In Defense of Poetry:

Dante (detail), Domenico di Michelino, Florence 1465

Dante (detail), Domenico di Michelino, Florence 1465

Can our thoughts ever express absolute truths, or are they always just an approximation to reality?

 

In his dialogues of The Republic (circa 380 BCE), Plato (428-348 BCE) defined the value of didactic literature, especially the theological and rhetoric values, while, at the same time, citing that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Republic, Book V, 607b5–6).

By the very use of metaphors, Plato’s Socratic-dialectic purported that poetry could only be a camouflage1; which suppressed the truth of our reality; therefore, poetry was incapable of conveying divine truths. This interpretation extended to the European Greco-Roman traditions and persisted dichotomous in contrast with the development of Medieval-religious literature of the West—paradoxically despite the dominant embeddedness of religious symbolism. It was from the thirteenth and fourteen centuries that the great Italian thinkers Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) initiated a humanizing conception of the world.  They identified themselves with a synthesis of Platonic philosophy by which metaphors in poetry were by now affirmed in positive terms.  Although they were always moved by the legacy from antiquity; they were also interested in developing new literary trends that could tear away from tradition. This epoch became known as the Renaissance2: The beginning of the era of modern literature through the metaphysical exaltation of poetry.

In De vulgari eloquentia (circa 1302), Dante Alighieri prepared an analysis of all styles and linguistic registers; but ultimately, he came close only to addressing the tragic or sublime style.  This work focused on the work of the Sicilian School and on the theme of love by the Stilnoviste.  Dante recognizes that poetry could also convey divine truth, that is, that besides being pleasant, the allegorical expression of human passions could be useful–speaking in didactic terms.

Francesco Petrarca also in La Carta X, 4 de Le Familiari (1349) addressed the question of allegory as an interpretative key to the poetry of the Middle Ages; for it established the use of allegory as the main similarity between the theological and poetic styles.  In this regard, in his view, the origin of poetry was found in a special use of language to appeal to the divine.

Then, alongside a biographical attention paid to the poet Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio also established a rigorous defense of poetry. As he put himself in an interpretative tradition of sacred as well as secular texts, he pursued in them a second level of significance.

In his plea for poetry, Boccaccio acknowledged the service it provided by exalting its powers. His treatise in Latin entitled Genealogiae deorum gentilium libri–completed in 1360, and edited until his death in 1374–, was a kind of handbook for poets and readers of poetry, relevant for transmitting classical mythology from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  His singular defense of poetry was based on different principles; its universality, its antiquity, the respect that it had always aroused among the powerful, its divine origin away from earthly matters, etc . . ., were synthesized in the idea that poetry attracted three essential aspects: truth, beauty and fictionalization. Moreover, the discipline, study and work of the poet which provided indispensable conditions for literary creativity did not hinder a divine origin, or the revelation of that which was sublime. Boccaccio attempted thus to show that when interpreting allegorically secular texts, these were capable to reflect a moral as well as religious truth.

R.F.M. – New York City, April 27, 2014


1 Note: The term "camouflage"--the masking of nature--,which is used in The Republic, Books II, III and X by Plato (circa 380 BCE), differs from the term "mimesis" of the Greek mimēsis--in a laudable sense of imitation--which is not use until 1550.

2 Wikipedia: 'The Renaissance' is a French word coined by French historian Jules Michelet and disseminated by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century. This name has been used historically in contrast to 'the Dark Ages', the term coined by Petrarca to refer to what we now call 'the Middle Ages.'

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One Response to “In Defense of Poetry:”

  1. Ricardo Morin Says:

    Reblogged this on Observaciones Sobre La Naturaleza de Percepción.

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