Geoffrey de Vinsauf / Platonic reversal / between 1199 and 1216


Siquis habet fundare domum, non currit ad actum

Impetosa manus: intrinseca linea cordis

Praemetitur opus, seriemque sub ordine certo

Inferior praescribit homo, totamque figurat

Ante manus cordis quam corporis; et status ejus

Est prius archetypus quam sensilis. Ipsa poesis

Spectet in hoc speculo quae lex sit danda poetis.


(from Poetria nova, lines 43 – 49)


If anyone is to lay the house foundations, he doesn’t act

With impetuous hand: the intrinsic lines of the heart

Measure out the work, the inner man determines the stages

Ahead and in a certain order; the whole is figured forth

By the heart’s before the body’s hands; and they form

The arche-model first before the senses. Poetry itself

Looks into this mirror to see the given laws for poets.


Poetria nova is a treatise on rhetoric which also embodies every example, layering rhetorical techniques over each other. This doubling begins with its first section on developing a plan and idea for writing. As earlier writers on God’s creation and on rhetoric had done (the Latin root aedifcio connecting edifice to edify*), Geoffrey de Vinsauf begins with the metaphor of house building. Its plan is complex and must precede the first stone being laid. This is clearly a Platonic model of image and substance, but the architectural metaphor is interlocked from the start with a bodily one, complicating original and copy or image and creation. The not-impetuous hand (impetosa manus) of the house builder becomes the interior “manus cordis” (heart’s hand). The exterior foundations become the prior “intrinseca linea cordis” (intrinsic lines of the heart). That the interior is already actualised as a bodily metaphor to match the exterior is a doubling pun on this dual creation, before the body’s hand the heart’s hand (Ante manus cordis quam corporis), cordis and corporis in fact both sharing the same instance of ‘manus’. This mixed interior and exterior is then doubled again in the mirror (in hoc speculo) of the last line of this excerpt: the interior model (the Platonic archetypus or arche-model) which precedes the building reflects the laws of poets; these laws are a substance which precede poetry’s actualisation just as the whole of Poetria nova is a mirror to itself as it explicates the laws of writing while also embodying them. In a miniature rendering of this within the sentence which states it, ‘poetry itself’ (Ipsa poesis) sits above lex sit danda poetis (the laws for poets), the latter having passed from poetry and through the mirror (speculo) to the left of the line, changed from substance into law. The substance of creation reverses out from the dual reflection and into live writing, and circles back. This circle escapes a restrictive borrowing of Platonic allegory in which the creation would simply be an enlarged copy of the interior model. There is no original beginning as the interior model in Poetria nova is already in the form of ‘lines’ (linea) as an image of a greater, truer poem further down if the Platonic model comes to the fore. There is also no end as the form which copies the plan can itself be an image and a model for another reversal and intermixing of inside and out when the text is read or the building entered into. This is the whole which is the figuring forth of totamque figurat (line 46), the whole figure of ideal become reality.



Katharina Berger-Meister explicates the Latin root aedifcio in her chapter ‘Mouth, Ears, Eyes: The Body in, behind and between the Lines of the Text’ in Fleshly Things and Spiritual Matters: Studies on the Medieval Body in Honour of Margaret Bridges (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), page 44. The popularity of Poetria nova across Europe is partly attributable to its ‘doubling’ of subject and form, and this is explored in Margaret Curry Woods’ Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Ohio State University Press, 2010). Roy Erikson in The Building in the Text: Alberti to Shakespeare and Milton (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001, page 7) argues that the sequence poeis / spectet / speculo / poetis in the lines discussed represents an ‘a b b a’ structure, this in itself mirroring architecture according to Erikson’s own thesis concerning buildings in text. The idea of Platonic reversals is drawn from Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense and its chapter ‘The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy’.



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