Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England, by Ramie Targoff

Peter J. Smith on the Elizabethan poets’ rejection of the Petrarchan faith in posthumous passion

May 8, 2014

Ramie Targoff concludes her study of the early modern poetics of mortality with a reading of Philip Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb. Appearing at the end of The Whitsun Weddings (1964), it functions as an epitaph for the collection, and its final line, “What will survive of us is love”, is often read as a triumphant endorsement of love after death. Targoff attributes the longevity of this sentiment to the work of the sculptor (of the poem’s tomb) and concludes that the last line “testifies not only to the power of love lived, but also to the power of love made”. Paintings, sculptures, sonnets create “works that move us, surprise us, survive”. But in reading the poem thus, Targoff overlooks that typically mischievous and corrosively Larkinesque trick of the half-rhyme: “and to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love”. In failing to quote the poem in its seven stanzas (she runs them together as a single verse paragraph), Targoff overlooks the full rhymes of every stanza except the last. Quite apart from the knowing hesitancy of those “almost”s, the eye-rhyme – “prove”/“love” – underlines the desire for love’s immortality even as it insists on its non-existence.

This misreading is especially perplexing because Larkin is actually maintaining a tradition, the origins of which Targoff traces through the poetry of Thomas Wyatt, Barnabe Barnes, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton and Edmund Spenser, the drama (and poetry) of Shakespeare, the carpe diem of John Donne and Robert Herrick and the necrophiliac obscenity of Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. In what she calls her “limit cases”, she considers Henry King’s bereft Exequy and Milton’s “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint”.

This English tradition departs in one vital (or should that be mortal?) respect from its Petrarchan precedent: it roundly asserts “love’s mortal limits”. In the Italian tradition, saturated by Neoplatonic philosophy, earthly was transformed into celestial love. But, argues Targoff, “the fact that Wyatt never imagines an afterlife for love represents one of his most significant alterations to the Petrarchan tradition”.

In the main, her readings are astute and persuasive. In Romeo and Juliet, “Shakespeare gives us a relentlessly materialist view of both love and death”. There can be no afterlife for the lovers and, moreover, “they are also denied the intimacy of a private tomb”. Herrick’s priapic carpe diem never attempts “to compensate for, but instead capitalize[s] on the nothingness that awaits the lovers in the afterlife”. Marvell’s Coy Mistress dramatises “a fully consuming union whose sheer intensity rips through this world to the abyss of death”.

Missing from these analyses, however, is an explanation of why the English sensibility rejected the comforting faith in posthumous love. Targoff offers only the rather limp “Protestant suspicion of speaking to the dead” and mentions “the church’s hardening boundaries between the living and the dead”. But the abandonment of faith in the possibility of post-mortem intimacy is so determined that it demands further exploration. Feste’s glum nihilism, in Twelfth Night, is not that far from Larkin’s: “What is love? ’Tis not hereafter,/Present mirth hath present laughter./What’s to come is still unsure.” The unanswered question lurking in this fearful dubiousness is what prompted it in the first place.

Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England

By Ramie Targoff
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £28.00
ISBN 9780226789590 and 6110462 (e-book)
Published 5 May 2014

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