PLATONISM IN ENGLISH POETRY
CHAPTER I: IDEALS OF CHRISTIAN VIRTUES
The fundamental doctrine of Platonism as it was understood
throughout the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the
reality of a heavenly beauty known in and by the soul, as contrasted with
an earthly beauty known only to the sense. In this the Christian philosophic
mind found the basis for its conception of holiness. Christian discipline
and Platonic idealism blended in the “Faerie Queene” in the legend of the
Red Cross Knight.
Spenser is so thoroughly convinced of the truth of
that fundamental idea of Platonic ethics, that truth and beauty are
identical, that he shows their union in the character of Una, in
whom, as her name signifies, they are one.
Convinced, as Spenser was, of the spiritual nature
of the beauty of wisdom, he carefully avoids dwelling upon any detail
of Una’s physical beauty. The poetic form of allegory, through which
his ideas were to be conveyed, required the personification of truth, and
the romantic character of chivalry demanded that his Knight should have
a lady to protect.
...any trace of the poet’s desire to concentrate attention
upon her physical charms.
...yet...Spenser has taken: the greatest care
to show that the source of Una’s influence over those that come into her
presence lies in the power exerted by her beauty...
...Una’s beauty... has a power to win its way upon
the brute creation, and it has a severity and radiance that set it
off from the beauty of physical form possessed by the wood nymphs and even
by the great goddess of love, Venus.
But the Knight, though he had journeyed with her
throughout a great portion of her “wearie journey,” had never been able
to see her face in its native splendor, hidden, as it had always been,
from his sight by the black veil which Una wore.
...wisdom could be seen only by the soul. This
is a fundamental truth, present everywhere in Plato, in the vision
of beauty that rises before the mind at the end of the dialectic of the
“Symposium,” in the species of divine fury that accompanies the recollection
of the ideal world...
While on this Mount he is initiated into a knowledge
of the glories of the Heavenly Jerusalem...
...That great Cleopolis, where I have beene
“Through passing brightnesse, which did quite confound
...the Red Cross Knight descends from the Mount...
Una has now laid aside her black veil, and shines
upon him in the native undimmed splendor of truth.
“But he,” says Plato, “whose initiation is recent,
and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed
when he sees any one having a godlike face or any bodily form which is
the expression of divine beauty.” (“Phaedrus,” 251.) Thus it is that the
Red Cross Knight “Did wonder much at her celestiall sight.” (I.xii.23.)
In the Platonic system of morality there was a conception
of temperance... based upon an analysis of the soul sufficiently comprehensive
to cover the entire scope of its activities...
The vitality of this teaching in English poetry is
found in the second book of Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” celebrating the
exploits of the knight Guyon, “In whom great rule of Temp’raunce goodly
doth appeare.” (Introd. stz.5.)
Up to the sixth book the conflicts in which he is
concerned are those calculated to try his mastery of the angry impulses
of his nature. After the sixth book his struggles record his proficiency
in governing the sensual desires of appetite.
...Plato bases his doctrine of temperance. Within
the soul are three distinct principles — one rational and two irrational.
The irrational principles are, first, the irascible impulse of spirit
...with which a man is angry and, second, the appetitive instinct...
Alma, or the soul. No war is so fierce as that
of the passions with the soul.
But in a body, which doth freely yeeld
...after Spenser had completed his first two books
he had exhausted the ethical teachings of Plato; and when he went on to
his remaining books, he passed out of the sphere of virtue as taught by
Plato into an essentially different realm of thought in which the graces
of courtly accomplishment were dignified as virtues. ...chastity, friendship,
justice, courtesy, and constancy...
...shift his mind from a conception of virtue as
one, to an inferior notion of virtue as a manifold of personal graces.
But in thus changing his idea, he destroyed the unity of his work.
THEORY OF LOVE
I. HEAVENLY LOVE
Heavenly love ...poets meant either the love known
in the soul for the realities of the unseen world or the love which God
had shown to man in his creation and preservation, and which man could
experience through the indwelling of God’s spirit...
...identifying the absolute beauty of Plato with
God, and by applying the Platonic conception of the birth of love to this
Christian conception of God as love, God Himself was understood as enjoying
his own beauty, thus begetting beings like to it in fairness.
Loving itself, this Power brought forth, first the Son.
After the creation of the Son God begets the angels in His beauty.
“Yet being pregnant still with powrefull grace,
After the fall of the angels God finally creates man.
“Such he him made, that he resemble might
“Let me tell you,” says Timaeus, “why the creator
made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have
any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that
all things should be as like himself as they could be.” (Timaeus 29)
The earlier conception of heavenly love... cou1d
not be the subject of a personal treatment; it gave no sufficient outlet
for the passion of love. This was afforded only by that heavenly love which
is the love of man for the unseen realities of the spiritual world. The
full treatment which this latter subject receives in English poetry testifies
to the strong hold which the teachings of Platonism had upon religious
experience in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Platonism afforded
not only the philosophic basis for the object of this passion, but it also
acted as a corrective tendency in checking the influence of an alien idea,
The heavenly beauty celebrated in this “Hymne”
is the Platonic wisdom, Sapience, as Spenser calls it, the same high reality
with which he had identified Una. (186.)
“that Highest farre beyond all telling,
...fairness of her face, he says, none can tell; no
painter or poet can adequately describe her...
It is a love gained through speculation; and though
the object is conceived of as yonder in heaven, it is still the beauty
which is seen here in the mind. (17.)
...Spenser has been able to explain in detail the
way along which the soul must travel to gain its goal. It is the dialectic
of the “Symposium” (211), the progress through ever ascending gradations
“And looke at last up to that soveraine light,
William Drummond’s “Song II—It autumn was, and
on our hemisphere.” ...not the ethical notion of Spenser’s “Hymne,” but
a less stimulating idea of the beauty of an intelligible world of which
this world is but a copy.
...Plotinus in his Enneads (VI.vii.12) as a pure
intelligible world. “For since,” says Plotinus, “we say that this All [the
universe] is framed after the Yonder, as after a pattern...
...and all creatures that inhabit the water, and
all—the tribes of the air are part of the all yonder, and all aerial beings,
for the same reason as Air itself.” In the “Phaedo” (110-111), Plato
lends color to his account by calling attention to the fairness of the
“Above this vast and admirable frame,
O chase not shadows vain, which when obtain’d,
These shadows are worldly honor and fame.
In Drummond heavenly love is a progression out
of the romantic love of woman.
Raphael, accordingly, directs Adam to love only
the rational in Eve’s nature...
“What higher in her society thou find’st
...Phineas Fletcher’s sixth “Piscatorie Eclogue”...
“Then let thy love mount from these baser things,
...just as the transition was easy from the love which God himself knows to the soul’s love of God, so was the change from the love of soul for a higher reality than earthly beauty to the immortal love of God for the soul.
“Now for the greatest Change prepare,
...Norris's “Seraphick Love...
“To thee, thou only Fair, my Soul aspires
...Herbert’s... two sonnets... 1608 ...
“Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
“Is there in truth no beautie?
This idea of catching the truth of a thing at two
removes and the reference to a true and painted chair are reminiscences
of Plato’s discussion of imitative art, and his figure of the three beds.
...throughout this period of religious poetry,
toward a phase of devotional love which may be called erotic mysticism,
or that love for Christ which is characterized less by admiration and more
by tenderness and mere delight in the pure sensuous experience of love.
Christ as the object of this love is conceived
only as the perfection of physical beauty; and the response within the
soul of the lover is that of mere sensuous delight either in the sight
of his personal beauties or in the realization of the union with him. This
strain of religious devotion is heard in Herbert, in Vaughan, and Crashaw.
Whenever Platonism enters into this tender passion
it always elevates the emotion into a higher region, where the more intellectual
or spiritual nature of Christ or God is the object of contemplation...
Plato had taught that in love the mind should pass
from a sight of the objects of beauty through ever widening circles of
abstraction to the contemplation of absolute beauty in its idea.
... “Hymne of Heavenly Love” ...praise of Christ as
the God of Love.
...Crashaw’s “In the Glorious Epiphanie
of Our Lord God” ...
“Thus we, who when with all the noble powres
...Fletcher... the most elaborate attempt
in English poetry to describe the nature of the participation of the soul
in the beauty of the ultimate reality, according to the Platonic notion
of the participation of an object in its idea.
...God — the “Idea Beatificall,” as he names Him —
in accordance with the Platonic notion of the highest principle, The One:
“In midst of this citie cælestiall,
Changer of all things, yet immutable;
He then goes on to explain what the Idea is not.
It is nothing that can be known by sense. It is no flaming lustre, no harmony
of sounds, no ambrosial feast for the appetite, no odor, no soft embrace,
nor any sensual pleasure. And yet within the soul of the beholder it is
known as an inward feast, a harmony, a light, a sound, a sweet perfume,
and entire embrace. Thus he writes:
“It is no flaming lustre, made of light;
“A heav’nly feast, no hunger can consume;
Such was the powerful hold of the doctrines of
Platonism upon the minds of these religious poets.
...passion and reason are wedded into the one supreme
desire of the seeker after wisdom and beauty. Such a conception saved a
large body of English poetry from degenerating into that form of erotic
mysticism which Crashaw’s later poems reveal; and in which there is
no elevation of the mind away from the lower range of sense enjoyment,
but only an introversion of the physical into the intimacies of spiritual
II. EARTHLY LOVE
In the first place, the teachings of that philosophy were used to explain and dignify the conception of love as a passion having its source in a desire for the enjoyment of beauty and in the second place, the emphasis laid by Platonism upon the function of the soul as opposed to the senses resulted in a tendency to treat love as a purely spiritual passion devoid of all sensuous pleasure. In the first phase the teachings of Platonic theory were made to render service according to the conventional love theory known as Petrarchism and in its second
phase Platonism contributed its share in keeping
alive the so-called metaphysical mood of the seventeenth-century lyric.
According to the conventional
method of Petrarchism, the object of the poet’s love was always
a lady of great beauty and spotless virtue, and of a correspondingly great
cruelty. Hence the subjects of the Petrarchian love poem were either the
praise of the mistress’s beauty or an account of the torment of soul
caused by her heartless indifference. By applying the doctrines of Platonism
to this conventional manner, a way was found to explain upon a seemingly
philosophic basis the power of the lover’s passion and of beauty as its
exciting cause. The best example in English of this application of
Platonic theory is Spenser’s two hymns, — “An Hymne in Honour
of Love “ and “An Hymne in Honour of Beautie.”
The professed aim of Spenser
in these hymns differs in no wise from the purpose of the Petrarchian lover.
Both are written to ease the torments of an unrequited passion.
According to Ficino, the greatest representative
of Italian Platonism during the Renaissance, one truth established by the
speech of Eryximachus in the “Symposium” is that love is the creator and
preserver of all things.
“Commentarium in Convivium” ...love may be rightly declared the perpetual bond of the universe and the unmoving support of its parts and the firm basis of the whole mechanism.” (III.3.) Holding to this conception of love Spenser comes to a praise of the “Great god of might, that reignest in the mynd, And all the bodie to thy heat doest frame,”
...Before the world was created love moved over
the warring elements of chaos and arranged them in the order they now obey.
...“Hymne” outlines a general theory of æsthetics
to account for the presence of beauty in the universe lying without us
(82-87); second, it explains the ground of reason for the beauty to be
found in the human body (88-164); and third, it accounts for the exaggerated
notion which the lover has of his beloved’s physical perfections (214-270).
In like manner Spenser says it is the idle wit that
identifies beauty with proportion and color, both of which pass away.
[Hymne of Heavenly Beauty]
“How vainely then doe ydle wits invent,
“Which powre retayning still or more or lesse,
“So every spirit, as it is most pure,
“Yet oft it falles, that many a gentle mynd
“Which seeing now so inly faire to be,
The saying of Diotima to Socrates in the “Symposium,”
— “ Marvel not then at the love which all men have of their offspring;
for that universal love and interest is for the sake of immortality” (208)—
is made to do service in differentiating the passion of love in men from
that in beasts.
[Hymne of Heavenly Love]
“all do live, and moved are
... when the Creator conceived the order of angels,
with whom Ficino identifies the gods of ancient mythology, the love guiding
God was before the angels, hence is the most ancient of the gods; but when
the created angelic intelligences turned in their love to the Creator,
the impelling love was the youngest, coming after the creation of the angels.
According to these notions of the nativity of the god of love, Spenser
opens his “Hymne.”
“Great god of might, that reignest in the mynd,
“Or who alive can perfectly declare,
In a few of Jonson’s masques there are slight
attempts to dignify the subject of love in the manner of Spenser’s “Hymnes.”
“The Masque of Beauty” love is described as the creator of the universe,
and beauty is mentioned as that for which the world was created.
“...Yield Night, then to the light,
“So Beauty on the waters stood,
“So love emergent out of chaos brought
In the same masque love is defined in accordance
with the myth of Penia and Poros:
“Love is the right affection of the mind,
“The father Plenty is, the mother Want,
A more common appropriation of the teachings of Platonism
was made in the love lyrics chiefly the sonnet — written in the Petrarchian
manner. Petrarchism was as much a manner of writing sonnets as it was a
method of making love. On its stylistic side it was characterized by the
use of antitheses, puns, and especially of conceits. In the Platonic
theory of love and beauty a certain amount of material was offered which
could be reworked into a form suited for the compact brevity of the sonnet.
Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare are the three
chief sonnet writers of the last decade of the sixteenth century in whose
work this phase of Platonism is to be found but its presence, though faint,
can be felt in others ...in the manner in which these poets speak of the
beauty of their beloved.
“The wisest scholler of the wight most wise,
Vertue of late with vertuous care to stir
Shakespeare is able to praise the beauty of the
subject of his sonnets by identifying him with the absolute beauty of the
Platonic philosophy, and by describing him in accordance with this notion.
Thus he confesses that his argument is simply the fair, kind, and true,
back of which statement may be inferred the theory upheld by Platonism
that the good, the beautiful, and the true are but different phases of
one reality. His love, he says, cannot be called idolatry because his songs
are directed to this theme, for only in his friend are these three themes
united into one.
“Let not my love be call’d idolatry,
He thus writes of his friend’s beauty as if it
were the substance of beauty, beauty absolute, of which all other beauty
is but a reflection.
“What is your substance, whereof are you made,
“My hungry eyes through greedy covetize,
“It is Enough to me,
“Be silent then,
“That learned Grecian, who did so excel
“Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
“O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
The application of the tenets of Platonic theory
to the writing of love lyrics in the Petrarchian manner, however, was never
anything more than a courtly way of making love through exaggerated conceit
and fine writing.
...Greville... tenth sonnet of his “Cælica”
“...that heavenly quire
The love of the idea of beauty, however, in
its absolute nature is nowhere present in the mass of love lyrics
written between 1590 and 1600. The term is used to give title to Drayton’s
“Idea,” and to denominate the object of twelve sonnets addressed by Craig
to “Idea”; and anagrams on the French word for the term L’Idée,
Diella and Delia, are used to name two series of poems by Linche and Samuel
Daniel, respectively. Crashaw’s “Wishes” is addressed to “his (supposed)
mistresse,” as an idea. No better commentary on the whole movement
can be made than these words of Spenser in which it is easily seen how
the method conduced only to feeding the lower desires of the soul in
...Spenser “...I was moved . . . to call in the
same. But being unable so to doe, by reason that many copies thereof
were formerly scattered abroad, I resolved at least to amend, and by
way of retraction to reforme them, making in stead of those two Hymnes
of earthly or naturall love and beautie, two others of heavenly and celestiall.”
The great representative of Platonism in English poetry
thus condemns the less vital phase of Platonic thought. The great weakness
of the theory lay in the fact that it had no moral significance; and just
here lay the great strength of Plato’s ethics.
...because it is a theory not of Plato but of Plotinus,
who throughout the period of the Renaissance was understood to expound
the true meaning of Plato’s thought.
The Platonic theory of love had enabled the English
poets to write about their passion as a desire of enjoying the spiritual
quality of beauty in their beloved. In those poets in whom the Petrarchistic
manner is evident, it is the object of love on which the attention centres;
only in a slight way did they treat of the nature of love as a passion.
...Platonism ended, however, in an attempt to place love upon a purely spiritual basis and to write about it as if it were a psychological fact that was to be known by analysis. A consideration of beauty as the object of love, is absent; attention is directed to the quality of the passion as one felt in the soul [sic] rather than by the sense...
This highly metaphysical conception of love, the
character of which has been shown in a few selected examples, became in
the course of time known as “ Platonic Love.” Scattered throughout
the lyric poetry of the seventeenth century may be found certain poems
labelled “Platonic Love.” Their presence among the author’s work is
no testimony whatsoever that it is colored by any strain of Platonism,
but merely signifies that at one time in his career the poet wrote love
lyrics according to the prevailing manner of the time. For about 1634 Platonic
love was a court fad.
Howell, writing under date of June 3, 1634, says:
“The Court affords little News at present, but that there is a Love call’d
Platonick Love which much sways there of late: it is a Love abstracted
from all corporeal gross Impressions and sensual Appetite, but consists
in Contemplations and Ideas of the Mind, not in any carnal Fruition. This
Love sets the Wits of the Town on work; and they say there will be a Mask
shortly of it, whereof Her Majesty and her Maids of Honour will be part.”
The masque referred to is D’Avenant’s “The Temple of Love” (1634). In Thomas Heywood’s “Love’s Mistress or the Queen’s Masque” (1640) the myth of Cupid and Psyche is interpreted in accordance with the notion of Platonic love; and in D’Avenant’s “ Platonick Lovers” (1636) the subject of Platonic love is ridiculed. It is probable that the rise of this custom at the court was due to the presence of Henrietta Maria, the queen of Charles I. Margaret of Valois had made Platonic love known in France; and had shown how licentiousness of conduct was ocmpatible with its practice...delighted to be call’d Venus Urnaia.” It is probable that the young queen wished to follow such an example...