In ‘Apology for Poetry’ Sir Philip opines that the sciences and arts are all directed towards a single end: ‘doing well and not well knowing only’; their ultimate goal is right action. In this regard he gives poetry precedent over philosophy and history but it seems to me there are limited instances when this is truly the case. Men would be better inspired to engage in the tumult of battle by a rousing hymn sung accompanied by pipes and drums than a dissertation on War as the continuation of Politics or a factual narrative of battles past, at least as far as the common soldier might be concerned, though a King might reconcile himself to battle in terms of his politics and a general’s confidence aggrandized by the science of his weaponry or the fame gained by his predecessors in the event of success. In most respects, however, Sir Sidney [ petere principium], ‘begs the question’ - assumes what needs to be proved. His flowery language is sufficient for the main purpose which is to project himself as a “Renaissance Man.”
Why then , in our noble lord’s view, did Plato wish to banish poets from Athens? ‘As to him, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.” Which is to say, in so many words- of which Sidney has many- Plato was against bad poetry, not poetry itself, which anyone who has read the master’s dialogues can plainly see. ‘Those who think otherwise are braying like asses in a lion’s skin.’
At any rate, Sydney counted Divinity- of which in that pious age of religious controversy he must have meant the Protestant pastor’s Sunday Sermon - above philosophy, science and poetry as it ‘leads and draw us to as a high perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.’
I might as well skip over Dryden’s contribution to the genre except to reproduce the editor of “The Critical Tradition’s” comment that, like Jonathan Swift’s ‘Battle of the Books’, Dryden’s ‘Essay on Dramatic Poesy’ might be thought as one volley in the international controversy over the relative value of the ancient and modern writers. Conservative thinkers like Swift felt that the ancients -Homer, Virgil, Juvenal- could never be surpassed while others felt that by building on the foundations of the past the present may see further than the giants themselves. “Dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants may see further than the giant’s themselves” said Dryden’s friend Isaac Newton. They might also miss what is just at their feet.
In “ On the Sublime " by Longinus (First Century C.E.) is more interesting, in my view. Sublimity is a special contribution of the arts which is said to transcend all generic boundaries; it can be found in them all or rather, its presence is definitive of art itself. He characterizes it as ekstasis, meaning a kind of ‘transport’. He is better at defining what it is not: ‘the unpardonably tasteless tumidity of pigmy hautboys characterized by turbid expression, confused imagery, puerility, pedantic trifling and the immoderate wearisomeness of the purely personal. In other words, in light of the present, all the productions of the pundits of the popular press and most of the works that appear on the lists of best sellers. A bit snobbish of me to say so but then, as Leo Lowenthal remarked ,“I don't consider the accusation of elitism an insult, but rather praise.”
The authors of the sublime make the vastness of the world - the distance between heaven and earth-the measure of their leaps. It is often comprised of a single thought, not of one passion alone but a concourse of passions, an expression that captures the concert of the discordant elements in life. Longinus makes an example of the silence of Ajax in the Underworld-’ the echo of a great soul more sublime than any words.’ Again, in Homer’s poem the battle of the Greeks is suddenly veiled by mist and baffling night. Then Ajax, at his wits end cries:
Zeus, Father, yet save thou Achaia’s sons from beneath the gloom
And make clear day, and vouchsafe unto us with our eyes to see!
So it be but in light, destroy us!
This is the true attitude of Ajax, Longinus writes. He does not pray for life, for such a petition would have ill-beseemed a hero. But since in the hopeless darkness he can turn his valor to no noble end, he chafes at his slackness in the fray and craves the boon of immediate light, resolved to find a death worthy of his bravery, even though Zeus should fight in the ranks against him.
To achieve the sublime in literature, says Longinus, we must first presuppose a tribunal and theater of the likes of Homer or Demosthenes for our own utterances and imagine that we are undergoing a scrutiny of our writings before these great heroes, acting as judges and witnesses. But an even greater incentive will be supplied if you add the question: “In what spirit will each succeeding age listen to me who have written thus? If one shrinks from the very thought of uttering aught that may transcend the terms of his own life and time, the conception of his mind must necessarily be incomplete, blind, and as it were untimely born, once they are by no means brought to the perfection needed to ensure a futurity of fame.”
Which reminds me of Walter Benjamin: the measure of the present is not the past but the future.