Hobbes' "Answer to Davenant's Preface to Gondibert"


In his "Answer to Davenant's Preface to Gondibert," Thomas Hobbes takes a stab at literary theory. He is prompted to write the reply because Davenant mentions Hobbes in the preface to the epic poem, Gondibert. Hobbes notes up front that he is hindered in two ways because he is 1) incompetent in poetry and 2) flattered by the praise Davenant has lauded him. These hindrances don't prevent Hobbes from detailing a general theory of poetry. He delineates the different types of poetry, discusses the poet and mode of composition, addresses issues of form, content, and style. His ideas are based largely on his philosophy of rational thought and empirical evidence.

Hobbes begins by dividing poetry into three types that correspond with the three types of philosophy and the three "regions of mankind." Philosopy can be divided into "celestial, aerial, and terrestrial." Mankind divides itself into "court, city, and country." Poets write about these three different regions of mankind in "three sorts of poesy, heroic, scommatic, and pastoral." Each of these types of poetry can be conveyed in either a narrative or dramatic form. Hobbes writes:

the heroic poem narrative…is called an epic poem. The heroic poem dramatic is tragedy. The scommatic narrative is satire, dramatic is comedy. The pastoral narrative is called simply pastoral…; the same dramatic, pastoral comedy.

In this way he describes the "six sorts of poesy;" there can be no more or less than that. On the subject of what is a poem, Hobbes reiterates the Aristotelian concept that verse alone does not make poetry. Hobbes sums up the difference between historical or philosophical verse and poetic verse like so:

But the subject of a poem is the manners of men, not natural causes; manners presented, not dictated; and manners feigned, as the name of poesy imports, not found in men.

He goes on to allow that "fictions writ in prose" may be given entrance into the world of poetry because prose delights both in fiction and in style, but, were prose and poetry to contend toe-to-toe, it would be as if prose were "on foot against the strength and wings of Pegasus."

Hobbes addresses briefly the conventions of verse and rhyme in poetry. He iterates that ancient poets created verse to go along with musical accompaniment, which was necessary because of their religious beliefs. He believes that iambic pentameter is the most suited to heroic verse, especially in English, and that rhyme should be consistent and regular.

From there, Hobbes moves on the the notion of the Muse and inspiration. He writes that he does not subscribe to the notion of invoking the Muse, but he also states that he does not "condemn that heathen custom otherwise than as an accessory to their false religion." For Hobbes, the poet should not be relying on inspiration to give him his words. He notes that trifling with divine spirits could bring a danger, "such as is reported of unskillful conjurers, that mistaking the rites and ceremonious points of their art, call up such spirits as they cannot at their pleasure allay again." Hobbes understands and accepts why the Greeks felt inclined to invoke the Muse, but has a harder time allowing it in his contemporary Christian writers:

But why a Christian should think it an ornament to his poem, either to profane the true God or invoke a false one, I can imagine no cause but a reasonless imitation of custom, of a foolish custom, by which a man, enabled to speak wisely from the principals of nature and his own meditation, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a bagpipe.

In statements like this, it becomes apparent that Hobbes holds human knowledge and talent in much higher esteem than a critic such as Plato.

Hobbes determines that in order to write, a poet must possess both Judgement and Fancy. According to Hobbes, "Judgement begets the strength and structure, and Fancy begets the ornaments of a poem." He takes great pains to note that Fancy must be connected to philosophy. Only through the guidance of philosophy can the proper ornamentation be added to a poem. He writes, "He therefore that undertakes a heroic poem, which is to exhibit a venerable and amiable image of heroic virtue, must not only be the poet, to place and connect, but also the philosopher, to furnish and square his matter." Judgement allows a poet to make decisions based upon how the story should be told, but it is Fancy that allows a poet to determine what should be told as well as the meaning of the piece.

Hobbes restricts the subject matter of poetry beyond the Judgement and Fancy of the poet. He writes that poetry is limited by the "resemblance of truth." Truth, for Hobbes, is the physical world as humankind perceives it. He is an empiricist, and looks for evidence to support claims. He writes, "Beyond the actual works of nature a poet may now go; but beyond the conceived possibility of nature, never." A poet can stretch his fiction only so far. Once the subjects of the poem can no longer connect at all with the reality of the world, then the poet has gone too far.

To guide the poet in determining what is fair game for a piece, Hobbes states that a poet must "know well" and "know much." Knowing well will allow a poet to accurately represent his subject as it exists in the "natural world." Hobbes writes:

For in him that profess the imitation of nature, as all poets do, what greater fault can there be than to betray an ignorance of nature in his poem, especially having a liberty allowed him, if he meet with anything he cannot master, to leave it out?

Knowing much aids the poet in his expression. If a poet knows well and much, he will be able to accurately represent reality while expressing this representation in an innovative and interesting light.

Hobbes is convinced that Davenant possesses all of the skills of a poet, and spends the last part of the essay praising Gondibert. While lacking a strain of passion that exists in criticism by literary theorists, it is clear that Hobbes enjoys the experience of reading. He fails to push the envelope of literary theory beyond any of the critics who came before him, but he does bring a refreshing practicality to the discussion.




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