Renaissance Literary Theory and Criticism

For its contribution to Renaissance literary culture at large, Renaissance literary criticism is a tentative and often unsatisfying body of work, shedding less light on that culture than might be hoped. The most durably interesting texts have proven to be manifestoes by working poets, notably Joachim DuBellay’s La Défense et illustration de la langue française (1549) and Sir Philip Sidney‘s Defence of Poetry (1595 [wr. 1579-83]), which can be read as glosses on the literary programs of, respectively, the Pléiade and the so-called golden age of Elizabethan poetry. But these are brief documents, shaped by immediate polemical needs, and notoriously slippery bases for generalization. Elsewhere, commentary on literary topics is dominated by humanist Latinity, within which contemporary vernacular literature is at an obvious and severe disadvantage. (Few contemporary readers of the work that Marco Girolamo Vida entitled De arte poetica [1527] would have been surprised to discover that it was essentially a training guide for the composition of a NeoLatin epic along Virgilian lines.)

Even for the revered classics, moreover, we have very little in the way of sustained and coherent interpretation; for ancient authors—and for those few Renaissance writers, such as Petrarch, who attained comparable standing— the major vehicle for commentary is the humanist annotated edition, atomistic in its form and for the most part philological or antiquarian in its interests. On what is now perhaps the most prestigious single corpus of Renaissance literary achievement, English popular drama, the record of contemporary response is spectacularly meager; the results of assiduous scholarly searches for fugitive remarks in published and unpublished sources serve for the most part to illustrate the age’s inarticulateness in the face of its own most impressive works. Sidney’s Defence appears to tell us that he would have found Shakespeare’s plays distasteful; an apparently typical seventeenth-century commentator (Abraham Wright) calls Hamlet “an indifferent play, the lines but mean,” though he praises the lead role as “an indifferent good part for a madman” (Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Brian Vickers, 4 vols., 1974-76,1:29).

Sir Philip Sidney/

The desire for some extraliterary guidance to the literary sensibility of the time has accordingly involved a certain amount of conjecture and creative scholarship. Modern critics of Renaissance literature have asked their questions of various kinds of extraliterary materials: rhetorical and mythographic treatises, numerological tracts, handbooks of courtly etiquette, theological debates, and so on. Such sources, skillfully handled, can give a far better sense than Renaissance literary criticism itself can of what contemporary writers had in mind when they wrote and of what contemporary readers would have been looking for; they can orient us as well to the age’s aesthetic ambience, its identifying sense of the artificial. (Erasmus’s modest composition manual De copia [1514, with several subsequent versions] has proved to be a particularly fruitful starting point.) They also sometimes reveal the roots of precisely the modern questions that they help answer: the most vehement, indeed bloody, religious controversy of the age centers on a question of signification—the exact linguistic status of the Eucharistic host—and indeed establishes some of the vocabulary of modern Semiotics in the course of fiery and technical debates about idolatry and sacramentality.

Perhaps the most commonly employed supplement to the corpus of Renaissance literary criticism is the humanist version of Neoplatonism, as initiated by Marsilio Ficino in the late fifteenth century. This philosophical movement, bearing Pl a t o ‘s name but also owing much to Plotinus and late classical hermetic texts, asserts an especially radical assimilation of physical into mental reality; and though Ficino himself has little directly to say on the matter, this assimilation is achieved in a way that promises to make art the firm ally rather than, as Plato himself would have it, the enemy of the higher truth. The philosophy is indeed used by some Renaissance writers to elucidate particular literary works. Giordano Bruno’s De gli eroici furori (1585), a tumultuously intellectualized reading of a series of Italian love sonnets, is perhaps the most extravagant example; Cristoforo Landino’s Disputationes camaldulenses (published in 1480), on the philosophic content of the Aeneid, had the cachet of Ficino’s Florentine circle and is probably the most influential; George Chapman’s annotated translation of Homer (completed in 1616), setting out the Neoplatonic message encrypted in the very origins of Western literature, is now the best-known.

A significant tradition in modem criticism has sought to expand on such efforts in a systematic way. The life’s work of Frances Yates is an attempt to excavate in historically objective terms a vast intellectual synthesis in which Neoplatonism merges with a wide range of occult, magical, and scientific thought and to read some of the most valued artifacts of Renaissance culture, including Shakespearean drama, in the context of that synthesis. Even commentators skeptical of the results can find in the Neoplatonic focus on the mind and its theoretically limitless powers a way to do justice to an intuited sense of the sweep and power of the Renaissance imagination. When Julius Caesar Scaliger writes of the poet as another god, creating another nature, or when Sidney celebrates the poet for confecting a golden world such as nature herself could never provide, or when any number of critics locate poetry’s origin in a divinely inspired furor poeticus, we seem to hear an almost Romantic faith in the preemptive authority of poetic invention, and it seems only helpful to take the remarks out of context and set them beside passages from Plotinus and Ficino.

In context, however, the Neoplatonic intimations of Renaissance literary critics are usually transient and entangled in other agendas, the unraveling of which requires other kinds of patience. As a specific body of texts, Renaissance criticism is best studied as its own enterprise, at most points less mature than that of contemporary literature, but developing on its own schedule. So considered, its integrity comes from its being part of the history of literary criticism as an intellectual discipline; indeed, something like the modern sense of that discipline first takes form in sixteenth-century Italy, where a newly amplified body of knowledge about literary history is codified and promulgated and where an identifiable tradition of commentary and debate on certain specific questions of literary theory arises and sustains itself. The effort continues earlier efforts to classify literary discourse within the medieval schema of the arts, in particular to specify its exact relation to history and moral philosophy, and also gears with the humanist revival of classical rhetoric to yield a new interest in the systematic classification of literary genres and their rules. But the real momentum, characteristically, seems to come from two major classical texts, both of them known but not intensively studied during the Middle Ages: Horace‘s Ars Poética and Aristotle‘s Poetics. Their joint impact derives both from the specific opinions on literature that they advance (harmonizing them, like harmonizing the Gospels, becomes a common endeavor) and from the model they offer for literary criticism as an intellectual activity; what there is of a Platonic tradition in the field clearly suffers from the lack of a comparable text on which to build.

Aristotle’s work is especially momentous and novel in its impact. A fresh Latin translation by Giorgio Valla was published in 1498; the Greek editio princeps was printed by Aldus Manutius in 1508; and Bernardo Segni’s Italian translation, the first into any European vernacular, appeared in 1549. The key date seems to have been 1536, when Alessandro de’ Pazzi published a bilingual Greek and Latin edition; in that form the work quickly became a major focus of intellectual attention. Some of the most important critical works of the sixteenth century are specifically in the form of commentaries on Aristotle; the century sees at least a half-dozen of major stature, including particularly significant ones by Francesco Robortelli (1548), Pier Vettori (1560), and Lodovico Castelvetro (1570). An eclipse in certain circles of his prestige as a philosopher—it was in 1536 that Peter Ramus earned his master’s degree in Paris by defending the proposition that all Aristotle’s teachings are false—coincides with a powerful respect for this effectively new discovery. All its concepts and conclusions are worked over in detail, though the most important point of interest is unquestionably mimesis. A Latin equivalent— imitatio—is settled on early, but the meaning attached to it goes through some remarkable changes, prompted both by contemporary agendas and by problems in Aristotle’s own text. Imitatio is variously taken to concern the truth value of poetry, its artful verisimilitude, a particular mode of representation (i.e., dramatization rather than narration), or even, in one tortuous but not uncommon train of thought, the story being told (imitatio as synonymous with mythos or fabula). These and other usages jostle the only meaning that is universally agreed upon, though the only one that unmistakably does not derive from Aristotle: imitatio as one writer’s mimicking of another writer or group of writers, in particular, as the key humanist enterprise of imitating classical antiquity. The irresolutions of usage themselves measure the urgency of the issues being gathered for attention.

The dogmatic uniformity of the criticism that results is sometimes exaggerated; both the troublesomeness of the material and the combative style of Renaissance scholarship ensure that its history is a history of unresolved controversy in which even Aristotle’s own authority is not beyond question. It has sometimes seemed convenient, though, to let Julius Caesar Scaliger’s Poetics stand as a synthetic, or at least typical, statement. The work’s flamboyantly named author (1484-1558), an Italian adventurer and claimant to princely ancestry who turned to literature after marrying and settling in southern France, first made a name for himself in the 1530s with two virulent attacks on Erasmus’s Ciceronianus. Ad hominem arguments aside, the encounter located Scaliger as a defender of classical imitatio of a fairly narrow sort.

Scaliger’s posthumously published Poetics (1561) is in one of its dimensions a massive codification of such a program for poetry. After an opening glance at Aristotle’s incompleteness (and Horace’s and Vida’s inadequacy), the general topic is systematically organized into seven books, containing a very large number of chapters. The first four books identify and analyze traditional genres, meters, subject matter, sentiments, styles, and figures of speech and provide detailed illustrations from classical and occasionally Neo-Latin verse (including Scaliger’s own). Two final books catalogue and evaluate the classical and Neo-Latin poets themselves. (Bilingual poets, such as Poliziano, are reviewed for their Latin verse alone.) Prominence is given to the concept of imitatio in a sense that affirms poetry’s obligation and power to represent external reality; but Scaliger also makes clear that the reality he has in mind is already so perfectly captured in the best classical poetry—most especially by Virgil, whom in an extended syncrisis he judges easily superior to Homer—that the poet can best go about his business practicing imitatio in the specifically Renaissance sense of the term. In his opening section he traces the history of poetry back to the origins of speech— “the soul’s ferryman” (portitor amini [Poetices I])—in the need to transmit information and provoke response; he regards this need as more fundamental than imitation as such, and his often quoted remark about the divine character of the poet’s power comes in the context of an assertion of poetry’s fundamentally suasive purpose.

That didactic dimension is almost universally affirmed in the Renaissance, but Italian criticism does provide one extended and rigorous dissent. In the most explicitly innovative of the Aristotelian commentaries, which announces the “discovery” that the text of the Poetics is a collection of rough notes put aside in expectation of further revision and hence calling not so much for explication as for rethinking, Castelvetro (1505-71), an excommunicated heretic no less contentious by nature than Scaliger, argues with remarkable consistency that pleasure, the first half of the Horatian dulce et utile, is the sole end of poetry of all sorts. This intent is also linked to an overt denial to the poet of any divine power or authority to create his own reality; to that end, Castelvetro propounds a doctrine of imitatio that is essentially a stern standard of verisimilitude that ties poetry very closely to history and on the basis of which he is willing to criticize even Virgil. These principles lead him to what proves to be the most influential feature of his commentary, the extrapolation of a few brief remarks from Aristotle into the firm doctrine of the three unities of dramatic composition: the requirement of a single action, transpiring at a single location, during a period of fictional time that Castelvetro specifies as no more than 12 hours. This tripartite rule becomes notorious for its legislative dogmatism, though Castelvetro urges it with constant reference to the needs and expectations of an actual theatrical audience. He may have drawn on personal experience—he is very possibly the author of Gl’ingannati (1531), the comedy that supplied Shakespeare the main plot of Twelfth Night—and in the next century Castelvetro’s doctrine (generally cited as Aristotle’s doctrine) does in fact play a useful role in theatrical history, helping the French classical stage achieve its special kind of austere focus.

For all their differences, Scaliger and Castelvetro nevertheless resemble each other and most of their fellow critics in being what Bruno sarcastically calls regolisti di Poesia, “poetry’s rule-mongers” (Scritti scelti di Giordano Bruno e di Tommaso Campanella, ed. Luigi Firpo, 2d ed., 1968, 185); the generic rules they seek are supposed to have an a priori rationality and to be essentially timeless and unchanging. Rarer but in some ways more interesting are occasional accounts of literary history as a history of deliberate experiment and change; it is in these accounts, indeed, that Renaissance criticism comes closest to dealing successfully with Renaissance literature.

The most consequential figure in this regard is Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio (1504-73), an author of novelle (including the source for Othello) and neo-Senecan tragedies, who in 1554 published his Discorsi on narrative poetry, drama, and satire. The essay on drama proceeds in constant reference to Aristotle, but its most striking arguments are for conscious generic innovation against the classical grid; in particular, Giraldi proposes a tragedia di lieto fin, “tragedy with a happy ending,” as the best dramatic type for contemporary practice. He is of course defending his own productions in this line; and both his arguments and his plays look forward to an important debate toward the end of the century—precipitated by Giambattista Guarini’s II pastor fido (1589)—concerning the viability of tragicomedy as a distinctly modern theatrical genre. The essay on narrative poetry is concerned with the relation of the neo-chivalric romanzo, in particular Orlando furioso, to the classical epic tradition. Against complaints that Ariosto had written a work too sprawling and unruly to meet classical standards, Giraldi argues that precisely by showing how such diversity could be effectively linked together within a single poem—by showing how a narrative could achieve distinction with an aesthetic of variety rather than one of unity—the writers of romanzi had established a new genre that is in fact superior to classical epic. He suggests that a movement in this direction can be detected within the classical epic tradition itself. The controversy prompted Torquato Tasso (1544-95) to attempt a somewhat different reconciliation of the two genres in a series of writings over the course of almost 30 years. The theory achieves final if somewhat uneven form in his influential Discorsi del poema eroico (1594); they may be read in connection with his own romantic epic, Gerusalemme liberata (1581), which is, among other things, a practical illustration of how narrative form may embody unity precisely through diversity.

Perhaps the most surprising theorist, and the object of a good deal of fresh interest and respect in the twentieth century (he is singled out for praise by Benedetto Croce and George Saintsbury), is Francesco Patrizi (1529-97), sometimes called da Cherso to distinguish him from the fifteenth-century bishop of the same name, who also wrote on literary matters. He participates briefly, on behalf of Ariosto, in the dispute over the romanzi; in his Della poetica (of which two books were published in 1586 and five more were discovered in manuscript in 1949) he sets out an extended critique of the prevailing way in which the rules of poetry were being sought. A professor of philosophy at Ferrara and then Rome, Patrizi starts with a comprehensively anti-Aristotelian agenda, which he applies to literary criticism with vehemence and thoroughness; the second book of his treatise is an emphatic, extended rejection of imitatio (in any sense of the term) as essential to poetry. His alternative program shows traces of Platonism—he is fully committed to the doctrine of the furor poeticus—but in many ways now seems even more innovative. He is even less interested than Giraldi Cinthio in uncovering transhistorical regulations for poetic form; the only indispensable requirement that Patrizi acknowledges for poetry is that it be written in verse, and his extensive and often laborious use of evidence from literary history is perhaps the least prescriptive of any Renaissance theorist’s. His main aesthetic criterion, the subject of his third book, is in fact a species of surprise, the poet’s ability to provoke maraviglia, “astonished admiration.” The criterion is not new; its pedigree reaches back to Ciceronian rhetorical theory, and several sixteenth-century critics had sought to add it in one way or another to the Horatian list. But Patrizi makes the concept unprecedentedly emphatic and central. In support of his position, he repeatedly cites Longinus’s On the Sublime, which in effect takes the place of Aristotle’s Poetics; Patrizi is the first to make extensive use of what becomes one of the key critical texts for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, just as he is among the first to give voice to the aesthetic ambitions of Marinismo and analogous movements in seventeenth-century literature.

Lodovico Castelvetro, Castelvetro on the Art of Poetry (ed. and trans. Andrew Bongiorno, 1984), Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata e sposta (ed. Werther Romani, 2 vols., 1978-79); Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio, Giraldi Cinthio on Romances (trans. Henry L. Snuggs, 1968), Scritti critici (ed. Camillo Guerreri Crocetti, 1973); Francesco Patrizi da Cherso, Della poetica (ed. Danilo Aguzzi Barbagli, 3 vols., 1969-71); Julius Caesar Scaliger, Poetices libri septem (1561, facs. reprint, 1964), Select Translations from Sealiger’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Frederick Morgan Padelford, 1905); G. Gregory Smith, ed., Elizabethan Critical Essays (2 vols., 1904); J. E. Spingarn, ed., Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century (3 vols., 1908-9); Torquato Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem (trans. Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel, 1973); Marco Girolamo Vida, The De Arte Poetica (ed. and trans. Ralph G. Williams, 1976). J. W. H. Atkins, English Literary Criticism: The Renascence (1947); Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text (1979); Vernon Hall, Jr., Renaissance Literary Criticism: A Study of Its Social Context (1945); Baxter Hathaway, The Age of Criticism: The Late Renaissance in Italy (1962); Arthur F. Kinney, Continental Humanist Poetics (1989), Humanist Poetics (1986); George Saintsbury, A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe, vol. 2 (1900); J. E. Spingarn, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance (1899); Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (2 vols., 1961); Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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