James Biester. Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1997. xii + 226pp. ISBN 0-8014-3313-4 Cloth.
Scott Nixon
The Queen’s College, Oxford

Nixon, Scott. "Review of Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 22.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_nixo.html>.

  1. It is well known that the poets of the early seventeenth-century would not have regarded themselves as "metaphysical." Nonetheless, the term has remarkable resilience as a generic description among modern literary scholars. It is therefore refreshing to find that James Biester approaches the poetry of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods not in terms of anachronistic labels, but rather through a close study of Renaissance literary theory, which was itself heavily influenced by classical prescriptions.

  2. Biester sets out to establish the cultural and intellectual background to the development of the ‘admirable style’ (as it was known by contemporary writers). To this end, he brings together an impressive range of sources. The starting-point is a study of the formulation and articulation (particularly through the work of Aristotle and Demetrius) of the concept of "deinotes" or "the marvelous" as the chief end of poetry. The main focus of classical writers was tragedy and epic, while lyric was comparatively neglected. When Italian theorists of the sixteenth century sought to find a lyric equivalent for the evocation of wonder through more celebrated genres, they chose to emphasise the use of concentrated intellectual argument, striking conceits, and a bold speaking voice.

  3. In outlining this argument, Biester undoubtedly advances the aim of the Rhetoric and Society series to which his study belongs, namely to investigate ways in which rhetoric as a formal and intellectual discipline has profoundly influenced literature and broader cultural and social practices. However, he may overstate the degree to which literary theory shaped literary practice (a natural temptation for all those who are literary critics by profession). The problem, as Biester himself recognises, is that the concept of "wonder" and its Greek antecedents are capable of such a wide range of meanings that the notion of establishing a single working definition proves elusive: "Greek rhetoricians use the adjective ‘deinos’ and its cognates in confusing if not contradictory senses" (45). Given that this is so, it does not seem particularly convincing to argue that, because a particular Donnean conceit can be describing as evoking wonder, it is motivated by a desire to find an English equivalent for the Greek notion of "deinotes." Neither term is sufficiently precise to allow this conclusion to be drawn. In contrast, Biester’s analysis of Donne’s satires in terms of classical models is detailed and carefully argued, demonstrating that satire is "a practice in which one transgresses the norm only to join the elite that maintains it" (69).

  4. As this example illustrates, Biester ties the enterprise of evoking wonder to the desire of young, educated gentlemen to secure employment. He argues that the increase in the numbers attending the universities and the Inns of Court led to an over-supply of candidates for a position at court, and therefore compelled individuals to seek to display their wit and literary talents in ever more audacious ways. In making this argument, Biester seems to rely rather heavily on the career of Donne as a paradigm for writers of the period. This results in some dubious claims, such as the assertion that the "admirable style" became less popular in the Jacobean period. Certainly, most of Donne’s poems were probably written by this time, but other writers were just beginning to seek to emulate his style. Indeed, the Caroline era could be seen as the period in which this style was most popular among young men at the universities and the Inns of Court. Biester probably neglects this fact because, as discussed below, he comparatively neglects manuscript evidence from his study. Moreover, it is not true that, on gaining a position of power, a person would abandon use of the admirable style – writers such as Thomas Carew (who was a gentleman of the Privy Chamber) and Lord Herbert of Cherbury are examples of "metaphysical" poets who continued to write verse throughout their successful careers.

  5. Given Biester’s apparent reliance on Arthur Marotti’s interpretation of Donne’s career, it is perhaps surprising that he pays little or no attention to the evidence of manuscript sources in his account of early seventeenth-century poetry. Where such sources are mentioned, their contents are reported through an intermediary. For example, he notes that, according to Gardner, "The Anagram" is the one of Donne’s elegies that appears most frequently in manuscript miscellanies (62). It is curious that, in making this point, he does not instead refer to the data meticulously recorded in Peter Beal’s Index of English Literary Manuscripts (which is nowhere cited in Biester’s study). The decision to rely almost exclusively on printed sources is disappointing, primarily because many of Biester’s arguments would be strengthened by an awareness of the culture of manuscript circulation. For example, Biester links the popularity of epigrams and riddling epitaphs to the fact that they offer readers the opportunity to test their own wit in interpreting them (15). To support this argument he might have provided, from manuscript sources, some examples of reader response to this sort of poetry (such as the use of titles or marginal notes to identify or explain references in the poetry). Similarly, Biester describes Donne’s satires as "performances" (21), but does not relate this to Ted-Larry Pebworth’s examination, as for example in his "John Donne, Coterie Poetry, and the Text as Performance", of the performative emphasis of poetry which was written for manuscript circulation. Finally, Biester argues that the aspiring poet had to tread a careful line between appearing witty and appearing cynical or melancholic, but he does not consider that manuscript circulation allowed the writer to have it both ways: if his style found favour, the extent of manuscript circulation would ensure a burgeoning reputation; if his style was, however, viewed with suspicion, he could always dismiss his poems as "trifles" which he intended should only reach a small, private audience.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(SN, LH, RGS, 8 September 1998)