Boccaccio, Giovanni

Assigned: Boccaccio, Giovanni. From Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, from Book 14 (202-09). Also read the editors’ introduction (200-02).

From Genealogy of the Gentile Gods (1350-62)

From Book 14

V. Other Cavillers at the Poets and Their Imputations

1. On 202 (“There is also, O most serene of rulers…”), Boccaccio offers a word-painting of the House of Philosophy and its Ruler—an image that, as the Norton editors point out, may remind readers of Boethius’ dealings with Lady Philosophy in Consolations of Philosophy (circa 524 CE). Who is present in this House, and what effect does it have on those who view it and enter it? To what extent is Boccaccio, by means of this portrait, allying poetry with philosophy?

2. On 202-04 (“But there is also another group…”), how does Boccaccio describe the people who frequent the House of Philosophy and do it violence by their presence? What are their motives for being present there? What styles or shows of erudition do they indulge in, and what effect do they hope to have upon ordinary, unlearned people? How is Boccaccio reminding his readers of the supposed “fallenness” of humanity—its propensity to allow base desires and ambition to pervert even the most noble pursuits and make them serve wicked ends? What do such people as Boccaccio describes seem to have against poetry? What charges do they level against it?

VII. The Definition of Poetry, Its Origin, and Function

3. On 204-06 (“This poetry, which ignorant triflers cast…”), Boccaccio makes the traditional claim that poetry is divinely inspired, that it “proceeds from the bosom of God” (204). To what extent does the inspiration to which he refers enfold within itself certain technical components of artistic creation—in other words, when God inspires a poet, what poetic activities and capacities does that inspiration work upon? Moreover, to what extent does Boccaccio suggest that the making of poetry involves consciously directed craft? (205) What practical purposes does Boccaccio attribute to poetry—what can it do for people in the world at large? Finally, why does he object to attempts to link poetry with rhetoric, the art of persuasion? (206)

XII. The Obscurity of Poetry Is Not Just Cause for Condemning It

4. On 206-07 (“These cavillers further object…”), according to Boccaccio, what do poetry’s detractors say about its tendency to be difficult or obscure? What use does he make of Scripture, classical philosophy, and metaphoric imagery in defense of poetry’s right to be something other than immediately comprehensible? According to Boccaccio, what is the poet’s duty when “matters truly solemn and memorable are too much exposed” (207)?

5. On 207-09 (“Wherefore I again grant that…”), in Boccaccio’s view (and Saint Augustine’s; see Leitch 164-77), what is the true use of poets’ tendency to “veil the truth with fiction” (208 top)? In what sense, according to Augustine in his commentaries, does this veiling or obscurity actually serve the cause of truth, and amount to a sort of heuristic (from the Greek verb, ἑυρίσκω, heurískō, “I discover or find”) or educational device? What psychological point about learning does Boccaccio borrow from Francis Petrarch to cap his defense of difficulty in poetry? (209)

6. On 209 (“But I repeat my advice…”), what advice does Boccaccio offer “those who would appreciate poetry, and unwind its difficult involutions”? He alludes to Matthew 7:6, writing, “For we are forbidden by divine command to give that which is holy to dogs, or to cast pearls before swine.” Ultimately, what claim about poetry’s dignity and affinities does such scriptural borrowing advance?

7. General question: In our selection from Genealogy of the Gentile Gods, Giovanni Boccaccio justifies what many consider the excessive difficulty of poetry. When you encounter a very difficult text (say, Faulkner’s or Henry James’ or David Foster Wallace’s novels, T. S. Eliot’s or Wallace Stevens’ poetry, etc.), do you find that quality of it alienating, or do you take a favorable view of the challenge that faces you as a reader? How much do your preferred kinds of poetry, fiction, or drama demand of their audience? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake