A Review of English Renaissance: Identity and Representation in Elizabethan England

This review appeared in The Sixteenth Century Journal: The Journal of Early Modern Studies, 29 (1998), pp. 511-14.

The English Renaissance: Identity and Representation in Elizabethan England. Alistair Fox. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. viii + 240 pp. $64.95 HB. $26.95 PB.

In his latest book, Alistair Fox examines a selection of English 16th century texts and compares them with the nearly contemporary Italian ones from which these were adapted. By close readings of all these texts Fox seeks to demonstrate that English writers turned to "Italianate literary imitation" to articulate individual compromises between the demands of a reformed religion that insisted its adherents abstain from sensual pleasure, except when legitimized by narrowly- controlled conventional relationships and their manifestations in resulting social obligations, and an apparently ceaseless desire for such pleasure, which desire the chosen Italian texts confronted in frankly or evasively. According to Fox, these Italianate English texts come to terms with and debate a newly aggressive "Calvinistic" contention that those acts which fulfill the private bodily self and sensual imagination are deadly sins because such release must lead to self-destructive, brutal, and asocial or malign words and acts. He presents Italian texts whose pagan sensuality, courtly or sophisticated assumptions, and demotic character combine with an expert "Catholic" casuistry, to allow such impulses to speak on their own behalf wherein human longings for sexual fulfillment, an "idealized tranquillity," and "absence of care" does not lead to a nadir of evil, but rather to a natural and actually less corrupt, and intensely satisfying and joyous experience.

The strengths of this book are considerable. As in all his previous books, Fox writes lucidly and with grace; those who remember his inspired analyses of John Skelton's poetry and thorough studies of Thomas More's work in the context of their specific milieu will not be surprised to know The English Renaissance is a treasure-trove of refreshing, careful, perceptive readings which add to our knowledge of his writers' inward motives. One cannot do justice to this book unless one quotes some of these. Thus, for example, Fox prefaces his detailed reading of Petrarch thus: "Wyatt, because of his deep personal entanglement in the troubles of the Henrician political Reformation, wrote many of his Petrarchan imitations as a response to the traumatic effects of those troubles on his psychic being;" thus here and elsewhere he resists the temptation to disparage one man or text in favor of another. Fox can place Virgil's texts before us to show how they fuse a "sensuous apprehension of the pastoral world with various states of feeling," and make us grasp how Boccaccio and Sannazzaro deliberately "intensify" their "pervasive mood of eroticism . . . to create a "a ["comforting"] country of the mind" into which the suffering indivdiual can retreat to seek refuge from the troubles of the outer world," and yet turn round to examine Sidney's "very un- Arcadian episodes" which serve to signify the presence of a mutability in things, and a force of disruptive evil resulting from human sinfulness, a world where "treachery thus "abounds." One more: having vindicated the Ariosto's "focus on the injustice of the sexual double standard that men often invoke in their treatment of women, together with the idea that crimes are ultimately impossible to conceal," he does not find in Spenser a warning which advises repression but rather "a new emphasis on the inferior degradation that is liable to be set in motion by a failure to bridle intemperate emotions."

The book is, however, also disappointing. There is not one poem by a woman, nor is any female writer, Italian, French, or English, even mentioned. I was stunned. Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Veronica Franco, Louise Labe, Pernette du Guillet, Mary Sidney, Lady Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth are just the better known women. I feel compelled to provide a tiny effort at balance by quoting just one sonnet, the first, from Mary Wroth's sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus which deliberately recalls the opening of Petrarch's Trionfe d'Amore:


When nights black mantle could most darknes prove,
And sleep deaths Image did my senses hiere
From knowledg of my self, then thoughts did move
Swifter than those most swiftnes need require:
In sleepe, a Chariot drawne by wing'd desire
I sawe: wher sate bright Venus, Queene of love,
And att her feete her sonne, still adding fire
To burning hearts which she did hold above,
Butt one hart flaming more then all the rest
The goddess held, and putt itt to my breast,
Deare sonne, now shutt sayd she: thus must wee winn;
Hee her obay'd, and martir'd my poor heart,
I, waking hop'd as dreams itt would depart
Yett since: Oh mee, a lover I have binn.

The self-abasement, self-mockery and shame a woman who gave up her virginity could feel lies behind a tradition of Italianate motifs which, to use some of Fox's favored phrases, "exploited the potential of Petrarchism to serve as a vehicle for the investigation of [the poet's] own comparable struggles." The tradition begins earlier than Mary Wroth--for her aunt adapted Petrarch's "Triumph of Death" in an original way which takes into account Mary Herbert's intense joy in and love for her brother's poetry; it may be plotted through the obscure mid-17th century Scots poet Anna Hume's translation of three of the triumphs (Love, Chastity, and Death) and is perhaps best known in Aphra Behn's late 17th century Song (from Abdelazer, 1677), where the definition of an encounter outside love as a triumph for the man and loss of all status or caste for the woman explains the last couplet's paralyzed despair:


Love in fantastic triumph sat
Whilst bleeding hearts around him flowed,
For whom fresh pains he did create,
And strange tyrannic power he showed,
From thy bright eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But 'twas from mine, he took desire,
Enough to undo the amorous world.

From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his pride and cruelty;
From me his languishments and fears,
And every killing dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the god have armed,
And set him up a deity;
But my poor heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the victor is, and free.

This is but one of the many uses of Italianate tradition we find in English Renaissance poetry by women. I choose it in order to cite Petrarch's Trionfe d'Amore, which as it is never mentioned by Fox will exemplify the second weakness of Fox's book. Fox writes the purpose of his book is to show how the English "national identity" changed and to provide "a window into the minds" of 16th century English people. He also says his book will explain why there was a hiatus of Italian imitation in the fifty years between 1520-30 and 1580-1610. But how can he when (in the familiar apposite line) he has simply rounded up the usual suspects? Fox does not go outside the old canon of, on the one hand, Wyatt, Surrey, a few mediocre mid-century males, Daniel, Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare, and, on the other, Petrarch, Virgil, Boccaccio, Mantuan (Baptista Mantuanus Spagnuolo), Sannazzaro, and the Italian sources of Shakespeare's plays familiar to us since Bullough. He does not turn to Baldassare Castiglione and Pietro Bembo, or the influential and moralizing Italian critics or the kind of minor Italian poetry found in anthologies. Religious intermediary French people like Philip du Plessis de Mornay are strangely absent. There is one French sonnet, by Philippe Desportes.

I think it important also to discuss a small but disturbing anomaly in Fox's book. Until a central passage in his discussion of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, when he reaches the sonnet and song which precede Sidney's demand for consummation, Fox suddenly shifts from a judicious and disinterested tone, the empathetic advocacy towards all his writers up to then, and calls Astrophil's frustrated rage at Stella's refusal "male egotism in its nastiest guise," "spiteful vindictiveness;" he writes of the "self-serving shallowness of [Astrophil's] unctuous poetic flattery;" and Astrophil's attempt to blame Stella is called "typically male." The tone is harsh, strident, and angry. The phrase "typically male" reveals what we have here is an assumption about female innocence and male guilt when it comes to analyzing the deep ambiguity of all human experiences, including that of sexual encounter. What makes this sudden bias troubling is in another central section on another poem, this time Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar, Fox is not similarly critical of "self-serving" when the poet is, in Fox's now customary neutral language, "voicing [one man's] personal and political discontents through decorous displacement." Why is Fox not troubled to find himself expending a great deal of effort to explicate an aesthetic ruse (for that is what the poem's allegory is) in the service of one man's ambition and argument one group of people is morally superior to another. As a woman, I would not like to think that the sudden attack on Sidney shows an unconscious or somewhat disingenuous deference to a presumed bias on my part since Spenser's more generally dangerous amorality (as demonstrated by Spenser's brutality in Ireland and its justification in Book V of The Faerie Queene) is accepted without demur.

All this said, that which Fox does, he does extremely well. He provides a wealth of persuasive insight into some of the most famous quietly dissident poetry of the Italian and English Renaissance. The modern scholarly conversation the wide-ranging interaction between the people and cultures of Italy and England since the fourteenth century has since the publication of Lewis Einstein's The Italian Renaissance in England (1903) and Roderick Marshall's Origins of the Romantic Interest in Italy (1934) been continuous and rich- -I think, to name but a few voices, of classic books by Mario Praz and Graham Hough, and the recent studies of Albert Russell Ascoli, Thomas P. Roche, and Robin Kirkpatrick--that so much remains to be done demonstrates how very fruitful this area of study has been and can continue to be.

Ellen Moody..................................George Mason University, Virginia

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