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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Forest

Continuing a review of the titles of occasional pieces, this entry is on the forest, silva in Latin or hyle in Greek. Why occasional pieces? Because short pieces, one-liners, sound-bites were the hall-mark of much of the symbolic literature and it is instructive to examine their origin.

A starting place is Aulus Gellius ( 2nd century CE). In the Introduction to his Attic Nights, he accounts and apologizes for his title, citing some thirty other words for collections of anecdotes, poems or stories by his contemporaries or predecessors. Amongst these thirty is Silva together with other pastoral words (meadows, flower gardens) and indeed the Peplos which we have discussed before. It is interesting that both Silva as wood, material, and Peplos as something woven, figure amongst the most primitive necessities for an early society and thus not unexpectedly are amongst the earliest words to develop a metaphorical meaning.

Hyle is first used by Aristotle to describe material and hylomorphic represents his concept that existence requires both material and form. Silva, the Latin synonym of hyle shows a similar semantic progression from forest, to the material wood, to any type of material, to subject matter.

As a digression, we can note that Plato in the Timaeus avoids the use of the word hyle in his description of what the universe was made from. He says (47e) that the world came into existence through a combination of intelligence and necessity, the intelligence (or providence, fate) being that of the creator, the Demiurge. The question is what is 'necessity', his word, ananke? Plato actually avoids an answer to the question but goes on immediately to discuss the four elements fire, water, earth and air. Calcidius (early 4thC CE) in his commentary on the Timaeus, which was the only work on or by Plato available in the Middle Ages, says (268) that by necessity is meant hyle using the self-serving logic that material was necessary for anything to exist. But this conclusion colored later belief that the unfolding of the universe was determined i.e. necessary, although Plato in the same breath (48a) actually introduces the indeterminate or random cause as a factor in creation.

As another digression, it is possible that there may be an etymological connection between Hyle and Troy. It may be that Hyle at one stage was pronounced without the breathing, i. e. as Ili and this may be the origin of Ilion (See Robert Lamberton's Homer's Ancient Readers Princeton 1992 p132) It is suggested that the Iliad was an allegory of the struggle of the soul to conquer the material earthly prison of its body while the Odyssey was a similar allegory where, by contrast, the sea represents materiality. Thus, it is only when Odysseus finally plants his oar in a place where no one recognizes what it is (i. e. well away from the sea) that his soul is finally free. The sea as materiality or a representation of silva was apparently commonly recognized and is specifically stated as such in Pophryry's Cave of the Nymphs (17). Indeed the sea as a tempestuous and chaotic medium is a good representation of Plato's belief that the universe was created out of chaos, silva, rather than the Aristotelian from silva/hyle.

Returning to literature, we can detect the semantic progression clearly in the Silvae of Statius (1stC CE), one of the first works with such a title, which was both a series of short pieces and, as he himself points out, only raw material or rough drafts of what he presumably intended to polish up later, although this may have been a literary subterfuge to emphasize his artistry since he also explains he took no longer than two days to complete any one of the poems. If this was his aim, he succeeded, since Dante, rather surprisingly, calls him one of the greatest classical poets of all, second only to Virgil himself.

We know of two other classical authors who wrote or made collections of short pieces, Silvae or Hyle, Valerius Probus (late 1stC CE) and Ateius Philologus, (1st C BCE) the latter going over the top and apparently writing 800 books of them. Quintilian (1stC CE) in his Institutio Oratoria, the classic work on Rhetoric, describes the Silva as a rough draft (10, 3, 17).

The two shades of meaning of Silva carried right through to medieval times and later. In both Mansion's edition of the Ovide Moralize and Mielot's translation of the Speculum Humanae, the authors employ the same parable to justify the practice of relying on these short extracts. They both describe how a group of workers fells a large tree and each one of them takes from it different pieces to suit his own purpose, one to build his house and another his boat. Ben Jonson also exhibits both uses of the word. In the preface to his Under-Wood he says, 'the Ancients called that kind of body, Sylva or Hyle, in which there were works of divers nature, and matter congested.' In his Timber, he points out that 'Silva, [is] the raw material of facts and thoughts, hyle, timber as it were.' (see D. H. Radcliffe, Sylvan States p799). By the late Renaissance, Silvae were appearing thick and fast. There were works by Poliziano, Sanzaro, Barclay, Buchanan, Cowley, Fletcher and Dryden which contain collections of poetry.

In another blog, I shall deal with another aspect of the Renaissance forest, its literary significance as a dark and dangerous place, symbolic of the subconscious, as it appears in works such as the Commedia and the Hypnerotomachia Polifili.

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