We should be able to study literature like a science, if we accept that when we say we’re studying literature what we’re actually studying is criticism. First, we assume that criticism is structurally coherent. Second, we avoid the pitfall of losing literature either in its “backgrounds” or in its “verbal ambiguities.” Criticism is expansive and demands more from us. A literary work has more than efficient cause (its author). It has a formal and material cause too. Upon further examination, it even has a relationship to a core literary idea, which Frye calls a myth of an archetype. Literary criticism actually radiates out of a kind of center where we begin with editing, move to rhetorical/philological criticism, expand to literary psychology, consider genre and the history of ideas, then finish with a kind of literary anthropology. This last position is where we encounter myths and archetypes, the foundational narratives and meanings that help provide the building blocks for all great literature. These rituals and meanings are aligned with the calendar so that spring = rebirth, summer = marriage, fall = death, and satire = winter. Frye surmises that the great narrative in literature is the hero-quest, so we can go back to all these genres and insert the hero into the pattern of rebirth, triumph, death, or defeat. The great significance or meaning of all literature is freedom, the merging of the ideal and actual. The comic perspective ends with that artistic ideal realized. The tragic perspective ends with it thwarted. Frye ends the chapter by exploring comic and tragic images associated with five levels of characters/objects: humans, animals, vegetables, minerals, and water. All of this was an inductive gesture at the art of criticism rather than a painting itself, but Frye hopes it gives the critic a wide canvas and broad palate with which to work.
Renaissance Art moved along three continuums: external to internal wisdom, distinct to reconciled opposites, and fact to fiction. The last one caused the most problems, and it was only during the Renaissance that theorists began offering a clear argument for why fiction was distinct from history on the one hand and lying on the other. These continuums were tempting in that they all offered ways of moving beyond the actual world, either in a healthier form of working through external reality or in an unhealthier form of trying to escape from external reality. At stake is the reality of the external world: the difference between what is real and what is just a projection of the mind. Poetry emphasized the power of fiction because engaging a self-avowed created world in serious play made the job of distinguishing reality from man-made projections much easier. Artists and audiences never escaped to the world of art for good. First, they would return to the actual world as represented with the work of art, and second, they would return to the actual world and leave the work of art. Poetic theorists of the time could claim that the profit of such an exercise was directly connected to the pleasure that such serious play provided.
It was this emphasis on art as a created space for serious play that was the hallmark of the Renaissance imagination. Classical thinkers did not have a coherent view of art because their epistemology could never adequately distinguish between what was real and what they were projecting. Christianity provided a more solid ground for distinguishing the two in the medieval period but at the expense of art. The humanity-created second world was always inferior to the first world God had made. In the Renaissance, artists and scientists began to believe that the second world was the place not to merely recreate but a space to improve the first world. Artists in the period range from political theorists like Thomas More to playwrights like Shakespeare to poets like Spenser and even scientists like Galileo. The scientific experiment itself was a second world.
Following MH Abrams, Berger labels such second worlds “heterocosms” because they are composed of various worlds that have been combined and held in harmonized tension. Berger calls the tempting and simplified version of the second world that often appears inside the second world “the green world.” Renaissance Art often exploited the difficulty in telling the second world and the green world apart, and the rest of Berger’s article pursues that tension in the period’s painting and Thomas More’s Utopia.
After the jump, you’ll find the conclusion of my CS Lewis summary that I started yesterday. Continue reading “Lewis’s “New Learning and New Ignorance” Summary Part 2″
My Renaissance survey class will be reading, summarizing, and using this scholarship this semester.
- Berger, Harry. “Andrew Marvell: The Poem as Green World.” Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
- –. “Prelude to Interpretation.” Revisionary Play: Studies in the Spenserian Dynamics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
- –. “The Renaissance Imagination: Second World and Green World.” Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
- –. “Sprezzatura and the Absence of Grace.” Castiglione, Baldassarre, and Daniel Javitch. The Book of the Courtier: The Singleton Translation : an Authoritative Text Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2002. Print.
- Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.
- Empson, William. Milton’s God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965. Print.
- Ferguson, Margaret. Trials of Desire: Renaissance Defenses of Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. Print.
- Fish, Stanley E. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “paradise Lost.”. London: Macmillan, 1967. Print.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.
- Jankowski, Theodora A. “Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”” Studies in Philology 87.2 (1990): 221-45. Web.
- King, John N. English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.
- Lewalski, Barbara K. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1979. Print.
- Lewis, C S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. Print.
- Miller, David Lee. “Spenser’s Poetics: The Poem’s Two Bodies.” PMLA 101.2 (1986): 170-85. Web.
- Shuger, Debora K. Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.
- Slights, William. “The Play of Conspiracies in Volpone.” Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Print.
Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the three parts of the classical trivium. While they represent a real sequence for learning a language (the rules, the structure, the style), they can also be used as the basis for interpretation. The following paragraph by author Gary North describes how these three concepts might be applied to something like a movie review:
I cover the basic themes (grammar), the coherence of these themes in the story line (logic), and the artistic techniques used to convey these (rhetoric).
This sequence seems like an excellent hook for teaching literary analysis. I thought I might test out North’s categories with a poem I teach every semester: Beowulf. Continue reading “Beowulf: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric”