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  • The Folly of Poetry
  • Piero Boitani (bio)

What is more foolish, the poet or poetry? Why should a poet be mad and a scientist rational and wise? There was a time, in ancient Greece, when the scientist and the poet were one and the same person: the scientist, e.g. Empedocles, naturally expressed himself in verse, and even accounting for Aristotle’s caution that if you put Herodotus into verse that still is not poetry, no one in early Greece would have thought of a natural philosopher as a madman (Empedocles, of course, jumped into the flaming mouth of Aetna, and thus showed some degree of foolishness). Democritus, who first theorized about atoms and doesn’t seem to have been particularly mad, maintained that a work of poetry is truly beautiful if composed with passion (enthusiasmos) and ‘sacred spirit’ (hieron pneuma). Thus Clement of Alexandria, who still remembered this theory some seven centuries later.1 Much earlier, Cicero remembered it, too. He says that poetry, the theatre, and stage-plays are ‘unreal’ (fictum), yet he has often witnessed that an actor reciting a play by Pacuvius would always show terrible grief. ‘Now’, he asks, ‘if that player, though acting it daily, could never set that scene without emotion [sine dolore], do you really think that Pacuvius, when he wrote it, was in a calm and careless frame of mind [leni animo ac remisso]?’ Obviously not, and indeed Cicero goes on to mention Democritus and Plato: ‘Saepe enim audivi poetam bonum neminem – id quod a Democrito et Platone in scriptis relictum esse dicunt – sine inflammatione animorum exsistere posse, et sine quodam afflatu quasi furoris’: ‘For I have often heard that – as they say Democritus and Plato have left on record – no man can be a good poet who is not on fire with passion, and inspired by something very like frenzy.’ Cicero writes this in De oratore and repeats it in De divinatione, this time specifically quoting Plato’s Phaedrus.2

If even a Roman senator, a politician and statesman, knew that poets could only be good if inspired by furor, then the madness of poetry must have been common knowledge. But Cicero was an orator and knew something of the fire needed to sway his fellow senators to make a [End Page 125] decision. The only poet who seems to have been aware of Democritus’ theory is Horace, who in the Ars poetica rails against Roman authors who don’t work on their poems with ‘the toil and tedium of the file’, i.e., with ‘art’. They believe, he says, in Democritus: ‘Ingenium misera quia fortunatius arte/credit et excludit sanos Helicone poetas/Democritus.’ ‘Because Democritus believes that native talent is a greater boon than wretched art, and shuts out from Helicon poets in their sober senses, a goodly number take no pains to pare their nails or to shave their beards; they haunt lonely places and shun the baths – for surely one will win the esteem and name of poet if he never entrusts to the barber Licinus a head that three Anticyras cannot cure.’3 A wonderful portrait of Romantic, decadent, and hippie poets, isn’t it? For Horace, ‘scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons’ – ‘the source and fount of good writing is wisdom’. No room here for folly, frenzy or furor. Horace’s poetics is the ancestor of all neo-classical theories of poetry.

Earlier poets never explicitly talk of either wisdom or folly. Homer and Hesiod, of course, invoke the Muses, which seems to imply they share a common belief in divine inspiration. Pindar comes closer to the idea put forward by Democritus. Let us take as an example the first Pythian, composed for the Delphic victory of Hieron of Syracuse in the four-horse chariot race in 470 B.C. The ode opens with the famous celebration of the golden lyre, the music which possesses the singer and is possessed by Apollo and the Muses. The entire composition is bathed in a blinding light emanating from this point, and right from the first strophe it dazzles like lightning, quenching even ‘the warring thunderbolt of everflowing fire’, supreme prerogative of the greatest God. Opening...


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pp. 125-140
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Archived 2009
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