Academic journal article Parergon

Disciplining Creativity: Habit, System, and the Logic of Late Sixteenth-Century Poetics

Academic journal article Parergon

Disciplining Creativity: Habit, System, and the Logic of Late Sixteenth-Century Poetics

Article excerpt

What is poetics? It is the faculty of writing verses well.                                    --Johann Thomas Freige, Paedagogus (1) 

We need only consider for a moment the limitations of this definition --furnished by Johann Thomas Freige, a German follower of the French logician and pedagogic reformer Petrus Ramus--and the range of available alternatives offered by early modern European writers on the subject, to remind ourselves how varied and how undisciplined the discipline of poetics was in the period addressed by the articles in this Special Issue. With his particular definition, Freige is heeding the dictates of his master in offering statements and precepts of immense clarity and simplicity. Ramus never wrote a textbook on poetics, and when Freige and other followers remedied this lack, as they tried to complete his curricular project, they produced treatises of rather limited scope: they tended to deal only with matters of versification, because other elements of poetic practice--particularly the invention and arrangement of material--were addressed by other arts, namely logic and rhetoric. (2) The reasons for writing about poetics in this way themselves arose from the discipline of logic, and specifically from its role in regulating the formulation and teaching of the arts. Ramus understood arts as collections of precepts, formulated and arranged according to rules borrowed, somewhat illicitly, from Aristotle's work on the logic of syllogistic demonstration. As a result of this logical clarity and restraint, each art--as a body of theory, but not in practice--was supposed to be discrete and self-sufficient, a methodically structured representation of human competence easily assimilated by students. (3)

The works on poetics produced in obedience to this methodology are, predictably enough, rather thin and disappointing, having been suffocated by misguided rigour. Nevertheless, the idea that gave rise to these works--namely, that it should be possible to write about the poetic art in a coherent and logical way--was potent and widespread in the sixteenth century. George Puttenham, for example, defends not only the vernacular literature he sought to describe and encourage but also his own activity as a literary theorist by arguing that English poetics might be 'reduced into a method of rules and precepts' or 'a certain order of rules prescribed by reason and gathered by experience'; and William Scott explicitly offers a poetics regulated by the dictates of 'the logicians'. (4) These writers belong to the corpus of English poetics that will form the main focus of this article; it is a much smaller theoretical canon than exists in several continental literatures. Puttenham and Scott, unlike most of the other writers commonly grouped within that canon, offer fully elaborated arts of poetry; their logical and methodological claims cut to the heart of the question of poetics's status and respectability as a coherent, distinct, and teachable discipline. However, these references to the idea of a logically determined poetics are belied by a great deal of methodological reticence in the execution of works of poetic theory in sixteenth-century England. This article argues that the hypothesis of a logical poetics informed and stimulated critical inquiry in the period, but remained largely and tellingly unfulfilled. Furthermore, the tendency of early modern poetics to render the question of methodology an object of knowing play is concomitant with another, wider tendency to ironise its own normativity: poetics pretends to legislate for acts of poetic making, but almost always draws attention to the limitations of its authority and ability to do so. The apparent methodological uncertainty of works of poetics often masks something subtler and more circumspect, as they make a virtue of their relatively marginal, undisciplined status and highlight aspects of poetic skill which cannot be accommodated within a methodical system. …

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