The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century

By Trevor Ross | Go to book overview
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EPILOGUE

How Poesy Became Literature

The idea of literature, it has often been noted, is of relatively recent emergence. In Foucault's version of the claim, the idea was born of a radical realignment of the disciplines of knowledge, a realignment that, by the nineteenth century, had left a space for the "pure act of writing" to curve back upon itself and to reconstitute itself as an independent "form of language that we now call 'literature.'" 1 That the modern sense of "literature" has not been part of Western thought for long should not be taken to mean that before the nineteenth century the word itself had not been in usage nor that there was no collective term for identifying the peculiar "form of language" that we would now equate with the literary. Yet a change did occur, and this change I would identify with the protracted cultural shift that I have outlined in this narrative, the shift in canon-formation from production to consumption. Poetry, or "poesy," as I have already suggested, had long been used as the prevalent term to designate the category of verbal and fictive art because, at its root, it pertained to "making" and to the values of rhetorical productivity. Aristotle understood this when he adopted the term in the Poetics. Eager to defend this art from Plato's strictures against its dangerous moral and psychological affectivity, Aristotle wanted a term that might identify not so much the art's verbal power as what he believed was its essential quality as a mode of fictive representation. With reluctance, he accepted the common designation of "poetry," a term that could refer to any rhythmic utterance: "people do attach the making [that is the root of the word poiētēs] to the name of a metre and speak of elegiac-makers and hexameter-makers; they

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