Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lowry Nelson, Jr., Baroque Lyric Poetry

Lowry Nelson, Jr., Baroque Lyric Poetry, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1961.

In the past “baroque” was thought to derive from the Portuguese and Spanish barroco, an irregular pearl or a promontory… Recently it has been convincingly derived from baroco, a term used by the Schoolmen to describe a kind of syllogism. This derivation has the advantage of historical support, both linguistic and semantic [3] … For our purposes it is important to note that the word baroco was pure artifice and that, through practically all later logic books in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it became part of every schoolboy’s mnemonic grab bag. … whether by random selection or by reason of their explosive sounds: [the letters in the word] … baroco survived the longest and, leaving behind its artificial and homely origin, entered a new and exotic life. Thus we may hope to dispel the naïve hope that the origin of the word may tell us what it now means.
(3, 5)

The later history of “baroque” is more obvious. By the end of the eighteenth century the term was associated particularly with architecture and means something like “bizarre” or “extravagant.” Jacob Burckhardt gave it historical limits when he used it to describe the style of architecture that developed out of the “decay” of the High Renaissance. But Heinrich Wolfflin in 1888 seems to have been the first to suggest a favorable approach to Baroque architecture. In doing so he freed the term from necessarily pejorative connotations and recommended that it be applied also to the other arts. … Baroque has become standard in art history as a period concept refined now to the point of designating the style that prevailed in Western Europe between Mannerism and Rococo. (5)

In Italy, since there were no great playwrights or novelists to consider, literary historians had to acknowledge the central importance of Marino. The terms marinismo and secentismo were in current use in the nineteenth century as designations for the dominant style. (6)

England, perhaps more than France, had put up the strongest resistance to the concept of Baroque. England’s literary Renaissance was rather belated and in many ways episodic. The first major phase seemed to coincide more or less with the reign of Henry VIII and the second with that of Elizabeth; it was therefore convenient to give them political labels. (6-7)

There is, all the same, a growing curiosity about it; and perhaps in time that curiosity, together with the more conservative tendency under way to minimize the stark old contrast between Elizabethan and Jacobean and the recent movement to “reconcile” Donne and Milton, will lead to the formulation of a period concept which might just as well be called Baroque. (8)

It is reasonable to suppose tentatively that some “essential” development in the style took place between the Renaissance and the age of Neoclassicism. … We must call the putative style something, and the term nearest at hand is Baroque; indeed we could hardly impose any other. But it must be understood as literary Baroque , without irrelevant commitments from its use in the other arts and without any necessarily pejorative connotations. (15)

There are, on the other hand, poems which diverge from the casual time scheme of conversation and which find in their divergence a conspicuous, even a dominant, source of strength and structure. Such poems seem first to appear in the Baroque age. In face, the use of time as a significant structural device and, in more general terms, the poetic awareness of “structural” time as contingent and manipulatable seem to be peculiar achievements of the Baroque poets. (23)

Time and the sun’s career are, in terms of the poem, actually made to depend upon the speaker’s attitude. … One could go on citing instances from Baroque poetry (the most familiar would be Marvell’s richly ironic manipulation of time in “To his Coy Mistress”), and it would still be possible to oppose them with earlier poems’ but actually the novelty consists not in mere presence but in directness, in emphasis, and in frequency of occurrence. (24)

Movement toward the future, either full or incomplete, is perhaps the commonest movement to be found in the Baroque lyric. It had been common also in previous ages (see especially Petrarch or Wyatt), but had rarely assumed a complex or gradual form: (36)

Marino and his followers, on the other hand, could hardly escape the influence of Petrarch. However they distorted the Petrarchan love conventions, their imagery dereived largely from the Canzoniere, and their view of love can be interpreted as a disillusioned, not to say cynical, version of Petrarchan love. (102-3)

[Marino’s] “Amori Notturni” is concerned with little more than a lover’s meeting. What appears to interest the poet is not praise or idealization of the beloved, but rather the successive moments of passion. (104)

In Italy the major lyric poets never freed themselves sufficiently from the Petrarchan tradition to allow full scope to new tendencies. All the same, there is—in some of the poems of Marino, for example—a new complexity, approaching evolution, of attitudes. Partly the new tone derives from the tension set up between the old Petrarchan style and world-view and the new virtuosity and, on e might almost say, cynicism. There was also a tendency to exploit suspense and surprise (one remembers Marino’s dictum that the poem should strive to astound) and to express the exaggerated and the grotesque. (153-154)

Those who speak of the Baroque style in poetry as decadence or disease are guilty of a number of misconceptions. Usually they make Baroque too narrow and find it only in the most extravagant works of poets like Marino, Crashaw, or Gongora; and usually they define Baroque only in terms of the conceit or other rhetorical devices. But once we make it a period concept and test it without prejudice against the total style of the age, we discover that isolated extravagances are often manifestation of a broader tendency that we might have imagined. During the Baroque age, the greatest poets discovered new and original techniques for structuring poetry and enabling it to express complexities. Conceit and metaphor were not new means of structure but part of the traditional resources of the poet. If they were used extravagantly in Baroque poetry, the same can be said of other periods in the history of literature. It has not yet been shown precisely what characterized their use in the Baroque. Looking elsewhere, we find that new means of structure and complexity can be discovered in universal elements of poetry which before had been taken for granted: in time and drama. /
The use of time as a means of structure was part of a broader tendency to view time under the aspect of eternity as contingent and manipulatable. It is an ancient commonplace to say that time flies or crawls, according to the way one feels; “subjective” time designates a universal human experience. But to think of time in relation to eternity is to enter into a realm of speculation full of paradox. Christian theologians were used to thinking in such terms, yet poets were not. [Doctrinally, of course, Dante was well aware of the difficulties of expressing eternal things in temporal terms] Time in poetry, as expressed in tense and temporal reference, had not been actively exploited as a conspicuous means of structure. It was in the Baroque age that poets first took up the notion of time viewed through eternity and found that its paradoxical nature admitted liberties that common sense and subjective time did not. In this way we can explain, in terms of the history of ideas, what at first seems an odd and extravagant use of time. The whole tendency, as reflected in poetry, reached its culmination in those lyrics which use time as a conspicuous means of structure. Poetically, the drastic tense changes in the “Nativity Odes,” for example, can be seen as a major part of the total structure of the poem; indeed, they reinforce its whole ideology. It is significant both for the history of poetic style and for the history of ideas that time is used as a conspicuous means of structure in poems as diverse as the “Polifemo,” the “Nativity Ode,” and “Lycidas.” It is a characteristic of Baroque poetry in general, not merely of one national tradition. True, it found its best expression in England and Spain, but that is not surprising, since those countries produced the best lyrics of the age. Moreover, the same tendency is evidence in other countries. (161-2)

Drama… Complex states of mind, of course, existed in reality long before they were represented in imaginative literature. If we should posit a tradition whose exemplars are Catullus, Petrarch, and Ronsard, we could perhaps infer a developing ability to express complex attitudes in the lyric. Our tradition would culminate in the Baroque, … But it remained for the English, Donne and Milton, not to mention Vaughan or Marvell, to mark full use of the rhetorical situation in creating a complex evolution of attitudes. Before the Baroque, complex ideas had, of course, been expressed in the lyric. One need only recall Dante’s three canzoni which he himself explicates so tortuously in the Convivio. But never before had complex attitudes been evolved gradually as a main part of the structure of a poem. (163)

Among its other limitation, my contribution to defining Baroque lyric style neglects treating imagery. It has not yet been shown how any meaningful distinction can be made between Baroque imagery and the imagery of other styles. (166)


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