3.2. Continental Critics
3.2.1. Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558)
Scaliger was an enormously influential critic, scientist, physician and poligraph, who became the spokesman for the neoclassical tendency in Renaissance thought. Scaliger thought that the ancients had achieved perfection in writing and that modern writers should use them as models; any innovation is suspect and probably mistaken. Scaliger defended, for instance, imitation of Cicero's style as the perfect model of Latin prose. Ciceronianism became enormously fashionable, but was rejected on sound terms by Politian and later by Erasmus (Ciceronianus, 1528). Scaliger always provoked enormous critical battles due to his aggressive style and his taste for polemics.
Much of Scaliger's work on poetics is reminiscent of Aristotle "our director, the perpetual dictator of all good arts," but actually he is always contradicting Aristotle and giving him a pragmatic, rhetorical bent which is nearer to Cicero and Quintilian. His main work is called Poetica or Poetices Libri Septem (The Seven Books of Poetics ), published posthumously in 1561.
Scaliger is concerned above all with the moral purpose of poetry, and emphasizes its effect on audience. He sees poetry as a kind of persuasion, and so he sometimes blurs the differences between poetry and rhetoric. He defines poetry as imitation, but then adds that
(4) imitation . . . is not the end of poetry, but it is intermediate to the end. The end is the giving of instruction in pleasurable form. . . .
The poet teaches mental disposition through action.... Action, therefore, is a mode of teaching; disposition, that which we are taught. Philosophical exposition, oratory and drama all have the same end: the persuasion of the hearer.
Persuasion is a rhetorical aim. But poetry and oratory are different. Although oratory may make use of examples and small narrations, only poetry creates a whole fictive world. The other arts must represent things as they are, while
(5) the poet depicts quite another sort of nature . . . ; in fact, by so doing, he transforms himself almost into a second deity. (139)
(6) [poetry] deals with things not as if it were narrating events from the outside as a reciter might do, but rather as it were establishing them in their actuality, as another god might do.
The notion of the poet as a minor god is reminiscent of Boccaccio. Scaliger's idea of the "second nature," which we shall find again in Sidney, will be an element in the constitution of a theory of creative imagination in the Romantic age, but it is not one as yet. It only means that poetry is fictive, invented, that the laws of our world need not apply to the poetic world inside the work. The medieval idea of the levels of interpretation of a poem will be simplified during the Renaissance to an opposition of the surface or literal level and an allegorical level. Some critics, like Torquato Tasso, distinguish an allegorical and a moral level, but usually the allegorical level is taken to have a moral significance.
In order to teach and please, Scaliger argues, poetry must be self-consistent and yet varied; it must be vivid and graceful, yet have insight and foresight. To achieve persuasion, the poet may use all the resources of all other kinds of discourse. The poet becomes then the ideal of the perfect humanist, the man who is versed in all sciences and arts, like Scaliger himself. Poetry may be classified in five ways, according to its type of inspiration, the age it belongs to, its subject-matter, its form and its genre:
· Scaliger adheres to the theory of inspiration, which he traces back to Plato's Ion. He pooh-poohs the passages against poetry in the Republic, saying that Plato had better watch his own morals before attempting to correct others. Inspiration, he says, may be in a man since birth or may suddenly seize an otherwise unworthy man. And apart from natural inspiration, we can induce an artificial inspiration with wine.
· He distinguishes three ages in poetry: the divine age of Apollo, the heroic age of Orpheus and the human age of Homer. This idea implying a gradual decadence will be picked up later by the English critic Peacock.
· Subject-matters he divides into philosophical, moral (politics and economics), ethical, religious, etc.
· On the question of form (prose or verse), the problem is where to draw the boundaries of poetry. He doubts whether the term "poetry" ought to include what is not written in verse, although in the end he seems to accept prose as well. In spite of what he had said on invention, Scaliger is willing to call the historical poet Lucan a poet, and even the historian Livy is said to deserve the name of poet.
· As to genre, we find the main Aristotelian divisions into drama and narrative, levels of style, etc. systematized, simplified and made more rigid. For instance, drama is neatly divided into two great genres, Comedy and Tragedy:
(7) Comedy is a dramatic poem, which is filled with intrigue, full of action, happy in its outcome and written in a popular style . . . . A Tragedy is the imitation of the adversity of a distinguished man; it employs the form of action, presents a disastrous dénouement, and is expressed in impressive metrical language. (141-142).
We may note that Scaliger leaves music and catharsis out of the Aristotelian definition. Scaliger contributes to the making of the unities in drama, by setting as an ideal to be reached the coincidence of the real time of representation with the fictional time inside the play. Robortello spoke for the first time of a "unity of time" and Castelvetro will deduce from Scaliger's views (not directly from Aristotle's) the "unity of place."
3.2.2. Ludovico Castelvetro (1505-1571)
Castelvetro is best known for his strong advocation of the dramatic unities and for his unusual theory that the end of poetry is not teaching, but keeping common people happy. His main work is Poetica d'Aristotele vulgarizzata et sposta (The Poetics of Aristotle translated and explained ; 1576).
Castelvetro thinks that poetry is an imitation of history, but like Aristotle and Scaliger, he opposes poetry to history as possibility is opposed to actuality. Verisimilitude is the rule by which poetic merit is to be measured. But it must be verisimilitude and not truth: the poet must invent his subject and make it similar to Nature, but cannot take it ready-made from history or from any other science. Poetry, accordingly, has no scientific or educational aim:
(8) Poetry has been found solely to delight and recreate: and I say to delight and recreate the minds of the vulgar multitude and common people."
De Nores, another Italian critic, was even more radical: he saw poetry as a means to keep the people satisfied and quiet. The poet, Castelvetro says, must not deal with learned subjects, because common people would not understand him: Castelvetro's ideal poet is very different from Scaliger's. Poetry is not divine, according to Castelvetro. The theory of inspiration is a false idea due to the interest of poets themselves. Poetry is an art of the gifted man, and not of the madman; Castelvetro notes that Aristotle's text must be corrupted where he admits the figure of the madman as the model for the poet.
Castelvetro thinks that drama is the highest genre, again running against the taste of his age, which usually sets epic above drama. He repeats Aristotle's ideas on action being more important than character and on catharsis. He opposes the latter to Plato's theory that tragedy weakens us by exciting our passions. He says that pity and fear are diminished in us because of the intense effect of seeing the terrible scenes of tragedy more frequently than we do in real life. There are two kinds of pleasure in tragedy, he says: that of pity and fear being driven out and that of the tacit and unconscious realization of the instability of man's estate. This subliminal effect, Castelvetro says, is more important than the explicit teaching which may be achieved through poetic justice.
Tragedy and epic must deal with an action known to have occurred, for the sake of verisimilitude, as they deal with kings, emperors, etc. The subject of comedy, on the other hand, may be freely invented by the poet. Castelvetro insists on the unities of place and time, apart from that of action, for both kinds of drama; as to the epic, he argues, it is free of such regulations.