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Poiesis and Modernity in the Old and New Worlds
By Anthony J. Cascardi, Leah Middlebrook
Vanderbilt University PressCopyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
Poiesis and Modernity at the Turn of the Spanish Sixteenth Century: Luis Alfonso de Carvallo and the Cisne de Apolo (1602)
Basta, señora Lectura, que cuando pienso daros alcance, os acogéis y llamáis a sagrado (Enough, Dame Lectura, for just when I manage to grasp hold of you, you draw yourself up and invoke the sacred) —Cisne de Apolo
The emergence of European modernity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is often discussed in terms of a secularization or "prosification" of the world. According to the narrative often recounted by moderns, in a pre-modern order the universe is conceived of in allegorical terms, as a complex system of resemblances whose relationships are best captured by figures and myths. Moderns find the kinds of truth associated with this order to be outdated at best; at worst, both they and the prophets and poets who disseminate them are archaic and corrupted, "rancida y caducar" (rancid and out of date), in the words of an interlocutor in the 1602 Cisne de Apolo by Luis Alfonso de Carvallo (151). Poetry, as the kind of language that preserves and transmits divine and human truths, in the manner of Dante's canzone, is challenged by new modes of discourse: history, the eyewitness account, the verifiable statement. Poems fall into disrepute as utterances shaped by the will of patrons, directed to securing venial and worldly authority, and thus vulnerable to distortion and falsehood.
The modes of utterance that emerged to take the place of the great poems tended to be prose ones, but that was not their only "prosaic" characteristic. The onset of modernity also entails the restriction of the power of language to one specific domain. While pre-moderns understand words to be motivated by natural energies and affinities, such that they are capable of signifying—as natural elements do—in multiple ways, the increasing hegemony of the modern perspective over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries confines verbal representation to one plane, that of discourse, in which language "still has the task of speaking that which is, but is no longer any more than what is said" (Foucault 43). As is well known, moderns occupy a paradoxical position vis-à-vis nature. On the one hand, enlightened by modern rational methods of analysis and interpretation, they view themselves as liberated from the deception that plagued their ancestors. On the other, mastery of the world and its secrets exacts a price, in the form of the sense of loss explored in so many branches of critical theory, the loss, for example, that informs Heidegger's nostalgic distinction between techne, in the sense of poiesis, and the instrumentalist uses of nature that inform and are reinforced by modern technology.
The diverse writings on poetry that circulated in sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century Spain provide a wide spectrum of responses to this perceived sense of a breakdown in traditional ways of conceiving of relationships between people, language and the cosmos. They can be characterized as "early" modern for the profound ambivalence they maintain with respect to the relevance of poiesis and poetry to contemporary culture. For example, Renaissance humanists across Europe revive Horace's "Letter to the Pisos." Among other pieces of advice, this text cautions poets against attempting the poetic feats of Homer, advising them to work instead in the more delimited, urbane spheres in which they can aspire to success. The wide circulation of the "Letter" and of Horace's ideas helped shift poetry into the ambiguous place it occupied in sixteenth-century culture: its authority was continually challenged, and yet not entirely dispensable. A poetry tailored to Horace's specifications does not seek to disclose divine and cosmic truths. Primarily, it is an art of wit.
And yet nearly all early modern writers who embraced Horace's prosaic counsel (which is to say, nearly all early modern writers) were also clearly engaged by Orpheus and Amphion, two figures for a different notion of poetry. Orpheus was given the gift of song by the gods, who sent him to steer a savage humanity away from cannibalism. Orphic song thus wields a primordial civilizing power. "Amphion, who founded Thebes, / upraised its stones with lyric music and with charming words / could place them where he wished" (Fuchs 93). Horace, while an important early modern source for these myths, sets that type of poetic power firmly in the past: "This was the old wisdom / which divided public from private, sacred from secular, / outlawed free coupling, made marriage rites for man and wife, / erected cities, and carved codes of law on wooden tablets" (Fuchs 93). But for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers, the idea of primordially, divinely charged harmonies exercised a strong, if ambivalent, attraction. Emergent prose genres such as the colloquy, the novel, and the miscellany all engage to some extent with the ambiguous legacies of archaic poetic authority. The prologue to the first volume of Don Quijote is probably the best-known example. Cervantes takes on the contemporary practice of introducing a contemporary text with pages of erudite, scholarly citation and "la inumerabilidad y catálago de los acostumbrados sonetos, epigramas y elogios que al principio de los libros suelen ponerse" (the innumerable catalog of customary sonnets, epigrams and laudatory poems that are usually placed at the start of books) as if to fashion a sort of scaffolding to support their authority.
Tensions between poetry and prose in the Quijote are addressed in the essay by Anthony J. Cascardi that appears in this volume. Throughout the world of letters, however, a notion of poetry informed by poiesis is summoned to anchor institutions and concepts that were being established during this period. Carvallo's Cisne de Apolo might be considered the obverse of Don Quijote. A "curious" work for its period (in the Aprobación, Prudencio de Sandoval writes that "me parece, fuera de ser muy curioso, que no tiene cosa contra la fe ni buenas costumbres"  [it seems to me that, apart from being quite curious, it does not contain anything that contradicts faith or good manners]), the text comprises a prose colloquy punctuated by short octaves that distill the point of each discussion for memorization. Its declared aim is the defense of poetry from the slander of an ignorant populace. Carvallo's targets judge poetry to be "locuras y vanidades, sin traza ni concierto, libres de toda regla y limitación" (58) (mad and frivolous things, devoid of scheme or harmony, free of all rule and measure). In point of fact, the Cisne de Apolo might have been directed to an additional end, namely, making a name for its young author in circles that lay farther afield than the clerical ones of his native Asturias. Carvallo was ambitious, and the text is clear regarding his intent to set himself apart from other Spanish writers. Whereas predecessors contented themselves with compiling versificatorias, this treatise addresses poetry as it was presented by a select group: Horace, Augustine, and also Spanish sources such as Hierónimo Vida—that is, as an art of figuration, supported by verse: "no basta para uno ser poeta el hacer versos" (59) (to be a poet, it is not enough to make verses). The present text, Carvallo claims, will touch on all the Spanish verse forms, "aun con más particularidad que hasta aquí se ha hecho" (60) (and in more detail than has been done up to now). However, his principal goal is to explain all that is necessary for the true poet (verdadero poeta), "con la mayor brevedad que pude" (60) (as briefly as I could). Thus from the opening pages, the Cisne demonstrates a conflictive, "curious" mission, capturing the grand and ineffable art of true poetry in a modern, concise way. That the book is composed not in the form of a poem, but in that of a colloquy, has the effect of making this text, which is based on Alciati's emblem of poetry as a swan, itself emblematic of the complex situation of poetry on the threshold of Spanish modernity.
This complexity is apparent from the opening pages of the book. The numerous official documents required for the authorization of a printed book in turn-of-the-century Spain—the Tasa, the Aprobación, the Licencia—are set off by a number of laudatory poems of the type lampooned by Cervantes. But the preliminares of the Cisne de Apolo also indicate some of the ways in which ideas of poiesis were used to underwrite the authority of modern institutions and practices. For example, the Licencia indicates the layers of bureaucracy that surrounded late sixteenth-century publication: it grants permission to print for a period of ten years from the date of the cédula; fidelity to the original of the printed work must be confirmed with the signature of the appropriate functionary; all of the book is to be printed before the first page, which may be produced only once the printed text has been approved by the relevant Council, once pricing has been determined, and once the relevant licenses along with documentation of the approvals and a list of errata have been affixed. Before sale, the printed books must be checked against the original, or Carvallo must swear a public oath before the King's Council that the copies correspond to the version approved by the king or his secretary (45–46). In the wake of this document, with its censors, tribunals, mayors, bailiffs, processes, fines, and fees, the pastoralism of the first laudatory sonnet stands out in sharp relief:
A los primeros hombres dio sustento,
antes que se cogiese trigo alguno,
el Carvallo, y el Roble, que es todo uno,
sirviendo sus bellotas de alimento.
Pero yendo los frutos en augmento,
de las bellotas poco se han curado,
por haber con industria ya alcanzado
de la tierra mejor mantenimiento.
Mas este vuestro fruto, buen Carvallo,
aunque sea el primero que ha salido,
al Poeta español alimentando,
por ninguno podrán jamás dejallo,
que quien de su dulzor fuere gustando,
pondrá todos los otros en olvido. (46–47)
(The first men were given sustenance, / before a single stalk of wheat was gathered, / by the Carvallo, and the Roble, which are one and the same, / their acorns serving as food. / But as the numbers of fruits grew, / few cared for acorns, / since by industry they now achieved / a better living from the earth. / But this, your fruit, good Carvallo, / although it is the first that ever came forth, / feeds the Spanish poet / and will never be abandoned for another, / for he or she who might taste its sweetness, / will leave all others to oblivion.)
Drawing on the meaning of "carvallo" as a species of oak, the sonnet links Carvallo to an idealized golden age in which man was sustained by fruits spontaneously brought forth by nature, with no need for industry or cultivation. The scene shares aspects in common both with Heidegger's scenario of techne and with the well-known disquisition in part 1 of the Quijote, and it establishes Carvallo in the position of the vates whose words are destined to nourish future generations of Spanish poets. However, it is worth noting that despite its portentous tone, and despite its self-conscious archaism and the value it appears to place on a prior age, the poem is framed from a modern perspective. Formally it is a sonnet, which is to say the modern lyric form in which song is interrupted by rhetoric. Furthermore, it valorizes the present, declaring the fruits of modern industria to be more nourishing and more varied than the ancient acorn. Yet having said this, the poem subsequently contradicts itself to assert that the acorn retains a particular kind of power that enables it to cast all later fruits into oblivion. This ambivalence reflects the role assigned to poiesis in discourses of modernity, which simultaneously declare the prior order to have been superceded and draw on it to reinforce the authority of the present. And though unremarkable as a poem, the sonnet thus broaches some of the central preoccupations for Spanish early moderns: to what extent could contemporary utterances be secured in the social imaginary by modern practices? And to what extent did they require support from sources that lay outside the modern regime, sources such as poiesis? Furthermore, given these questions, could Carvallo's text achieve its self-appointed object of defending a significant role for poetry in the contemporary world?
The dialogues in the Cisne de Apolo return continually to the magnitude of the task. Furthermore, some sections of the text offer reasons for its importance, which had to do with—as Thomas M. Greene argued some time ago—the "synecdochic" relationship between language and culture. In The Light in Troy, Greene credited Dante with being among the first medieval writers to link loquela (dialect), mores (customs), and habitus (styles). Focusing on Adam's phrase in the Paradiso, "l'uso de' mortali é come fronda / in ramo, che sen va e altra vene" (the usage of mortals is like a leaf on a branch, which goes as another comes) (5), the lines (which allude to one in Horace), mark, in the Paradiso, a pre-Renaissance threshold for the recognition of the groundlessness and contingency of language and culture. "Both the perception and the feeling would become constituent experiences of the humanist Renaissance" (7), Greene asserted; by the time of Petrarch, "the historicity of culture ... was no longer redeemable; it was tragic" (8).
Spain's early-sixteenth-century reformers such as Juan Luis Vives, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Boscán, and Garcilaso adopted the Petrarchan stance from their Italian contemporaries. As the Habsburg era progressed, however, this fashionable sense of loss was enhanced by emerging social and political discourses. From 1514 to 1517, the period in which Charles I of Spain was campaigning to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and even more forcefully roughly half a century later, in the wake of the victories of John of Austria against the Morisco uprisings in the Alpujarras and in the Battle of Lepanto, royal astrologers and biographers, as well as writers, elaborated a messianic vision of Spain's role in the world. If the country's modern history had heretofore taken the so-called Reconquest as its starting point, references to a "second Reconquest" that revealed God's plan for a global Christian hegemony—a hegemony that would be secured and administered by Spanish forces—called Spain's identity into question, threatening to transform its relationship to its own history. The long tradition of struggle and the victories of the Catholic kings were recast as a cipher whose meaning was now revealed. Furthermore, the dissemination of this view took place in the context of the continued erosion of the prerogatives of the great Spanish families. While the grandees had begun to experience increased regulation and subjugation under Isabel and Ferdinand, the process of their courtierization and their marginalization continued under Charles V and Philip II.
Excerpted from Poiesis and Modernity in the Old and New Worlds by Anthony J. Cascardi, Leah Middlebrook. Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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