Jonathan F.S. Post. English Lyric Poetry: The Early Seventeenth Century. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. xvii+323 pp. ISBN. 0 415208580 Paper.
University of Sheffield
Nevitt, Marcus. "Review of Jonathan F.S. Post. English Lyric Poetry: The Early Seventeenth Century." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): 11.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-2/nevipost.html>.
Much of the recent literature on early modern lyric poetry has foregrounded the material conditions of lyric production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The pioneering research by scholars such as Margaret Ezell, Arthur Marotti and Wendy Wall has forced us to cede the ground traditionally reserved for the presiding genius of an author-figure in order to take some account of the transformative effects and effaced agencies of coterie groups. Our understanding of authorship has also been broadened by the proliferation of theoretically informed readings over the past two decades. Furthermore, with authorship destabilised, scholars have been free to confront the pristine, stable status of the literary text itself; the page is continually being remade as we begin to understand more of the vital interdependence of different modes of manuscript and print publication.
It is thus both refreshing and surprising to come across a book like Jonathan F. S. Post's English Lyric Poetry, The Early Seventeenth Century. It is defiantly old-fashioned and therein lie its strengths and its limitations. Post offers us an extremely detailed and elegantly written literary history at the same time as he acknowledges that "Literary histories are supposed to be a thing of the past" (ix). Indeed, the series that the book was originally intended for, the Routledge History of Poetry, has now been discontinued. This preference for "things of the past" structures the book's critical framework; "recent critics" often turn out to have penned the work in question twenty years or more ago and Post will send his readers back to landmark studies of the 1920s if he thinks that a reading of Marvell's tetrameter line is unsurpassed. The best contemporary critics (such as Sharon Achinstein, David Norbrook and Helen Vendler) are present here, but one gets the distinct impression that Post would rather see his students reading a Leishman than a Lewalski, or catch them delighting in Brooks instead of gazing at Fish. The disavowal of the latest theoretical paradigms ensures that the poetry is always the primary focus of this study and the author's enthusiasm (love, even) for this material comes through in every line. As Post himself frankly admits "I would rather have written a line by Marvell than by Marx; and a few poems by Herbert are worth many late nights with Calvin" (ix).
Post organises his book into 9 chapters, the majority of which offer intelligent surveys and sensitive close readings of individual, canonical authors (Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Milton, Vaughan and Marvell). The remaining three chapters deal with "Patriotic and popular poets" (Michael Drayton, William Browne, George Wither, Francis Quarles and John Taylor), "Caroline amusements" (Thomas Carew, John Sucking, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace), and "women poets of the early seventeenth century" (Lady Mary Wroth, Aemilia Lanyer, Ann Bradstreet. Martha Moulsworth, An Collins, Anna Trapnel, Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips). The poets included in this chapter-by-chapter organisation (with a significant exception to which I will return) are also divided by a fundamental structuring binary as Post reinvigorates the distinction between major and minor verbal artists. Donne, Jonson, Herbert and Milton are indisputably "major". Herrick, however, "could have been a major poet" if "he had played his cards differently" (112). Shirley is "a minor poet if ever there was one" (93) and is thus only mentioned in passing. Lovelace "could be great without always being very good"; Carew has "talent" but "did not write a 'major' poem" (105). Marvell is, with a genuflection towards Hugh Kenner, "the greatest minor poet in the English language" (256). John Taylor, by contrast, "gives us steak and kidney pie accounts of Britain" and "it would be a desperate act of literary criticism to set a very high mark on any of Taylor's writings" (88). It's almost as if Post exorcises the spectres of Marx only to summon up the spirit of Harold Bloom. Even if he doesn't mention Bloom by name, his particular version of English literary history tells of "strong poets" reading, misreading and doing battle with one another. Accordingly, when it comes to rhyme, Herbert has Marvell "beaten hands down"(286) whilst Marvell's "sinewy octosyllabics" contend with Jonson's "'beheaded' tetrameter".
The book itself is at its strongest and most haunting when engaged in detailed technical analysis of individual stanzas and lines. The section which places Herbert in Vaughan's "stanzaic background" (209) is superb as are the readings of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Milton's "Lycidas." The analysis of Carew's movement of the caesura is particularly well judged. However, the close reading might occasionally have been sustained, especially in the section on women poets. This may be a result of the hour-long undergraduate lecture format that, I suspect, is lurking in the structural background of the book. In another context, with world enough and time, those readings might have been taken further. Nonetheless, one can imagine lecture halls full of undergraduates being enraptured by the pithy interpretations and memorable turns of phrase which stud the chapters. Post reminds us, for instance, of "the thorough-going self- (one is tempted to say shelf-) consciousness of the Jonson folio"(27). Shortly before this he distinguishes Donne "the master of metaphor" from Jonson "the poet of metonymy for whom listing not yoking is at the core of his ethical vision"(24). Elsewhere, it might have been more productive to purge the text of its lecture-hall air. Post talks of "Ben Jonson ? without the 'h'" (23), reminds us that "Herrick could have been a contender" (112) and (much more puzzlingly) contends that "In a sense, Marvell the amphibian keeps having his lyric cake and eating it" (257).
Such moments aside, undergraduates would do well to read this book from cover to cover. Students unfamiliar with the difficult terrain of seventeenth-century poetry will find any number of invaluable reference points and landmarks. When it comes to women poets of the period, however, the signposting is most definitely awry. Women, it would seem, are excluded from the major/minor distinction; they constitute an entirely separate category and chapter. Thus the final chapter of this literary history brings Marvell into productive dialogue with practically every other poet discussed in the book. We have Marvell read in tandem with Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Vaughan, Lovelace, Herrick, Milton; plus Marvell considered alongside poets hitherto ignored such as Cowley, Waller, Mildmay Fane, Shakespeare and Dryden. However, in this concluding chapter there is not one single reference to a woman writer. This omission is especially striking as Post devotes such energy to analysing "Upon Appleton House"; and carefully traces archi-textual links to Jonson's Penshurst and Milton's Ludlow Castle. However, as Post well knows, the first country house poem printed in English was by Aemilia Lanyer and, for instance, one could imagine a finely nuanced reading which interleaved the "Tallest Oak" of Marvell's poem with "The Oake that did in height his fellowes passe" which features Lanyer's 'Description of Cooke-ham'. Post passes up such opportunities, however, when he informs his readers without any explanation or justification that "Much of our interest in Salve Deus is ... of an historical or archeological nature" (220). Lanyer is at best, then, a minor poet although Post refuses to accord her even that dubious accolade. In this "strong-man" variety of literary history, women are not particularly well served by being given a chapter, or room, of their own. In Post's survey, that room seems like an odd, late innovation, something hastily and awkwardly annexed to the male House of Poetic Fame. It is much more productive to pull down those walls and limit our gendered segregation of the period's poetry. As Michael Brennan and others have recently demonstrated, there is much more to be said about Mary Wroth's relationship with Sidney or Jonson than with a millenarian prophetess like Anna Trapnel.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).