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  • Shakespeare’s “Alien Pen”: Self-Substantial Poetics in the Young Man Sonnets
  • Michael C. Clody

Our poesy is as a [gum], which [oozes]From whence ‘tis noursh'd. The fire i’ th' flintShows not till it be strook; our gentle flameProvokes itself and like the current fliesEach bound it chases.1

The mythos of Shakespeare as a “natural poet” can be traced as far back as Ben Jonson, whose elegy, “To the Memory of My Beloved,” not only apotheosizes his subject as the very “Soul of the age” (and, then, “for all time”) but also implicitly maintains that he is “of nature’s family” (lines 17, 43, 54).2 As the poem continues its description of Shakespeare’s poetics, however, the reader may be able to sense a particular tension. Jonson, well known for his various classical associations and translations, as well as for his deliberate, if not downright plodding, playwriting, seems to attempt “to reconcile his own poetic theory and practice to those of Shakespeare.”3 Thus, even though the elegy accredits Shakespeare with only “small Latin, and less Greek,” it offers a flurry of purportedly insufficient classical comparisons as its tribute, calling forth, amongst others, “Aeschylus, / Euripides, and Sophocles” in its somewhat paradoxical description of Shakespeare’s “nature” (lines 31, 33–34). Even when we read it today, the poem points to a certain incongruence between the learned poet and the natural fluidity of his counterpart, and Jonson’s turn to praise the craft of his contemporary—for “thy art, / My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part”—takes on the air of inevitability (lines 55–56). Expanding its account of the labor of poetic composition, Jonson’s elegy contends that “he, / Who casts to write a living line, must sweat, / (Such as thine are) and strike the second heat / Upon the muses’ anvil” (lines 58–61). The poem, then, would demand that the poet-artisan hammer out his lines, and, thus, its commendation of Shakespeare’s [End Page 471] sweaty brow reads as an attempt to assimilate “fancy’s child” to a labor-intensive and knowledge-oriented model of poetic composition.4

Much more than simple praise, Jonson’s elegy depicts a literary-critical posture supported by a distinguished philosophical lineage. It gives us the familiar image of the poet as knowledgeable craftsperson whose steady hand forms poetry’s measured lines according to a driving “fore-conceit,” striking them, all the while, against the foundation of tradition. This is a view of craft that can be traced back to various adaptations of Aristotle, whose “art [technè] is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning”; in this respect, poesy is an art that is formed by the hands of the rational animal rather than voiced through the lips of a vatic medium.5 Craft requires reason, and reason relies on the forms of thought which, as Raphael’s Aristotle in the School of Athens allegorizes for us all, do not derive from some “Platonic heaven” but from sensory data. With external “reality” now posited as source, another faculty of mind is now necessary to bridge the forms of thought and the material of the senses, and this task falls to the rather hazily defined phantasia, or what Augustine translated as “imaginatio,” of Aristotle’s de Anima. Though susceptible to the influence of the will and appetite, which will arouse the suspicion of those like Francis Bacon, the imagination grounds man, now a primarily reflective subject, in a surrounding world (as the Peripatetic axiom holds, “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”).6 In this case, the matter of poetry doth spring from an external reality before being reshaped by the writer who then casts it back upon the world.

But as the tension of Jonson’s elegy might suggest, there has always been an alternate tradition: that of the inspired poet. In this case, the muse is not the anvil that, like a flint, must be struck, but is instead the self-provoking fire. In direct opposition to the knowledgeable poet, we can gesture, for instance, to the eponymous rhapsode of Plato’s Ion...


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