Brian Vickers. English Renaissance Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford
UP, 1999. 672pp. ISBN 0 19 818679 7
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>.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Folger Collective on Early Women Critics, ed. Women Critics: 1660-1820.
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1995.
- Hardison, O. B. English Literary Criticism: The Renaissance. New
York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963.
- Smith, G. Gregory, ed. Elizabethan Critical Essays. 2 vols. London:
Oxford UP, 1904.
- Spingarn, Joel E., ed. Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century.
3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908-09.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)