Continental Humanist Poetics: Studies in Erasmus, Castiglione, Marguerite de Navarre, Rabelais, and Cervantes

By Arthur F. Kinney | Go to book overview
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TWO
Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis: Erasmus, the Encomium Moriae, and the Poetics of Wordplay

CONTINENTAL HUMANIST POETICS BEGINS, IN BOTH ITS PHILOLOGICAL AND ITS CREATIVE FICTIVE TRADITIONS, WITH THE PIONEERING ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF DESIDERIUS ERASMUS, THE PERIPATETIC SCHOLAR. "OUTside Italy," A. J. Krailsheimer notes, " Erasmus is unquestionably the point of departure from which almost everything else stems."1 Even within Italy, the birthplace of humanism, he was soon (and singularly) praised by Aretino. "There is no one to compare with him," Aretino writes in one of his letters, "for he was a strong fountain of speech, a broad river of intellect, and an immense sea of literature; therefore his stature is such as to defy description."2 He is the West's chief humanist at the dawn of humanism, the father of Continental humanist poetics. And the work of Erasmus best known to us now, the Encomium Moriae, which Johan Huizinga once called "the perfect work of art,"3 is what we might expect to herald the age of humanist poetics: a classical speech of praise which, defending indefensible folly, demonstrates the power of humanist oratory and the skill and ingenuity available to the humanist rhetorician while everywhere displaying in the passionate and irreducible commitment despite the ludic surface its serious aim to defend humanist learning and reason. "Its fascination," Kathleen Williams reminds us, is also "the fascination of Erasmus' mind: subtle, penetrating, imaginative."4

This first major work of Continental humanist poetics was also the first to reach England in those generations that immediately followed: Sidney in his Defence of Poesie saw that in the Encomium Moriae Erasmus"had an other foundation then the superficiall part would promise" and so honored its wit,5 and nearly a century later the young Milton found the Encomium in everyone's hands at Cambridge: "Et cuique jam in manibus est ingeniosissimum illud Moriae

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