Critical prefaces of the French Renaissance

By Bernard Weinberg | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

To the short critical statements afforded by the prefaces of this collection must be added, if we wish to understand the development of literary theory in the French Renaissance, the longer expressions found in the formal arts poétiques. These arts poétiques themselves are supplemented by a number of works on language, prosody, and rhetoric. The works which are analyzed in this Introduction give a representation of the principal methods of approach to the problem of literature in the sixteenth century. Although they all belong to the second half of the century (the earliest is Sebillet's of 1548), they contain enough of the traditional material inherited from the earlier years of the century to indicate the persistence of traditional elements and approaches beside the new points of view which appeared about 1550. In the analyses, methods and points of view have been sought rather than a census of details. The method of analysis itself may be found useful in the reading of the critical prefaces.


1. Thomas Sebillet

Thomas Sebillet's Art poétique françoys, 1548,1 is not a completely systematic treatise. It represents a combination of such elements as the traditional rules for the handling of the verse genres, the Platonic notion of the divine source of poetry, the Horatian statement of the ends of poetry, and rhetorical teachings from Cicero, Quintilian, and Aristotle's Rhetoric. In spite of the fact that these elements are never completely synthesized, a kind of pattern does emerge for the whole work; and although Books I and II, on poetry in general and on the specific genres, respectively, are largely separate, enough of the theory stated in the first finds entry into the second to establish a thread at least of connection. However, there are various incomplete developments, lacunae in argument, and unrelated notions which make a completely satisfactory explanation of the text impossible.

For Sebillet's theory of poetry in general, the concept at the source of all other ideas is that of the divinity of poetry. From God spring science ("mere ... et nourrice de l'œuvre vertueus," I, i, 8) and art (in which is found "ceste divine perfection que nous appellons Vertu," I, i, 7); but these are so close to each other as to be practically indistinguishable. In all of the arts is visible something of the "feu divin," but in none so much as in the poetic art ("ce que plus proprement j'appelleroie divine inspiration," I, i, 8-9). For on the one hand the poet writes only when "inspiré de quelque divine afflation," and on the other hand poetry alone is characterized by "lés nombres ... la perfection et divinité desquelz soutient et entretient

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1
Ed. Félix Gaiffe, "Société des Textes français modernes," Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1932.

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