The Emperor of Men's Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric

By Wayne A. Rebhorn | Go to book overview

1 Bound to Rule

When theorizing about eloquence, Renaissance writers like to begin at the beginning. Thus, in an early chapter of The Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham declares: "Poets were the first priests, the first prophets, the first Legislators and polititians in the world." He wants to make two claims, the first one for the antiquity of poetry, for its existence "before any civil society was among men," and the second--and more important--one for the crucial role it played in bringing that civil society about. "For it is written, that Poesie was th'originall cause and occasion of their [men's] first assemblies, when before the people remained in the woods and mountains, vagarant and dispersed like the wild beasts, lawlesse and naked, or verie ill clad, and of all good and necessarie provision for harbour or sustenance utterly unfurnished: so as they litle diffred for their maner of life, from the very brute beasts of the field" (22). Puttenham elaborates this assertion by identifying the mythical Orpheus and Amphion as primitive poets and interpreting their activities allegorically. The former's taming wild beasts with his music is equated with bringing "rude and savage people to a more civill and orderly life," and the latter's building the walls of Thebes by means of the music of his harp becomes "the mollifying of hard and stonie hearts by his sweete and eloquent perswasion" (22). Puttenham also claims that poets inaugurated religious worship, served as the first priests, and, thanks to their chaste lives and deep meditation, received divine visions so that they became the first prophets as well. He concludes the chapter by asserting that because of their age and gravity,

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