Brian Vickers. English Renaissance Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 672pp. ISBN 0 19 818679 7

Joseph Tate
University of Washington

Tate, Joseph. "Review of Brian Vickers, English Renaissance Literary Criticism." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 11.1-11 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/revtate.htm>.

  1. English Renaissance Literary Criticism seeks to provide, as Vickers writes, "general readers as well as scholars" (xv), with a comprehensive collection of English Renaissance literary criticism. It contains an impressive collection of carefully selected texts and excerpts, both familiar and unfamiliar, that represent what Vickers calls the period's “perfectly coherent theory of literature” (vii). The ultimate goal of the volume, which it achieves with mixed results, is to situate the chosen documents, "in a newly defined historical context" (vii). The anthologizing of Renaissance literary criticism, however, has its own history that can tell us much about how the present volume re-imagines the genealogy of English Renaissance literary criticism. Therefore, before continuing, I turn attention to two anthologies from around 1900 to which Vickers' collection pays tribute.

  2. Vickers' anthology is the first of its kind in nearly a century, as the jacket notes announce, but that is only true if you disregard O. B. Hardison's 1963 anthology English Literary Criticism: The Renaissance. Vickers is more intent on remembering two much older anthologies, the first of which is G. Gregory Smith's two- volume Elizabethan Critical Essays (1904). Organized chronologically, as such anthologies are, it begins in 1570 with selected remarks from Roger Ascham's The Scholemaster and ends in the second volume with Samuel Daniel's 1603 pamphlet, A Defense of Rhyme. In between, one finds the likely inclusions of George Puttenham, George Gascoigne and Sir Philip Sidney, along with some relatively obscure and engrossing documents that include excerpts from correspondence between Spenser and Gabriel Harvey, as well as King James VI of Scotland's 1584 treatise on the Reulis and Cautelis to be obseruit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie. The methodology governing Smith's selection criteria seems indiscriminately inclusive at times (his task, as he puts it, is to corral the "inchoate, and to some extent irregular character of Elizabethan criticism" (xiii)), but the near riotous eclecticism produces a volume replete with inexhaustibly interesting texts and excerpts, complete with appendices of additional resources.

  3. Just four years later, Joel Spingarn edited the magisterial three-volume set entitled Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, which surveys the undulating and vast terrain of criticism from 1605 to 1700. Spingarn's method yields a collection more sternly systematic than Smith's. His opening introductory paragraph proclaims that English criticism "has its origins in the Italy of the later Renaissance" (ix). The Italians, with their, "ancient literary heritage," essentially introduced "the England of Sidney's age to the formal study of literature, and English criticism began." With a few commanding rhetorical gestures, he links the formative moment of English criticism with Italian Renaissance humanism and the classical ideals it vigorously pursued, thus simultaneously acknowledging the seventeenth-century context of the criticism and the distant but pervasive pressures exerted by the classical period.

  4. Differences aside, Smith and Spingarn share an astute critical acumen steeped in the period's history, and both in their introductions unfold how contemporary pressures (evident in Puritan invectives and other anti-theatrical tracts) and classical influences of the time shaped the variety of critical opinions. And variety, here, is the operative word, for as Smith states and Spingarn would have agreed, any editor of the period's criticism should be cautioned against making "a too absolute 'composite' out of the variety" (xiii).

  5. However, this is precisely Vickers' mistake: the single most glaring fault of his collection is its attempt to make too absolute a composite out of the expansive heterogeneity of English Renaissance criticism. This approach surfaces in the first lines of the preface where he reveals that his editorial task is the explication of the period's "perfectly coherent theory of literature" (vii). Ascribing to the period (or to any period for that matter) a perfectly coherent theory of literature is questionable. Theory, as so many of us have come to understand, is a monolithic entity. This is just as true then as it is now. Further, promoting a period's theoretical coherence is an unlikely tactic when scholars and general readers alike would be attracted more to a collection that emphasized, or at least acknowledged, the period's "inchoate" nature, as Smith did a century earlier.

  6. Nevertheless, this sort of anachronistic conviction makes the volume stand out among the predictably theorized releases from larger university presses, and it is this conviction that makes Vicker's anthology one of Renaissance literary criticism, and decidedly not one of early modern criticism. For example, returning to the preface, we find that the period not only possessed a perfectly coherent literary theory, but the culture that produced it was a "homogenous" one (vii). As soon as it seemed that E. M. W. Tillyard's work had been forgotten, we hear its perturbed spirit throughout Vickers preface, introduction and other notes.

  7. This posited cultural homogeneity, then, manifests itself in the overbearing presence of men: no women writers find a home in the anthology. Whether or not Vickers consulted the excellent 1995 collection entitled Women Critics 1660- 1820, edited by the Folger Collective on Early Women Critics, one can only guess, but doing so might have prompted a less monotonous table of contents. Willfully unaware of the recent shifts in scholarly interest, Vickers lays claim to an unusual originality when he maintains that the cumulative research of the last fifty years has yielded “a newly defined historical context”, that will redefine how we think of the period's criticism. What we now have, Vickers claims, is an increased awareness of the period's reliance on classical rhetorical models in the writing of poetry. This assertion determines the informative, although occasionally unwieldy, fifty-five page introduction and forms the selection criteria for the anthology.

  8. Many scholars, I feel sure, will welcome his careful attention to how the classical rhetoricians Quintillian, Cicero and Horace motivated poetics in the period, but even more scholars, I feel sure, will be puzzled and a bit frustrated by his obvious inattention to the critical debates that have surfaced in the last thirty years, most notably British cultural materialism and American new historicism (not to mention feminism). This attention to classical rhetoric, however, is not at all new, despite his statement to the contrary. Vickers' claims to originality, when compared to Smith and Spingarn, fall flat, and more simply, disappoint given the current climate of scholarly inquiry that is saturated with a theoretical sensibility that Vickers lacks. Vickers' collection also lacks the attention to historical and other issues that defined Smith's and Spingarn's editions: Why are most of the tracts defenses or apologies? How did the Puritan attacks shape these treatises? What made prosody a central concern for these thinkers (evidenced by the failed race to perfect quantitative prosody in English participated in by Spenser, Sidney and others)? In his didactic insistence that the whole of Elizabethan and Jacobean criticism is essentially prescriptive, he forsakes its uniquely descriptive qualities.

  9. The selections that make their way into the anthology are valuable excerpts from invaluable texts (tangentially, I should note, spelling is modernized by Vickers, a practice even Smith and Spingarn eschewed in favor of retaining the eccentric character of Elizabethan spelling). Beginning in 1531 with Sir Thomas Elyot's remarks on the value of poetry in education, the collection ends with Hobbes' comments on epic poetry in 1675. One finds the predictable inclusions: Sidney's Defence, Gascoigne's Notes, Puttenham's The Art of English Poesie, the pamphlet debate between Campion and Daniel, prefaces from Spenser, Chapman and Fletcher, and Jonson's famous tribute to Shakespeare. But, there are some notable absences and some remarkable additions. Excerpts that scholars will not find readily available in other collections come from pre-1600 works and include an extract from Thomas Wilson's rhetorical manual, words from William Baldwin on the poet Collingbourne, and an intriguing passage thought to have been written by Shakespeare from the 1596 play Edward III, a disputable attribution but fascinating nonetheless.

  10. The lamentable absences are more than I can mention here, but they include Thomas Nashe and, most unfortunately, Stephen Gosson. Nashe's The Anatomie of Absurditie (1592) and Strange Newes (1589) are important glimpses of literary practice from which any collection of the period's literary criticism should at least provide excerpts. Despite the fact that Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse (1579) or Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582) did not find their way into Smith's collection, they have much merit as vivid, if caustic, accounts of audience behavior, literary tastes, and the theatre more generally in the period. The value of Gosson's work, too, as one of the impetuses behind Sidney's composition of his defence cannot be underestimated. Likewise, as I noted earlier, the absence of female critics is surprising, especially since Aphra Behn's work contains insightful commentary that has been too long overlooked. Also, given Vickers' proclaimed interest in rhetoric, it might have been a wise choice to include excerpts from the classical treatises themselves, those by Cicero, Quintillian and Horace, the critics most prized by the early modern period. Or perhaps even a translation of Gabriel Harvey's Cambridge lecture, “Ciceronianus”, might have been added to exemplify the period's developing adherence to classical rhetoric.

  11. But, presenting a tableau of a period in process and witnessing the birth and death of varying perspectives is not Vickers' aim. Perhaps a future editor of the period's criticism will address that task. Nevertheless, the present collection is valuable as it is. Though it will never replace the still unparalleled compilations of Smith and Spingarn, it will serve their established work well as an idiosyncratic but useful addendum.


Works Cited

    Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

    © 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)