For Vico, poetry
ultimately has a divine source. This connects his view with
the Platonic view of poetry as a function of inspiration. But,
unlike Plato, Vico sees poetry itself--along with all of the
other creations of humanity that make up civilization--as an
object in itself worthy of study.
Pope's dictum that "the proper study of mankind is
man." the only way to properly study man is to study the
things he has made: religion, history, law, language, and (among
other things) poetry. Vico believed that the principles
discoverable in civilization would be found to be the principles
of the human mind; thus the mesocosm could be studied in order
to better understand the workings of the microcosm.
revolves around a teleological myth he constructed out of an
amalgamation of Biblical and pagan sources. First, there appears
among the various peoples of the world a recollection of a
Flood. Second, all traditions--that Vico was aware of--mention a
time when Giants dominated the world. God took the descendants
of Shem under his wing and left those of Ham and Japeth to fend
for themselves. These descendants became the giants who
established civilization. they became giants by fighting for
their food with the beasts of the wild. Eventually, climactic
change brought thunderstorms. The flashing light and
tremendous noise terrified the people, causing them to look to
the skies. The fear they experienced led them to invent gods:
the first step, according to Vico, on the path to civilization.
springs out of this "crude metaphysics," invented
during the period when humanity "were all robust sense and
vigorous imagination," but lacked the "power of
ratiocination." According to Vico "their poetry was
at first divine, because . . . they imagined the causes of the
things they felt and wondered at to be gods." The
"first theological poets" (later priests,
philosophers, and "secular" poets) wrote the first
poems "of Jove, king and father of men and gods, in the act
of hurling the lightning bolt." these poets--in what the
French ethnologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl called participation
mystique--imbued the entire cosmos with "animate"
(divine) substance. Thus poetry originated, for Vico, as an
attempt to understand humanity's place in the cosmos and as a
further attempt to get into accord with that cosmos.
Vico proposes three functions for poetry:
1) "to invent sublime fables intended to suit the
2) "to perturb to excess, with a view to the end
3) "to teach the vulgar to act virtuously."
Vico also proposes four primary poetic tropes:
1) Metaphor--a figurative expression in which a word
which ordinarily means one thing is applied to another thing,
implying a likeness between the two;
2) Metonymy--a figure of speech that consists in
substituting for the name of a thing an attribute of it or
something which it naturally suggests;
3) Synedoche--a figure by which a more comprehensive term
is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa--a part for a
whole or a whole for a part; and
4) Irony--a figure in which the ordinary meanings of the
words are opposite of the thought conveyed.