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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Robert Sheppard: Poetics 1: Poetics and Proto-Poetics

Poetics and Proto-Poetics from Aristophanes to Yeats
The habit of reading the discourses of the past in the light of present practices and pressures is perhaps a part of identifying a discourse in the first place. The use of a term like ‘classical literary criticism’ for certain ancient texts is an anachronism that D.A. Russell, for one, regards as both ‘convenient’ and ‘inaccurate’ (Russell 1981: 169). The simple re-definition of many of these – and later – historical documents as ‘poetics’ risks the danger of the same ambivalent construction, in whatever way the perspectival constellation is assembled. However, poetics’ very impulse, the need to discuss how writing is (to be) made, may be found articulated intermittently among some of the same past ‘literary critical’ documents, and others. Therefore it is necessary to read them differently, with a different focus, and the emphasis is at times entirely at variance with what a survey of literary criticism would find of interest in their strictures. To sketch a loose adventure for what I am proposing cautiously to call proto-poetics is worth attempting, to show the historical continuity of its impulse, along with the discontinuity of its self-awareness as a discourse, although I have no claims to be comprehensive in this account. I am not attempting to develop universals by my selective paraphrasing of the often lesser-read parts of these great treatises and texts. I limit myself to the poetics of poetry, though in the earliest examples current divisions of literary genre do not apply, and my sense of poetics as a speculative writerly discourse - in my work as a teacher of creative writing, for example - extends to all genres and sub-genres.

In the ancient world, Aristotle, though the author of the first text called ‘Poetics’, was neither the founder of a discourse upon writing nor the first person to discuss how writing is made. For example, the plays of Aristophanes (c.450-385 B.C.), bristle with asides on the art of Euripides, and in the fragment Poetry, Aristophanes emphasises the difficulties of writing both tragedy and epic. (1981: 10.) Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) wrote his Poetics to define the role of mimesis more thoroughly, and to offer to posterity influential concepts on the evocation of fear and pity in tragic writing, but it is worth stressing that the text is addressed to those wishing to write creatively. (It is not clear that Aristotle was a creative writer, thus making him a possible exception to my rule about writerly poetics.) (Aristotle et al. 1965: 31-75) Certainly, a poet such as Philodemus (110-30 B.C.) wrote his treatise On Poetry from experience, and promulgated a surprisingly formalist doctrine arguing the indivisibility of good content from good form. (Russell 1981: 43). Horace (65-8 B.C.) wrote Ars Poetica as a verse-epistle (poem-essay we might say) to a young Roman writer, offering practical advice (recommending iambics as the best metre for a dramatic poet to make sure his words are heard over a noisy crowd) but promising much toil, as well as offering his better-known exhortation to instruct through delight. (Aristotle et al. 1965: 79-95) (A non-Western viewpoint may be found in the Chinese ‘rhyming prose’ of Lui Chi (261-303), whose ‘On Literature’ gives a vivid account of creative struggle, wisely contrasting occasional serendipitous spontaneity with the wilful forcing of effect. (Birch 1967: 221-232))

For a glimpse of the medieval world shaking off classical models established by Aristotle and Horace, amongst others, Dante (1265-1321), in La Vita Nuova, offers paraphrases between arrangements of his early poems, descriptions of their novel forms (like the sonnet), along with a plea for the vernacular as an appropriate vehicle for amatory verse. (Dante 1969) This is one (late) version of the razo, a form invented by the Troubadours, a series of widely read prose expositions of their verses.

Turning to the proto-poetics of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but limiting ourselves to English-speaking poetics, the contrast between the two earliest volumes we find is instructive of alternative foci. George Puttenham’s digressive The Arte of English Poesie (1589), is addressed to the decorous writer (and courtier) and concentrates on formal descriptions of figures of speech and upon varieties of poetic form, including one of the earliest considerations of visual poetics (for which he is often derided). (Puttenham 1936) On the other hand, the more focussed essay of Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry (1595), is a defence of fiction as a mode of knowledge, even of poetry as an autonomous discourse, against the claims of history and philosophy. (Enright and De Chickera 1962: 3-49)

Poet and composer Thomas Campion’s comprehensively entitled Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Wherein it is demonstratively proved, and by example confirmed, that the English toong will receive eight severall kinds of numbers, proper to it selfe, which are all in this booke set forth, and were never before this time by any man attempted (1602) argues for the use of classical quantitative metres and for the abandonment of rhyme in English. (Daniel and Campion 1966: 1-43, first numbering) The title of Samuel Daniel’s reply indicates that he took the opposite view. It advanced A Defence of Rhyme: Against a Pamphlet entitled: Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Wherein is demonstratively proved, that Rhyme is the fittest harmonie of words that comportes with our Language. (1603) (Daniel and Campion 1966: 1-45, second numbering). Robert Lloyd’s poem ‘On Rhyme’ (1762) reminds us that this was a still a live issue in the following century. (Hopkins 1990: 46-7) Amid the pages of Ben Jonson’s Timber: or, Discoveries (1641), one finds a practitioner’s notebook reflections upon his writing, ranging from his insistence upon ‘right imitation’ of classical models to his cutting criticisms of Shakespeare’s prolixity and unintentional comic passages. (extracts in Mahl 1968: 113-130; Hopkins 1990: 26-7).

Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare himself did not commit an act of poetics, formally speaking, beyond the sense that his body of creative work is an inimitable model (or series of models) for itself. At once both a pragmatic man of the theatre (in which he acted and which he part owned) and an enigmatic poet possessed of protean ‘negative capability’, he seems not to have had time to publicly reflect on his practice. In the plays there are numerous references to writers and writing – the love-struck inept rhetorical sonneteers of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the two hapless and ineffectual poets of Julius Caesar, the sycophantic bard of Timon of Athens - but these present deliberately negative views of the craft. Pistol’s satirical spouting of quotations from earlier, out of date plays, as well as Shakespeare’s own intertextual debt to both his sources and his rivals, like Marlowe, hardly amount to poetics; neither does the meta-poetry of the Sonnets.

John Milton’s ‘The Verse’, the preface to Paradise Lost (1668), justifies his use of blank verse, its avoidance of ‘the jingling sound of like endings’ suitable for a poem of ‘ancient liberty’, liberated itself ‘from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ as both following classical precedent and (near) contemporary dramatic blank verse. (Milton 1969: 211) John Dryden was a prolific critic, produced a body of theory that nonetheless derives from practice, as when he justifies his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, in his ‘Account’ (1667), particularly of his choice of quatrains at the dawn of the age of the heroic couplet. (Dryden 1970: 7-15) His ‘Of Dramatic Poesy: An Essay’ (1668) derives from his experience as the foremost writer for the stage, and is a fictional symposium focussed upon historical and contemporary drama, including a positive discussion of rhyme in dramatic verse. (Dryden 1970: 16-76; Enright and De Chickera 1962: 50-110) When his modern editor, George Parfitt, notes, ‘Dryden is a critic in the tradition of Horace, a figure whose energies and interests are balanced between creation and criticism, not a critic like Arnold who became more critic than creator, or like Leavis whose creation is his criticism’, he is situating Dryden as one of the first poet-critics, and acknowledging a pre-figuration of the future divergence of writerly poetics and professional criticism. (Dryden 1970: xiv)

A number of feminist proto-poetics are to be found in the writings of women around this time. Anne Bradstreet’s ‘The Prologue’ (1652?) argues – in verse – for the specificity of women’s writing, and her own. (Pritchard 1990: 51-3) Anne Killigrew’s ‘Upon the saying that my verses were made by another’ (1686) (Pritchard 1990: 97-8) and the similarly entitled ‘To one who persuades me to leave the Muses’ (1739?) by Elizabeth Singer Rowe, argue against, firstly, the common incredulity at women’s poetry, and then against attempts to stop women writing altogether. (Pritchard 1990: 116-117) There is an invocation to the Muses in Mary Collier’s harsh The Womans Labour: an epistle to Mr. Stephen Duck, in answer to his late poem, called ‘The Thresher’s Labour’ (1739), which passionately pleads for the work and poetry of female labourers to be acknowledged. (Pritchard 1990: 129-136) At the other end of the social scale, certain of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son (1774) offer a charming account of a child’s education, which includes lessons on the writing of Latin and English verse, and the encouragement of sensitivity towards poetic artifice. (Stanhope 1774:134-167)

Alexander Pope’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1711) offers a full-blown Augustan poetics of satire, including brilliant couplets on versification that mime the effects of the writing described. (Enright and De Chickera 1962: 111-130; Pope 1970: 45-67; excerpts on versification in Hopkins 1990: 38-9) Written in 1733, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ‘Verses Address’d to the Imitator of Horace’, that is, to Pope himself, posit a cruel antithesis to Pope’s poise, and attempt to define literary qualities not found in its addressee. (Fairer and Gerrard 1999: 188-191) Samuel Johnson describes the poet’s task in his novel Rasselas (1759) as being to dwell not on particular details but on generalities. The poet should be equal to this task by acquiring knowledge and judgement, but also by ‘incessant practice’, to become a subtle and adaptable stylist. (Hopkins 1990: 42-3). George Crabbe, in a passage of The Village (1783), that David Hopkins calls ‘Crabbe’s dissatisfaction with pastoral’, recognises the socio-poetical revolution of Duck (and possibly Collier) in the invention of an ‘authentic’ mode of realism that he could use, in contrast to the prevailing and increasingly hackneyed artifice of eighteenth century poetics. (Hopkins 2000: 204)

The poetics of the Romantic and Victorian periods continue that dissatisfaction, of course, and we enter a period when many of the documents, although still primarily thought of as works of literary criticism, are read as kinds of poetics, to the limited extent that they are recognised as manifestic position-statements by poets, but are perhaps not read with enough sensitivity towards the exploratory, conjectural and provocative nature of the discourse in its developing forms. What perhaps masks this aspect, is the growth of the role of the critic, so that, although Coleridge and Arnold are both poets, their criticism extends well beyond the literary, or even merely the cultural, into the social and political realms, and while the scope of their speculations ambitiously expand (for good or ill), the possibility of thinking of their work – a part of it – as proto-poetics or poetics becomes difficult, or looks like a mean reduction of their catholic thought. The separation of critic and poet (particularly without the development of anything like a Coleridgean clerisy to hold these professions together within a purposeful national structure) also accelerated the development of literary criticism as an autonomous discourse, out of the bodies of philology and philosophy, that has in turn tended to mute the conjectural and mercurial tones of poetics that still can be detected in these great works.

William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800/1802) offers revolutionary reflections upon his experiments in poetic diction and form, as well as a commitment to the faculty of imagination. (Wordsworth 1969: 734-743, with ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’ (1815). 743-751. Enright and De Chickera 1962: 162-186.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s suggestively unsystematic Biographia Literaria (1817) opens a whole poet’s writerly life to inspection; reflections arising out of Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ rub shoulders with scraps of autobiography and accounts of publishing ventures, advice to young writers and considerations of poetic metre. Most influential have proved his theorising of, and discrimination between, the shaping faculty of the imagination and the lesser faculty of fancy, which also domesticated advanced continental aesthetics. (Coleridge 2000: 155-482; Chapters XIV, XVII and part of XVIII (on Wordsworth and metre) in Enright and De Chickera 1962: 190-224.)

By contrast, John Keats, in passages of certain letters written between 1817-1820, defines a poet’s ‘negative capability’ against Coleridge’s synthetic philosophising, preferring an image of the poet as essentially selfless and disinterested in his reception of the world. (excerpts in Enright and De Chickera 1962: 256-259; excerpts in Hopkins 2000: 61 and 114.) William Blake likewise was not given to extended prose, but his ‘Of the measure in which the following poem is written’, which is a preface to Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion (1818-20?), is an argument for further loosening of the Miltonic blank verse line, one which promulgates a politics of poetic form: ‘Poetry fetter’d fetters the human race.’ (Blake 1971: 629; Allen and Tallman 1973: vii) No less political is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Defence of Poetry (1821), which concludes hyperbolically that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, but also saw poetry as effecting a defamiliarisation of ordinary perception. His analogy for the mind in the creative act, as a rapidly fading coal, balances the philosophical with his intimate knowledge of creative process. (Shelley 1970: 164-197; Enright and De Chickera 1962: 225-255; excerpts in Hopkins 2000: 56-60.)

The creative coals were long faded when Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846) since it offers an unconvincing retrospective account of the writing of his poem ‘The Raven’. While I use his essay’s authoritative title as a synonym for poetics, the essay itself is best thought of as one more exemplar to demonstrate that writers cannot ‘read’ (in the sense of ‘explaining’) their own work. The fragmentary ‘The Poetic Principle’ (1850) is more successful, conjecturally questioning Poe’s poetic practice, and speculating, for example, that all long poems break down into smaller ones. (Poe 1967: 480-492 and 499-513) Walt Whitman’s ‘To Ralph Waldo Emerson’ (1856), with which he opened the first edition of Leaves of Grass, is an impassioned credo for his free verse American epic. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 3-12. Murphy 1969: 46-55.) Gerard Manley Hopkins was another writer, like Whitman, who felt the need to outline his perceptual and metrical experiments. In his Journal for December 12, 1870 he defined the qualities of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’, God’s presence in nature imprinted on the observant human (poetic) mind (Hopkins 1953: 129); in his ‘Author’s Preface’, he details the flexible but complex metrical principles of sprung rhythm. (Hopkins 1953: 7-11; Scully 1966: 75-79) Due to the conservatism of Robert Bridges, Hopkins’ executor, these innovations and their poetics remained a guarded secret until the twentieth century. Equally neglected until this century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse Aurora Leigh (1857) contains many passages where its author speculates about the role of the (woman) poet. (Browning 1978). (Particularly excerpts in Pritchard 1990: 202 and Hopkins 2000: 63)

Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Austerity of Poetry’ (1867) paves the way for his critical pronouncements. In the poem, poetic artifice is seen as deceptively beguiling; the Muse is figured as outwardly gaudy but secretly wearing the hair shirt of moral penitence. In famously calling poetry ‘a criticism of life’ in his essay ‘Wordsworth’ (1879), he may not just be wearing the hair shirt of anti-aestheticism, but inflating the function of criticism so that it is ripe to tear itself free of creative writing. (Hopkins 2000: 65-66) ‘Austerity of Poetry’ is concerned with moral judgement in relation to text; it is difficult to see either Arnold’s poetry or prose as poetics; it is literary criticism. By the early twentieth century, literary criticism became a confident autonomous discourse, aiming at scientific exactitude in the hands of I.A. Richards and at a moralistic anti-Technologico-Benthamitism in the work of F.R. Leavis. Ironically, poetics would be free, not only of criticism, which was increasingly becoming the legitimate discourse of literary discussion, but also dissociated from possible institutions to ground and define it as a discourse, in contradiction to literary criticism, which found a home in the early twentieth century academy of the new English schools at Oxford and Cambridge and elsewhere.

At the turn of the century, W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ (1900) tries to wed past and present, by aligning his traditional Irish mysticism with the progressive continental school of Symbolism. (Cook 2004: 29-34) To borrow a term of Mary Ann Caws, Yeats’ synthesis indicates that the ‘century of Isms’ had dawned.

A bibliography of books used to compile this list

Bibliography for this instalment and the next (on Poetics After Modernism)

Aristotle, (trans. Else, G.F.), 1970, Poetics: Michigan: The University of Michigan.
Aristotle, Horace, Longinus. Trans. T.S. Dorsch. Classical Literary Criticism, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
Bate, Jonathan. 1997. The Genius of Shakespeare. London, Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador.
Birch, Cyril. Ed. Anthology of Chinese Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.
Blake, William. The Complete Poems. London and New York: Longman and Norton, 1971.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. London: The Women’s Press, 1978.
Caws, Many Ann. Ed. Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001
Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Manchester: Carcanet, 1999.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Major Works. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Cook, Jon. Ed. Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Daniel, Samuel, and Campion, Thomas. A Defence of Rhyme and Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966.
Dante. La Vita Nuova. Trans. Reynolds, Barbara, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
Dryden, John. Selected Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Dudley, D.R., and Lang, D.M. The Penguin Companion to Literature 4: Classical and Byzantine, Oriental and African Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
Eliot, T.S., 1975, Selected Prose, London: Faber and Faber.
Enright, D.J., and De Chickera, E. Eds. English Critical Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Fairer, David, and Gerrard, Christine. Eds. Eighteenth Century Poetry. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. A Selection of his Poems and Prose. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953.
Hopkins. David. The Routledge Anthology of Poets on Poets. London: Routledge, 1990.
MacGann, J, 1983, The Romantic Ideology, Chicago:University of Chicago Press
Mahl, Mary R. Ed. Seventeenth Century Prose. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1968.
Milton, John. Poetical Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Murphy, Francis. Ed. Walt Whitman. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
Plato, The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Airmount Classic, 1968.
Pope, Alexander. Selected Poetry. New York: Signet Classic, 1970.
Pritchard, R.E. Ed. Poetry by English Women. Manchester: Carcanet, 1990.
Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936.
Russell, D.A. Criticism in Antiquity. London, Duckworth, 1981.
Scully, James. Ed. Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. London and Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1966.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Political Writings. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970.
Stanhope, Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield. Letters Written by …to his Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq. London: Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, 1774.
Wordsworth, William, Poetical Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

This post was part of an abandoned book on poetics (or rather, a re-distributed book; parts of it became When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, and others await their day, such as this one.). Here are others:

Part Two: Through and after Modernism
Part Three: North American Poetics
Part Four: Some British Poetics