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Daniel Moss, The Ovidian Vogue: Literary Fashion and Imitative Practice in Late Elizabethan England
by Richard Danson Brown

Moss, Daniel D. The Ovidian Vogue: Literary Fashion and Imitative Practice in Late Elizabethan England. Toronto UP, 2014. xii + 256 pp. ISBN: 978-1442648685. $65.00 cloth.

On the dustjacket, Raphael Lyne characterizes The Ovidian Vogue as “a strong and new argument in a well-populated field.” This is not an altogether unsurprising angle for a puff which aims to forestall a perhaps jaded reaction to another monograph on the Renaissance Ovid. A weary response though would be wrong-headed for this thoughtful and generally thorough study. Moss’s aim is to “present a more capacious map of Ovidianism” than is given by single-author studies (10), while his focus on Ovidianism as literary fashion enables him to “account for the various imitative postures late Elizabethan poets struck in discernible reaction to the central fact of Ovid’s ever-expanding currency” (18). The central virtue of this study is that it enables the reader to see the Ovidian phenomenon as an organizing principle to which different poets offered radically differing responses. In the Conclusion, Moss formulates this in such a way as to imply that Ovid became a ready-to-wear brand from which aspiring poets could select their own cut and style, even if (as in the cases of Chapman, Donne and Jonson), the impulse is to repudiation as much as imitation: “the Elizabethan poet first chose his Ovid, then defined himself in relation to that figure, yet remained free to self-revise allusively, in accordance with a developing career and in response to an evolving readership” (182). As this suggests, Moss’s work is attentive to a broad range of Ovids, including the Fasti and the exilic poems, alongside the more familiar territory of the Metamorphoses and the love poetry, and to the way in which Ovid’s multiple personae facilitate the process of self-revision. It also draws fruitfully on the Ovidian vogue in recent criticism, citing the work of Leonard Barkan, Jonathan Bate, Syrithe Pugh, Patrick Cheney, M. L. Stapleton and Lyne himself throughout.[1]

Though the book chiefly focuses on poetic Ovids, it is framed by discussions of Titus Andronicus and Poetaster. The Introduction views Titus as “an allegory of literary imitation” (19), with Aaron as the Ovidian in chief whose machinations literalize metamorphoses to catastrophic effect in the shape of severed limbs and heads. This approach leads directly to chapter 1, “Impotence and Stillbirth: Nashe, Shakespeare, and the Ovidian Debut,” with its focus on the limitations of Ovidian imitation in two contrasting texts. In the first part, Thomas Nashe’s Ovidian poem, The Choice of Valentines, is read as entailing “a wager of present fashionability against perennial notoriety,” a wager which in this case, Nashe lost (38). Moss’s discussion encompasses the different manuscript versions which either included the dildo passage or censored it, presumably as a result of its explicit depiction of female masturbation. Moss rightly views the dildo as crucial and innovative: the object becomes a metaphor for “the manufacture and reception of imitative poetry” (31).

The second part of the chapter reads Venus and Adonis as a paradoxical attempt to curtail further metamorphic narratives near to the beginning of the Ovidian vogue in England. In Moss’s view, the final stanzas of the poem—in which Venus crops the Adonis flower and then “Means to immure herself and not be seen”—uproots both Ovid’s version and centuries of humanist interpretation (1194).[2] Moss’s reading of this line sees a pun on Ovid’s story of Myrrha’s incest in the word “immures,” which he traces to Ovid’s murra (“myrrh”) in his account of Adonis’s birth: “Venus’s resolve to ‘immure herself’ on Paphos reflects a perverse effort on Shakespeare’s part, as an Ovidian poet, to rebury his imitation of the Metamorphoses in its textual source” (47). This is a characteristically ingenious reading, yet in this case I found myself unconvinced both by the etymology and the tonality of the reading of the final line. “Immures” gestures primarily to the Latin murus, wall; of course this doesn’t rule out a Myrrha pun out but it does perhaps suggest that Shakespeare’s primary focus was on Venus’s desire for stony seclusion.[3] Similarly, the tone of the line, with its beautiful, expansive redundancy—Venus “Means to immure herself” which inevitably conveys that she won’t “be seen”—suggests that she is less a “vengeful goddess” of sterility at this point than a grief-stricken matriarch uncertain precisely of what she means to do next (47).[4] In other words, what Moss presents as an attempt to forestall further Ovidian writing may rather be taken as a temporary cessation of imitative hostilities.

Chapter 2, “Shadow and Corpus: the Shifting Figure of Ovid in Chapman’s Early Poetry,” is the book’s first excursion into anti-Ovidian territory, as Chapman critically responds to the scandalous side of Ovid’s work. The chapter presents a contrast between The Shadow of Night (1594), which rejects the tropes of Ovidian poetry, and Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (1595), which partially recuperates them. This is plausibly seen as part of Chapman’s career-minded agenda. If “the utterly reactionary attitude espoused” in The Shadow of Night lined Chapman up on the same side as the poetry-hating Stephen Gosson, Ovid’s Banquet of Sense attempts to join in the literary fashion more wholeheartedly: “Chapman’s sophomore poem corrects the stale polemicism of the previous year’s Shadow, reclaiming the traditional attitude of ambivalence towards the Ovidian corpus as a model for imitation” (62-3).

Spenser inevitably presents a larger series of issues, since his engagement with Ovid is so pervasive. Yet there is more to it than frequency of allusion. For Moss, what joins Spenser and Ovid is their shared addiction to tropes of self-revision: “Spenser is quintessentially Ovidian not merely because he alludes to Ovid throughout his career, but because he self-revises through his choreography of such allusions into shifting patterns, which his own earlier imitations have already trained his readers to recognize” (75). The third chapter, “Ovid in the Godless Poem: Allusive Rebellion in Edmund Spenser’s Legend of Justice,” moves away from the more familiar intertexts of the 1590 Faerie Queene to wrestle with Book V. This proves to be a rewarding maneuver, which in its meticulous close reading of mythological allusion in the Souldan episode, offers a new way of approaching this most notorious of books through the problematics of sympathy. Moss begins by drawing a line between Spenser’s imitation of a metamorphic Ovid in the earlier part of his career, typified by Muiopotmos and Faerie Queene Book III, and his later preference for “Ovid’s myth of fragmentation” in Book V (76-7). In this reckoning, Ovid’s myths of a fallen world in Metamorphosis Book I become pivotal for Spenser as he tries to account for the fractures in contemporaneous Europe in Book V of The Faerie Queene.

Moss focuses on the Souldan episode because it highlights the complex choreography of Ovidian allusion, and the difficulties Spenser has squaring those allusions with his Iron Age allegory of Justice. The reading of the end of canto VIII is particularly rewarding, as it charts the complex series of Ovidian allusions Spenser makes as he narrates the rage of Adicia on hearing the news of the Souldan’s death. For Moss, Spenser pursues “intertextual incoherence” as he compares Adicia in a single stanza (V.viii.47) with Ino, Medea and Agave, and then introduces imagery based on Ovid’s Hecuba (103). The difficulty, according to Moss’s beautifully contextualized readings of Spenser, Ovid and the mythographers, is that Medea is a complex and troubling figure, who is not simply a cypher for evil. Spenser is therefore on treacherous ground as he co-opts Medea for the allegory of Justice: “Whether or not we can remember each of Medea’s many roles or identify her in all her significance as we read this episode, we do know that she signifies a great deal more than Spenser’s recollection of her crime seems to want to admit” (108). This leads to the broader problem of how the poetry of Book V negotiates the problem of sympathy. Where political realities are—in the manner of the View of the Present State of Ireland—moralized into sharp dichotomies, the resistant ambiguities of Spenser’s Ovidian allusions fail to fall in line (117). The chapter concludes with a reassessment of Malengin as “Proteus Minor,” the last of The Faerie Queene’s metamorphic adversaries (112). Moss captures the see-saw between the brutality of exemplary violence and the comedy of Malengin’s transformation routine as the hapless Artegall fails to hold onto the metamorphic rock (114-15). Yet the reading also demonstrates the pitfalls of reading exclusively through an Ovidian lens. Part of the humor is dependent on Spenser’s promiscuous amalgamation of sources. In the case of V.ix.17-19, A. C. Hamilton is surely right to note its “nursery-rhyme logic,” yet this is the sort of fugitive context which is necessarily elided by Moss’s approach.[5]

Chapter 4, “The Post-Metamorphic Landscape in Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe and Englands Heroicall Epistles,” argues that Drayton’s poetry is as much concerned with revising contemporary English poetry as it is with rewriting Ovid. Moss presents a Drayton always aware of his poetic competitors, one who uses Ovidian devices to observe “the works of professional rivals, before torpedoing them if necessary with satire” (120). Endimion is thus a reproof to the vogue for sexualized epyllia, which marks out Drayton’s critical relationship to both Ovidianism and Petrarchanism (127). Englands Heroicall Epistles continue this self-conscious criticism of the poetic zeitgeist, encompassing a stringent anti-Petrarchan rhetoric in the epistles of the female characters, and a resistance to the “easy exemplarity” of the Ovidian corpus (131). Detailed readings of the epistles of Rosamund Clifford and Eleanor Cobham follow. Moss’s Rosamund is “a poetic construct of the 1590s” more than a creature of chronicle history, whose poem demands to be read alongside Daniel’s Complaint of Rosamund (1592) as much as Ovid’s Heroides (133). It is Drayton’s poem which cumulatively offers the most complex reworking of the myth of Daedalus’s labyrinth: “Like the passageways of the Labyrinth, Rosamund’s seemingly straightforward allusions to Ovid and Daniel … lead us from a finite linearity to an endless circularity” (139).

This chapter is an important contribution to Drayton studies, and in its closing pages offers interesting reflection on his problematic status in the literary canon. Drayton was ultimately “too protean” in comparison with his celebrated contemporaries: “Recapitulating the paradoxical voices of the Heroides and … the Metamorphoses, Drayton may well have distinguished himself from his peers—that is, from the readiness of Marlowe, Shakespeare, or Chapman to declare themselves participants in or fugitives from the Ovidian vogue of the 1590s—but the eclectic ventriloquism of the epistolary mode may also have impeded Drayton from establishing any more positive poetic identity” (150). This is a subtle reading, which would have been further enriched by reflection on the protean nature of Drayton’s text(s). Drayton was a sedulous, even a manic, reviser—Idea sprouts new sonnets throughout the 1590s and beyond; Mortimeriados was recast from the rhyme royal stanzas of the 1596 edition into ottava rima as The Barons Wars (1603).[6] Englands Heroicall Epistles were not immune to this process: the ecphrastic passage Moss quotes about the casket which illustrates Io’s seduction is different in Poems (1619) from the 1597 text quoted here. This matters, I think, because Moss’s close reading depends on tropes of lowing —from the letter formation of “Ioues-loue I-o” to the lowercase “loue” in the following couplet: “In this thou rightlie imitatest Ioue, / Into a beast thou hast transformd thy loue” (138-39). In Poems, both of these details have gone, being replaced with “IOVES Loue Iö” and “Loue.”[7] The unstable Drayton text exemplifies another facet of literary fashion, as the poet repeatedly adapts his work to stay au courant, and perhaps suggests a different explanation of his canonical status. In his constant updating of his text, Drayton courted the risk of hopelessly confusing his readers.

The fifth chapter, “The Brief Ovidian Career of John Donne” presents Donne as “the period’s premier post-Ovidian” (153). This is achieved through a witty close reading of Donne’s three Ovidian epigrams; Donne “adapts the most digressive classical poet to the least expressive poetic form, as his three couplets respond simultaneously to the contemporaneous vogues for Ovidianism and for epigram” (157). A reading of “Love’s Progress” shows a similarly emulous relationship between Donne and Ovid, as the former relentlessly usurps and corrects Ovid’s posture as praeceptor amoris. Finally, Metempsychosis simultaneously gestures to the Pythagoras of Metamorphoses Book XV, while working to erase any direct allusion to Ovid in the poem (170). Moss’s Donne, in a striking sentence, is less interested in isolating “specific intertextual passages for piecemeal revision” than in undermining the “comfortable cultural attitudes” of poets and readers habituated to the Ovidian vogue (169). The difficulties of this post-Ovidian trajectory are nicely captured in a re-reading of Thomas Carew’s celebrated elegy, which is seen as inevitably resurrecting the Ovidianism it praises Donne for purging (180). Ovid’s inescapability is also explored in the brief conclusion on Jonson, which encompasses both Poetaster and the exhuberant “Proeludium,” with its detailed yet hysterical attempt to dismiss the Ovidian pantheon (182-83).

As I have suggested, despite the crowded field The Ovidian Vogue has joined, this is an important book for Spenserians and students of Elizabethan poetry. While it is generally well presented and error-free, the following issues are worth noting. First, Mortimeriados is not a portrayal of the Wars of the Roses (144), but focuses on (in the words of its subheading) “The lamentable ciuell vvarres of Edward the second and the barrons” of the previous century.[8] Second, Moss conflates the two John Davieses: in chapter 1, he cites John Davies of Hereford’s “Paper’s Complaint” from The Scourge of Folly (1612), attacking Nashe’s “dampned Dildo” (24). But in chapter 2, he quotes Sir John Davies (correctly identified as an epigrammatist but not ennobled) as the writer of two dedicatory sonnets to Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (51-52); the Index similarly has one entry for one Davies (245). It is admittedly confusing to have two close contemporaries with the same name, both of whom wrote epigrams; as Brian Vickers records, John Davies of Hereford wrote a playful epigram to his namesake, joking that “must John Davies share John Davies’ worth, / For times to come can no distinction give.”[9] Yet in terms of Moss’s argument, this is problematic, since John Davies of Hereford’s poem moralizes against Nashe’s Ovidian pornography. Sir John Davies is unlikely to have shared this view, particularly since his fart-strewn, prostitute-obsessed Epigrammes were first published in the same volume as Marlowe’s Amores translation.[10] My final point is that this is a book which relegates many issues of the first importance to long, digressive endnotes. While this is an occupational hazard, Toronto’s house style of endnotes does not facilitate ease of reference, while there were many occasions where what felt like important qualifications were to be found only in the notes. For example: in chapter 3, we are told that Proteus’s grudging surrender of Florimell “marks the effective end of all divine agency in the 1596 Faerie Queene,” a claim substantially modified in the endnote by the recognition of the addition of the Mutabilitie Cantos to the 1609 edition (80, 206).


Richard Danson Brown
The Open University

[1] Amongst others, Moss cites Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (Yale UP, 1986); Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Clarendon, 1993); Pugh, Spenser and Ovid (Ashgate, 2005); Cheney, Marlowe’s Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, Counter-Nationhood (Toronto UP, 1997); Stapleton, Harmful Eloquence: Ovid’s “Amores” from Antitquity to Shakespeare (Michigan UP, 1996) and Spenser’s Ovidian Poetics (Delaware UP, 2009); Lyne, Ovid’s Changing Worlds: English Metamorphoses, 1567-1632 (Oxford UP, 2001).

[2] Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, in The Complete Sonnets and Poems, edited by Colin Burrow, Oxford UP, 2002, p. 236.

[3] See “immure, v.” OED Online, Oxford UP, December 2016, accessed 11 Jan. 2017.

[4] My emphasis.

[5] Spenser, The Faerie Queene, rev. 2nd ed., edited by A. C. Hamilton et al., Pearson, 2001, p. 571.

[6] For details, see Anne Lake Prescott, “Drayton, Michael (1563–1631),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004, online edition, May 2015,, accessed 12 Jan. 2017.

[7] Drayton, Poems [1619], Scolar Press Facsimile, 1969, p. 109.

[8] Drayton, Mortimeriados: The lamentable ciuell vvarres of Edward the second and the barrons, London: Humfry Lownes, 1596, sig. A1r., EEBO,, accessed 12 Jan 2017.

[9] In Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, A Lover’s Complaint, and John Davies of Hereford, Cambridge UP, 2007, p. 35. See also P. J. Finkelpearl, “Davies, John (1564/5–1618),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004,, accessed 12 Jan. 2017, and J. J. N. McGurk, “Davies, Sir John (1560x63–1625),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004, online edition, May 2008,, accessed 12 Jan. 2017.

[10] See The Poems of Sir John Davies, edited by Robert Krueger, Oxford UP, 1975, p. 379, and The Collected Poems of Christopher Marlowe, edited by Patrick Cheney and Brian J. Striar, Oxford UP, 2006, pp. 7-10.


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Cite as:

Richard Danson Brown, "Daniel Moss, The Ovidian Vogue: Literary Fashion and Imitative Practice in Late Elizabethan England," Spenser Review 47.1.12 (Winter 2017). Accessed May 28th, 2018.
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