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A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance

This marvellous element has the widest scope in epic poetry


later, Robortelli treats the question of aesthetic imitation from another point of view. The poet deals with things as they ought to be, but he can either appropriate actual fact, or he can invent his material. If he does the former, he narrates the truth not as it really happened, but as it might or ought to happen; while if he invents his material, he must do so in accordance with the law of possibility, or necessity, or probability and verisimilitude.[44] Thus Xenophon, in describing Cyrus, does not depict him as he actually was, but as the best and noblest king can be and ought to be; and Cicero, in describing the orator, follows the same method. From this it is evident that the poet can invent things transcending the order of nature; but if he does so, he should describe what might or ought to have been.

Here Robortelli answers a possible objection to Aristotle's statement that poets deal only with what is possible and verisimilar. Is it possible and verisimilar that the gods should eat ambrosia and drink nectar, as Homer describes, and that such a being as Cerberus should have several heads, as we find in Virgil, not to mention various improbable things that occur in many other poets? The answer to such an objection is that poets can invent in two ways. They can invent either things according to nature or things transcending nature. In the former case, these things must be in keeping with the laws of probability and necessity; but in the

latter case, the things are treated according to a process described by Aristotle himself, and called paralogism, which means, not necessarily false reasoning, but the natural, if quite inconclusive, logical inference that the things we know not of are subject to the same laws as the things we know. The poets accept the existence of the gods from the common notion of men, and then treat all that relates to these deities in accordance with this system of paralogism. In tragedy and comedy men are described as acting in accordance with the ordinary occurrences of nature; but in epic poetry this is not entirely the case, and the marvellous is therefore admitted. Accordingly, this marvellous element has the widest scope in epic poetry; while in comedy, which treats of things nearest to our own time, it ought not to be admitted at all.

But there is another problem suggested by the passage from the _Poetics_ which has been cited. Aristotle says that imitation, and not metre, is the test of poetry; that even if a history were versified, it would still remain history. The question then arises whether a writer who imitates in prose, that is, without verse, would be worthy of the title of poet. Robortelli answers this question by pointing out that metre does not constitute the nature, force, or essence of poetry, which depends entirely on the fact of imitation; but at the same time, while one who imitates without verse is a poet, in the best and truest poetry imitation and metre are combined.[45]

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