Lectures on Literary Criticism – V (Italy and Dante)
The contribution of Italy and Dante to literature and literary criticism cannot be negated. Literature is studied here from a Eurocentric base.
We’d like to make one thing clear to our dear readers: You might wonder at times why we happen to be discussing literature and not just literary criticism per se. The answer to this is simple: unless we understand the whys and hows of literature, a clearer picture of the analysis of literature and the rationale behind it might not emerge. – Authors
The focus of this lecture is to discuss the effect of Renaissance on literature and eventually, on literary criticism. Even prior to the Renaissance, the advent of Christendom and the Crusades that were incessantly aimed at the Islamic world of the Arabs not only triggered a saga of war and bloodshed in the name of religion, but also led to an exchange of ideas (literary, socio-cultural and religious) between the Arabs and the Christians.
Wars and conflict are ultimately related to the establishment of one’s national identity. As far as art and literature were concerned, the shaping of national identity was carried out through innovations in the respective fields. For instance, the paintings of Michelangelo carved a niche through innovation in painting, sculpture, and architecture. He was bold enough to affirm that the nude body can express emotions and expressions more effectively and his works are proof of this idea of his.
Dante took a bold step in not imitating the great masters of epic poetry who preferred to write only in the classical tongue (Greek or Latin). His Divina Comedia (The Divine Comedy) was written in Italian, the language of the masses and not Latin, which was the language of the upper class and the educated. The very idea that language was a mark of differentiation and class was deconstructed by such attempts.
In other words, the shift was from patrician to plebeian. The focus of literature was the ordinary people, their virtues and vices. This is inscribed in the word vernacular the epistemology of which is connected to tongue of the ruled.
Poetry flourished during the Pre-Renaissance and the Renaissance period in Italy, which was the home of the very movement. Petrarch and Dante experimented on the sonnet form. The form of the sonnet was fixed at 14 lines, and Petrarch went a step further in dividing the sonnet further into the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (the remaining six lines) with a pause or caesura between the two. The caesura or the pause prepares the reader for the turning point that the sestet deals with. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet was also experimented upon by Petrarch and later on, by Dante.
The sonnet was usually a love poem and Petrarch’s sonnets were about his beloved Laura. Dante followed suit by writing about his lady love Beatrice Portinari for whom he cherished Platonic love. These love poems ushered in a new aesthetic of literature. These masters of poetry influenced Aquinas’ concept of aesthetics. Aquinas was more interested in blending Hellenic (Greek and Roman) aesthetics with Catholic aesthetics.
From Italy, the Renaissance spread gradually to France, Germany, and Russia. Goethe, the German dramatist, was much influenced by the Renaissance. But what needs to be observed is that Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur (World Literature or literature of European origin) that he often speaks about, does not include the oriental at all. Secondly, even among the occidental, South America and Africa are left out. This clearly indicates how people were cut off from the rest of the world and were quite ignorant of the happenings in various other countries or continents. To Goethe, it seems as if the world meant only the European continent.
As far as England is concerned, the effect of the classical masters and writers like Dante did have an impact on poetry. The English also believed that the epic was the genre of sublimity and that explains why the first Ango-Saxon epic was Beowulf that deals with the legend of a warrior much like its Greek and Latin counterparts like The Odyssey and The Aeneid.
One of the main features of the Renaissance was the spirit of adventure – the desire to travel to other places and to explore new lands. This desire to travel and to learn about other lands and their cultures led to the onset of colonialism. Belgium, Holland, England, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France were some of the powerful colonisers. While many countries were busy fighting outside forces in the name of war and colonialism, there were countries like India that were busy with civil wars and where kings fought with their own neighbours for land and power oblivious of the fact that these civil wars would cost them a great deal in terms of freedom for nearly two centuries.
More to read in Literary Criticism by Dr Ampat Koshy
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