Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Jacobean and Caroline Criticism > The aesthetics of Hobbes
  Milton D’Avenant and Cowley  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XI. Jacobean and Caroline Criticism.

§ 7. The aesthetics of Hobbes.

Hobbes’s theory of poetry is a logical result of his philosophy of mind. For him, a mechanical universe continues to make itself felt on the tabula rasa of the human mind; these impressions the mind retains, arranges and combines. “Time and Education” (as he puts it briefly, in popular fashion, in the letter to D’Avenant prefixed to Gondibert) “begets experience; Experience begets Memory; Memory begets Judgement and Fancy; Judgement begets the strength and structure, and Fancy begets the ornaments of a Poem.” Here, “fancy” and “judgment,” like Bacon’s “imagination,” are mental processes which re-arrange the materials of experience into forms of art; but, for Hobbes, the imaginative process is no longer sufficient or even vital; fancy furnishes the “ornaments” and judgment the “strength and structure” of poetry. His distinction between the two became a commonplace of criticism in the period of classicism: “wit,” the current term for fancy, denotes quickness of mind in seeing the resemblances between disparate objects; judgment, or reason, finds differences in objects apparently similar. This distinction had been suggested by the Italians of the later renascence, and had been more clearly indicated, as a difference in human temperament, by Bacon; but, with Hobbes, who first gave it precision, it became part and parcel of English thought, and was adopted by Robert Boyle, Locke, Temple, Addison and others, until Harris pointed out that a distinction of this sort would place Euclid’s Geometry among the supreme works of fancy. The French had realised the critical significance of the antithesis for some time, but they never formulated it so clearly as this. Throughout the second half of the century, in both countries, the terms “wit” and “judgment” were placed in a sort of conventional opposition, like the doctrina and eloquentia of the humanists, and the clash resounds through neo-classical criticism.   13
  Hobbes’s distinction of the poetic genres in the logical outcome of his philosophy. He conceives of them as conditioned by the divisions of the external world—heroic, comic and pastoral, corresponding to court, city and country—and man simply arranges what nature gives in forms of his own speech, narrative or dramatic. The poetry of the court thus assumes the form of epic or tragedy; the poetry of the city, satire or comedy; the poetry of the country, bucolics or pastoral comedy. Here, there is no place for lyrical forms; they are “but essayes and parts of an entire poem.” Bacon had set the example for this indifference, and, later, Temple followed in the path of Hobbes. Nor is there any place for didactic or descriptive verse, for the subject of poetry is not natural science or moral theory, but “the manners of men,” presented in the guise of lifelike fiction. The exclusion of didactic verse is Aristotelian, and had furnished the subject for infinite controversy in the renascence; but the seventeenth century tended more and more to follow Roman practice rather than Aristotelian precept in this respect. Yet Hobbes’s “manners of men” fails to suggest that the whole content of human life (in its inner as well as its outer manifestations) is the theme of poetry, and is Horatian rather than Aristotelian.   14
  The theme of poetry, then, is the manners of men; its method is that of verisimilitude, or resemblance to the actual conditions of life; and Hobbes’s scorn for ghosts and magic is the natural outcome of this insistence on vraisemblance. From acquaintance with the manners of men, rather than from books, the poet is to obtain the elements of style, or “expression.” To know human nature well, to retain images of it in the memory that are distinct and clear, are the sources of perspicuity and propriety of style, and of “decorum” in character-drawing; to know much of it is the source of variety and novelty of expression. Hobbes’s aesthetic is consistent and logical throughout, the first of its kind in English literature.   15
  When he wields this body of theory in the concrete field of criticism, his discretion fails. A quarter of a century intervened between the publication of his letter to D’Avenant (1650) and the preface to his translation of Homer (1675), but the theory has not fundamentally changed. Edward Phillips preferred the latter because of the bias and friendly compliment of the former, and, certainly, Hobbes’s judgment of Gondibert and of Howard’s British Princes must be approached with at least as much caution as the flattering dedications of the period. In the later preface, he justifies his taste by the preference of Homer to both Vergil and Lucan. He formulates seven “virtues” of the epic—in diction, style, imagery, plot, elevation of fancy (which, he says, is usually overestimated as a virtue of poetry), the amplitude of the subject and the justice and impartiality of the poet—and he then compares Homer with Vergil and Lucan in respect to these essential qualities. Dryden complains that Hobbes “begins the praise of Homer where he should have ended it,” meaning that Hobbes first considers the choice of words and the harmony of numbers instead of the design, the manners and the thoughts; and it is true that he also fails to express several of the other main tendencies of neo-classicism. Unlike his more orthodox contemporaries, he does not give to the logical structure of a poem the same sort of exaggerated importance that the theorists of art for art’s sake have given to the externals of style; he cares nothing for the rules which the French had inherited from the Italians; he has serious doubts about a fixed standard of taste. The method of comparison which he urges was to have an important bearing on the progress of criticism. This was a conventional exercise from the time of Scaliger to that of Rapin, but Hobbes’s way of basing his judgments on general qualities of style and content is an advance on theirs. The method was adopted by Rymer in his preface to Rapin (1674); and it was from Hobbes, also, that Rymer acquired, especially later, something of the same external and mechanical outlook on life, the same political philosophy and spirit of conformity, the same clangour of style, the same magisterial attitude, and that intellectual arrogance which made Dryden compare the sage of Malmesbury with Lucretius.   16

  Milton D’Avenant and Cowley  

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