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A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance

This conception of poetry Jonson finds in Aristotle


This

is pure idealism of a romantic type; but in his remarks on allegory Bacon was foreshadowing the development of classicism, for from the time of Ben Jonson the allegorical mode of interpreting poetry ceased to have any effect on literary criticism. The reason for this is obvious. The allegorical critics regarded the plot, or fable,--to use a simile so often found in Renaissance criticism--as a mere sweet and pleasant covering for the wholesome but bitter pill of moral doctrine. The neo-classicists, limiting the sense and application of Aristotle's definition of poetry as an imitation of life, regarded the fable as the medium of this imitation, and the more perfect according as it became more truly and more minutely an image of human life. In criticism, therefore, the growth of classicism is more or less coextensive with the growth of the conception of the fable, or plot, as an end in itself.

This vaguely defines the change which comes over the spirit of criticism about the beginning of the seventeenth century, and which is exemplified in the writings of Ben Jonson. His definition of poetry does not differ substantially from that of Sidney, but seems more directly Aristotelian:--

"A poet, _poeta_, is ... a maker, or feigner; his art, an art of imitation or feigning; expressing the life of men in fit measure, numbers, and harmony; according to Aristotle from the word [Greek: poiein], which signifies

to make or feign. Hence he is called a poet, not he which writeth in measure only, but that feigneth and formeth a fable, and writes things like the truth; for the fable and fiction is, as it were, the form and soul of any poetical work or poem."[487]

Poetry and painting agree in that both are arts of imitation, both accommodate all they invent to the use and service of nature, and both have as their common object profit and pleasure; but poetry is a higher form of art than painting, since it appeals to the understanding, while painting appeals primarily to the senses.[488] Jonson's conception of his art is thus essentially noble; of all arts it ranks highest in dignity and ethical importance. It contains all that is best in philosophy, divinity, and the science of politics, and leads and persuades men to virtue with a ravishing delight, while the others but threaten and compel.[489] It therefore offers to mankind a certain rule and pattern of living well and happily in human society. This conception of poetry Jonson finds in Aristotle;[490] but it is to the Italians of the Renaissance, and not to the Stagyrite, that these doctrines really belong.

Jonson ascribes to the poet himself a dignity no less than that of his craft. Mere excellence in style or versification does not make a poet, but rather the exact knowledge of vices and virtues, with ability to make the latter loved and the former hated;[491] and this is so far true, that to be a good poet it is necessary, first of all, to be a really good man.[492] A similar doctrine has already been found in many critical writers of the sixteenth century; but perhaps the noblest expression of this conception of the poet's consecrated character and office occurs in the original quarto edition of Jonson's _Every Man in his Humour_, in which the "reverend name" of poet is thus exalted:--

"I can refell opinion, and approve The state of poesy, such as it is, Blessed, eternal, and most true divine: Indeed, if you will look on poesy, As she appears in many, poor and lame, Patched up in remnants and old worn-out rags, Half-starved for want of her peculiar food, Sacred invention; then I must confirm Both your conceit and censure of her merit: But view her in her glorious ornaments, Attired in the majesty of art, Set high in spirit with the precious taste Of sweet philosophy; and, which is most, Crowned with the rich traditions of a soul, That hates to have her dignity prophaned With any relish of an earthly thought, Oh then how proud a presence doth she bear! Then is she like herself, fit to be seen Of none but grave and consecrated eyes."[493]


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