The Classical Theory of Composition: From Its Origins to the Present: A Historical Survey

The Classical Theory of Composition: From Its Origins to the Present: A Historical Survey

The Classical Theory of Composition: From Its Origins to the Present: A Historical Survey

The Classical Theory of Composition: From Its Origins to the Present: A Historical Survey

Excerpt

We all remember the scene in Molière's Bourgeois gentilhomme [Act II, Sc. 4], where the eager pupil is attempting a more effective phrasing (' more gallant and gently turned') for the thought: " Belle Marquise, vos beaux yeux me font mourir d'amour." After having tried all sorts of rearrangement of word order, and eventually the most drastic of them all: "Me font vos yeux beaux mourir, belle Marquise, d'amour "-desperately seeking poetry through inversion-, he hears from his philosophy teacher that the spontaneous version was best. More recently, the weekly Time delightedly reminded its readers of a long list of colorful stylistic criticisms it had been enduring over the years. " A favorite butt of early Time baiters was [its] distinctive and mannered style.... In a famous 1936 New Yorker parody, the late Wolcott Gibbs captured that style in the classic line: 'Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.'"

Concern with sentence composition and, as part of it, word order has affected, in one way or another, every generation in many a language. It is, of course, much older than Molière.Like so many basic notions of ours, it is no wonder that it should go back-for the West at least-to the ancient Greeks. Within some geographical and bibliographical limitations, the present study intends to be the story of this concern.

Today the more sophisticated sense of `composition' involves the principles of internal cogency, the inner logic underlying the unitary development of plot through all its particular incidents in any given literary work (especially if not an oration). But the term in question was used by the ancients in a rather microscopic sense. For ` poetic' or ` structural' composition, the organic, total envisioning of the work as a unit, they had no word. Indeed they seldom expressed such a sense theoretically. This may be one reason for the limited impact of Aristotle's Poetics in antiquity, for in that work something resembling our requirements for overall struc-

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