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The Poetry of Paradox: Book I of Petrus Lotichius' Elegies

Joseph Tipton

Department of World Languages & Cultures, Winthrop University

One of the greatest obstacles encountered in the study of the early modern period is one of definitions. For the two major intellectual movements there is a wide range of opinions as to how they should be defined. Scholasticism is alternately a philosophy rejected by the humanists or a methodology appreciated and appropriated by them, while humanism is either a cultural program, a movement towards civic-mindedness, a secular challenging, if not flaunting, of norms, or a development driven by real religious fervor. One of the greatest victims of this definition crisis is a large group of writers and thinkers who in cultivating the artes liberales bear a striking resemblance to the humanists, but in their espousal of the Protestant Reformation appear committed to the "Old Learning." The trend is to treat these "Protestant humanists" as either humanists or reformers according to the work in question. If a writer's dialogues are discussed, he is a humanist; if a biblical commentary is in question, he becomes a reformer. The resulting picture is one of literary and intellectual schizophrenia in which these writers appear to wear two different, sometimes incompatible, hats.

This picture, while far from satisfactory, still contains a germ of truth. Protestant humanists did often find themselves committed to programs whose commitments sometimes did not harmonize. However, to proceed on the assumption of a "schizophrenia" obscures the fact that these Protestant humanists themselves were acutely aware of being committed to two sometimes dissonant programs. Not only that, but it also hinders literary criticism by obfuscating an important function of their literary activity: mediation between their humanist and Protestant identities.

This function of Protestant literary activity is most evident in the first book of Latin elegies published in 1551 by Petrus Lotichius Secundus, one of the century's most celebrated Neo-Latin poets (Auhagen & Schäfer). In my paper I have examined this short book of ten elegies as an artistic whole instead of interpreting Lotichius on the basis of individual poems. Specifically, I have charted how the leitmotif of the book, war and peace, gradually unravels as the book progresses. Depending on the poem, Lotichius either celebrates peace as a humanist or recognizes the need for war as a Protestant. This seeming inconsistency is reconciled, however, when one recognizes that Lotichius is using the whole book to take his readers through experiences, ostensibly "his," of a soldier during the Schmalkaldic War. Rejecting the biographical approach (Zon), I have argued that Lotichius thus explores the polarities of life in war and peace so as to bring to the surface the dilemma Protestant humanists found themselves in between their humanist ideals and the demands of their conscience. The one side of this dilemma is brought to a head in Elegy IV, where Altus, the addressee, is exhorted to convey Lotichius' necessity to fight to their mutual friends, while the other surfaces in the last elegy, Elegy X, where Lotichius celebrates the restoration of peace and characterizes his book as a requies grata mali.

The resulting picture is paradoxical. This book of elegies, in which war is so clearly decried, issues from a persona committed to the war effort. However, I have argued that the paradox is the point. To abstain from war jeopardizes the Protestant cause; to engage in it threatens to brutalize the humanitas he has cultivated since youth. Lotichius responds to this dilemma by creating a paradox in his poetry, leaving it unresolved, and instead drawing attention to the function of his book as a requies grata mali. In doing so he creates a way to give himself over to the war effort without being brutalized by an excessively partisan enthusiasm for it. The result is a hitherto unexplored use of Neo-Latin poetry as a mechanism to mediate between the demands made on the individual by the Protestant and humanist programs. 

Session/Panel Title

Neo-Latin Around the World

Session/Paper Number

14.5

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