Poema rhetoricum et rhetor poeticus: The Forming of a Continental Humanist Poetics
"PERHAPS THE MOST CHARACTERISTIC FEATURE OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY IS ITS BOUNDLESS ENTHUSIASM," A. J. KRAILSHEIMER WRITES; "NEITHER IN THOUGHT NOR DEED DID MEN (OR WOMEN) do things by halves."1 The Continental Renaissance that he is describing--at once boldly searching, dramatically self-conscious, endlessly energetic--now seems to us almost legendary in its many stunning accomplishments. Yet persistently at the center of such activity, of such achievements, is what Krailsheimer calls "a prodigious appetite for learning" (p. 21). The contagious desire of men and women to study classical texts, many of them freshly discovered, and the urgent desire to know and apply antique thought to their own culture--the New Learning--is apparent wherever we turn, in Quattrocento and Cinquecento Italy, in France, in Germany, the Low Countries, and Spain. Their drive to study--for personal advancement, for service to a civilization they reinvigorated and were reshaping, for its own sake--seems insatiable. Even so untutored and so unlikely a person as the young Thomas Platter, as indelibly limned by Lucien Febvre, is a revealing pointer for his age.
One day, when he was eighteen, Thomas Platter came to Sélestat. He could barely read. He went to the famous school of Johannes Sapidus. With a heroic effort he tried to clear the heavy layer of cobwebs from his brain. He carried on single combat with the Latin grammar of Donatus. Soon he was employed as a teacher, half tutor, half valet, to the two sons of a bourgeois family. During the day he served his masters. At night, he studied alone, fighting sleep by putting cold water or raw turnips or pebbles in his mouth to put his teeth on edge so that he would wake immediately should he doze off. In this way he taught himself