Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Monday, April 13, 2015

"'Tamburlaine': The Argument of Arms" by A.D. Hope

This I cross-post from the Adversaria, posted there as one of the "Something I Read" posts. Considering the subject and the statement, I thought it worth posting here as well.


From A.D. Hope's "'Tamburlaine': The Argument of Arms" as found in Christopher Marlowe: Modern Critical Views (ed. Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers: NY, 1986; pp 53-54); also found in A.D. Hope's collection of essays The Cave and the Spring. (The essay can be found online.)

In one sense the coherence of the play [Tamburlaine Pts I and II] resides in its poetry. Taken in terms of the action alone the play is not free of absurdity. If Tamburlaine were merely a supreme military genius, the argument which asserts his total superiority and perfection would be unconvincing. But Tamburlaine is a poet. He conceives poetry as concentrating in its highest conceivable form, the whole of beauty, imagination and music into 'one poem's period', just as he concentrates all power in himself. It is in this alliance of the poetic imagination with temporal power, in a sense of their identity, that the magnanimity of Tamburlaine consists. Poetry is his medium, as power is his nature and his genius. Poetry shares the supremacy of nature, for it is the natural language of beauty, of intellect and of power, the three perfect things. It is poetry alone which makes all three comprehensible:
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit—
The poetry of Tamburlaine is indeed the poetry of power, and the absolute morality of power which the play exemplifies is allied to the absolute standards of poetry, which it recognizes. For poetry accepts only success, and grants lasting life only to absolute success. It recognizes no gradations and no second best. What Hazlitt, in a very curious passage for an avowed republican, says of Coriolanus, is even more apt of the poetry of Tamburlaine:
The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion. The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty. The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle. It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is everything by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents a dazzling appearance. It shows its head turretted, crowned, and crested. Its front is gilt and bloodstained. Before it 'it carries noise, and behind it leaves tears.' It has its altars and its victims, sacrifices, human sacrifices. . . . It puts the individual for the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right.
Those who wish to understand Tamburlaine should read and re-read this passage for its represents the Argument of Arms translated into the Argument of Poetry. And those who wish to understand the real nature of poetry would do well to have Tamburlaine by heart, for the heart of the matter is that the Argument of Arms and the Argument of Poetry are in their essence the same. [Hazlitt quotation from Characters of Shakespeare's Plays.]

 

The Argument of Arms, where it is most directly expressed (Pt I 2.7.12-29):

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caused the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair
And place himself in th'empyreal heaven,
Moved me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure very wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

 

The Argument of Poetry (Pt I 5.1.160-190):

What is beauty, saith my sufferings, then?
If all the pens that ever poets held
Had the feeling of their masters' thoughts
And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,
Their minds and muses on admirèd themes;
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit;
If these had made one poem's period
And all combined in beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.
But how unseemly is it for my sex,
My discipline of arms and chivalry,
My nature, and the terror of my name,
To harbour thoughts effeminate and faint!
Save only that in beauty's just applause,
With whose instinct the soul of man is touched—
And every warrior that is rapt with love
Of face, of valour, and of victory,
Must needs have beauty beat on his conceit—
I thus conceiving and subduing, both,
That which hath stopped the tempest of the gods,
Even from the fiery spangled veil of heaven,
To feel the lovely warmth of shepherds' flames
And march in cottages of strewèd weeds,
Shall give the world to note, for all my birth,
That virtue solely is the sum of glory
And fashions men with true nobility.—

 

(Excerpts from Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Oxford UP: NY, 1995)

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