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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Poetry (poesis, “making,” since Herodotus) and Po-
(poietikē, viz., technē, since Plato), the words as
well as the concepts were created by the Greeks in
their endeavor to analyze man and the cosmos ration-
ally. The subsequent evolution of these ideas is deter-
mined by their Greek origin, as is evident in the termi-
nology. During the period treated here, the Greek
words, or their equivalents, were used in Latin and
in the vernaculars; “poetry” being to all purposes
identical with verse. Literary prose—oratory, history,
philosophy—belonged to the parallel but separate
“art” of rhetoric. Prose fiction—novels, short stories—
was ignored or explicitly rejected by the theorists.

Poetics like rhetoric is an “art” (technē, ars), i.e.,
a part of man's activity by means of which he alters
nature or even adds something to it, as is the case here.
Until the beginnings of romanticism, the modern con-
cept of art did not exist, though in classical antiquity
attempts were made to group poetry together with fine
arts. Only in the eighteenth century was the modern
system of arts, as well as the concept of “aesthetics,”
created. Earlier philosophical speculations about
“beauty” did not directly concern poetics.

Nor did poetics and rhetoric form a higher unity.
The modern concept of “literature” emerges during
the eighteenth century. Classical Greek and Latin have
no proper word for it. Grammata and litterae mean,
at the utmost, literary education, learning. In some late
Latin authors, e.g., Tertullian, litteratura can mean
writing in general, or upon a certain topic. But the
modern sense of belles lettres is missing.


1. Sources and Development. In Homer we find the
concept of poetry as an activity of its own, and state-
ments about its aim and inspiration. Similar statements
occur in later poets, but a rational technē poietikē is


lacking. The earliest philosophers, on the other hand,
seem mainly to have discussed poetry from a logical
or ethical point of view.

The true originators of Greek poetics are the
Sophists of the fifth century, e.g., Protagoras, Hippias,
Prodicus, to whom, on this point, Democritus should
be added. Since nearly all of their writings are lost,
we cannot exactly estimate their role. But Gorgias'
Praise of Helen, with its acute analysis of the uncanny
power of the logos, stresses their importance.

The Sophists' study of poetry—as well as of elo-
quence—was carried on by later philosophers, of whom
only Plato and Aristotle are really known to us. If
according to Plato's dialogues no “poetics” is possible,
poetry being an entirely sensory phenomenon, then
Aristotle's Poetics is the one outstanding monument of
ancient poetics, though mutilated and not repre-
sentative of average opinion.

Post-Aristotelian philosophical and critical discus-
sions, though evidently important—e.g., Theophrastus
—elude us. The loss of the greatest part of Hellenistic
literature, due to Atticist condemnation, is to some
extent made good by the fragments of the Epicurean
philosopher and poet, Philodemus of Gadara, On
and by Horace's Ad Pisones. The mutilated On
the Sublime
(first century A.D.), allegedly written by
Longinus, is in its way as unique as Aristotle's Poetics.

In the fourth century rhetoric was already beginning
its conquest of classical culture and education. Owing
to their popularity in late antiquity, many rhetorical
works have been preserved, such as Aristotle's Rhetoric,
or the writings of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (first
century B.C.), or Cicero's De oratore, Orator, Brutus,
or Quintilian's Ars oratoria (ca. A.D. 95). Rhetoric being
close to poetics and forever trying to absorb it, those
works often treat problems which directly concern
poetry, such as decorum, the different kinds of style,
metaphors, etc.

In the final phase of classical antiquity, after the
great crisis of the third century, poetics is reduced to
a subordinate part of rhetoric—e.g., in the Ars gram-
of Diomedes—dealing mainly with the division
of poetry into different genres and with metrics.

2. The Aim of Poetry. To Homer, poetry is enter-
tainment, though men's reputations are in the poet's
keeping. After Hesiod, however, Greek poets claim to
be not only creators of beauty and entertainers but
also spiritual teachers and leaders: “to make men better
in the cities” (Aristophanes, Frogs, line 1010). This
claim was generally accepted, the more so as the poets,
above all Homer, dominated Greek education.

Their domination provoked fierce criticism by a new
power, philosophy. After the sixth century, poetry was
condemned—e.g., by Xenophanes and Heraclitus—as
mendacious, immoral, and inflammatory. These
accusations are summed up in Plato's Republic, where
a new, Platonic argument is added, viz., that poetry,
like painting and sculpture, is only an imitation
(mimēsis) of this sensual world, which, in its turn, is
an imitation of real being, the world of ideas. There-
fore, traditional poetry should be driven out of the
ideal state; the only poetry allowed there, as the Laws
shows, is tightly controlled state propaganda.

Aristotle in his Poetics does not directly polemicize
against Plato. But by treating mimēsis as something
natural and pleasant, and by regarding the excitement
caused by tragedy as a sort of purgation (catharsis),
he silently refutes Plato.

After Aristotle the problem loses its urgency. In the
new Hellenistic monarchies the poet is not and does
not wish to be a teacher and leader, but stresses the
hedonic character of poetry; this hedonism is also
maintained by the Epicureans, though not in order to
favor poetry. Only in Rome during the few decades
of the Augustan age, is the old claim again made. Vergil
and Horace regard themselves and are regarded by
their contemporaries as spokesmen of Rome. In the
Ad Pisones we find the formal program of what could
be called the “Horatian compromise,” but which, in
reality, is the old idea: poetry should both benefit and

The rise of Christianity meant a sharpening of the
old attacks on poetry, although Christians continued
to read the poets at school. Against those attacks, the
defenders of the old faith and the old civilization ap-
peal to the venerable argument of allegorism, which
had been used in the sixth century B.C., and was later
systematized and popularized by the Stoics. It is now
taken over by the Neo-Platonists to whom as to the
Stoics poetry is philosophy in disguise. This applies
particularly to Homer and Vergil, who are much

This high opinion of poetry is not shared by rhetoric,
the real ruler of civilization at the time. Poetry be-
comes only a part, an indispensable but subordinate
part, of rhetorical culture. For poetry only pleases,
whereas rhetoric also persuades and moves (Quintilian

3. The Craft of Poetry. After Homer, the Greek
poet regarded himself as “inspired” by a divinity, usu-
ally the Muses, whom he invoked in his poems. Des-
pite Plato, there is no evidence that any poet ever
regarded himself as “possessed” (manikos) in the same
sense as the Pythia at Delphi. The inspiration never
excluded the poet's own activity.

Plato, on the contrary, declared that in the act of
creation the poet becomes a passive mouthpiece of a
god, unable to understand and explain afterwards what


the god had done through him. Serious or not, this
paradox—expounded in the Ion and the Phaedrus—in
any case abolishes the poet's authority.

Aristotle shows traces of Plato's teaching, but he is
not interested in the question. After Aristotle, in the
peripatetic Problemata XXX (ca. 250 B.C.), we find an
attempt to explain inspiration as characteristic of the
“melancholic” temperament, caused by “black bile,”
one of the four “humours.” This theory became very
popular later but had scant influence in classical
antiquity. Horace pokes fun at it (Ad Pisones 301ff.).

An old problem, bound up with that of inspiration,
was the relation between the poet's innate capacity
or “nature” and his acquired skill or “art.” Pindar
proclaimed the superiority of nature (IX 01. 100ff.),
but the Hellenistic poets stressed the importance of
art. Here too Horace presents us with a compromise:
the poet needs both (Ad Pisones 408ff.). Thus also

The Hellenistic age enhanced the status of the artist,
who in Greek and Latin terminology is not distin-
guished from the artisan. At the same time the creative
character of poetry and art was stressed against older,
mimetic theories. Neither the poet nor the artist imi-
tates external nature but realizes an ideal model in his
soul (Cicero, Orator II.7-10), if not the Ideas them-
selves (Plotinus V.8), thanks to his power of vis-
ualization (phantasia) as “Longinus” (15) says. In this
way, poetry or art becomes independent of nature
(Philostratus, Vita Apollonii VI.19), and the artist
as well as the poet is an inspired man (Callistratus,
Imagines II.1).

4. The Realm of Poetry. For the Greeks and Romans
there were distinct varieties (eidē, genera) of poetry
which constituted a hierarchy. This was so self-evident
that Aristotle never bothers to give a definition of eidos,
mentioned in the first sentence of the Poetics. The
number and character of the genres were determined
by the accidents of literary history, but they tend to
be regarded as pre-existent forms whose founders are
“finders” (heuretai), since all that we call “invention”
tended to be regarded as “discovery” by the Greeks,
and consciously so by all Platonists.

The genres are not equal. At least since Plato epic
and tragedy were regarded as the two highest genres,
as analyzed in Aristotle's Poetics. Tragedy belongs with
comedy and satyric play to drama. The many different
kinds of lyrics never acquired a common name. In
Hellenistic and Roman times, “lyric poetry” meant
poetry, whether monodic or choric, (originally) sung;
it did not include elegy or iambics. Later on, some
special Roman kinds, e.g., the atellana, were added to
the list.

Ancient poetics never developed a real system of
genres. In Plato (Republic III) and in Aristotle poetry
is divided according to whether the poet is telling a
tale himself (dithyramb), or through others (drama), or
both (epic). This primitive classification disregards
lyrics but was used until the romantic age. Plato's and
Aristotle's attempts to classify poetry with the fine arts
(painting and sculpture) as “imitative arts” (technai
) were not successful, however, owing to the
original dramatic sense of mimēsis and to later reaction
against mimetic theories.

The golden rule of all genres is “appropriateness”
(prepon, decorum), which hovers between ethics and
aesthetics. Every genre has its special decorum, which
is most exacting in the high genres. There was an early
tendency to interpret decorum as good manners, which
especially in Hellenistic and Roman times inspired
much criticism of Homer and other old poets. As the
Ad Pisones shows, decorum is the heart of Horatian

The individual rules of the different genres tend to
fix them as they were established by their originators
or early masters. Thus the Aristotelian rules of tragedy
codify the practice of the great Attic dramatists of the
fifth century. The most spectacular proof of this tend-
ency is the use of different dialects in different genres,
e.g., the Homeric dialect in epic, or the pseudo-Doric
dialect in the choruses of the Attic tragedies.

5. Tradition and Progress. The tendency to im-
mobilize poetry was strengthened by a customary as-
sumption in Greek literature (found also in Sanskrit
poetry and the Vedas): the first known of its poets is
also the greatest. The prominence of Homer, in spite
of philosophical and aesthetical criticism, accepted by
public opinion and promoted by education, soon be-
came an obstacle to innovation in epic. But the rise
of other genres meant a perpetual new creation, at
least until the end of the high classical age.

Looking back upon centuries of Greek poetry,
Aristotle in the Poetics accepts “progress in literature,”
but only as the evolution of genres to their predestined
goal. He seems, however, to accept the possibility of
new genres.

In the early Hellenistic period, the necessity of
change and renewal was stressed, e.g., by Callimachus.
The old poets were revered as masters but not copied
as models. The rise (first century B.C.) and final triumph
(second century A.D.) of Atticism signified a return to
the “classics.” Beginning as a critical and rhetorical
movement, Atticism later on conquered the schools and
emerged as a radical linguistic reaction, an attempt
to restore the pure Attic of the fifth and fourth centu-
ries. Though it was never wholly successful, Atticism
dominated Greek literature and education until the end
of the Byzantine empire. In poetics its influence


hardened the hereditary dislike of innovation. Creative
imitation in the spirit of “Longinus” disappeared.

Greek poetics paid no attention to foreign literature.
But Roman literature began as imitation of the Greeks
and struggled hard to equal them. Hence, as Horace,
Epodes II.1 and the historian Velleius Paterculus
(I.16-17) show, a belief in progress was necessary to
Roman writers, at least until their works themselves
had become classics, which happened in the Augustan
age. Thenceforth, Roman literature, too, became con-
servative, the schools teaching the imitation of the


1. Sources and Development. Both the Greek East
and the Latin West inherited poetics as a part of
rhetoric or of its preliminary, grammar. In the East,
the rhetorical tradition remained uninterrupted until
the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Latin literature was
neglected but the great Greek poets continued to be
read in and outside the schools. The indifference to
nonrhetorical poetics appears from the lack of any
commentary upon Aristotle's Poetics and from the loss
of its second book, dealing with comedy.

Owing to the great invasions the cultural level in
the West was for many centuries (450-750) much
lower. Outside Italy knowledge of Greek and Greek
literature nearly disappeared. Much of Roman litera-
ture was lost too; but the great classics survived, as
did a certain number of rhetorical and grammatical
writings. Through them and through such résumés of
ancient learning as the Etymologiae of Isidor of Seville
(ca. 560-633), a scanty knowledge of classical poetics
was preserved.

During many centuries poetics virtually meant the
art of writing Latin verses in classical meters. It had
no place of its own in the system of the Seven Liberal
Arts but belonged with grammar or rhetoric to the

At the end of the eleventh century a great change
occurred. With Anselm of Canterbury European phi-
losophy received a new impetus; with the Provençal
poets, vernacular poetry began to emulate the classics.
In the twelfth century, a closer study of the classics
became popular, though the Scholasticism of the thir-
teenth century pushed them into the background. But
at the new universities rhetoric and even poetics were
studied as parts of logic, following a tradition which
goes back to late antiquity. The Aristotelian Rhetoric
was translated three times, the last time by William
of Moerbeke, who also translated the Poetics (1278).
However, the latter work was mostly known from
Herrmannus Alemannus' bad translation of Averroës'
Commentum medium (1174) upon Abu Bišr's Arabic
translation. As Averroës knew nothing about Greek
poetry, his commentary gives no adequate idea of the

From the end of the twelfth century on, several
Latin poetriae—the name is due to a misunderstanding
of poetria, “poetess”—appeared, e.g., by Geoffroy de
Vinsauf (ca. 1210), or by Johannes de Garlandia (before
1250). They were not only manuals of metrics but also
treatises of rhetoric applied to poetry, for to their
authors as to the classical rhetoricians poetry is versi-
fied eloquence.

2. Doctrines. The absence of an autonomous poetics
illustrates the precarious position of poetry in medieval
thought, in spite of a flowering Latin and vernacular
poetry. The theologians and philosophers inherited
both the early Christians' hostility to secular poetry
and their uneasy acceptance of it as an educational
necessity. The Roman poets were read at school, and
allegorism Christianized them—not only Vergil but
also Ovid. For didacticism was rampant: poetry had
its only raison d'être as pleasant teaching.

As to poetical inspiration, the theologians regarded
only the Bible as inspired and perhaps devotional po-
etry, but to a lesser degree. At least according to
popular belief pagan poets were inspired by demons.
But the reading of the classics in the schools kept the
Muses alive, and Christian poets invoked them if only

The classical genres were known by name but not
really understood, least of all the dramatic genres, the
theater having disappeared. The Platonic tripartition
survived, but the real division of genres followed the
rhetorical tripartition of the Genera dicendi—high,
middle, low—exemplified by Vergil in the Aeneid, the
Georgics, and the Bucolics. This also implied a social
stratification—kings, peasants, shepherds—as seen
already in late antiquity (Donatus, Servius).

These divisions take no account of vernacular poetry,
which develops its own genres, with the canzone as
the highest. But at this time a vernacular poetics is
only just beginning.

The Middle Ages believed in authorities not only
in philosophy, law, and theology, but also in literature.
The auctores read in the schools were a curious mixture
of classical authors (Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Ovid), late
Latin writers (“Cato,” Avienus), and old Christian poets
(Iuvencus, Arator, Prudentius). But the reverence for
them did not prevent a certain belief in progress.
Religion made Christians as such superior to pagans,
but it did not exclude the view that the moderni (a
fifth-century word) could be considered superior to the
veteres (old Christians included), if only as “pygmies
standing upon the shoulders of giants” (Bernard of
Chartres, twelfth century).



1. Sources and Development. With the Italian
writers of the Trecento—to whom Dante and the
“pre-humanists” of the late Dugento must be added—a
new epoch begins also in poetics. The literary horizon
was immensely enlarged through an intensified study
of the classics, first the Roman and then from the end
of the Trecento on the Greek.

This meant a new and deeper knowledge of ancient
rhetoric and poetics. To the De inventione of Cicero
and the Rhetorica ad Herennium which were already
well-known, were now added Cicero's great treatises,
the institutio oratoria of Quintilian, and later many
Greek rhetorical works. In the fifteenth century Aris-
totle's Poetics became known in the original. Giorgio
Valla's Latin translation was printed in 1498 and the
Greek text in 1508, but only with Alessandro Pazzi's
new Latin translation (1536) did neo-Aristotelian
poetics really begin.

The break with medieval poetics occurred, however,
in Dante's De vulgari eloquentia (ca. 1304-05). For all
his dependence on medieval rhetoric, Dante voices a
new self-esteem for the classics and intimacy with
them. After him there were for a long time no Italian
attempts at poetics until Bartolomeo della Fonte and
Giorgio Valla at the end of the Quattrocento. Only
Valla's work was printed (1501); it is the first, though
confused and desultory, exposition of Aristotelian

M. G. Vida's De arte poetica (1527) is still uninflu-
enced by Aristotle, and there is little of Aristotle in
the first parts of G. G. Trissino's Poetica (1529), or in
Daniello's Della poetica (1536). But with Francesco
Robortello's commentary (1548) an overwhelming
stream of Italian books about Aristotle's work and
about poetics in general emerged, soon to be followed
by a less voluminous but still imposing amount of
comparable writings in other countries.

The main endeavor of the new theorists and critics
was to construct a systematical poetics both for neo-
Latin poetry, so much favored by the humanists, and
for the different vernacular literatures which tended
to rival the classics. In this way Aristotle often, if not
always, became a pretext and a point of departure for
very un-Aristotelian ideas.

This holds true even of the great Italian commen-
taries upon the Poetics—Maggi (1550), Vettori (1560),
Castelvetro (1570), Piccolomini (1575), Beni (1613)—
and, naturally, still more of the systematical treatises—
Minturno's De poeta (1559) and Arte poetica (1564),
Scaliger's Poetice (1561); Patrizzi's Della poetica (1586)
is openly anti-Aristotelian. To the many poets who
expounded their ideas and defended their works—e.g.,
Giraldi Cinthio, Discorsi (1554), Tasso, Discorsi dell'arte
poetica (1587), Guarini, Compendio della poesia
(1601)—Aristotle is either a convenient
ally or an embarrassing obstacle.

Outside Italy Aristotle is revered and studied, mostly
in Italian editions, and literary theory is heavily
dependent on the Italians. This is true of France—
Peletier du Mans (1554), Vauquelin de la Fresnaye
(1604)—as well as of England—Ascham (1570),
Puttenham (1589)—of Spain—Lopez Pinciano (1596)—
and of Germany—Pontanus (1594), Opitz (1624). More
interesting and independent are the poets' own utter-
ances, such as Ronsard's Abrégé de l'art poétique
(1565) or Sidney's Apology for Poesy (1595)
or Lope de Vega's Arte nueva de hacer comedias (1607).

With the beginning of the seventeenth century, the
interest in neo-Aristotelian poetics diminishes, though
it is seldom openly rejected. The different nonclassical,
“baroque” currents never develop a poetics of their
own. In France, which emerges as the new leader of
European literature, there are still lively debates about
drama—d'Aubignac's Pratique du théatre (1657),
Corneille's Discours sur le poème dramatique (1660),
Molière's and Racine's prefaces to their pieces—and
about epic—Le Bossu's Traité du poème épique (1675).
But Boileau's L'art poétique (1674) is an elegant,
unpedantic résumé of current opinions. Later discus-
sions show growing dislike of theorizing and a disregard
of Aristotle's authority. When Lessing in Hamburgische
(1767-68) proclaims Aristotle's infalli-
bility, the reign of neo-Aristotelianism is well on the

2. The Aim of Poetry. One of the signs of a new
epoch is the vigor with which in the Trecento poets
and friends of poetry (Albertino Mussato, Boccaccio,
Coluccio Salutati) defend it against theologians and
moralists. With increasing self-confidence they declare
that poetry, even pagan poetry, is no idle but deep
truth hidden under the veil of fables, as Dante said.
The poet is once more a teacher and a leader, a theolo-
gian and a philosopher: the poeta doctus.

In the Quattrocento, however, the apologists were
confronted with Plato's attacks on poetry, when his
works became known and soon translated—in their
entirety—by Marsilio Ficino (1484). As in classical
antiquity, poetry was defended with allegorism. A
more dangerous crisis was caused by the religious
fervor of the Reformation and the Counter-
Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Fortunately, the rediscovery of Aristotle's Poetics
gave poetry an authoritative new ally. Horace's Ad
was combined with the Poetics, and the
Horatian compromise was ascribed also to Aristotle:
poetry is delightful teaching. This became the prevail-
ing opinion, and Castelvetro's assertion that the only


aim of poetry is to amuse “the raw multitude” was
the exception which proved the rule. Thus the Aris-
totelian catharsis is interpreted as moral purification,
and the theater defended, e.g., by G. E. Lessing, as
improving manners.

In other countries, poetry is defended with Italian
arguments, Sidney's Apology being the most eloquent.
But in England and other Calvinist countries, poetry,
especially the drama, is fiercely attacked, and the vic-
torious Puritans close the theaters. Milton, however,
serenely combines his Puritan faith with a Renaissance
belief in the truth and glory of poetry, but a poetry
serving God.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the
debate continues, with steadily diminishing fervor. The
Horatian compromise remains the official doctrine, to
which lip service is paid, e.g., by Boileau. But as theol-
ogy gradually loses its grip on public opinion, authors
and critics—such as Corneille—now dare to state
openly that the aim of poetry is to please.

At the end of the seventeenth century, poetry was
confronted with a new enemy. The rise of science and
the Cartesian philosophy induced many people, espe-
cially in France, to condemn poetry as a foolish and
useless relic of barbaric ages. This attitude charac-
terized some of the participants in the great quarrel
about the Ancients and the Moderns, e.g., Abbé Jean
Terrasson. Less extreme and therefore more dangerous
was the condescending tolerance of poetry as a social
amusement, expressed by Fontenelle. Against this de-
preciation old Boileau and young Voltaire protested
strongly. But early romantic writers accepted the chal-
lenge: poetry is, indeed, a creation of barbarism and
therefore admirable. The proclamation of this thesis
by Giambattista Vico (1730) and Thomas Blackwell
(1735) means the end of the concept of the poeta doctus
and of European classicism.

3. The Craft of Poetry. The rising self-confidence
of poets in the late Middle Ages appears also in their
renewed insistence on inspiration. The poems of the
troubadours and of the dolce stil nuovo are inspired
by Love and the Lady, as is Dante's Vita nuova. In
the Divina commedia (Divine Comedy), Dante's invo-
cations of Apollo and the Muses are no mere metaphors
but express his belief in the hidden truth of pagan
mythology. His poem is “sacred.”

In Petrarch, the idea of poetical ecstasy emerges
again, and in the fifteenth century the direct contact
with Plato makes the furor poeticus a popular idea,
developed by Ficino and accepted by many poets and
critics, e.g., Scaliger, Ronsard, and Puttenham. This
does not imply, as in Plato, any negative or ironical
assessment of the poet's own activity, which on the
contrary is stressed to the utmost.

The poet is regarded as a second Creator, inferior
to God but akin to him. This divinization of Man as
Poet—later on applied to the artist—originated in
Florentine Platonism and was first stated by Christoforo
Landino (1481). It was inspired by Platonic and Her-
metic belief in the unique cosmic status of Man, by
Christian belief in a Creator, and by Plato's Demiurge.
The poet as creator became a metaphor popular with
many poets and critics, such as Scaliger, Tasso, and
Sidney, though mostly with reservations.

The theologians of the Reformation and the Counter-
Reformation could no more than their medieval pred-
ecessors accept profane poetry as inspired. Therefore,
in their great religious epics both Tasso and Milton
invoke a “Heavenly Muse.”

But even some critics like Castelvetro rejected
inspiration because it made poetics superfluous. Indeed,
a few libertines or freethinkers, like Pietro Aretino or
Giordano Bruno drew this conclusion. But most authors
combined faith in inspiration with obedience to tradi-
tion and the rules.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the idea
of poetical inspiration and creativity fades away. It is
taken for granted that the poet should be inspired,
particularly if he writes an ode and breaks into
“Pindaric frenzy.” But critics and readers smile or
frown at boasts of inspiration and find the usual invo-
cations frigid, as Shaftesbury did. To the new enemies
of poetry all talk of inspiration is silly.

Shaftesbury did not belong to them. In spite of his
attacks on “Enthousiasm,” his Soliloquy (1710) exalts
the Poet as Creator with a Renaissance fervor. We are
on the threshold of romanticism.

For all its glorification of the poet the Renaissance
did not call him a “genius.” The Latin word was used
but in the neutral sense of innate disposition, good or
bad. And it was thus used by Boileau and even by Dr.
Johnson. In seventeenth-century France, however,
génie was increasingly used in a positive sense, until
the Abbé Du Bos in his Réflexions critiques sur la poésie
et la peinture
(1719) gave it its present absolute mean-
ing. The romantic genius was born.

4. The Realm of Poetry. The old concept of poetry
as a hierarchy of genres was generally accepted, but
the admission of new genres and their rank in the
hierarchy were fiercely disputed.

The study of Roman and Greek literature, poetics
and rhetoric, brought forth by humanism, replaced the
inherited medieval genres, still embraced by Dante,
with the old classical genres. But a real attempt at
creating a system of genres was not made before the
advent of eno-Aristotelianism. Its point of departure
was the combination of the Platonic-Aristotelian tri-
partition of poetry and the rhetorical tripartition of


style with the Aristotelian mimēsis, generally under-
stood as “imitation of nature.” But this “nature” was
not identical with the world of the senses; it also
comprised the possible or even the supernatural. On
the other hand, it excluded the ugly and the low,
especially in the high genres. There was a strong tend-
ency to idealize, generalize, and moralize.

The difficulty in finding a place for lyric poetry—
disregarded by Plato and Aristotle—in a mimetic
poetics was overcome by Minturno and Beni among
others, who regarded lyrics as an imitation of the poet's
thoughts and sentiments. Thus the now usual division
of poetry into epic, drama, and lyrics was established.
It first appears in Daniello. It was combined with the
division of styles, so that each of the three main parts
of poetry had its high, middle, and low genres. This
systematization was never worked out in detail, but
it was generally agreed that heroic poetry, tragedy,
and the ode constituted the high genres. In spite of
Aristotle verse was commonly regarded as essential to
poetry, and prose fiction was therefore excluded from
poetics by most critics—but not by Minturno and Beni.

As in classical antiquity, decorum was the main rule,
with its ambiguous ethical-aesthetic-social meaning. In
practice this meant a close imitation of established
models, especially in the high genres. But the choice
of models was disputed and was involved in the battle
between the Ancients and the Moderns.

Vergil was the great epic model, but in Italy the
existence of a popular vernacular epic poetry—Dante,
Boiardo, Ariosto—caused some critics, e.g., Giraldi
Cinthio, to prefer epics with national and Christian
themes and a different, more loose construction. In
tragedy, the theorists had a freer hand, at least in Italy
and France. There, the “rules” could be enforced,
particularly the “three unities” of action, time, and
place, finally established by Castelvetro (1570) but
corresponding to the general practice of Greek and
Roman tragedy. The unities were imposed in the name
of verisimilitude, whereas the epic was freer and
admitted the marvellous as well as the episode.

Outside Italy, especially in England and Spain, the
dramatists and the public cared little for the rules, even
in tragedy. In comedy the liberty was always greater,
and the creation of mixed genres like tragicomedy in
seventeenth-century France or pastoral drama in
Italy—Guarini's Il pastor fido (1590)—was condemned
by the critics but gladly accepted by the public.

For the neo-Aristotelian system of genres was never
completely realized in actual literature. Everywhere,
even in Italy and France, it was confronted with
already existing genres, which could be fitted into the
system only with difficulty or not at all. Only in the
early eighteenth century, are the genres generally
accepted, but by then the whole system is breaking
down. The rise of the novel and the recognition of it
as an equal and autonomous genre by such orthodox
critics as Lessing and Dr. Johnson is one of the signs
of the disintegration of European classicism.

5. The Ancients and the Moderns. The Renaissance
radically changed the medieval autores. The great
Roman writers kept their place, but to them many
rediscovered authors were added, and in the fifteenth
century the works of the Greeks reclaimed their rank
as classics. The old literary rivalry between Greece and
Rome was renewed, most people showing a strong
predilection for the Romans, who were already well-
established and more accessible.

The importance of this debate was due to the role
which the “imitation of the classics” played. Dante,
in the De vulgari eloquentia, had demanded imitation
of the “regular” (Roman) poets. His own imitation of
Vergil in his Divine Comedy is the greatest instance
of that creative imitation which is the fundamental
paradox of European classicism.

But to later generations Dante's imitation seemed
too free and unclassical. While in the Trecento Italian
writers followed medieval tradition in vernacular
writings, in the Quattrocento neo-Latin poetry and
prose closely imitated Roman models. When in the
early Cinquecento Italian, i.e., Tuscan, was finally
accepted as equal to Latin, it adopted its own classics,
Petrarch and Boccaccio but not Dante. Their status
as linguistic and stylistic models was proclaimed by
Pietro Bembo in his De imitatione (1512).

Though the word “classic” was seldom applied to
vernacular authors before the eighteenth century, the
recognition of modern writers as equal to ancient shows
that the imitation of the classics implied a hope to
equal if not to surpass them. Classicism did not exclude

Thus the comparison between the “Ancients” and
the “Moderns” was a standard theme in the literature
of this age down to the Parallèles (1688-97) of Charles
Perrault, which caused the famous querelle in France,
and to the Battle of the Books in England (1690-98).

The debate quickly transgressed the frontiers of
literature and developed into a general discussion of
the possibilities of cultural progress. Some debaters,
like Bentley and Wotton in England, while accepting
the idea of progress, still admired classical literature.
But to most people a belief in progress meant a depre-
ciation of this literature, particularly the Greek poets.
This view was strengthened by the general contempt
of poetry and admiration of science. But the supporters
of the Ancients had not lost their faith, as the great
success of Pope's Iliad (1715) was soon to show. The
Greek revival was on the way.



There is no modern comprehensive work on this subject.
But see Momenti e problemi di storia dell'estetica, Vol. 1,
by various scholars (Milan, 1959), with rich bibliographies;
Karl Borinski, Die Antike in Poetik und Kunsttheorie vom
Ausgang des klassischen Altertums bis auf Goethe und
Wilhelm von Humboldt,
2 vols., in the series Das Erbe der
Vols. 9 and 10 (Leipzig, 1914-24); Critics and Criti-
ed. Ronald S. Crane (Chicago, 1952); William K.
Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism (New York,

For Greece and Rome, while out-of-date, still the best
is Eduard Müller, Geschichte der Theorie der Kunst bei den
2 vols. (Breslau, 1834-37). See also J. W. H. Atkins,
Literary Criticism in Antiquity, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1934;
reprint New York). Charles S. Baldwin, Ancient Rhetoric
and Poetic
(New York, 1924). J. F. D'Alton, Roman Literary
Theory and Criticism
(London, 1931). Ernesto Grassi, Die
Theorie des Schönen in der Antike
(Cologne, 1962). G. M. A.
Grube, The Greek and Roman Critics (London, 1965).
W. Rhys Roberts, Greek Rhetoric and Literary Criticism
(New York, 1928). E. E. Sikes, The Greek View of Poetry
(London, 1931).

For the Middle Ages see especially Edgar De Bruyne,
Études d'esthétique médiévale, 3 vols. (Bruges, 1946); cf.
idem, Esthétique du moyen âge (Louvain, 1947); Ernst
Robert Curtius, Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches
2nd ed. (Bern, 1953), trans. Willard R. Trask as
European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (Princeton,
1953; reprint New York). See also Rosario Assunto, Die
Theorie des Schönen im Mittelalter
(Cologne, 1963). Charles
S. Baldwin, Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic (New York, 1928).
E. Faral, Les Arts poétiques du XIIe et XIIIe siècles (Paris,
1924). Franz Quadlbauer, “Die antike Theorie der genera
dicendi im lateinischen Mittelalter,” Üsterreichische
Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische
Klasse. Sitzungs-Berichte,
241, 2 (1962).

For the Renaissance and later, Joel Spingarn, A History
of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance
(New York, 1899),
is out-of-date but still useful; but see Charles S. Baldwin,
Renaissance Literary Theory and Practice (New York, 1939).
See also J. W. H. Atkins, English Literary Criticism, Vol.
I, The Renascence (London and New York, 1947; 1968), and
Vol. II, 17th and 18th Centuries (London and New York,
1951). Karl Borinski, Die Poetik der Renaissance und die
Anfänge der literarischen Kritik in Deutschland
1886). René Bray, La formation de la doctrine classique en
(Paris, 1927). August Buck, Italienische Dichtungs-
lehren vom Mittelalter bis zum Ausgang der Renaissance,
Vol. 94 (1952). Baxter Hathaway, The Age of
Criticism, The Late Renaissance in Italy
(Ithaca, 1962); cf.
review by E. N. Tigerstedt, Lychnos (1965-66). Bruno
Markwardt, Geschichte der deutschen Poetik, 2 vols.
(Leipzig, 1956-57). Raymond Naves, Le goût de Voltaire
(Paris, 1938). Warner F. Patterson, Three Centuries of French
Poetic Theory,
2 vols. (Ann Arbor, 1936). Henri Peyre,
Qu'est-ce que le classicisme?, revised ed. (Paris, 1965).
Bernard A. Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in
the Italian Renaissance,
2 vols. (Chicago, 1961); cf. review
by E. N. Tigerstedt, Lychnos (1962). Ciro Trabalza, La
critica letteraria, secoli XV-XVI-XVII
(Milan, 1915).


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Beauty; Classification of
the Arts;
Comic; Creativity; Literature; Love; Mimesis;
Platonism; Renaissance; Tragic; Ut pictura poesis.]