3. Renaissance literary theory



3.1. The Renaissance: Humanism and Criticism

3.2. Continental Critics

3.3. Poetics in the Tudor Age

3.4. Sir Philip Sidney

3.5. The Early 17th Century

3.6. Ben Jonson

3.7. The Age of Milton










3.1. The Renaissance:

Humanism and Criticism


From a broadly historical point of view, the Renaissance means above all the expansion of the world known to the Europeans to include the far East and America. It means, therefore, an enormous development in communication and therefore in commercial and cultural exchange. From this historical viewpoint it also means the growth of the importance of the bourgeois class of merchants and their participation in political power through the figure of the king. The atomization of the medieval feudal system gradually gives way to more centralized units of power: nations and nationalism become the dominant discourse. The organization of a lay culture around the figure of the king will have great importance for literature, since it will give rise to the system of patronage.

The Renaissance is also the age when the intellectual life receives a new impetus thanks to the printing press. The printing press is the first of the mass media, and it is obvious that it could only be developed in a culture of incipient capitalism, when books can become a commodity which can be massively produced, commercialized, moved around, bought and sold for money. The printing press is an invention which cannot exist but in a market economy. The market ensures that goods must be produced massively and circulated. The availability and the circulation of knowledge are stressed by the humanists:


(1) Books are indeed a higher -a wider and more tenacious- memory, a storehouse which is the common property of us all.


From a philosophical viewpoint, the Renaissance is the age of humanism. That is, thought is no longer controlled by the authority of Revelation and the church: it makes a freer inquiry into all realms of experience. The influence of religion and dogma is still enormous, but there is a new faith in the power of human reason as an instrument to understand reality quite apart from religious authority. Old problems which were solved by authority are given a new outlook; the old solutions are reexamined, and new answers are sought for. In the realm of literature, an the influence of humanism can be seen "in the practice of bringing reasoned judgment to bear for the first time on literature and literary problems." We have already detected the origins of Renaissance humanism in the scholasticism of the later Middle Ages, which believed in the inherent rightness of human reason. Reason could lead man to the discovery of a measure of truth; it is a lumen naturale which leads us to a lex naturalis. This conception is already on the way to humanism. The Italian humanists of the fifteenth century will go much farther. They "relied primarily in their treatment of literary problems on Nature or reason as their main instrument for arriving at truth." It is true that great importance is attached to the newly discovered classics. The great Italian humanist Laurentius Valla (1406-57) gave them great authority on matters of language and style:

(2) Ego pro lege accipio quidquid magnis auctoribus placuit.

This is an early statement of the doctrine of neoclassicism, which takes classical authors for established models of perfection. But in spite of this reverence, the classics are commonly reexamined and subjected to critical reasoning. Valla, for instance, will write his dialogue On Pleasure (1431) trying to discuss in a rational way the problem of human conduct. Pleasure had traditionally been condemned by Christian doctrine as something sinful. After an examination of classical philosophical doctrines on the matter, Valla adopts as his final criterion, not ancient precepts or Medieval doctrine, "but the dictates of Nature or reason, on the ground that what was ordained by Nature could not be wrong." Valla applied this independent spirit of enquiry to the authority of the Church as well.

There is an enormous growth of interest in all fields of learning and in the arts. Humanists like to see themselves as different from the barbarous Middle Ages; they are proud of the restoration of ancient knowledge they have effected. Already in the first half of the fifteenth century an enormous number of classical texts is rediscovered, published and commented. For instance, Plato's philosophy is rediscovered and developed by Marsilio Ficino (1422-99); it is popularized by Castiglione and many others, and will influence critical thought on the arts.

This work of discovery and edition entailed a development of the techniques of textual criticism. Different versions of an ancient text must be compared, to ascertain which is the most reliable one; editorial decisions must be taken, corrections made and a final text must be established and edited with notes and a commentary. The foundations for this work were laid by the Florentine Niccolo de' Niccoli (1363-1437) and developed by Valla, Politian and others. Philology could be a revolutionary enterprise when set against a culture of textual authority such as the medieval one. Independent textual examination and written dogma are inimical to each other. For instance, Valla denounced as a fake the "Donation of Constantine," an ancient document which justified Papal claims to temporal power. In that document, the Emperor Constantine supposedly gave the Pope and his successors his crown, Rome and Italy. Valla demonstrated on philological grounds that the language of this passage did not belong to the supposed date of the text. In the same way, Valla will examine the sacred texts from a philological viewpoint, and reach conclusions which overturn established beliefs. He questioned the attribution of Dionysius the Areopagite's Celestial Hierarchies and of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, thought to be by Cicero. He also denounces the bad quality of medieval Latin and corrected errors in the translation of the Vulgate by reference to the original Greek. Each of these critical enterprises had a shattering effect on scholastic culture.

On the whole, Medieval learning and their version of reality are now regarded with suspicion. Medieval ideas about geography, philosophy and history are revised. Works like Francesco Patrizzi's Della Historia (1560) and Edmund Bolton's Hypercritica (1618) reject many medieval historical accounts as fables, and formulate new principles of history-writing: a careful ascertainment of facts, and constant interpretation on the part of the historian. History is no mere collection of facts: events must also be illuminated with the light of reason to explain their causes and circumstnces.

Reason is also stressed in art. The idea of a community of the arts is stressed now, and the intellectual value of the plastic arts is emphasized. Da Vinci and Dürer rescue painting from its relegation to the field of manual arts, and stress its spiritual and symbolic value; Leon Battista Alberti does the theorizing for architecture.

In the same way, there is a proliferation of Defences of Poetry and Arts of Poetry. The Italian defenses of the role of literature in education come one hundred and fifty years before the English ones appear. The defenses are written along Aristotelian and above all Horatian lines, stressing the pedagogical aspect of art: "Literature was valued not so much for its aesthetic and artistic qualities as for its practical uses, for its influence on character, its ability to train a man for his part in active life, or again, as providing models for expression; and these tests remained characteristic of Humanist criticism to the end." The early Humanist treatises, then, are not essentially different from the medieval tradition, even if a greater emphasis is laid on secular literature. Poetics is still dependent on rhetoric, and the value of poetry is its educational or moralizing effect on the reader. On the whole, the appreciation of poetry by the humanists was neither too elevated or too dismissive. "To the Humanistic mind poetry was little more than a branch of learning; a means, along with oratory, history, and philosophy, of recapturing something of the lost culture of antiquity, rather than a mysterious and independent art of infinite possibilities." Nevertheless, criticism flourishes as never before and as treatises become more frequent the language of critical discussion becomes more articulate. The tendency to formulate poetic rules must be understood as part of the rational effort to understand poetry, although of course exaggerations and protests soon followed (the German scholar Fabricius extracted 54 rules from Horace's Ars). In the early part of the Renaissance ideas about poetry come mostly from the medieval authorities, Horace, Cicero and Quintilian. Plutarch and the neo-Platonists are also favourite sources. The Aristotelian influence is not generally felt until the late sixteenth century, and is rare in England throughout the Renaissance. On the whole, Renaissance criticism affirms its own independence from the classics, without a slavish subjection to their ideas: modern developments in literature and national peculiarities are legitimated and justified with or without a resource to classical authority, though there are heated debates on these issues. With the critics of the late Renaissance, criticism becomes a literary genre of its own, independent and prestigious. Criticism in France, England and Spain follows the early Italian models, Valla, Politian, Pico, while they have a more imperfect knowledge of their contemporaries. In the early Renaissance the humanists are often related to the Church: later on, there is a greater number of noblemen and important officials among the critics. Renaissance critics are frequently writers themselves, and many hold important political positions. If the medieval critic is a monk, in the sixteenth century the critic is most often a humanist and a courtier.

The Renaissance marks the point where the vernaculars begin to take over the cultural role of Latin during the Middle Ages. This is a burning question in the learned debates of the sixteenth century in all countries, because all are facing the same problem: the vernacular tongue is felt by many to be lacking in dignity and capability to deal with many questions of learning. Its syntax is rude (more so in prose than in poetry), and its vocabulary much poorer (as far as science is concerned) than those of Latin and Greek. The issue is therefore a burning one among humanists: very often well-known humanists (Erasmus, Vives) defend the continued use of Latin. Anyway, there is a fever of translations from Latin and Greek into the vernacular, and this will contribute to transform the language. The translators are forced to introduce many neologisms, which will be called "inkhorn terms" in Britain. The use of such terms is condemned as an aberration by many, but defended as a necessity by others. In Italy, Dante had already defended the need for a vernacular common language. Pietro Bembo (Lingua Volgare, 1512) says it is patriotic to write in the vernacular; in France, Joachim Du Bellay writes the Defense et illustration de la langue françoise, and in Britain Mulcaster and many others link the use of the vernacular to a patriotic feeling. This is not surprising, since from the end of the Middle Ages larger nations are formed as the feudal system is gradually dismantled. Language is one of the larger ties that are common to a nation beyond the feudal divisions, and therefore improving and furthering the vernacular language is considered an act of patriotism.

Literature is also assigned a patriotic role, above all in England and France; paradoxically, the vernacular literatures of the Middle Ages are generally ignored, with the exception of Dante and Boccaccio in Italy. In England, the medieval Arthurian romances are despised as remnants of the catholic and obscurantist past; Ascham defends epic poetry but condemns Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Beaumont'sThe Knight of the Burning Pestle is a parody of the medieval romances, like Don Quijote. The literary ideal is now the epic poem, conceived (in a somewhat outfashioned way) as a model of behavior for the ruling class, in the best pedagogical tradition. Homer is considered to be too rough and primitive (although he will be defended by his translator Chapman and by Johnson in England) and it is Virgil's Aeneid which is universally acknowledged as the model of the patriotic epic, such as Ronsard's La Franciade, Camoens's Os Lusiadas and Ercilla's La Araucana. Characteristically, England's own patriotic epic, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, is much more "Gothic," mixing Arthurian elements and medieval allegory with the influence of Ariosto's unruly Orlando Furioso.

Under the principle of decorum, each literary genre is assigned its proper public: this had some practical consequences, such as Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville's Gorboduc being written for the instruction of Queen Elizabeth. On the other hand, classical theory did not seem to afford any models for that kind of art which really appealed to the people, and for some time this will cause a divorce between the high flights of theory and the actual popularity of the ballad or the popular stage. Lope de Vega is a perfect instance of this conflict, when in his Arte nuevo de hacer comedias (1609) he acknowledges in a flippant tone that he cannot produce a theoretical justification of his practice in writing comedies which go against all the classical rules, but will nevertheless go on writing them:

Pues que las paga el vulgo, es justo

Hablarle en necio para darle gusto.

Sometimes the medieval or "Gothic" tradition is justified as a lawful innovation on classical rules: it may go against the rules, but it provides a variety which some feel is lacking in the classical models. However, the appreciation of different kinds of writings and their justification on historical basis is still far away. The Renaissance mind is not a historicist one: learning is assumed to be equally valid in all ages, and no attempt is made to study literary works within their historical and intellectual context (though some effort was made by Politian in this direction). Decorum and truth are assumed to be trans-historical and immovable principles.

Decorum also dictates new norms in style; a new attention is paid to matters of language and composition, whether in Latin or in the vernacular. The humanists begin to think of prose -and not only of verse- as something which must be written carefully, something which has a structure of its own:

(3) We notice in all good prose a certain element of rhythm -though it is not obtrusive- which coincides with, and expresses, the general structure of a passage and gives us a clue to the sense . . . . Different rhythms arouse different emotions suitable to the matter in hand. to ignore this is to neglect one of the most delicate points in style.

Very often the classics, and especially Cicero, were praised as models of style. But the Renaissance will also voice the need to renew styles. Politian argues that style is a personal thing, something which cannot be copied from another person. After criticizing the defenders of Ciceronianism, Politian "condemns outright the theory of an ideal classical period with fixed and absolute standards." This is a rejection of neoclassicism, and a plea for critical revision of standards. According to Politian, the ancients must be studied, but with the aim of learning from them how to develop our own style. However, we must recognize that these very ideas are classical, and can be found in Quintilian and Tacitus.

Sometimes classical theory was interpreted in a limited way and exerted a constraining influence. The Aristotelian concept of mimesis is interpreted as simple imitation, and Aristotle's universalization is understood as idealization. The idea of decorum is all-important. Tragedy and comedy are discussed in terms of social classes. Often the social and moral stereotypes are assumed to be in direct relation: in England, Puttenham advocates a decorum where kings are always brave and virtuous, etc. Lyric poetry is somewhat neglected in theory, perhaps because it does not lend itself to such an easy submission to a social decorum, and because it was given less attention by the ancients. But decorum could also be a principle of right reading, of understanding each element in its context and its genre. For instance, Guarino defends pagan poetry in spite of the "impieties, cruelties and horrors" which can be found in some of the greatest authors. According to Guarino, these matters must be judged not by moral but by aesthetic standards, by "their congruity to the characters and situations described . . . . It is the artist we criticize, and not the moralist." In his view, decorum requires that we read literature as literature, not as an ethical treatise.

While poetry was occasionally defined as something secondary in importance, a pastime or recreation (Vergerius), some Renaissance humanists give it a higher value. Poetry is often defined as a civilizing and educational force; poets were the creators of civilization, an idea dear to Cicero and Horace. A few humanists defended the divine origin of poetry: Pico della Mirandola for instance interpreted Plato in a neo-Platonic way, and defended the divine origin of poetry and the supernatural inspiration of the great poets. According to Pico, all poetry is allegorical and hides profound secrets hidden under a veil so that they are protected from vulgar minds -Pico follows Heraclitus and other allegorical readers of antiquity, including neo-Platonism and the Kabbalah, in reading Homer's poems as a treatise on natural science. Nevertheless, there is still a greater emphasis on the moral teaching of poetry than on poetic form. Fiction is still distrusted, and the surface of poetry must be disregarded in order to fix our attention on the content: there is greater discussion of poetic contents and of allegorical interpretations than analysis of poetic form. The same Pico defined imagination as a mental aberration in De imaginatione: imagination, the creator of poetic form and fiction, is distrusted as a disruptive and a chaotic principle.

So far we have spoken of general theories, rather than of specific criticism. "As for the appreciations of individual writers, they consisted for the most part of brief comments of a historical or moral kind." For instance, Homer is usually described as rough and powerful, Virgil as more polished and subtle, and ultimately the more effective writer (another idea coming from Quintilian). But there is no real language of practical criticism or close analysis of particular works: all commentary is immediately dependent on general principles, like decorum, truth, or grace of style. Discussion of poetry in the Renaissance is still focused on essentials, like the nature and aims of poetry in general.

Italy was the main center of Humanism during late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Italian criticism is more advanced and elaborate than anything we can find in England. Many of the important statements in English critics come from the Italians or from the classics as they were edited and interpreted by the Italians. There are countless names: Vida, Scaliger, Robortello, Castelvetro, Minturno, Tasso, Beni, Patrizzi, Mazzoni, etc. are the main figures of what has been called "the Age of Criticism," the later sixteenth century. We shall only note a few interesting points raised by two representative critics, Scaliger and Castelvetro.