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Literary Criticism of Giovanni Boccaccio

Though Boccaccio (1313–1375) wished to be known as a scholar, he is most widely known for his Decameron (1358), a collection of a hundred, sometimes bawdy, stories told by ten characters against the background of the bubonic plague that overtook Italy in 1348. Boccaccio also wrote allegorical poetry and romances which influenced Chaucer and Shakespeare. Like Dante, he pressed the cause of Italian vernacular literature. Yet through his scholarly works, written in Latin, he was an influential forerunner of Renaissance humanism. His De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women) (1361) was a source of Christine de Pisan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). In terms of literary criticism, his most important work was Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (Genealogy of the Gentile Gods) (1350–1362), a huge encyclopedia of classical mythology in fifteen books. In the first thirteen books he attempts to compile, arrange, and offer allegorical interpretations of classical mythology. The last two books are devoted to a comprehensive defense of poetry, citing arguments for and against the art since the time of Plato. Hence, the book is not only an endeavor to expound the virtues of classical literature but also an attempt by a practicing poet to defend his art, in a tradition that stretches from Horace through Ronsard, Du Bellay, Sidney, Boileau, and Pope to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Arnold. As an encyclopedia of both literature and literary criticism, its influence on poets as well as critics was broad, and endured for more than two centuries. As Charles Osgood notes, along with Aristotle’s Poetics, which was rediscovered in the fifteenth century, Boccaccio’s text effectively furnished “the substance of literary theory for the Renaissance”; and traces of it appear in Chaucer, Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and Shelley.1 Though he was born into a merchant family, he eventually shied away from commercial life and moved in aristocratic and courtly circles.

Boccaccio’s preface to the Genealogy is addressed to Hugo IV, king of Cyprus and Jerusalem, who commissioned the work. This preface gives some indication of the magnitude of Boccaccio’s task, and his own conception of his purpose. Concerning the ancient gods and myths, he says, “there is no one book that I know of which contains all this matter . . . The names and tribes of gods and their progenitors are scattered hither and yon all over the world” (GDG, 9). Hence, his work was to be a vast assemblage of myths and tales which were hitherto uncollected.

Boccaccio states two other intentions in his preface. The first is to expound the deeper, truthful meaning of ancient texts, a meaning often hidden by superficial absurdity or impossibility or adherence to a false theology. Secondly, in bringing to light the wisdom of the ancient poets, he proposes to defend the art of poetry against its detractors (GDG, 12). This defense is vehemently taken up in book XIV where, passing contemptuously over the cavils against poetry by the ignorant and the tasteless, Boccaccio confronts the criticisms of the jurists and the lawyers. These people, he says, are conspicuous, influential, and persuasive in speech. Their indictment of poetry rests on the ground that it does not bring wealth and power, and it is of no practical use, hence poets in general must be foolish to spend their lives in such unprofitable activity (XIV.iv). Such charges incite Boccaccio to launch into not only a defense of poetry but also an extolment of poverty. Whereas lawyers are tainted by the love of money, prestige, and worldly things – which are perishable – poetry, like theology and philosophy, rejects such pursuits: “Poetry devotes herself to something greater; for while she dwells in heaven, and mingles with the divine counsels, she moves the minds of a few men from on high to a yearning for the eternal” (XIV.iv). Moreover, poetry is “a stable and fixed science” which is the same “in all times and places,” whereas the law is subject to change according to culture and circumstance (XIV.iv). Boccaccio effectively redefines true poverty as “a mental disease that often afflicts even the rich” (XIV.iv). This is a poverty of the imagination, whereby people pursue fleeting treasures with a hunger that is never satisfied (XIV.iv). Noticeable here in Boccaccio’s spirited defense is an affiliation of poetry with philosophical and theological other-worldliness; it calls people to virtue in this life only by making them realize its trivial and transient nature, urging them to focus on the life of the spirit.

Boccaccio now constructs an allegory of a house devoted to sacred study: on a lofty throne “sits Philosophy, messenger from the very bosom of God, mistress of all knowledge” (XIV.v). Around her are men of learning and humility, seated in high places; beyond these is a noisy crowd of pretenders to knowledge, pseudo-philosophers who are interested not in truth or wisdom but in procuring a favorable reputation (XIV.v). It is these people that Boccaccio depicts as denouncing poetry in the most vociferous terms: poetry, they charge, is a “useless and absurd craft”; poets are “tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars”; the work of poets is not only false but also often obscure and lewd; moreover, poets are “seducers of the mind, prompters of crime.” Such cavilers, notes Boccaccio, use Plato’s authority to uphold their “mad denunciation of poets” (XIV.v). Boccaccio’s initial response is to point out that “poetry, like other studies, is derived from God, Author of all wisdom.” And if certain poets have pandered to a licentious taste, poetry itself cannot be universally condemned since it offers “so many inducements to virtue” and employs “exquisite style and diction” to direct “men’s thoughts on things of heaven” (XIV.vi).

Boccaccio proceeds to define poetry, its origin and functions. He calls poetry a “fervid and exquisite invention,” in speech or writing, that “proceeds from the bosom of God.” Boccaccio cites the authority of Cicero to support his claim that poetry is an inspired art, for which there can be no rigid rules and formulae (XIV.vii). And the fervor of poetry is “sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adorns the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction” (XIV.vii). Interestingly, his definition is modern in that the product of poetry cannot be planned in advance since these productions are both inspired and new; it is less modern in its implication that poetry is intrinsically allegorical, always clothing truth with fiction. The functions of poetry are also practical; it can prepare kings for war, portray the various phases of human character, stimulate virtue, and subdue vice. Also modern is Boccaccio’s insistence that poetry be defined primarily according to its effect. Indeed, he sees the derivation of the word “poetry” as based on its effect: it comes from the Greek word poetes, which he takes to mean “exquisite discourse” (XIV.vii). He sees poetry as derived from the Greeks, where it arose as a heightened form of language used for prayer and the praise of God, as well as for expressing “the high mysteries of things divine” (XIV.viii).

Boccaccio anticipates many of the Romantics in stating that poets prefer lonely haunts that are favorable to contemplation, especially contemplation of God. Here, the poet is free of the distractions of the city, such as “the greedy and mercenary markets,” as well as the courts and noisy crowds. The pleasures of nature “soothe the soul; then they collect the scattered energies of the mind, and renew the power of the poet’s genius,” prompting it “to long for the contemplation of high themes” (XIV.xi).

For a poet to be effective, he must know not only the precepts of grammar and rhetoric but also “the principles of the other Liberal Arts, both moral and natural.” He must have a comprehensive knowledge, encompassing the works not only of ancient writers but of the world, the history of nations and even their geography (XIV.vii). Having said this, he does not regard poetry as merely a branch of rhetoric, for, “among the disguises of fiction rhetoric has no part” (XIV.vii). Hence, Boccaccio sees poetry as a somewhat unique art, distinct from rhetoric and from other branches of learning in general.

Turning to the charge that poets are tale-mongers or liars, Boccaccio retorts that poets who compose fictions incur no more disgrace than philosophers who use syllogisms. Moreover, the word “fable” ( fabula) has its origin in the Latin verb for, fari, and means “conversation” (confabulatio). He cites a definition framed by previous writers: “fiction is a form of discourse, which, under guise of invention, illustrates or proves an idea; and, as its superficial aspect is removed, the meaning of the author is clear” (XIV.ix). Hence fiction is always a way of presenting hidden truths. In fact, Boccaccio distinguishes four types of fiction: the first, such as Aesop’s fables, on the surface lacks all appearance of truth; the second, appearing to mingle truth with fiction, has been used “to clothe in fiction divine and human matters alike”; the third appears more to be history than fiction but, as in Vergil’s Aeneid, the hidden meaning is far different from the surface meaning (XIV.ix). The fourth kind of fiction contains no truth at all, either superficial or hidden, and Boccaccio dissociates this kind completely from poetry. Those who object to the first three forms of fiction, he says, might as well object to the scriptures since they are replete with figures and parables. In general, the positive capacity of fiction is such that “it pleases the unlearned by itsexternal appearance, and exercises the minds of the learned with its hidden truth; and thus both are edified and delighted with one and the same perusal” (XIV.ix). Hence, fiction – by which Boccaccio means poetic invention – is imbued with the classical functions of teaching and delighting by presenting truth. It is also imbued with a theological function, that of cloaking divine mysteries. Indeed, opposing those who aver that truth and eloquence cannot go together, Boccaccio cites Quintilian’s view that great “eloquence is inconsistent with falsehood,” and affirms that Vergil was a philosopher, while “Dante was a great theologian as well as philosopher.” It is because poetry is “brought up in the very home of philosophy, and disciplined in sacred studies” that it expresses “the very deepest meaning” (XIV.x). In book XV, Boccaccio seeks to show that while the use of poetry is not immediately apparent, it possesses a deeper usefulness of enduring value, partly on account of its ornamental qualities and partly because of the wisdom through which it brings “profit and pleasure” to the reader (XV.i).

As for the charge of obscurity, Boccaccio admits that much poetry is obscure; but in this it is no different from philosophy; the texts of Plato and Aristotle “abound in difficulties.” Moreover, the sacred scriptures are “overflowing with obscurities and ambiguities.” Boccaccio’s defense of obscurity is partly theological: just as holy scripture is obscure so as to avoid casting pearls before swine and protect the sacred mysteries, so it is the office of the poet to protect such solemn matters “from the gaze of the irreverent.” And, as Augustine said of sacred scripture, obscurity both obliges serious intellectual effort and generates a rich variety of interpretations (XIV.xii). The other part of Boccaccio’s commendation of obscurity has more to do with the craft of poetry: “You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind” (XIV.xii). Finally, Boccaccio acknowledges that the charge of obscurity rests on the ancient rhetorical precept that “a speech must be simple and clear.” But, citing Petrarch to support his claim, Boccaccio insists that “oratory is quite different, in arrangement of words, from fiction, and that fiction has been consigned to the discretion of the inventor as being the legitimate work of another art than oratory” (XIV.xii). Hence, while Boccaccio sees poetry as concurrent in some of its aims with philosophy and theology, he is nonetheless concerned to mark out its domain as an autonomous province, finally extricated from rhetoric.

Boccaccio answers the charge that poets are liars by retorting that poetic fiction has nothing in common with falsehood. For, a poet’s purpose is not to deceive; and poetic fiction differs from a lie in that it usually bears no resemblance at all to “the literal truth,” the one exception being historical fiction. It is the very function of the poets to express hidden truths; they are not constrained “to employ literal truth on the surface of their inventions” (XIV.xiii). Hence if they must “sacrifice the literal truth in invention,” they cannot be charged with lying (XIV.xiii). Again, Boccaccio points to the figurative language of the Bible where many passages, though at first glance they appear contrary to truth, possess a “majesty of inner sense” (XIV.xiii). In this chapter and in his text as a whole, Boccaccio diverges from notions of allegory which insist on the truth of the literal meaning; he in fact espouses a notion of poetry as intrinsically sacrificing literal truth in order to express more profound levels of meaning.

Having asserted, contrary to its critics, that the best poetry induces men to virtuous thoughts and deeds (XIV.xv), Boccaccio denies the charge that poets are merely “apes of the philosophers.” He draws some interesting distinctions between philosophy and poetry. In a broad sense, poets are to be considered philosophers, since “they never veil with their inventions anything which is not wholly consonant with philosophy as judged by the opinions of the Ancients” (XIV.xvii). Yet, though the “destination” of poets is the same as that of the philosophers, the philosopher proceeds by syllogizing, and employs an “unadorned prose style, with something of scorn for literary embellishment.” The poet, on the other hand, contemplates without the use of syllogism, and veils his thought “under the outward semblance of his invention,” writing in meter with a scrupulous attention to style (XIV.xvii). Once again, we find the perennial distinction between philosophy and poetry articulated in terms of style rather than content: philosophy is credited with using a literal language whereas poetry always hides its truths, speaking through figure and metaphor. If the poet imitates anything, says Boccaccio, it is nature in “her eternal and unalterable operation” (XIV.xvii).

A large part of Boccaccio’s endeavor is to show that poetry is not somehow contrary to the principles of Christianity. Critics, having charged poetry with blasphemy, obscenity, and falsehood, claim that it is a sin to read poetry. Boccaccio states that the theological errors and polytheism of the classical pagan poets are excusable since knowledge of the true God was not given to them. Moreover, the gospels and the Christian Church did not forbid the reading of poetry. While Boccaccio acknowledges that some poets, such as Ovid and Catullus, and various comic writers depicted licentious material, he cites the authority of St. Paul, his disciple Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine, and Jerome himself (often cited as opposing poetry) to uphold his claim that poetry is an integral part of the gospels and the theological tradition (XIV.xviii). Moreover, if critics charge poetry with paganism, why, asks Boccaccio, do these same critics praise the pagan philosophies of Plato and Aristotle? Poetry, he remarks, has in this respect sinned no more than philosophy: “For while Philosophy is without question the keenest investigator of truth, Poetry is, obviously, its most faithful guardian, protecting it as she does beneath the veil of her art . . . She is Philosophy’s maidservant” (XIV.xvii). It emerges clearly here that, for all his defense of poetry, Boccaccio situates this art in a hierarchy wherein it is subservient to both philosophy and theology. He acknowledges that “it would be far better to study the sacred books” than even the best works of poetry (XIV.xvii).

Boccaccio now treats in a sustained manner a theme that has recurred through his text: the relation of pagan writers to their Christian successors. He calls the pagan poets theologians, since they dealt with “mythical” theology (a term he derives from Augustine). The works of such poets contained many moral and physical truths, and despite their system of theology they often exhibited what was “right and honorable” (XV.viii). Hence, it is not improper or impious for Christians to study the pagan authors of antiquity. Boccaccio launches into a detailed affirmation of his faith and his belief in Christian doctrine, a faith which makes him immune to any adverse influence (XV.ix). He says that he was called, since childhood, to the profession of poetry “by God’s will” (XV.x). And his defense of poetry, he remarks, was “a most urgent duty” (XV.xiv).

1 Charles G. Osgood, “Introduction,” in Boccaccio on Poetry: Being the Preface and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Books of Boccaccio’s Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. xxx. Hereafter cited as GDG.

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