Guide to Week 2: Thursday
First remember some general "neoplatonic" rules for what literature is, how poets create it, and how it should be read. If you are unfamiliar with the works of Plato, Aristotle and Horace, you may want to read this brief historical background document for context. Click here for some general questions you can ask of Aristotle and Horace so that you can compare their critical theory with Plato's.
In the Poetics of Aristotle, Plato's student, we see what will become a typical reaction of student against teacher. Plato taught suspicion of the poets, especially in The Republic, where he urges that they should be banned from the ideal city because they could move hearers' emotions in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Aristotle saw poetry, especially dramatic poetry like Greek tragedies, as essential to the health and welfare of the city. He thought dramatic comedies and tragedies helped stabilize the character of the demos, the Greek word for the voting population which governed the city. Think about living in a direct participatory democracy where you might meet on any given day to vote whether to go to war or not, whether to banish a famous man or woman from the city, whether to tax yourself or not, etc. Professional "politicians" existed, but they were men (always--women didn't vote) who owed their political power to a combination of wealth and masterful rhetoric plus insight into the motives of their fellow citizens that enabled them to sway their opinions in open debate. Nevertheless, each Athenian male citizen was an autonomous political unit like an American senator whose vote could determine public and foreign policy from day to day. Something had to shake them up and make them remember their mortality, their limitations, and the inscrutability of Fate. For Aristotle, literature supplied that force, and its uncontrollable fusion of emotion with intellect was the mechanism by which it applied the force in a predictable progression that moved audiences' identifications with the tragic hero from recognition of his excellence, through disorder and reversal of fortune, to catastrophe.
Horace, the cosmopolitan Roman poet, treated writing literature as a competitive craft that could be taught. The verse epistle, or artistic "open letter" to a rich father and his dilettante sons, tosses off advice in a deliberately unplanned, effusive fashion, to emphasize Horace's casual attitude toward his art. Readers of the Hoby translation, The Courtier, will recognize sprezzatura in its early Latin incarnation and will not be put off by the muddled order. Each aphorism or "pithy saying" could be expanded into a miniature essay if one were to develop its positive and negative support. Horace cares about form, but only because he believes his audience cares, so we might be able to connect him over time to Reader-Response Criticism, the author's attempt to play a winning game with the rules by which readers have learned to read literature.
Relevance of Classical Formalist Criticism to English 211 and 212:
Plato, Aristotle, and Horace form a major part of the first literary criticism our culture ever knew. They were what Sir Philip Sidney drew upon for his Defense of Poesie, though Sidney aggressively revised and responded to Plato's condemnation of poets,. He also seems to have agreed with many of Aristotle's and Horace's views of mimesis and the importance of maintaining "generic purity" (no mixed tragedy and comedy, etc.). Dryden drew especially on Aristotle and Horace for his literary criticism, and they set the rules that were codified in the Renaissance by French and English Neoclassicism (C17-18). If you are in English 212, this should help you understand what Pope and Johnson etc. are thinking. More important to our literary world, they set in motion some potentially dangerous ideas about poets and poetry (i.e., all imaginative literature including creative non-fiction, perhaps the most dangerous!). As always, read suspiciously, my friends. And stay thirsty. (Can you spot the visual Hemingway allusion? If not, search Google Images for "Hemingway and Marlin.") If you are not familiar with Homer's texts, click here for short excerpts where the poet invokes the Muse and where a hero judges the actions of a poet he might have to kill for singing to his enemies in his own household.
Note that there is no "Working With" writing assignment for this week. Most of you have been applying the methods of classical criticism for years, writing about protagonists and antagonists, characters' motives, irony and symbolism and themes. However, many of you are unaware of the roots of those critical methods in Platonic thought. Do you want to test your neo-platonic critical methods?