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William J. Kennedy, Petrarchism at Work: Contextual Economies in the Age of Shakespeare
by Rémi Vuillemin
Kennedy, William J. Petrarchism at Work: Contextual Economies in the Age of Shakespeare. Cornell UP, 2016. x + 333 pp. ISBN: 978-1501700019. $45.00 cloth. 

Any scholar interested in Petrarchism will feel excitement at the prospect of reading a new work by William J. Kennedy, the author of such stimulating pieces of criticism as Authorizing Petrarch (1994) and The Site of Petrarchism: Early Modern National Sentiment in Italy, France, and England (2003).[1] Though this new book is somehow a continuation of them, it is also to be understood as part of a current renewal of interest in Petrarchism in Europe, and more generally of a body of critical works on Anglo-Italian cultural relationships in the Early Modern period from scholars such as Alistair Fox, Jason Lawrence and Michael Wyatt, to name but a few.[2] Readers familiar with Kennedy’s work will not be surprised to find the author impressively knowledgeable about Petrarchan literature in Italian, French and English, or about the sixteenth-century editions and commentaries of Petrarch’s works. One of Kennedy’s main contentions is that the poets on which he focuses (Petrarch, Gaspara Stampa and Michelangelo in section one, Ronsard in section two, and Shakespeare in section three) all tend to dissent from a Platonic conception of poetic activity as divine inspiration (or furor), in which poets are divinely inspired and socially elect, preferring an Aristotelian view of poetic writing as craftsmanship, for which poets are craftsmen toiling to improve their poetic abilities. Such a view, Kennedy suggests, is necessarily embedded in, and/or entailed by, their practice of textual revision, itself to be understood within the context of a shift from a patronage gift economy to an exchange economy.

The author confronts aesthetics and economics, and is equally at ease with cultural and economic history, source analysis, literary genetics, and close reading, with a strong interest in the sociological background and implications of literary creation. He grounds his analyses in the findings of critical literature in English, French and Italian. Crucially, he insists on the specificities of Petrarchan poetry, studying each poet in his or her own rights, allowing his or her poetry to reveal its stakes and interests. This approach goes on to demonstrate that analyzing these texts judiciously requires extensive knowledge of Petrarch and of the creation and development of Petrarchan poetry in Italy, France and England—an extremely demanding requirement, but one whose necessity cannot be stressed enough. For all of these reasons, Kennedy’s work could be seen as an invaluable model for scholars interested in Petrarchism.

The combination of meticulous readings with wider historical and literary considerations is an extremely ambitious approach which does not go without a number of difficulties and structural tensions. Though most of Kennedy’s textual analyses are convincing, a few are more difficult to accept. More importantly, the opposition between Platonism (here the doctrine of poetic furor) and Aristotelianism (here implying a vision of poetry as a craft to be learned), though it conveys unity to the book and enhances Kennedy’s comparative approach, is a methodological tool that sometimes tends to understate the historical cross-fertilization of the two doctrines—as Kennedy himself reminds us, Horace includes the two of them in his Ars Poetica.

The first four chapters focus on Italian literature. Chapters 1 and 2 present Petrarch in the context of medieval theories of value as “homo economicus.” Petrarch’s revisions of his poems highlight how the process of metamorphosis inherited from the Ovidian intertext affects not only identity, but also physical matter. The poet lays increasing emphasis on sensuality, but also on the materiality of his own poetry. His writing evolves into a demonstration of his poetic skills and his poetic craftsmanship. In these two chapters, Kennedy repeatedly applies himself to relating the meaning of the poems to what they say about the writing process and the way such process implies Petrarch’s self-fashioning as a poet. His regular inclusion of precise examples is welcome; the analyses of sounds and the focus on textual genetics, for instance, yield fascinating readings.

Chapter 3, perhaps one of the best chapters in the book, focuses on Gaspara Stampa’s poetry. It shows how Stampa’s literary calling led her to negotiate her own social position as the daughter of a rich merchant attracted by the social prestige of the aristocracy, but also to question the contradictions inherent in the values of the Venetian republic. For Kennedy, Gaspara Stampa relies on the Venetian civil ideal of umilità the better to subvert it, by showing that taken at face value, it contrasts sharply with the social order it is believed to support. Here as elsewhere, the precision and accuracy of Kennedy’s analyses is remarkable. His reading of Stampa’s sonnet 155, for instance, shows how the Venetian poet “reverses” Petrarch’s “moral typology” in Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta 122 by recasting the topos of the love anniversary (her speaker fell in love two years earlier), to convey a conception of life as “a process of adaptation and adjustment” (95). Stampa is therefore prepared to accept that she will inevitably lose her love (Collaltino, an aristocrat), and that she will have to move on, while Petrarch’s poem is mostly concerned with issues of sin and salvation.

Chapter 4 is also concerned with poetry as a tool of social transaction. Kennedy analyzes Michelangelo’s sonnets, insisting on the artist’s relatively low social status compared to his supposed patrician ancestry. Though he disliked gift economy (according to Vasari), his affection for Cavalieri and Colonna led him to write poems to them, which he had to shape in a socially acceptable form. His aesthetics (to be found primarily, but not exclusively, in his theory of sculpture) is not one of divine inspiration but of “extraction,” finding forms “activated” (115) by matter. The labor of the poet is essential, as it shapes matter to make form emerge from it. The pages insisting on the metaphor of the silkworm are particularly interesting, and show how Michelangelo negotiates his social position, sometimes transgressing or blurring boundaries between identities. Similarly, the exchange of sonnets between Colonna and Michelangelo is fascinatingly seen as being part of a “divine countereconomy” (128): despite his initial contempt for pecuniary transactions, Michelangelo accepts to consider his poetic practice in spiritualized economic terms. As far as the artist’s poetic theory is concerned, taking into account Early Modern theories of sight and imagination could perhaps help further Kennedy’s argument, for example by giving insight into the interaction of ingegno and imagine, or by shedding light on the metaphor of stamping found in Michelangelo’s sonnet 90.

The second section of the book dwells on Ronsard’s poetic career, and on his complex relationship to Petrarchism. Kennedy shows how Ronsard’s need to secure patronage led him to postpone the writing of the Franciade and to linger on Petrarchan poetry. The circumstances of his career led him to reassess his youthful endorsement of poetic furor and to see poetic composition as craftsmanship. One may wonder at this point, as well as later in the book, to what extent furor and the Platonic elements were really to be taken at face value at the time, and if they could not be seen as commonplaces related to a language of praise and not always grounded in a fully developed poetic theory. Kennedy seems implicitly to suggest as much on several occasions.

Ronsard is depicted as a real entrepreneur (a word that is repeatedly used) who made the most of every situation and opportunity and whose practice was shaped accordingly. Ronsard’s early endeavors are compared to Du Moulin’s theory of usury and interest; his multiple borrowings (i.e. from Vergil, Horace, Catullus, Ovid, the Greek Anthology, Petrarch, Ariosto, Marot, Scève, Du Bellay and Pontus de Tyard) are equated with the economic exploitation of resources; finally, the poet’s experimentations in Les Amours de Marie are likened to theories of inflation and deflation. Such parallels might not convince all readers, but will undoubtedly be found thought-provoking. Ronsard, Kennedy suggests, was led to re-evaluate Petrarch and his poetry at the end of his career. The fourth chapter of this second part sheds light upon the relationship between Ronsard and Desportes, showing how evolving circumstances led Ronsard to revert back to the obsolete (and Petrarchan) literary taste of Henri III’s court, but also to put it at some distance, adopting Platonic tropes the better to criticize them, and ultimately presenting the persona’s unrequited love as a victory of the skilled poet. He thereby puts his own practice into perspective, discarding immediate but short-lived fame (such as Desportes’s) for the immortal poetry that his craft has been able to produce. Ronsard is depicted as a trend-setter rather than a mere follower of the fashion of the day.

The last section, devoted to Shakespeares Sonnets, starts with the affirmation that “[d]espite Shakespeare’s status as a ‘European author,’ Anglo-American scholarship has largely avoided the implications of Shakespeare’s access to continental texts and their European vernaculars” (219), and Kennedy’s approach contributes to filling that void. Each chapter focuses on a group of sonnets composed roughly at the same time according to lexical frequency analyses. Kennedy moves on from sonnet to sonnet in a succession of close readings and interpretations of intertextual echoes.

The author interestingly reverses the (usually implicit) hierarchy between the Dark Lady and Young Man sonnets. Such a hierarchy is often implied by a tendency to reduce Petrarchism to the repetition of hackneyed conventions; it is therefore not surprising that such a distinguished scholar of Petrarchism as Kennedy should question it. Grounding his argument in the history of the composition of the sonnets, Kennedy claims that certain poems from the Young Man section, which were written later than the Dark Lady poems, are more complex and more skillfully composed. While the persona can, to a certain degree, feel solidarity with the Dark Lady’s social position, he displays strong awareness of the difference between his status and the Young Man’s status, and struggles not to remain enthralled by him. A poetics of variation results from that situation, as the persona is torn between his doubts about the Young Man’s behavior, the admiration he feels for him and the duty to acknowledge his social position. All of this requires subtle adjustments and a more virtuosic style, and Kennedy argues that after the parodic vein of the Dark Lady sonnets, the persona needs to address the complex question of how to appropriate the Petrarchan language to make it his. The author would perhaps have found a useful complement to his analyses in Early Modern theories of judgement and of imagination (in Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium [1479], for instance, or in Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde [1601]), especially to analyze the relationship between the speaker’s eyes and heart.

In chapter 2 of the last section, Kennedy begins by setting sonnets 61-99 (the “rival poet” sonnets) in the competitive context of patronage economy. But much of the chapter is about the eternizing poems, in which the poet not only strives to fight time, but also stages this fight to display his professional skills (hence the use of economic vocabulary in sonnet 64 for instance). For Kennedy, the mention of Time’s “rage” in several sonnets is a way for Shakespeare to contrast Time’s action (“rage” as “aggression”) on the one hand, with the poet’s own “rage” (“rage” as furor), on the other hand. This strengthens the consistency of the author’s overall argument, but it might also stretch the meaning the word takes in this context. The two theories of poetic writing do appear further in the sequence, however (especially in sonnet 86). Kennedy also shows how several sonnets insist primarily on the poet’s old age, implying his long practice of poetic revision and craftsmanship as well as his thirst for literary recognition. Logically, the following sonnets (from 78 onwards) are imbued with considerations about the competitive milieu of poets.

In the next chapter, the author argues that sonnets 100-126 offer a form of retrospect on Shakespeare’s Petrarchan debuts. They set themselves willingly at odds with the new literary fashions, but also repeatedly question the foundations of Shakespeare’s own Petrarchan rhetoric. This revisionary poetics not only casts doubt on the Platonic theory of furor, but also shows us the poet-craftsman’s capacity for self-questioning even his own process of revision, highlighting the social benefit he could extract from his work. In other words, according to Kennedy, these sonnets combine a Jonsonian commitment to the social and to moral judgment on the one hand, and an ambiguity that leaves such judgments open to questioning and re-evaluation. Sonnets 1-60, which, according to Kennedy, are early poems revised at a late date, are the subject of the last chapter. They contain many intertextual echoes of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella and Spenser’s Ruines of Rome and Amoretti, and Shakespeare is indebted to those works in many ways. Though the poet must use the tools of Petrarchism to praise the Young Man, who is his social superior, the sonnets are informed by previous poetry in which the lover appears as foolish. As a consequence, the poet’s authority and reliability are inevitably questioned, and this in turn prompts interrogations about the value and the potential of poetry. Is the exaltation of the Young Man valid and believable, or is it not? It is precisely the impossibility of answering such questions that makes Petrarchism “a site of conflicting interpretations” (312) in this part of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. For Kennedy, this very instability is what ultimately opens the text to further interpretations, and allows the poet to negotiate his social and economic position.

Like Kennedy’s previous books, Petrarchism at Work brings a sound contribution to the field. One might have reservations on certain specific readings, or on certain aspects of his argument. But his innovative combination of methods and his deep knowledge of several national poetic traditions will be a source of inspiration for students of the Early Modern sonnet. By putting forward how often the doctrine of poetic inspiration is discarded, Kennedy seems to establish a tendency in sixteenth-century poetry that transcends languages and national identities. By uncovering the personal, poetic, and economic strategies of authors through their practice of revision, he creatively bridges the gap between new historicist readings and cultural studies on the one hand, close reading and source-hunting on the other; such eclecticism will undoubtedly arouse emulation. The book contains a wealth of details, and it is difficult to do justice to the multiplicity of its meticulous readings. It is perhaps in the four chapters on Shakespeares Sonnets that the readers of the Spenser Review will be most interested. Kennedy offers a method to read the sonnets, especially by insisting on their intertextuality and their relationship with continental poetics. While the question of Shakespeare’s Petrarchism is often left aside (if not dismissed), it is to be hoped that this book will contribute to restoring some sense of the interconnectedness of Petrarchan poetry from Petrarch himself to Shakespeare through Ronsard, Desportes, Sidney and Spenser.


Rémi Vuillemin
University of Strasbourg


[1] William J. Kennedy, Authorizing Petrarch, Cornell UP, 1994, and The Site of Petrarchism: Early Modern National Sentiment in Italy, France, and England, Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

[2] Alistair Fox, The English Renaissance: Identity and Representation in Elizabethan England, Blackwell Publishers, 1997, Jason Lawrence, “Who the Devil Taught Thee So Much Italian?”: Italian Language Learning and Literary Imitation in Early Modern England, Manchester UP, 2005, and Michael Wyatt, The Italian Encounter with Tudor England: a Cultural Politics of Translation, Cambridge UP, 2005. 

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47.1.9

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Rémi Vuillemin, "William J. Kennedy, Petrarchism at Work: Contextual Economies in the Age of Shakespeare," Spenser Review 47.1.9 (Winter 2017). Accessed April 26th, 2017.
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