Poetics In Ancient Greece And Rome Poem by Seshendra Sharma

Poetics In Ancient Greece And Rome

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It is surprising that the western literature was for centuries ignorant about the poetics of Aristotle, as L.J.Potts observes in his introduction to the translation of poetics. It is therefore not surprising that the West was not interested for long stretches of time after the days of Greece and Rome, on this discipline of literature called POETICS-

I was keen for years in gathering knowledge about the endeavours of different peoples of antiquity who developed old civilisations, in regard to the development of a science on POETRY and literature. Though I came across the fragmentary efforts of the Chinese people on the question of the causes of poetry, even before the Tang period, (for example Lu Chi's ‘Wen Fu' in the 3rd century A.D.) . There was no systematic evolution of a scientific work on the subject. May be my information is inadequate. However when I scanned across the Middle East on the corresponding periods and earlier, there was no evidence of any similar effort either in the Babylonian or Sumerian civilisations or the Egyptian. Perhaps much of the evidence of those periods has been lost irrevocably, leaving a vacuum up to the early period of Arab literature. The vacuum is amazingly, not confined to literature only but extends over the whole range of human thought, which means that the great civilisations of the middle east right up to the days of the fall of the Persian Empire and the Greek civilisation of the areas, have either sustained a serious loss of knowledge or did not produced such knowledge at all. However, it is quite reasonable to guess that in these areas in the periods corresponding to those of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and Aristorchus and so on which is between the 5th and 2nd centuries
B.C., there should have flourished great knowledge in different fields and this body of knowledge could not have been any the less than what was witnessed in Greece and Rome in those periods. All historical accounts of those areas and around remaining today, indicate at this. And when I take into the range of my vision the entire land between Greece and china, my mind tells me that during those periods of antiquity when great civilisations flourished simultaneously, there must have been large intercourse of peoples and thoughts across their frontiers and human knowledge might have been evolved by mutual exchange of thoughts and influences. In the event of this probability, it may nt be correct to say that a certain branch of knowledge was developed in this country and was not in the other, and so on. I am inclined to presume that knowledge in those periods would have acquired the form of a long-chain of thought-influences across all these countries, as is witnessed also in our own times. If some of these countries show gaps today it is right that we should only infer that they lost that knowledge due to serious historical cataclysms but not that they did not develop those faculties at all.

My investigations in these matters did not for a long time yield any fruitful result; and it was either due to the paucity of material that I could secure or at times due to a more basic cause underlying the history of thought of the countries concerned. For example, the western literature for centuries I think has been ignorant of the ‘Poetics' of Aristotle and was scarcely informed of any other works on the subject. Later on in the most recent centuries it has begun to centre around the single name of Aristotle for all the basic functions of literature, though in fact Aristotle was utterly inadequate to the developing literature of the modern centuries and some of the principles that came to be applied were merely imaginary and not even really Aristotelian, as T.S.Dorsch points out in the case of the three unities of Time, Place, and Action.

Reading John Keats by Douglas Bush I was startled to find mention of Longinus and his doctrines of Peri Hypsous. This was another name in the field of Poetics besides Aristotle, and what is more revealing is a remark that John Keats might have or might have or might not have known Longinus but the poetic axioms which Keats propounds read like a gloss upon some doctrines of Peri Hypsous'. My efforts at securing more information yielded satisfactory results in time and now I have a picture before me which reveals that Greece and Rome in their hey-day did considerable work on Poetics and Longinus surprisingly approximates to any of the leading literary critics of Modern Times.

As a matter of fact I consider Aristotle out-dated and out-moded compared to Longinus. Aristotle perhaps deals with literature in its early antiquarian stage and he has nothing to offer on the highly sensitive intricacies of the advanced minds of literature. There is a gulf of difference in the very methods of literary criticism of these two. Aristotle is content largely with laying down bare principles, seldom entering into illustrations, whereas Longinus besides laying down principles or expostulating theories, illustrated from great masters like Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Sappho etc and presents satisfactory discussion explaining his principles and theirs in the light of such passages. The method of Longinus is not very different from the method in vogues in the modern literary criticism. Very often I wonder if there is any difference between T.S.Eliot discussing on Dante or any other classical poet and Longinus discussing on the Epic and classical poets of his time. From this point of view Aristotle presents an antiquated picture of himself.Perhaps corresponding to Bharatha of India. In both their cases, the literature they had in their view was that of the period when poetry and drama did not evolve into separate literary genres. So the bulk of the principles they enunciated were chiefly intended for drama and were partially applicable to poetry which was also in those days basically narrative in form and widely different from the modern trends. And that was perhaps the reason why their poetics were applicable to both poetry and drama. In the later centuries when poetry separated itself from the narrative content and evolved into a separated genre, Aristotle became insufficient and Longinus had answers to all the major questions of the new poetry.

Longinus is very near the most sophisticated thought available in the Indian poetics and in some respects even excelling. In his Peri Hypsous he offers clues to certain questions, which were not even raised in the Indian poetics. The principle cause of poetry according to Indian poetics is Pratibha (genius)which is a gift received from birth. The crucial question arising out this theory is whether a person who is devoid of genius, is disentitled from writing poetry and is poetry to be written b men of genius only. Strictly speaking there is no answer to this question in Indian poetics, which goes to the very roots of the justification for a science like poetics. Longinus on the other hand suggests solution in the 8th chapter of his treatise. He enumerates five sources of poetry and like India he also assigns the 1st place to genius among the causes of poetry. I would quote here from Longinus to enable better appreciation of that master, ‘ the first and the most important is the ability to form grand conceptions… second comes the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion. These two elements of the sublime are very largely innate, while the remainder are the product of art-that is, the proper formation of the two types of figures, figures of thought and figures of speech, together wit the creation of a noble diction, which in its turn may be resolved into the choice of words, the use of imagery and the elaboration of the style…'.

When Longinus attributed poetry to the ability to form grand conceptions he realises that he has to answer the question as to how one could acquire that ability. The answer in his own words is:

‘ it is absolutely necessary to indicate the source of this power and to show that the truly eloquent man must have a mind that is not mean or ignoble. For it is not possible that those who through out their lives have feeble and servile thoughts and aims should strike out anything that is remarkable, anything that is worthy of an immortality of fame; No, greatness of speech is the province of those whose thoughts are deep, and stately expressions come naturally to the most high-minded of men.'

This obviously means that Longinus connects poetry directly to the life of the poet and lays down the principle that nothing short of sublime living yields sublime poetry. This has been my strong conviction also, which I have been voicing vey often and is also strewn over many pages of this notebook. My reasoned analysis convinced me of the correctness of my views. I will not enter into details here as I have already spelt out my mind at length in the other pages, and my preface to Seshajyotsna and birds, two collections of my poems.

I also wonder at times whether the established Indian theory that one should become a sage to become a poet is not the same as the theory of Longinus. Only because the word sage, Rishi, is too high-foluting in this context one is led to think that Indian poetics offers no clue to the enigma of genius being the only source of poetry. If the Indian theory could be equated with the theory of Longinus, then the clues of Longinus are superfluous to Indian poetics. It may be of some interest to note here that I have interpreted the word Rishi from the point of view of practical solution and that might hold good in the present context. I may add that Longinus calls the ability to form grand conceptions as ‘the nobility of soul'. His another sentence ‘literature is the crowing achievement of long experience', is also worth contemplating in this context.

Another major principle of significance projected by Longinus is that it is not enough to have the natural gift of genius to make poetry, but there should be cultivation of the art to yield poetry worthy of consideration. Here are his words:

‘ Although nature is in the main subject only to her own laws where sublime feeling are concerned, she is not given to acting at random and wholly without system. Nature is the first cause and the fundamental creative principle in all activities, but the function of a system is to prescribe the degree and the right moment for each, and to lay down the clearest rules for use and practice. Furthermore, sublime impulses are exposed to great dangers when they are left to themselves without the ballast and stability of knowledge; they need the curb as often as the spur.'

The Indian theory agrees with this point of view entirely and lays distinct emphasis on scholastic training (vyutpatthi)and steadfast practice (Abhyaasa)to fortify and regulate the gift of genius. There is more direct and clear statement of Longinus, which I am tempted to reproduce here:
‘Since freedom from faults is usually the result of art and distinction of style however unevenly sustained is due to genius, it is right that art should everywhere be employed as a supplement to nature, for, incorporation the two may bring about perfection.'

There is no much-detailed treatment of the subject that you are entirely charmed at the completeness of the form and matter of the work of Longinus. There is no question relating to poetry which subtlety could conceive of and not answered in Longinus. The mechanism of poetry remaining the same through all times though its motives and behaviour changed from age to age. The theories of Longinus are as freshly applicable and useful today as they were in his own times.

The western literature should have relied more on Longinus for classical background than on Aristotle who is primitive compared to Longinus. But still very recently after the days of Greece and Rome the west does not seem to have woken up to this discipline of literature, with the result that necessary attention was not perhaps given to these works and their authors.When the west does not rehabilitate these lost minds and projects a partial picture as they did in confining themselves to Aristotle, we in this part of the world naturally get a distorted picture of their literary antiquity and begin to think that Aristotle is the only thinker who did some work on this subject in the west. Translation of Longinus and others have appeared very recently and have become available to us. It was very difficult for instance, to get at J.W.H. Atkins's literary criticism in antiquity. In England in the 16th century Philip Sydney also was referring to Aristotle alone all the time in his ‘ A defence of poetry'.This is only to say works like that of Sydney project an incomplete picture to a student in the East, because no reference is made to the other master-minds though the context calls for such a reference.

In countries like India we suffer from great handicaps in the matter of acquisition of knowledge either developed in our own country or in other countries. For a man in quest of knowledge, our country hardly offers any congenial circumstances. In the first place the libraries here are so ill conceived and so badly organised that the book you want is either not known at all to the authorities or there is no competent guide to supply relevant information. They are absolutely useless to any serious pursuit of knowledge. Then we have the universities which virtually play no role whatever in the field of learning; they can offer nothing to the countries number of minds which are thirsting for knowledge.They are only massive buildings empty of the spirit of learning but saturated with spirit of false superiority and intrigue, forging a part of the vicious political structure obtaining in the country.

In this context of things an individual involved in pursuit of knowledge is a miserable creature slogging in loneliness without any help and making no appreciable headway. His knowledge is bound to be imperfect, incomplete and more often appallingly meagre. He does not know what is happening in other parts of his own country, how we expect of him to know of Longinus, or Horace?

For a man like me entirely guided by the ravishing hunger of the soul, and also the inherited classical forces that keep stirring the conscience, my acquisitions are bound to be by fits and starts and to some extent accidental. It was with a certain feeling surprise that I stumbled on information about the work done on poetics in the days of Greece and Rome, by thinkers like Horace, Longinus, Aristorchus and others besides Aristotle.

Horace of the 1st century B.C. who was a poet, contemporary of Julius Caesar and Augustus and a close friend of Virgil has also produced a treatise on poetry called Ars Poetica, which was well known in his times. The work of Horace though, unlike Longinus, is lacking in scientific approach, shows lot of common sense and the calibre of his understanding of the subtleties of craft of poetry, is undoubtedly of a high order. His discussions on words in the literary language are remarkably sensitive. He says:
" You will make an excellent impression if you use care and subtlety in placing your words and, by the skilful choice of setting, give fresh meaning to a familiar word…"
" As the woods change their foliage with the decline of each year and earliest leaves fall, so words die out with old age; and the newly born ones thrive and prosper just like human beings in the vigour of youth. We are all destined to die, we and all our works."
"How much less likely are the glory and grace of language to have an enduring life! Many terms that have now dropped out of use will be revived if usage so requires, and others which are now in disrepute will die out; for it is usage which regulates the laws and conventions of speech."

Horace being essentially a poet, his treatment of the subject is more poetic and less scientific.

Horace is of the opinion that a poet needs training in his art; he says;
" If I have not the ability and skill to adhere to these well defined functions and styles of poetic forms, why should I be hailed as a poet? Why out of false shame should I prefer to remain ignorant rather than to learn my craft? "

A more interesting thing to note is that he advises the poet to subject his work voluntarily to the critical analysis of a competent person.

He would say, "you must put this right and this too please." If after two or three ineffectual attempts you said you could not do any better he would tell you to get rid of the passage, the lines were badly turned and would have to be hammered out again. If you choose to defend a weakness, rather than correct it, he would not say another word, nor waste any effort in trying to prevent you from regarding yourself and your work as unique and unrivalled. An honest, sensible man will condemn any lines that are lifeless, will find fault with them if they are rough, and run his pen through any that are intelligent …. He will not say ‘ why should I quarrel with a friend over trifles? Those trifles will bring his friend into serious trouble when once his efforts have been taken amiss and he has become an object of ridicule.'

There were many other eminent personalities who made invaluable contributions to the development of poetics though they are mere names to us. On the other hand little is known of Longinus, even of his name or his period, even though the text of his Treatise is available to us despite loss of some portions. It is supposed to have been written in the 1st century A.D, and ascribed to an imaginary name Longinus, which is much worse than the position of Bhasa the playwright of Indian Literature whose name at least is undisputed. Aristorchus is another great critic of antiquity who lived in Alexandria in the 2nd century B.C. Ammonius, his disciple was described as the founder of scientific scholarship.

All these and others have left an aura of brilliance in the realm of literary critisicm in those very early days of our history.

Poetics In Ancient Greece And Rome
Seshendra Sharma wrote Several extensive essays on poetics. This is one among them
Rajnish Manga 07 March 2020

Many readers like me may not be much familiar with Poetics. Your painstaking work and research on the subject is highly commendable. It traces the history of the material available down the ages. Thanks, Dear Friend.

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Seshendra Sharma

Seshendra Sharma

Nagaraajupaadu/Nellore district/AP/India
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