Literary Criticism of Geoffrey de Vinsauf

Geoffrey de Vinsauf derives his name (de Vino Salvo in Latin) from a treatise on the preservation of wine which was attributed to him. However, it was not wine but poetics which earned him renown, though almost nothing is known about his life except that he lived in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, wrote poetry, studied in Paris, visited Rome, and taught rhetoric in England.1 His treatise Poetria Nova (New Poetics) was widely influential; designed to provide guidance in the rules and practice of poetry, along with the study and imitation of great poets, it became one of the standard training manuals of poets in Europe from the thirteenth century until well into the Renaissance. Characteristically of medieval writers, Geoffrey viewed poetry as a branch of rhetoric, and consequently divided his treatise according to the five rhetorical “offices” of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Indeed, his text is rooted, and intervenes, in the conventional medieval curriculum of rhetoric and poetics based on classical sources. The main source of Geoffrey’s treatise was the Rhetorica ad Herennium (Rhetoric to Herennius), also called the Rhetorica Nova or New Rhetoric because it was newly placed in the medieval curriculum alongside the standard rhetorical treatise already in use since the later twelfth century, Cicero’s De inventione (On Invention). Geoffrey’s treatise Poetria Nova echoes the title Rhetorica Nova, indicating that he wishes to propound a new poetics. It also echoes the title of the second source on which it is based, Horace’s Ars poetica, which was known in the Middle Ages as the Poetria. Like Horace’s text, Geoffrey’s treatise is written in Latin verse and, as Margaret Nims points out, it belongs to a “long tradition of versified manuals in the liberal arts which extended back beyond Horace and continued long after the twelfth century.” The most renowned later work in this tradition was Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism.

Significantly, Geoffrey’s treatise is dedicated to Pope Innocent, who is addressed as “the world’s sun” (Poetria Nova, 16). In his “General Remarks” on poetry, Geoffrey likens the creation of a poem’s substance or subject matter to the building of a house: “The mind’s hand shapes the entire house before the body’s hand builds it. Its mode of being is archetypal before it is actual” (I.47–49). Geoffrey insists that before putting pen to paper, the poet must “construct the whole fabric” of the poem “within the mind’s citadel; let it exist in the mind before it is on the lips” (I.57–59). This rational view of poetry, whereby the act of composition occurs entirely in the mind prior to writing, contrasts sharply with the Romantic notions of poetry that we have inherited. Shelley, for example, was later to view the actual poetic product as but a remote and faded version of the mind’s original conception. Once the poem’s substance has been created, says Geoffrey, we must create or invent the verbal expression: “let poetic art come forward to clothe the matter with words” (I.61–62). Later, he states that words “are instruments to unlock the closed mind; they are keys, as it were, of the mind” (IV.1065–1066). Again, in our age, we have become habituated to the idea that language is not merely the outer expression of thought but the very instrument that enables thought. Geoffrey’s view that the entire domain of thought precedes language was an integral part of medieval thinking; this view continues through Pope and many other figures until we reach the nineteenth century.

maxresdefaultGeoffrey remarks that there are two broad ways of ordering the poetic material or subject matter. The first is to follow the order of nature, the natural sequence of events, so that “the order of discourse does not depart from the order of occurrence” (II.88– 91). If we follow the order of art, however, we will alter the order of nature, sometimes placing last things first, so as to dispose “the material to better effect” (II.120–126). Indeed, the order of art, says Geoffrey, is “more elegant than natural order” (II.98–99). Given its insistence on the transformative power of art, it is clear that Geoffrey’s text is taking a considerable stride away from the notion of art as mere imitation and the idea that it is somehow a step removed from the truth of nature.

The bulk of Geoffrey’s treatise is devoted to style and the various “ornaments” that create given styles in poetry. His general advice is to “examine the mind of a word, and only then its face” (IV.739–740). In other words, we should use words not just for their superficial qualities of sound and appearance, but with due consideration of their meaning in a given context. We must “examine the words in relation to the meaning proposed . . . let rich meaning be honoured by rich diction” (IV.750–755). Geoffrey expounds ten basic tropes or figures of ornament, which include: metaphor, onomatopoeia, allegory, metonymy, hyperbole, and synecdoche (IV.959). Metaphor provides pleasure, he says, because “it comes from what is your own . . . a metaphor serves you as a mirror, for you see yourself in it and recognize your own sheep in another’s field” (IV.796–799). The figurative use of language must be kept “in check” by reason (IV.1013–1014). In general, any kind of excess must be avoided in ornament (IV.1934– 1935). Nonetheless, he encourages the poet to experiment, since altered “meaning . . . gives new vitality to a word” (IV.949–951). Indeed, all of the tropes, he explains, are “distinguished by the figurative status of the words and the uncommon meaning assigned them” (IV.963–964). In contrast with the long tradition of aesthetics which saw poetry as mere imitation of nature, Geoffrey places considerable emphasis on the transformation of nature by poetry, and the need for the poet to attain novelty. The resources of art provide “a means of avoiding worn-out paths and of travelling a more distinguished route” (IV.982–983).

Geoffrey has some wise remarks to make on the poet’s relation to the audience, remarks which might apply equally to the teacher and the orator, even today. He cautions: “Be of average, not lofty, eloquence. The precept of the ancients is clear: speak as the many, think as the few . . . Regard not your own capacities, therefore, but rather his with whom you are speaking. Give to your words weight suited to his shoulders, and adapt your speech to the subject. When you are teaching the arts, let your speech be native to each art; each delights in its own idiom. But see that its idiom is kept within its own borders” (IV.1080–1089). Many of these statements are reminiscent of Horace’s precepts, notably those which call for not only the adapting of words to their subject matter but also the use of the prospective audience as a guide in the process of composition itself.

In general, three elements “perfect a work: artistic theory by whose law you may be guided; experience, which you may foster by practice; and superior writers, whom you may imitate” (IV.1704–1707). Geoffrey stresses that in some respects verse and prose follow different paths. Inelegant things are permissible in prose but not in verse; the rustic form of a word will “embarrass” verse “by its ungainliness, and bring shame to the line . . . A line of prose is a coarser thing; it favours all words” (IV.1855–1863). In all other matters, he says, the artistic principles of verse and prose are the same (IV.1873–1880). Ordinary speech and colloquial language, he points out, are allowed only in comedy, which “demands plain words only” (IV.1885–1886). The final judgment in the usage of words must be a “triple judgment of mind and ear and usage”(IV.1947–1948).

While much of Geoffrey’s text clearly points to a more modern poetics, he nonetheless sustains the classical precepts of moderation, decorum, propriety, and the appeal to reason, as well as to the important classical distinction between prose and verse and a hierarchy of genres whereby comedy occupies a lowly rank. Moreover, the examples of good writing that Geoffrey offers are replete with eulogies of the pope, with narratives of Christ’s mission and of original sin – examples which are grounded in medieval theology. Having said this, it is striking that Geoffrey does not lay down explicit didactic or moral functions for poetry; its primary purpose, in his text, is to provide pleasure, though a refined and controlled pleasure. In terms of language, the central assumption that runs through his poetics and rhetoric is that there is a core of stable, literal meaning, a meaning which is preserved even through figurative transformation. Together with his retention of the classical dispositions cited above, this feature of Geoffrey’s text indicates its somewhat contradictory and incoherent nature, marking it as a product of its time: classical values coexist uneasily with an impetus toward modernism. The modernism is of form, comprising a stress on artistic pleasure and delight; whereas the reason and moderation that must constrain modernistic innovation derive from a world view that is profoundly conservative.


1. “Introduction,” in Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria Nova, trans. Margaret F. Nims (Toronto and Wetteren, Belgium: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies/Universa Press, 1967), pp. 10–11. Some of the other details presented here of Geoffrey’s life and work are also taken from Nims’ brief but useful introduction.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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