fixed as the law of decorum, flourished throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In England from Whetstone on it was made much of. Thus a rhetorical tradition of classical pedagogy, derived ultimately from Aristotle, and a poetical tradition of later classical drama, derived from Horace, coincide in the English renaissance.
In The Epistle Dedicatory to the Shepheards Calender (1579), for instance, E.K. praises Spenser for “his dewe observing of decorum everye where, in personages, in seasons, in matter, in speach.” The archaisms are defended in the first place, indeed, because they are appropriate to rustic speakers, but in the second because Cicero says that ancient words make the style seem grave and reverend. Further praise E.K. grants the author because he avoids loose sentence structure and affects the oratorical period. “Now, for the knitting of sentences, whych they call the ioynts and members thereof, and for all the compasse of the speach, it is round without roughness.” The “ioynts and members” are the cola and commas of the oratorical prose rhythm. Stanyhurst in the Dedication to his translation of Virgil (1582), like E. K., is concerned with style rather than matter, and of course primarily with the revival of classical meters, a subject already so thoroughly investigated that it need not be gone into here. Stanyhurst's praise of Virgil is largely concerned with formal and rhetorical excellences.
Our Virgil dooth laboure, in telling as yt were a Cantorburye tale,
too ferret owt the secretes of Nature, with woordes so fitlye coucht,
wyth verses so smoothlye slyckte, with sentences so featlye ordered,
with orations so neatlie burnisht, with similitudes so aptly applyed,
with eeche decorum so duely observed, as in truth hee hath in right
purchased too hym self thee name of a surpassing poet, thee fame of an
od oratoure, and thee admiration of a profound philosopher.
Thus in accord with the mediseval tradition he analyzes poetry into profitable subject matter and style.
3. The Influence of Aristotle
In 1579 the Puritan attack on poetry and the stage began with Gosson's School of Abuse. and was answered by Lodge's Defence of Poetry in the same year. The attack and defense both rested on moral, not aesthetic, sanctions and will be discussed in a later section. It is only in Sidney's Defense (c. 1583) and that of his follower Harington that theories of the nature of poetry are included. And with Sidney the Aristotelianism of the Italian renaissance makes its first appearance in English criticism.
“Poesie,” writes Sidney, “therefore is an arte of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word Mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth: to speake metaphorically, a speaking picture.” Thus not only Aristotle's imitation enters English criticism, but Plutarch's speaking picture as well, with all the power of its false analogy. That Sidney himself was not, however, carried away by the analogy is apparent from other passages. Aristotle, classifying poetic with music and dancing as a time art with its essence in movement, had insisted that a poem must have a beginning, a middle, and an end—qualities which do not exist in space. So in the most quoted passage from Sidney's Defense, it is a “tale forsooth,” which draws old men from the chimney corner, and children from play, and “the narration” which furnishes the groundplot of poesie. Thus he introduces into English criticism, as an important element of poetry, the essentially sound idea that the characteristic structure of poetry lies in its narrative and dramatic movement. Poetry cannot lie because it never pretends to fact. He establishes this assertion on Aristotle's “universal not the particular” as the basis of poetic. Sidney had followed Scaliger in classifying poets into three kinds: the theological, the philosophical, and the right poets. The third class, the real poets, he says, “borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be: but range, onely rayned with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be, and should be.”
In considering the vehicle of poetic Sidney parts company with Scaliger and agrees with Castelvetro that verse is but an ornament and not the characteristic mark of poetry. The Cyropaedia of Xenophon, and the Theagines and Cariclea of Heliodorus are poems, although written in prose, because they feign notable images of virtues and vices, “although indeed the Senate of Poets hath chosen verse as their fittest rayment.” Proceeding thence, he defends verse as being a far greater aid to memory than prose, borrowing his terminology of “rooms,” “places,” and “seates,” from the mnemonic system of Simonides usually incorporated in the section on memory in the classical rhetorics. Furthermore, Sidney is the first in England to insist on the vividness of realization which comes from the poet's being himself moved. Discussing lyric poetry, Sidney says:
But truely many of such writings as come under the banner of
unresistable love, if I were a Mistres, would never perswade mee they
were in love; so coldely they apply fiery speeches, as men that had
rather red Lovers writings, and so caught up certaine swelling
phrases,... then that in truth they feele those passions, which easily
(as I think) may be bewrayed by that same forcibleness or Energia (as
the Greeks call it), of the writer.
Sidney's Energia came to him from the rhetorics of Aristotle and Quintilian via the Poetice of Scaliger. Energia, the vivifying quality of poetry, had at the earliest age been adopted by rhetoric to lend power to persuasion. Carefully preserved among the figures of rhetoric, it had survived the middle ages, and appears in Wilson's Arte of Rhetoric as “an evident declaration of a thing, as though we saw it even now done.”
Sidney makes energia an essential quality of poetic; but even with him it seems to have a rhetorical cast. It is especially to be used, says Sidney, by a lover to persuade his mistress, urging her to yield while yet her beauty endures. This genre of versified oration to one's mistress was unusually popular in Elizabethan England. It may even be one reason for Bacon's classification of lyric poetry as part of rhetoric. Although energia does belong to both poetic and rhetoric, as pseudo-Longinus implies, there seems to be here a definitely rhetorical conception of poetic style. Sidney, however, keeps the classical distinction between rhetoric and poetic, although he was conscious of their contact in diction. “Both,” he says with Aristotle, “have an affinity in this wordish consideration.” While many renaissance critics interpreted this affinity as permitting rhetorical elaboration in poetry as well as in prose, Sidney with innate good taste pleaded for more restraint. The diction of the writers of lyrics is even worse, he says, than their content.
So is that honny-flowing Matron Eloquence apparalled, or rather
disguised, in a Curtizan-like painted affectation: one time with so
farre fette words, they seem monsters, but must seem strangers to any
poore English man, another tyme with coursing of a Letter as if they
were bound to follow the method of a Dictionary; another tyme, with
figures and flowers extreamelie winter-starved.
Prose writers, he adds, are as badly infected as “versers,” even scholars and preachers. That he himself was infected appears in the examples of interminable “tropes” and “schemes” quoted by Fraunce in hisArcadian Rhetoric (1588) from Sidney's own Arcadia. But the concession of his own style to the habit of his age did not involve any fundamental confusion of rhetoric with poetic.
Thus Sidney's Defense of Poesie, by domesticating in England the Aristotelian theories of the Italian critics, went far in displacing mediaeval tradition by sounder classical criticism. To object that Sidney's criticism contains elements which derive from the middle ages and from the classical rhetorics would be captious. It is asking too much to expect that a man can shake off at once the traditional habits of thought which are part of the air he breathes. The important thing is that Sidney instituted a tendency toward classicism which during the next fifty years established itself in criticism. That this classicism tended in some cases toward over-emphasis does not alter the fact that English criticism profited greatly by the return to classical poetical theory. It is interesting, however, that Sidney's influence did not at once dislodge the mediaeval tradition. Although the manuals of Webbe and Puttenham do show classical influence, their theories of poetry still show a notable residuum of theory characteristically mediaeval.
4. Manuals for Poets
Before William Webbe wrote his Discourse of English Poetry (1586) there had been no attempt in England to compose a systematic and comprehensive study of the art. The rhetorical studies of Ascham and Wilson merely glanced at poetry as something related to rhetoric. Gascoigne and James attempted no more than manuals of prosody. Lodge and Harington were primarily interested in justifying poetry on moral grounds against the Puritan attack; and Sidney, though he goes beyond this, still keeps it as a main object. In his Discourse Webbe modestly asserts that his purpose in writing is primarily to stir up some one better than he to write on English poetry so that proper criteria of judgment may be established to discern between good writers and bad, and that the poets may thereby be aided in the right practice and orderly course of true poetry. If as much attention were devoted in England to poetry as to oratory, he thinks, poetry would be in as good state as her sister “Rhetoricall Eloquution, as they were by byrth Twyns, by kinde the same, by original of one descent.” As an example of the high degree of excellence attained by eloquence, he cites Lyly's Euphues.
Whose workes surely in respecte of his singuler eloquence and brave
composition of apt words and sentences, let the learned examine and make
tryall thereof through all the partes of Rethoricke, in fitte phrases,
in pithy sentences, in gallant tropes, in flowing speech, in plaine
Thus rhetoric is considered merely as style; and the implication seems to be that the poets who would improve their style might well imitate Lyly. Webbe evidently means what he says in identifying poetry and rhetoric in style. He adds:
Thus it appeareth both Eloquence and Poetrie to have had their beginning
and original from these exercises, beeing framed in such sweete measure
of sentences and pleasant harmonie called á¿¥Ï Î¸Î¼ÏÏ which is an apt
composition of wordes or clauses, drawing as it were by force the hearers
eares even whether soever it lysteth, that Plato affirmeth
therein to be contained Î³Î¿Î·ÏÎµÎ¯Î±, an inchantment, as it were to
The confusion thus is carried pretty far by Webbe, who makes poetry and rhetoric the same in style, both aiming at persuasion. Not only have poetic and rhetoric for him a common ground in diction, but the ideal of diction is the same for both. The diction of poetry is the same as the diction of oratory. The only difference to him is that poetry is in verse and oratory in prose.
Poetry, therefore, is where any worke is learnedly compiled in
measurable speech, and framed in wordes conteyning number or proportion
of just syllables, delighting the readers or hearers as well by the apt
and decent framing of wordes in equal resemblance of quantity—commonly
called verse, as by the skylfull handling of the matter.
Webbe organizes his treatise in good rhetorical fashion. First come seventeen pages of history, mentioning with perfunctory comment the best known poets of classical antiquity and of England. The remainder of the Discourse is devoted to the theory of poetry, which he divides into matter and form. Matter, which receives nineteen pages, is the mediÃ¦val doctrina, for the whole gist of this section is that moral lessons are derivable from the poets. By form he means verse, making no mention of the figures of speech. English rimes receive half of this space, and classical meters the remainder. Webbe's fund of critical opinion is not opulent. His treatise is based on traditional English opinion of the middle ages, with an increment of Horace, of whom he thinks so highly as to append to his treatise an English translation of the “Cannons or generall cautions of poetry,” which Georgius Fabricius Chemnicensis (1560) had digested from the Ars Poetica, and the Epistles.
Perhaps the author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), generally supposed to be Puttenham, had in mind to be the some-one-better-than-Webbe, whom that worthy tutor hoped to stir up to write a treatise for the benefit of poetry in England. At any rate, Puttenham is primarily concerned with teaching his contemporaries how to write verses. Like classical authors of text-books, he calls his treatise an “Arte.” Furthermore, as a courtier himself writing for courtiers, Puttenham does not lay down rules for the drama or the epic, but devotes most of his attention to occasional verse: lyrics, elegies, epigrams, and satires. His structure is significant. The first book, 58 pages in the Arber reprint, deals with definition, purpose and subject matter of poetry. The poet, he says, is a maker who creates new forms out of his inner consciousness, and at the same time an imitator. Thus he reconciles Aristotle and Horace. Moreover, Puttenham calls attention to the importance of the imagination in the composition of poetry as well as in war, engineering and politics. That the art of poetry is eminently teachable, Puttenham is entirely convinced, for he defines it as a skill appertaining to utterance, or as a certain order of rules prescribed by reason and gathered by experience. It is verse, according to Puttenham, not imitation, which is the characteristic mark of poetry. This makes poetry a nobler form, for verse is “a manner of utterance more eloquent and rethorical then the ordinarie prose, because it is decked and set out with all manner of fresh colours and figures, which maketh that it sooner invegleth the judgment of man.” It is because poetry is thus so beautiful, he says, that “the Poets were also from the beginning the best persuaders, and their eloquence the first Rethoricke of the world.” Rhetoric to Puttenham is beauty of speech: and because poetry is more beautiful than prose, as being in this sense more rhetorical, it is better able to persuade. The remainder of the book explains the nature and history of the various poetical forms, as lyric, epic, tragedy, pastoral, and so on. The second book, Of Proportion, 70 pages, is a treatise on metrics. The first half, like the section in Webbe, is devoted to English versing, dealing with stanza forms, meters, rime, and conceited figures such as anagrams and verses in the form of eggs. The second half is devoted to classical meters. In his third book, Of Ornament, 165 pages, Puttenham gives an exhaustive and exhausting treatment of the figures of speech. Of the 121 figures which Puttenham defines and illustrates, Professor Van Hook has traced 107 to Quintilian's rhetoric. Professor Schelling refuses to treat this third book in his Poetic and Verse Criticism in the Reign of Elizabeth, because, he says, it does not fall within the scope of his purpose, being made up of matters rhetorical, as applicable to prose as to verse. That Puttenham did include it, however, is most significant evidence that both the author and his reading public considered these adornments an essential part of poetry. As the ladies of the court, be they ever so beautiful, should be ashamed to be seen without their courtly habiliments of silks, and tissues, and costly embroideries, even so poetry cannot be seen if any limb be left naked and bare and not clad in gay clothes and colors, says Puttenham.
This ornament is given to it by figures and figurative speaches, which
be the flowers, as it were, and colours that a Poet setteth upon his
language of arte, as the embroderer doth his stone and perle or
passements of gold upon the stuffe of a Princely garment.
The figures Puttenham divides according to his own scheme. First come the figures auricular peculiar to the poets, then the figures sensable common to the poets and the rhetoricians, and finally the figuressententious appropriate to the orators alone. After he has explained the first two varieties, however, and enters on the third, Puttenham says:
Now if our presupposall be true, that the Poet is of all other the most
auncient Orator, as he that by good and pleasant perswasions first
reduced the wilde and beastly people into publicke societies and
civilitie of life, insinuating unto them, under fictions with sweete and
coloured speeches, many wholesome lessons and doctrines, then no doubt
there is nothing so fitte for him, as to be furnished with all the
figures that be Rhetoricall, and such as do most beautifie language
with eloquence and sententiousness. So as if we should intreate our
maker to play also the Orator, and whether it be to pleade, or to
praise, or to advise, that in all three cases he may utter and also
perswade both copiously and vehemently.
Puttenham was writing in the same age and with the same tradition which defined Rhetoric as the art of ornament in speech. The only difference between oratory and poetry lay in that the latter was composed in verse.
5. Rhetorical Elements in Later English Classicism
From Puttenham to Bacon no serious contributions were made to the general theory of poetry. Critical attention was absorbed by controversies of Campion and Daniel over native and classical versification, and the flyting of Harvey and Nash. Harvey was a classical scholar and rhetorician who knew that poetry and oratory were different things, and believed verse to be the mark of the first and prose of the latter. He preferred the periodic style of Isocrates and Ascham to the tricksy pages of Euphues. Chapman, likewise, considered verse the mark of poetry, and prose of rhetoric.
In the Advancement of Learning (1605) Bacon clears up some of the misconceptions of the English renaissance by judicious borrowing from the Italian. He says:
Poesie is a part of Learning in measure of words for the most part
restrained, but in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly
referre to the Imagination, which, beeing not tyed to the Lawes of
Matter, may at pleasure joyne that which Nature hath severed, &sever
that which Nature hath joyned, and so make all unlawful Matches divorses of things: It is taken in two senses in respect of Wordes or
Matter. In the first sense it is but a Character of stile, and
belongeth to Arts of speeche. In the later, it is, as hath beene saide,
one of the principall Portions of learning, and is nothing else but
Fained History, which may be stiled as well in Prose as in Verse.
Bacon's focus of attention on the substance of poetry is in keeping with his attack on mere sophistication of style in rhetoric. Poetry as style does not interest him. Like Castelvetro and Sidney, he considers the vehicle of verse not essential to poetry, which, as a product of the imagination, he considers to be occupied with fiction. To Bacon, perhaps, the imagination seems to be too much the organ of make-believe, imaging things which never were on land or under the sea. Nevertheless his claim for the imagination is fortunate in ruling out those theories of art which set up slavish fidelity to fact, under the name of imitation, as the essence of poetry. Bacon was not concerned with formulating a complete theory of poetry, but his pithy obiter dicta were influential in further establishing the sounder criticism of the Italian classicists.
As Spingarn points out, Ben Jonson was first led to classicism in poetical theory by the example of Sidney. But during the intervening years the scholars of Holland had supplanted those of Italy; and whereas Sidney derived his Aristotelianism from Scaliger and Minturno, Jonson derived his even more from Pontanus, Heinsius, and Lipsius and from the Latin rhetoricians, Cicero and Quintilian.
A Poet (says Jonson) is a Maker, or a fainer: His Art, an Art of
imitation or faining, expressing the life of man in fit measure,
numbers, and harmony.... Hence hee is called a Poet, not he which
writeth in measure only, but that fayneth and formeth a fable, and
writes things like the truth. For the Fable and Fiction is, as it were,
the form and Soule of any Poeticall worke or Poeme.
So convinced was Jonson that the essence of poetry does not lie in verse but in fiction that Drummond reports, “he thought not Bartas a Poet, but a Verser, because he wrote not fiction.” Jonson was misled by the false analogy of poetry and painting.
Poetry and Picture are Arts of a like nature, and both are busie
about imitation. It was excellently said of Plutarch, Poetry was a
speaking Picture, and Picture a mute Poesie. For they both invent,
fame, and devise many things.
This structural and static conception of poetry is well exemplified by his comparisons. Whereas Aristotle classified poetry with music and dance, Jonson compares the epic or dramatic plot to a house. The epic is like a palace and so requires more space than a drama. The influence of Jonson was beneficial, however, in that he did emphasize in poetry the element of structure which the middle ages had largely neglected. In his ideals of style Jonson is rhetorical. In the twelve sections of Timber which he devotes to rhetoric he incorporates a sound treatise on prose style, urging restraint and perspicuity as especial virtues. In his nine sections on poetry he says nothing about style, except to quote Oicero to the effect that “the Poet is the nearest Borderer upon the Orator, and expresseth all his vertues, though he be tyed more to numbers.” It would seem that the section on style in oratory was meant to serve for poetry as well. Jonson's own methods of comparison, as related to Drummond, would bear this out: “That he wrote all his (verses) first in prose.” From the same authority one may learn that “He recommended to my reading Quintilian, who, he said, would tell me the faults of my Verses as if he lived with me,” and “That Quintilian's 6, 7, 8, bookes were not only to be read, but altogether digested,” Though Jonson makes no more distinction than Petrarch, between Horace, Cicero, or Quintilian as authorities on poetical style, his rhetorical cast does not imply the style advocated by Webbe and Puttenham. This was the exuberant style of mediaeval rhetoric, whereas by temperament and scholarly training Jonson threw his influence in favor of the classical rhetorical style of the best period.
The influence of Bacon in favor of the sound rhetoric of Cicero and Quintilian, seconded by that of Jonson, finally did away with the mediaeval ideal of rhetoric as being one with aureate language and embroidered style. The stylistic exuberance of the Elizabethans gave place to a more restrained and polished phrase in the reign of Charles. Bolton, for instance, in his Hypercritica (c. 1618) warns the historians against the style of the Arcadia. “Solidity and Fluency,” he says, “better becomes the historian, then Singularity of Oratorical or Poetical Notions.” Henry Reynolds, in his Mythomystes (c. 1633), although he goes wool-gathering with mystical interpretations of poetry, yet evinces the same reaction against the ornate style in terming the flowers of rhetoric and versification as mere accidents of poetry. In his Anacrisis (1634) the Earl of Stirling likewise urges that “language is but the Apparel of Poesy.” The “but” marks the difference between the ideals of two ages. Fiction remains for him the essence of poetry, for fiction in prose is poetry. But he will not go the whole way with Jonson and deny the name of poet to one whose material is not fictitious.
Unfortunately, for English criticism, Milton wrote very little on the theory of poetry. His casual remarks, however, show such enlightened scholarship and keen insight that what little he did write makes up in importance what it lacks in bulk. In the Treatise Of Education (1644) he refers to the sublime art of poetry “which in Aristotle's poetics, in Horace, and the Italian commentaries of Castelvetro, Tasso, Mazzoni, and others, teaches what the laws are of a true Epic poem, what of a Dramatic, what of a Lyric, what decorum is, which is the grand master peece to observe.” His rhetoric, also, he knew at first hand from the best classical sources. He gives as his authorities Plato, Aristotle, Phalereus, Cicero, Hermogenes, Longinus. This is the first time that an English critic mentions the treatise On the Sublime in connection with poetry. It can thus hardly be a coincidence that Milton, while citing the only surviving literary critic of classical antiquity who gave proper emphasis to the importance of passion in poetry, should himself be the first English critical writer to urge for passion the same importance. This he does in his famous differentiation of rhetoric and poetic. In the educational scheme, he says, after mathematics should be studied logic and rhetoric “To which Poetry would be made subsequent or indeed rather precedent, as being lesse suttle and fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate.” Milton has sometimes been thought to be here defining poetry, but he is only distinguishing it from rhetoric. A definition of poetry he never attempted. Meter he deemed essential to poetry, but rime he disliked. Thus, as far as he goes, Milton represents the best in English renaissance criticism. He knew at first hand the best classical treatises on poetic and on rhetoric; and he recognized the distinctions which the ancients had made between them.
With the English literary criticism in the second half of the Seventeenth Century, when the influence of French classicism was in the ascendant, this study is not concerned. In the period which has just been surveyed three points are noteworthy: the character of the English critics, the slowness with which the classical theories penetrated English thought, and the modifications which they underwent in the process. Gregory Smith calls attention to the influence of Sidney and Daniel in establishing “the claim of English criticism as an instrument of power outside the craft of rhetoricians and scholars.” Of the English critical writers Ascham is the foremost of the scholarly type; Harvey is the only other example. Thomas Wilson, although he wrote a rhetoric, wrote a better one in many ways because he was not a professional rhetorician, but a man of affairs. Gascoigne, Lodge, Spenser, were poets who incidentally wrote on the technic of their art or in defence of its value. Sidney, the poet, courtier, and soldier, wrote not from the musty alcoves of libraries. Webbe, it is true, was a pedant, but certainly not a scholar. Puttenham was a bad poet, a well-read man, and a courtier. Jonson's scholarship was thorough, but sweetened and ventilated by his activities as poet and dramatist. Bacon was a scholar, but even more a philosopher and a statesman. Milton, our most scholarly poet, during most of his life could not keep his mind and pen from church and national politics. Indeed, during the entire English renaissance there was no professional critic. Literary criticism was not a field to be tilled, but a wood to be explored by busy men who could find time for the exploit.
This amateur character of English critics accounts in a measure for the slowness with which classical and Italian renaissance critical theories filtered into England; for a statesman or a soldier is less likely to be up-to-date on theories of poetry than is a professional critic whose business it is to know what is written on his specialty. Another powerful influence in the same direction was the characteristic English conservatism which preferred the traditional paths of thought to Italian innovations.
This same common-sense conservatism accounts also for the modifications of Italian renaissance critical theories before they were incorporated into the fund of English criticism. Classical meters, slavish imitation of the ancients, close adherence to the rules of unity and decorum never made much headway in the English renaissance. Such contaminations of poetic by rhetoric as are clearest seem to arise not from the new Italian influence, but from the mediaeval tradition.
To sum up, classical critics had recognized two categories of literature: a fine art, poetic; and a practical art, rhetoric. Poetic they thought characterized by narrative or dramatic structure or movement, and by vividness of realization, and by passion. Rhetoric was characterized by a logical structure determined by the necessity of persuading an audience. Although most classical critics accepted prose as characteristic of rhetoric, and verse of poetry, Aristotle pointed out that the distinction was far more fundamental. As these two kinds of literature had a common ground in diction, there was a tendency from very early times for them to merge. In the artistic degeneracy of late Latin literature both rhetoric and poetic paid less attention to structure and other elements which distinguished them, and more attention to style, which they had in common. Moreover, under the influence of sophistical rhetoric, preoccupied with style, poetic and rhetoric practiced the same rhetorical artifices. As a result Virgil might be either an orator or a poet. This was the rhetoric which the middle ages inherited. To them rhetoric was synonymous with stylistic beauty. Poetry was a compound of doctrina and eloquentia, in other words of theology and style, in verse. In England this mediaeval tradition persisted into the seventeenth century, as the school rhetorics and the treatises on poetry show. The English renaissance poetic never freed itself from this influence of mediaeval rhetoric until the middle of the seventeenth century. With the recovery of classical literature and literary criticism, the new theories were interpreted in the light of the old ideas.
On its creative side the renaissance sought to produce in the vernacular a literature comparable to that of Greece or Rome. Thus literary criticism was prescriptive, and the typical treatises were text-books. Rhetoric, which had long been taught, very naturally furnished the methods, the teachers, and in many cases the subject matter for this instruction in poetry. As has been shown in the preceding section of this study, the renaissance theory of poetry was rhetorical in its obsession with style, especially the figures of speech, in its abiding faith in the efficacy of rules; and in its belief that the poet, no less than the orator, is occupied with persuasion. This latter rhetorical view that the poet's office is to persuade will be studied more fully in the following section on “The Purpose of Poetry.” The traditional view is that by persuading the reader to adhere to the good and shun the evil the poet achieves the proper end of poetry—moral improvement.