Thursday, October 25, 2007

Horsemanship, swordplay, singing, dancing, speaking, and writing

Return to Renascence Editions Defence of Poesie (Ponsonby, 1595) Sir Philip Sidney
Renascence Editions publication was transcribed, with an introduction, notes, and bibliography, by Risa S. Bear for the University of Oregon, September-December 1992. Contents: Introduction Defence of Poesie Notes Bibliography A note on the WWW edition...It was Sidney's belief that the best way to slow the advance of the Spanish empire on the Continent was to attack the colonies of Spain in the New World. He arranged, in 1584, to sail with Sir Francis Drake on such an expedition but was recalled by the Queen at the last moment and made governor of Flushing, in the Netherlands...
The Defence of Poesie
Sidney's famous essay is said to be a response to an attack on poetry and stage plays, which had been dedicated to him without his permission, by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright: The Schoole of Abuse, 1579. Another reply, inferior but interesting, had been published by Thomas Lodge in 1580...
There is one aspect of the Defence, however, that has been often noted only in passing, and often dismissively, and as I feel it is Sidney's main point I will attempt to throw a little light on it. Sidney is conscious throughout his defence that it is fiction he is defending, and that his strength lies in attacking the privilege generally accorded to "fact." He says that "of all writers under the Sunne, the Poet is the least lyer"; that is, the practitioners of what we now call the academic disciplines are regularly betrayed by their literalism, while the poet, who is under no illusions, freely creates "fictional" statements as true as any other, and the truer for not being asserted as literal. Sidney's approach is characteristic of Renaissance humanism, and more closely akin to modern semiotic theory than is generally appreciated.
Renaissance education came to specialize in rhetoric at a time in which political and economic power came to be concentrated in the courts of princes. This can hardly be a coincidence. Every courtier was trained to the art of sprezzatura, of skill in seeming effortlessness in horsemanship, swordplay, singing, dancing, speaking, and writing, so as to catch the eye of those higher in the hierarchy, and especially that of the prince. Self-presentation has always been and remains the first move in the game of self-advancement, but for the Renaissance in general and Elizabethans especially, "fashioning a self," to echo Spenser, was an obsession. Peter Ramus and the humanist rhetoricians provided a timely operating environment for such pursuits, because their foregrounding of the provisional status of any assertion helped the courtiers to understand self-image as a work in progress rather than as a cynical device.
The Defence of Poesie reflects the humanist education which Shrewsbury and Oxford had given to Sidney, and reflects on the rhetorical aims of self-presentation with which an underemployed Elizabethan gentleman would undertake such a work. It follows the rules and outline of a standard argument: exordium, proposition, division, examination, refutation, digression, peroration; and does so with a spirit and style that must have done its author great credit in the eyes of his contemporaries. The Defence serves almost as a copia of Renaissance theory, for Sidney brings every available gun to bear on his objective: Pliny, Musaeus, Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, Linus, Amphion, Livius Andronicus, Ennius, Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Gower, Chaucer, Thales, Empedocles, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Phocilydes, Herodotus, Virgil, Xenophon, Tremellius, Junius, Tyrtaeus, Lucretius, Manilius, Pontanus, Lucan, Cicero, Heliodorus, Plato, Aristotle, Cornelius Agrippa, Horace, Terence, More, Erasmus, "Dares Phrygius," Plautus, Euripides, Phocion, Sannazaro, Boethius, Persius, Plutarch, Pindar, Tasso, Ovid, Dio Cassius, Ariosto, Scaliger, Bembo, Bibbiena, Beze, Melancthon, Fracastorio, Muret, Buchanan, Hurault, Juvenal, Surrey, Spenser, Sackville, Norton, Apuleius, Demosthenes, Landino, and both Old and New Testaments are all cited in support of his position, which as every critic will tell you is that poetry is useful because it delights as it teaches, a view that dates back to Horace and beyond.
The venerable tradition of didacticism, and Sidney's heavy reliance upon it in the Defence, has sometimes led to a tendency to dismiss the Defence as derivative: "not a very original theorist," says Hazard Adams in Critical Theory Since Plato (154). Adams himself, however, notices something that "sounds modern" in Sidney's argument that the poet "nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth." He perceptively compares Sidney on this point to I.A. Richards, but concludes that the comparison will go nowhere because "Sidney does not have a modern theory of language" (154). While it is obvious that Sidney had not the advantage, in his education, of having read Ferdinand de Saussure and his successors, I believe it is a mistake, on the basis of our own historical chauvinism, not to seek the implications of Sidney's argument, and to callously assume that Sidney did not himself see some of those implications. Nor was Sidney alone in so seeing; Renaissance humanists, of whom Sidney was one, understood not merely formal rhetoric but epistemology and even ontology in terms of appearances.
Throughout the period, diagrams appeared in books, such as Andrew Borde's The First Book of the Introduction to Knowledge [1542], or Robert Fludd's Utriusque Cosmi Historia [1616], relating the Ptolemaic cosmology to the idea of a "great chain of being" in which the cosmos is arranged as a hierarchy in which each successive level downward in the hierarchy contains entities which are analogies of entities in the preceding level; to begin to understand the world view of those who produced these diagrams, it may help to visualize ourselves not as "made in the image of God" in the sense that we are independent objects that resemble God, but are actual depictions of God, like paintings. In this view, nature is not divided from God in the way in which we are accustomed, after Descartes, to think, but is something more like a thought or imagination in the mind of God. As imago dei, we reflect our Maker in all that we do, and most of all in doing what our Maker does: to make, especially by imagining. To attempt to improve one's image is then not the dishonest activity which an Enlightenment materialist assumes it to be, but in imitatio dei, is to participate in the creative activity of the Cosmos. Such a world view will hold that all epistemological practice will be mimetic in procedure, and this is in fact what Sidney tells us early on:
There is no Art delivered unto mankind that hath not the workes of nature for his principall object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become Actors & Plaiers, as it were of what nature will have set forth. So doth the Astronomer looke upon the starres, and by that he seeth set downe what order nature hath taken therein. So doth the Geometritian & Arithmetitian, in their divers sorts of quantities. So doth the Musitians intimes tel you, which by nature agree, which not. The natural Philosopher thereon hath his name, and the morall Philosopher standeth uppon the naturall vertues, vices, or passions of man: and follow nature saith he therein, and thou shalt not erre. The Lawier saith, what men have determined. The Historian, what men have done. The Gramarian, speaketh onely of the rules of speech, and the Rhetoritian and Logitian, considering what in nature wil soonest proove, and perswade thereon, give artificiall rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The Phisitian wayeth the nature of mans bodie, & the nature of things helpfull, or hurtfull unto it. And the Metaphisicke though it be in the second & abstract Notions, and therefore be counted supernaturall, yet doth hee indeed build upon the depth of nature.
"By that he seeth set down what order nature hath taken therein." The sciences map the patterns of their objects of inquiry. The poet has the advantage over these, says Sidney, in that he creates a meta-map, or seeks to re-present the mind itself ("first nature") in which nature ("second nature") is but a thought. Poetic imagination brings forth a model on which readers or audiences can build their own characters for the better: it
worketh, not onely to make a Cyrus, which had bene but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyrusses, if they will learne aright, why and how that maker made him.
It is this poetic mold from which so many Cyruses can be formed that Sidney refers to as architectonike, the science of sciences. The argument between the philosopher and the historian which Sidney vividly describes is a battle for the honor of being taken for the prescribing artist. The philosopher gives precepts but does not map them onto the world; the historian gives a picture of the world, but cannot by mere description point us to the precepts which would bring it into harmony with the divine mind; the poet then takes away the honor from them both by relating the precepts to the world, mapping "should" onto "is," as it were:
Now doth the peerlesse Poet performe both [the work of the philosopher and the historian], for whatsoever the Philosopher saith should be done, he gives a perfect picture of it by some one, by whom he presupposeth it was done, so as he coupleth the generall notion with the particuler example.
The poet's "presupposition" makes no assertion of fact, though it is important to note that it does imply an assertion that the model presented is, if "rightly" done, exemplary. Every practitioner of an "art" or "science" proceeds by mimetic activity, in observing and then in proceeding through metaphor to represent to society what has been observed. Only the poet (here, creator of fiction, or literary practitioner) trades in metaphor itself rather than in its product. This is not strictly true, even for Sidney, for he admits that the priest or preacher takes precedence in such trading. But he does not admit that theologians work in anything "better" than metaphor; instead, he refers to David and Jesus as poets, and suggests, albeit obliquely, that all didacticism is dependent upon a merely posited and purely metaphorical world view. A simpler way to put all this is that there is unfortunately no alternative to simply taking our belief in God, the cosmos, our earth as we perceive it, and our society as we experience it, on faith and not as anything known directly in and of itself. The lines drawn ("coupleth") in mental space between "notion" and "example" are the very stuff of which all knowledge, Sidney implies, is made.
Sidney hammers this point home by his argument on "lies." Poets are accused of lying, since there is no necessary connection between their models and observed phenomena. His reply is that in all the other arts, the assumption is made that models re-present observations accurately; but this is never so. Therefore he can assert
that of all writers under the Sunne, the Poet is the least lyer: and though he wold, as a Poet can scarecely be a lyer. The Astronomer with his cousin the Geometrician, can hardly escape, when they take upon them to measure the height of the starres. How often thinke you do the Phisitians lie, when they averre things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of soules drowned in a potion, before they come to his Ferrie? And no lesse of the rest, which take upon them to affirme. Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie, is to affirme that to bee true, which is false. So as the other Artistes, and especially the Historian, affirming manie things, can in the clowdie knowledge of mankinde, hardly escape from manie lies.
The argument is at first glance specious. Of course fictions are false; that is what fiction means. Our common sense (empiricist) assumption, which has gained ground greatly since the age of Hobbes and Newton, is that while Sidney's point is well taken, in that our technicians have as yet gotten the facts wrong, but he must be joking, for the facts are nevertheless there, and they will get them right eventually. But I believe Sidney is serious here. He says, "in the clowdy knowledge of mankinde," with no qualifiers. That he does so provides us with the crux of his argument.
From Petrarch on, the assumption of scholars during the Renaissance was that the centuries from the fall of Rome until their own time were a "dark age," in which the great knowledge of the ancients fell into disuse; it was their mission to recover something of the glory of Greece and Rome by recovering and mastering their literature and "arts," or, interchangeably, "sciences." History, Philosophy, Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine were among these, as were painting and sculpture, music, and the production of literary works, especially epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, lyric, pastoral, and other forms, which some authorities gathered together under the heading of "poesie." A student in England in the age of Ascham and Wilson could expect to be exposed to a wide range of "arts" and literary and historical works under the curriculum--an adaptation of the medieval trivium--by which means students had for centuries been taught grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Although this curriculum was often taught under the implicit assumption that it formed a seamless and perfect whole, it contained a contradiction that produced (and still produces today) considerable friction among thinkers and artists. Plato had regarded rhetoric as a highly suspect art, productive of immorality. He argued for dialectic to be used in its place, which he defined as the science of understanding (architectonike) as oppposed to merely convincing; he desired that the conclusion of a syllogism be true of the world to which it refers (Theatetus, Sophist, Phaedrus, Republic). Aristotle had made a place for rhetoric within dialectic by claiming that dialectic is simply the use of complete syllogisms to understand truth while rhetoric is the use of partial syllogisms to attain specific ends, such as convincing a jury of one's innocence, regardless of one's actual guilt (Rhetoric).
But attacks against the primacy of dialectic had been made, notably by Peter Ramus, whose doctoral dissertation was on the topic "everything Aristotle said was wrong." Ramus chose to invert Aristotle's position and upheld that dialectic is but a part of rhetoric, thus re-privileging rhetoric as the architectonike, or science of sciences, as it had been formerly held by the Sophists to be. Ramus' insight was that an assumption generally made by dialecticians is that true premises can be found upon which to base the complete syllogisms that are intended to lead to true, that is, ontological, knowledge. Ramus's system of logic, unlike that of Aristotle, assumes that a premise is always only posited, and any conclusions based on it are likewise only posited.
The empiricist view is that the senses report a "real" or literal world that is like our conception of it. The empiricist view of language is that words refer to objects in a "real" world, and that metaphor is a distortion of reference, so that a word can be used out of its proper context in order to make a useful statement about another kind of object in another context. Thus, we can say of a wise prince: "behold Cyrus!" -- transferring reference from the real Cyrus who was wise onto someone who is not Cyrus, but whose wisdom we wish to praise. Sidney calls our attention to the unsupportable assumption in the phrase "real Cyrus." What real Cyrus? Historians cannot show us one; they are only repeating what they have heard. Their Cyrus is posited only. This realization undermines the empiricist view of language and suggests that contrary to what we expect, all reference is metaphorical. It is our insistence on literality that is the distortion, for the literal is only metaphor that we have agreed among ourselves to regard as somehow non- metaphorical. This idea is at the root both of the effectiveness of the art of rhetoric and of our uneasy but continued acceptance of it. Plato sought an immaterial reality, Aristotle a material one; Sidney suspects that neither can be found by us, but at best a model of a posited model, or copy of a posited copy (Plato's nightmare) can be fashioned and tested. This utilitarian view is the basis of rhetorical theory, and can be traced from the Sophists through Scaliger, Ramus, and the humanists, to Sidney, to Milton, to the reaction to the Enlightenment in Coleridge's criticism, and in our own time to suggestions made by C.S. Peirce, William James, Karl Popper, Owen Barfield, W.V. Quine, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Stanley Fish, and many others.
Why, then, do critics feel that Sidney "does not have a modern theory of language"? The answer is that he does not follow through on his own insight but applies the very principle he has just refuted, that of the common-sense privileging of literality, in his criticism of the current drama; of it he complains that
Now you shall have three Ladies walke to gather flowers, and then we must beleeve the stage to be a garden. By and by we heare newes of shipwrack in the same place, then we are too blame if we accept it not for a Rock. Upon the back of that, comes out a hidious monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a Cave: while in the meane time two Armies flie in, represented with foure swords & bucklers, and then what hard hart wil not receive it for a pitched field.
The complaint here is of the English habit of paying little or no attention to "unity of place." Sidney believed, along with Lodovico Castelvetro and others, that Aristotle had proscribed dramatic action beyond one circuit of the sun. The name of Aristotle as the authority behind the notion of "unity of time" could hardly be ignored. Greeks in the time of Aristotle regarded physical presentation in drama (and dance) as a sacred activity, and it was as important not to do confusing things with time as it would be not to get the words of a spell out of sequence. Literality mattered; one cannot move twenty years in one's own body, so one's "stage" body ought not to do this either; it is an insult to the persona inhabited by the actor to be treated quite so cavalierly. Renaissance critics sensed that jumping the action from one location to another involved the same problem as jumping it from one time to another; if we cannot get from the garden to the battlefield in three minutes ourselves, we should not have our actors do so. But in English drama, eighteen hundred years after the drama described by Aristotle, the tabu against representing a long story as nimbly with one's body as Homer was free to do with his words has largely disappeared. The actors engage our imaginations only, are visual as well as auditory metaphors, and the audience can provide narrative unity itself by the use of memory. Though Sidney does not see that his own destruction of literality points to the success, rather than failure, of the native theatrical tradition, he provides a glimpse of the solution even as he argues mistakenly for the literalism of observing the unities: shall have Asia of the one side, and Affricke of the other, and so mannie other under Kingdomes, that the Player when he comes in, must ever begin with telling where he is, or else the tale will not be conceived.
The players know what they are about. When they come in, they say:
Viola: What country, friends, is this?
Captain: Illyria, lady.
The tale is immediately conceived.
The charge that Sidney's theory of language is not modern is misdirected. He is accurate in his assessment of language, and goes astray only when adopting a poetics that runs counter to his own theory. In Twelfth Night, which our unfortunate Sir Philip did not live to witness, we have both the refutation of the literalist theory with which he was saddled, and the confirmation of the metaphorical theory he so brilliantly elucidated. In refutation, we easily conceive the three months of the action, and its movement from seacoast to palace, street, and garden; the work is unified by its being a kind of land voyage of discovery, or rather recovery, of the losses that were sustained on the high seas. In confirmation, the play is, as Sidney recommends, an invention that is eikastike, and not phantastike, in that it figures forth good things, showing its Viola as one who should be emulated and its Malvolio as one who, perhaps, should not, though he never lacks his humanity. And these are inventions all, the "lies" of the poet. Yet if anyone should call Viola a lie, would we not give them the lie-direct? She lives in our minds, and not necessarily in our minds alone: so far substantially is she worked, not only to make a Viola, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done, but to bestow a Viola upon the world, to make many Violas, if we will learn aright why and how that maker made her!
We all use metaphors, says Sidney, for we cannot communicate our various knowledges without them, literal reference being a prerogative of a higher Nature than that we are born to. But to some of us it is given to not merely use metaphors, but to create them. If, says he, we are so blinded by our literality that we must condemn our metaphor-makers out of hand, then we bring upon ourselves the curse of oblivion, for our memorials are necessarily constructed entirely of metaphor:
...and when you die, your memorie die from the earth for want of an Epitaphe.
The Defence of Poesie cannot be charged with lack of modernity until its linguistic premise can be shown to have been superseded. This has not yet occurred. Risa Stephanie Bear, 1992

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