Indulge in a sweet feast of rewrites

The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume III
November 17, 2000

Renaissance literary criticism is a huge, and clearly elastic business. New critical perspectives have stretched its agenda, and will, I suppose, go on stretching it. Certainly, there are more things on the Renaissance critical table now than were ever dreamt of by, say, Wimsatt and Brooks. And most of them are in Glyn Norton's superb new anthology of essays on the period and its critical concerns. Norton's anthology (as we will call it) presents the latest Renaissance stretch model - stretched as far as a single pair of covers will, I would guess, so we will perhaps not see its like again. Meanwhile, its huge and impressive range and scope make its arrival an occasion for great rejoicing.

Here are 61 chapters on many things of importance - a plenitude for the literary historian so utterly utile that reading through it is quite flabbergastingly dulce , if you will excuse the expression. It is hard to think of any major theme, area or angle that is missing from this crowd of subjects. Here are considerations of all the ancient critical big hitters and the huge roster of their post-medieval interpreters from across western Europe: England, France, Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, the German-speaking world. The mere historical information here, the data of transmission and translation, editing, commentary, publication and debate, from early humanism to late 17th-century neoclassicism, are wonderfully full.

Here, in droves, come the theories and theorists, and the theories about them. Here are discussions of key practices, principles and problems galore; meditations on translation problems, poetics, rhetoric, schooling, exegesis, invention, imitation, prose fiction; analyses of genre and genres, the big ones such as tragedy and epic and satire, but also the lesser ones such as conversation and the essay: their nature, their history, their risings and fallings, their transformations and adaptation and eventual break-up during the rise of the novel. There is also a hard focus on the contexts of criticism, nations, cities, courts, salons, universities, coteries, sodalities, all the various local stories of criticism, all nicely crisped in the pan of gender, race and class. There are chapters on big ideas, such as Neoplatonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, the New Science, Calvinism, Jansenism, Port-Royalisme. And so on.

The compendious range of the discussion is not in itself astounding. All these topics have had their airings (as the extremely useful bibliography indicates). But it is the fact of them being collected in one volume, mapped in single critical-historical atlas, that makes for amazement. And back to back and side by side like this, so many items come into a lovely sharp focus they have not enjoyed before.

Who, for instance, would have thought Calvinism was important in the neoclassicising story? "Calvinist aesthetics" - it is almost an oxymoron, you might think, as Richard Waswo puts it in his discussion of the subject. But you will not think that anymore. And that sort of repositioning, or re-perspectivising, is characteristic of the sheer educative worth of this book's bulky informations. Maps inevitably get redrawn when so much extra is packed in.

It would be surprising, given this bulk, if there were not some aspects to shade one's great enthusiasm. One problem is that there is a certain scattering of fire, so that the reader will have to do some of the connective work. There is some repetition (here comes katharsis or inventio or Ben Jonson again). Occasionally the contents do not live up to their editorial gloss. Chapters 51-55 are a fine mish-mash, typical of the book at its best, about critical combativeness in England, rhetorical ideals in France, Cartesian aesthetics, principles of judgement in France (decorum, taste, and so on) and Longinus and sublimity. The section they comprise is headed "Neoclassical issues: beauty, judgement, persuasion, polemics". But there is almost nothing directly about beauty in it, and the conventional later 17th and early 18th-century neoclassical menu is scarcely addressed.

(In fact the later end of this compendium's story does get very fuzzy: symptomatic, it seems to me, of how too little thought has been given to the terminus ad quem of what might be meant by "Renaissance". We hear a lot about Dryden, but nothing about Pope or Dr Johnson, let alone about Swift, even though he gets mentioned occasionally for engagement in the battle of the books between Ancients and Moderns.) The book's admirable listings efforts, another of its glories, can also go awry. Sometimes the editor loses sight of the fact that this is a story of criticism, as mere lists of local poems or plays accumulate (as in the Calvinism chapter). (Why does Marga Cottino-Jones not tell us what the views of the tragic actually were that the Aristotelian Trissino "expounded" in the preface to his Sofonisba (1529), or elaborate on how he "elaborated" on Aristotle's Poetics in his two-part commentary of 1529 and 1562?) And there a few downright flops and the occasional silly misjudgement. I am sorry that Wesley Trimpi's discussion of Sidney's Apology for Poetry is so tame, mostly a mere recapitulation of the contents (why not try to explain some of those knotty allegations, such as that the poet "nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth"?). And Nicholas Cronk is guilty of setting up an utterly false critical-historical straw man in his chapter "Aristotle, Horace and Longinus: the conception of reader response" ("The rhetorical complexion of literary criticism in the 16th and 17th centuries focuses attention on the poet as 'maker' of the text rather than on the reader (listener) as 'maker of sense' of the text"), in order to come striding in as the superior informed one who will set us straight about this "apparent neglect of the reader". There is simply no contest here. There was no neglect of the reader. You cannot be obsessed with katharsis and the question of how utile and how dulce writings might be, as simply everyone in the period was, without being dotty about issues of reader response.

Poor, as well, but much more so, is Anne Laker Prescott on "Humour and satire in the Renaissance". She is wrong to confuse satire with humour as a constant of the mode ("Juvenal burns, Persius taunts and only Horace smiles", as she quotes Scaliger saying; and the same applies to their imitators); wrong, too, to suggest "the energy went out of satire in the Juvenalian or Persian manner" after Elizabeth's reign; wrong, again, to think "the disciplined couplets of Dryden and Pope" precluded viciousness. She is also misleading about the implications of the old idea of satire as a satura lanx , a full plate of mixed meats (farce-meat, force-meat; the material of farce and, of course, of sexual aggression - stuffing, no less).

But these are relatively minor complaints - small critical farcings, as it were, amid a generally forceful mass of materials. Materials forceful not least because they are so revelatory about modern literary criticism: how it arose and defined itself in relation to the classical models, how it survived and flourished by deft misappropriations, creative misreadings, by canny time-serving adaptations to local, national and political needs, as well as by sensible accommodations to what the actual contemporary producers of plays and stories and poems were doing, despite all the hand-tying and binding stipulations of the neighbourhood authoritarian rule makers.

The Renaissance begins, and continues, by exploiting the great possibilities for opportunism in translation of the classics and the Bible, and by greedily seizing on the enticing gappiness and spottiness and mysteria of the ancient texts - especially Aristotle's scrappy, laconic Poetics , and the vagueness of Horace's resounding slogans. What exactly does katharsis mean? Or ethos, or mimesis, or imitatio , or inventio , or tragedy, or the Unities?

What should be expected from the slogan ut pictura poiesis ? The arguments went round and round Europe. The rule makers - moralisers, ideologues, princes, gents, authoritarians eager to have communities and writers toe the line, and to keep writing and imagination and the emotions of audiences under their thumb - insisted they knew; but in vain. Even as they were insisting, as this volume keeps very nicely revealing, the game was up. Scaliger's first names might be Julius Caesar, but that was as far as real and lasting critical imperialism would go. The ideas of language's force had been relativised, personalised, de-authorised, in the great movement of translation and vernacularisation. (The merits of the editor's introductions include its invocations of 20th-century linguistic doubts.) Latinity's time was up even as it seemed to be calling the shots. The individualism of taste was soon being realised, and the truly local nature of critical authority established.

The beauty of the ancients, of course, was their malleability. You rolled your own authorities with abandon. Variant Aristotles and Horaces (and for that matter Petrarchs) abounded, from critic to critic, country to country. The idea that the survival of the authoritative text, the classic, depends on its rereadability and rewritability was well under way. Both royalist Davenant and puritan Milton can pay their Aristotelian dues, claim his authority for their opposed postures, and feel equally justified in so doing. And the more translations, handbooks, school textbooks and guides for the unlearned and for women (Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie was not the only critical guide aimed at women) the more personalised the old critical authorities and thus critical practice became.

Soon even women were having their say. And, of course, once you embarked on the process of opening the critical door to the wider populace, to reforming consciousnesses, to republicans, let alone to women - as the Renaissance essentially does, vernacularising hard, getting mixed up all over Europe with the Reformation's revisionists and so on - any neoclassicising ambition for control over genre, generic hierarchy, generic boundaries, form, style, what is decorous and fitting and what people should like in literature, soon goes out of the window, exposed in all its authoritarian (male, ruler-class, gentry, Jesuitical) nakedness. Thomas Rymer may rant; the French may sneer; but the English have their Bard and his formally mongrelised Histories and Tragi-Comedies. And very soon, the novel, the great abuser and transgressor of the classicist's generic hedges becomes the dominant mode for the West's moderns. The Rules? They are just "musty", says Aphra Behn, speaking for every progressive, or just arriviste, reader and writer.

In one of the best chapters here, Terence Cave dwells on the permanence of critical struggles between Ancients and Moderns. In its offering of such critical realisations, this book's story of criticism in the Renaissance reveals a sort of permanent pattern for how criticism proceeds. Norton's anthology makes a permanent contribution, not least because it alerts us to how criticism is now, not just to how it was then: showing up criticism's constant need for innovation; its survival by constant refocusing and retooling and through the conveniently malleable patchiness and gappiness of its materials; its perpetual cycle of assumed and discarded authority and authorities; its parasitic association with national and other ideologies; the precarious support and legitimisation it seeks in creative writers. All sobering stuff. And possibly even worth £75.00 to have it brought home so forcibly.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, University of Oxford.

The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume III: The Renaissance

Editor - Glyn P. Norton
ISBN - 0 521 30008 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 758

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