Poetics Before Modernity - Past Seminars


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Kathy Eden

Columbia University

‘The Early Modern Rhetoric of Plato’s Poetics’

Although Plato was routinely berated in the Renaissance for exiling the poets from his ideal city, his detractors nevertheless considered him, in the words of Philip Sidney, ‘of all philosophers . . . the most poetical’. Often taking the form of stories (mythoi) and images (eikones), his poetics was so highly esteemed in the early modern period that it came to define not only the most effective strategies of argumentation but the style of prose. This talk will first explore some of the signature features of a Socratic poetics as practiced and preached in Plato’s dialogues and then trace its impact on the literary theory and practice of the sixteenth century.

Kathy Eden is Chavkin Family Professor of English Literature and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She has published widely on Renaissance humanism, history of rhetoric, hermeneutics, ancient literary theory, and history of classical scholarship, including Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (Princeton UP, 1986), Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception (Yale UP, 1997), and Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the ‘Adages’ of Erasmus (Yale UP, 2001).


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Nicolette Zeeman

University of Cambridge

"Personification and Alienation: The Case of Deguileville"

I shall be looking at the rhetorical and poetic figure of personification (known variously as metonymy, prosopopoeia or conformatio) with a view to asking if the way that writers form their personifications can tell us anything about how they understand the subject. One starting point is Angus Fletcher's observation that the personification could be seen not just in the Stoic manner as daimonic but as a kind of maniac or obsessive. Personification yokes together a number of elements that are in tension with each other: if on the one hand it invokes the idea of the 'person', along with its implications about the possibility of inner life and a capacity to speak, act or change, personification also involves a delimiting characteristic, category or bias that constrains the person, something that is true whether the personification represents a particular term, concept or 'thing', or whether it represents a particular historical, mythical or fictional character. My hunch is that because the 'person' in personification is in some way partial, driven or over-determined, and as a result potentially at odds with itself or its surroundings, it may also be for medieval writers a way of thinking about how the subject might also have these features. The tensions and contradictions that are fundamental to the figure of personification, in other words, mean that writers can use it to think about about the difficulties of being a subject, all the while evading the connotations of coherent personhood that are, potentially at least, to be found in more mimetic narrative modes. My test case will be the personifications of Guillaume de Deguileville's fourteenth-century French Pelerinage de vie humaine, with their dislocated voices, grotesque bodies and insecure relation to the embodied world: I shall be arguing that they model an alienated subjectivity that can also be seen across the text as a whole – and one that may not only be premodern.

Nicolette Zeeman is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English in the Faculty of English at King’s College and the University of Cambridge. Author of Piers Plowman and the Medieval Discourse of Desire (Cambridge University Press, 2006), she contributed to and co-edited with Jean Michel Massing King's College Chapel 1515-2015: Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge (Harvey Miller, 2014), and with Dallas Denery II and Kantik Ghosh Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages (Brepols, 2014). She has also published other essays on Piers Plowman, Chaucer, medieval literary theory, song, psychology and allegory. Her next monograph will be Arts of Disruption. Conflict and Contradiction in Medieval Allegory and Piers Plowman, and she is developing a project on ideas about idolatry in later medieval culture, provisionally entitled Caught in the Body.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Peter T. Struck

University of Pennsylvania


A half century ago, scholars of classics were likely to begin from the premise that ancient criticism was a mostly formalist field, inflected especially by the strong influence of rhetorical schools. This history has been supplemented since then, and we now have a richer appreciation of the variety of approaches to poetry that the ancients took. This presentation will explore the interpretive impulse, in contrast to the formalist one. It will aim to highlight some of the qualities of an approach to poetry, mostly represented in allegorical works, that sees it as a distinctive language for conveying wisdom. As was the case in the earlier scholarship on formalist modes, whose parameters and presuppositions became clarified in studying links with rhetoric, so too can we clarify interpretive modes by examining the intellectual tools they share with other fields of inquiry in the classical world. I will aim to advance the case for the usefulness of ancient thinking on divination in understanding the habits of mind that led allegorists to pursue the modes of poetic inquiry they pursued.

Peter T. Struck is the Evan C. Thompson Professor and chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published widely on ancient philosophy, religion, magic and divination, and literary criticism, including Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (Princeton, 2004), Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination (with Sarah Iles Johnston; Brill, 2006), The Cambridge Companion to Allegory (with Rita Copeland; Cambridge, 2010), and most recently, Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Antiquity (Princeton, 2016). He is general editor, with Sophia Rosenfeld, of the six-volume Cultural History of Ideas, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.


Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Roland Greene

Stanford University

"Metametrica: Juan Caramuel's Baroque Poetics"

In 1663, in the nascent modern world of John Milton and Blaise Pascal, the Spanish Cistercian monk Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz (1606-82) published the Metametrica, a voluminous work of poetics. Incompletely republished in modern editions and scarcely known since its time, the Metametrica is concerned with the nature of the poetic in the most sweeping as well as the most granular terms, and above all with how poems are made. What does this little-known book reveal about the state of poetics in Caramuel's time? I will propose that Caramuel's book can be read as the exemplary Baroque treatise on poetry, looking backward and forward at once; and that his elementalism, applied to the question of how to construct a poem, makes him a forerunner of modern theorists of artifice such as Roman Jakobson and Veronica Forrest-Thomson. As a project of poetics, the Metametrica should be admitted to the rather narrow canon of early modern European treatises as a witness to the ambivalences of its era.

Roland Greene is Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and Professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has published widely on the early modern literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world. His recent work includes Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago, 2013) and, as editor in chief, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012).


Lent 2017

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Gavin Alexander

University of Cambridge


This paper is about lyric poetry's place in classical and early modern poetics. That place looks less sure than does that of tragedy or epic—which may be Aristotle's fault, or due to the nature of lyric; it clearly has something to do with the fact that lyric is hard to define and delimit. I question two common myths about lyric's place in the system of poetic genres: that there has always been a straightforward and accepted tripartition of poetry into epic, dramatic, and lyric; and, conversely, that this tripartition was only a Romantic discovery. I also resist the direction of the "new lyric studies", which attempts to challenge the usefulness of the category "lyric" to the understanding of various kinds of short poetry. I trace lyric's presence in less familiar theoretical settings (grammar, rhetoric) in order to ask if we might consider such treatments as a part of the poetics of lyric. And I aim to show how the interplay between the paradigms and taxonomies of rhetoric and poetics contribute to lyric's vexed (and rich) status in the history of literary theory. Do Sappho, Pindar, Horace, Petrarch, and Shakespeare actually have something in common that might be captured by the term "lyric"; or should ancient lyric can only be grouped with modern lyric of a strictly neoclassical bent? In considering why it has been difficult to agree about both what a lyric poem is and what features of form, content, mode, or method might characterise lyric, I will suggest how theoretical muddle might be contained by a larger clarity.

Gavin Alexander is Reader in Renaissance Literature in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ's College. His publications include Writing after Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney, 1586-1640 (Oxford, 2006), editions of Sidney's "Defence of Poesy" and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (London, 2004) and William Scott's Model of Poesy (Cambridge, 2013), and the collection Renaissance Figures of Speech (Cambridge, 2007; with Sylvia Adamson and Katrin Ettenhuber).


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Jon Whitman

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


It is sometimes said that the narrative of Scripture is the greatest story ever told. The story that I would like to discuss in my presentation is what might be called the second-greatest story ever told. It is the story of the provocative effort to make the greatest story ever told an even greater story—not just a story that speaks to diverse peoples, but a story spoken by diverse peoples, in diverse tongues, at diverse times—a universal story. It is the intriguing record of how controversial movements in poetics come to align Scripture with a broad realm of imaginative discourse once regarded as largely distinct from Scripture, so that sacred Scripture itself comes recurrently to be considered a form of imaginative literature at large.

Scholarly approaches to this critical change have commonly concentrated on the modern era. Despite important research exploring certain earlier aspects of the transformation, attitudes toward the subject as a whole regularly tend to focus on extensive interpretive and cultural developments after the Reformation that lead by the nineteenth century to a "crisis of faith"—a cumulative process in which the divine authority of canonical texts is increasingly questioned, while, conversely, other texts are invested with a virtually religious aura. Though this general view has its point, it seems to me to be historically inadequate and sometimes misleading. Already before the Reformation, for example, there are far-reaching efforts in the Christian world to align biblical writing with other writing, including the poetic writing of non-Christian peoples. These efforts arise in part from an ecumenical impulse in Christian faith itself that aims to ease distinctions between diverse texts and cultures. In this respect, the inclination to coordinate Scripture with literature arises not from the abdication, but from the amplitude, of Christian belief. In the end, it appears that this very amplitude advances the crisis of faith that it is designed to avert, even while it raises fascinating questions about the foundational concept of "Scripture."

In my presentation I plan to explore some of the crucial turning points in this multifaceted process from the Middle Ages to the early modern era. My analysis will focus on three formative periods and places: 1) twelfth-century France, 2) fourteenth-century Italy, and 3) sixteenth-century England. Whereas early Christian interpretive theory assigns the Christian Bible a unique historical status, a special figural method, and a singular doctrinal position, a number of striking critical texts in these times and settings show how that assessment is gradually transformed. As prior distinctions—historical, methodological, and conceptual—between Christian Scripture and other kinds of writing are increasingly blurred, poetry at large tends to modulate into a form of Scripture, while Scripture tends to modulate into a form of poetry.

It should be stressed that not everyone—either in the past or in the present, either inside or outside the Christian world—has endorsed the development of the "second-greatest story ever told." At the close of my presentation I would like to open the question of how the complex issues raised in efforts to align Scripture with literature imply still broader issues about the extent to which beliefs and idioms can be translated from one people or milieu to another. From this perspective, an inquiry into the poetics of Christian Scripture as imaginative literature is more than a study of religious and literary change. It is an exploration of some of the attractions and risks in the very drive for human consensus and community.

Jon Whitman is Professor in the Department of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research explores the interplay between conceptual and literary changes from antiquity to the modern period, and his publications include Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (Oxford/Harvard, 1987) and the edited collections Interpretation and Allegory: Antiquity to the Modern Period (Leiden, 2000) and Romance and History: Imagining Time from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period (Cambridge, 2015). He is presently conducting a multiyear research project entitled "The Literal Sense: Scriptural Interpretation, Poetics, and Historical Change".


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Stephen Halliwell

University of St Andrews


The family of ideas usually grouped together under the heading of 'inspiration' forms a remarkably long-lasting component of Western poetics. But such ideas constitute a far from harmonious family; their tangled relationships are too often simplified by historians of poetics. This paper will offer some selective and revisionist thoughts on versions of poetic inspiration found in three different ancient Greek contexts: the treatment of the Muses in the earliest surviving Greek poetry (Homer and Hesiod); the notorious series of challenges to poetic authority voiced in several Platonic dialogues; and the treatise On the Sublime by (pseudo-)Longinus. Three main theses will be advanced: first, that an excessively literalist and primitivist tradition of interpretation has obscured the important sense in which the Muses were never a source external to poetry but a symbolic self-image of poetry's own powers; second, that the scattered remarks on poetic inspiration in Plato accompany a perception of poetry’s resistance to a philosophical demand (which Nietzsche calls ‘aesthetic Socratism’) for cognitive transparency; third, that On the Sublime makes inspiration internal to the self-perpetuating traditions of literature, but thereby imposes on writers a responsibility which Longinus himself recognises as a potential burden of anxiety. If an adequate history of the concept of inspiration were ever (improbably) to be written, it would need to recognise far more complexity in the ancient roots of this concept than current orthodoxies allow for.

Stephen Halliwell is Professor of Greek and Wardlaw Professor at the University of St Andrews. He has published widely on ancient poetics and aesthetics, especially in relation to the intersection between literary and philosophical traditions of thought. In addition to his monograph Aristotle’s Poetics (1986/1998), he has produced two separate translations of Aristotle’s treatise (one for the Loeb Library, 1995). His other books include Plato Republic Book 10 (1988), The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (2002), Greek Laughter: a Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (2008), and Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek Poetics from Homer to Longinus (2011). He is currently working on a commentary on Longinus, On the Sublime, for the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla series, 'Scrittori greci e latini'.


Michaelmas 2016

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Colin Burrow

University of Oxford


At least since G. Gregory Smith’s anthology of Elizabethan Critical Essays of 1904 there has been a tendency to classify Elizabethan works as ‘literary criticism’ if, and sometimes only if, they resemble works of poetics, which offer abstract discussions of the principles underlying the production of literary texts. This paper will explore the consequences of widening the sphere of what we think of as Elizabethan literary criticism to include a range of other kinds of text: polemic, epideictic rhetoric—laus and (especially) vituperatio—as well as local and often personalised attacks by one writer on another for particular acts of indecorum. The paper will concentrate on the so-called ‘war of the theatres’ between Jonson, Marston, and Dekker. I will discuss some of the intellectual backgrounds to the war, as well as its practical consequences for the development of abstract theorising about the nature and practice of literature in the early seventeenth century and beyond.

Colin Burrow is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College. He has published extensively on the relations between Renaissance literature and its classical forebears, and also has active research interests in early Tudor literature, Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and Shakespeare. His publications include Epic Romance: Homer to Milton (Oxford, 1993), Edmund Spenser (Plymouth, 1996), Manuscript Miscellanies c. 1450-1700 (London, 2011; with Richard Beadle), and Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (Oxford, 2013), as well as editions of Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford, 2002) and Troilus and Cressida (London, 2006), Metaphysical Poetry (London, 2006), and Ben Jonson's Poems (Cambridge, 2012). His current projects are a history of Elizabethan literature for the Oxford English Literary History, and a book on the theory and practice of literary imitation, from Plato to the present day.


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Rita Copeland

University of Pennsylvania


How did medieval teaching identify the “literary” or “literature” as a particular quality to be achieved and imitated? What was the role of style in defining the realm of the “literary”? I will begin by considering a relatively modest “anthology” from the thirteenth century, MS Glasgow, Hunterian, MS V.8.15. This teaching collection expresses its interests in terms rather different from what we associate with better known and prestigious poetic anthologies of the same period. The anthology reveals its motives in metaliterary terms: it signals a moment at which medieval rhetoric recognizes itself as the instrument for theorizing literary style as the engine of emotion. This anthology exemplifies the kind of teaching that was to enable a writer like Petrarch to invest style with the power to move emotions and even to compel ethical judgments. I conclude with a rhetorical reading of Petrarch’s Seniles 17.3 to explore how the “lesson” of style has been incorporated and naturalized in literary production.

Rita Copeland is Rosenberg Chair in the Humanities and Professor of Classical Studies, English, and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her interests range across ancient and medieval literatures, history and theory of rhetoric, literary theory and exegetical traditions, and medieval learning. She has pursued these themes in various publications, especially Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages; Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages; Pedagogy, Intellectuals and Dissent in the Middle Ages; Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475 (with Ineke Sluiter); and The Cambridge Companion to Allegory (with Peter T. Struck). Most recently she has edited the Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, 800-1558. She is also a founder of the journal New Medieval Literatures. Her newest project is on rhetoric and the emotions in the long Middle Ages.


Tuesday 25th October 2016

Glenn W. Most

Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa


For many centuries, especially from Late Antiquity until the seventeenth century, European scholars often chose to interpret the foundational texts of their culture—for example, the Bible and the works of Homer and Virgil—by attributing to them more or less systematically coherent meanings that were strikingly at variance with those that uninformed readers would likely have thought they were communicating; and the same scholars often buttressed their interpretations by claiming that some of the words used in those texts had in fact a different, original meaning from the ones that ordinary speakers attached to them in everyday conversation. In so doing, these scholars were applying the procedures of allegoresis to those texts and of etymology to these words. These two scholarly practices also flourished independently of one another in this period; but their complex and intense interaction is one of the features particularly characteristic of the Western Classical tradition. This paper examines their nature, functions, and interrelations during Classical antiquity.

Glenn W. Most is Professor of Greek Philology at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Visiting Professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and External Scientific Member of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He studied Classics and Comparative Literature in Europe and the United States, and has taught at the Universities of Yale, Princeton, Michigan, Siena, Innsbruck, and Heidelberg. He has published books on Classics, on the history and methodology of Classical studies, on comparative literature, cultural studies, and the history of religion, on literary theory and on the history of art, and has published numerous articles, reviews, and translations in these fields and also on modern philosophy and literature. Among his most recent publications are the edited collection Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach (with Anthony Grafton; Cambridge UP, 2016), and a nine-volume edition of Early Greek Philosophy in the Loeb Classical Library (with André Laks; Harvard UP, 2016).