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Andrew Hui, The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature
by Joel M. Dodson

Hui, Andrew. The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature. Fordham UP, 2017. x + 282 pp. ISBN: 978-0823274314. $28.00 paper. 

Framing its method as “avowedly philological” (11), The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature adds to the recent critical reappraisal of forms of life undergirding Renaissance ideas of literary form. For readers interested in Spenser’s ruin poems, Hui’s book has a different agenda than the historicist focus of recent work on the English arts of memory and complaint by writers like Emily Shortslef or Rebeca Helfer.[1] In a monograph of over 250 pages (including eight stunning color plates), the author devotes only three-and-a-half pages to The Ruines of Time itself. Yet for those seeking a thorough genealogy of the classical, biblical, Medieval, and Early Modern discourses driving the persistent trope of the ruin from Petrarch to Spenser, Hui’s book is comprehensive. It proposes three keywords—vestigia (trace, footprint), cendre (ash), and moniment (memory, warning)—as the “matrix of the fragment” (7) in Renaissance humanism, and then uses that matrix to trace “the aesthetics of the unfinished” (6) essential to the monumental aims of humanist poetics. In this sense, the book’s theme might be aptly titled the ruins of poetics rather than the “poetics of ruins.” Hui prefers “Ruin-naissance.”

If “Ruin-naissance” seems too ingenious, Hui’s lucid prose and extensive collation of Greek, Latin, and even Japanese and Chinese sources grounds it. A theme of the “new philology” has been the question of survival—of the fluid material, institutional, human, and non-human ways that words and texts endure, beyond the “return” to Wortphilologie as deconstruction’s textual remainder proposed by Paul de Man more than thirty years ago.[2] Hui’s six chapters and introduction emphasize that fluidity. Against the framing of imitatio as semiotic dilemma in foundational studies like Thomas Greene’s The Light in Troy, the Introduction offers another paradigm: “In the Renaissance, material and literary fragments are endlessly mobile, traveling as spolia across national boundaries, as raw material and conceptual models” (21).[3] Spolia, or reuse, makes Aesculapian reanimation and Lucretian atomism—as much as Virgilian imitation —guiding tropes of Renaissance literary transmission. Exemplary in this regard is the book’s reading of Du Bellay’s “la poudreuse cendre” (“dusty ashes,” Les Antiquetez de Rome). Tracing the conceit of dusty matter from the Bible, Lucretius, and Horace to François Villon and Donne, Hui shows how Du Bellay’s “Rome de Rome est le seul monument” (“Rome is the only monument to Rome,” Sonnet 6) suggests more than the anxieties of the vernacular or national poet. It suggests a longue durée of dynamic materiality, out of which “one can see a movement from the minute to the monumental, from the infinitesimally small to the invisibly pervasive, from objects in transit to, finally, a whole that unifies” (146).  

The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature proceeds in two parts. Part One considers “The Rebirth of Poetics” and “The Rebirth of Ruins,” two foundational chapters for the book’s overarching thesis “that the site of the ruin is the birthplace of poetics” (30). Chapter one begins with a brisk survey of sêma as monument and memory from Greek lyric (Pindar, Simonides) to Roman ode and epic (Lucretius, Horace, Martial, Ovid), closing with a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In the process, Hui identifies the quattrocento fixation with textual laceratus (mangling, laceration) as a flashpoint between classical Ovidean confidence in poetry’s “mutable monument” (39) and the Elizabethan poet’s obsessive need to defend his perpetuity. Why this is a distinctively Renaissance trait, as Hui insists, is not quite clear, given that his chapter already cites Catullus’s anxiety over the corrosive effects of the writer’s papyrus amidst the spider-web of time (37-8). Chapter two fills those gaps by turning to the Middle Ages and “from the study of words to the study of things in order to consider the physicality of ruins” (53). Hui’s survey of architectural spolia from fourth-century Latin guidebooks to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian painting and engraving vividly details the ruin’s evolving edificatory value. A discussion of images like Maso di Banco’s The Life of St. Sylvester (ca. 1341) and Herman Posthumus’s Landscape with Ancient Ruins (1536) is especially illuminating. Where the trecento fresco depicts the crumbling Roman forum as backdrop to a didactic scene of dragon-taming, Posthumus’s later sixteenth-century canvas­—the book’s cover—captures what Hui calls the “empirical value” (67) of antiquarian bric-à-brac as humanist copia (74). Part One thus establishes two recurring—and at times, competing—themes: a traditional claim about periodicity, that “[b]y inventing the ruin, the Renaissance also invented itself as a self-conscious age” (66); and a more provocative claim about humanist poetics as the art of “assemblage” (85).

Part Two explores that assemblage in four chapters on Petrarch, Francesco Colonna, Du Bellay, and Spenser. Chapter three follows the footsteps of Petrarchan vestigia across many works—Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, Africa, Secretum, and the epistle to Giovanni Collona—arguing that “vestige” as trace, footprint, and investigation reveals Petrarch’s “signature poetics of presence-absence” (98). Hui traces this aporia to the letter to Colonna (Familiares 6.2), in which Petrarch imagines the two men’s wandering among Rome’s ruins as the fragments of memory, distance, and letter-writing. Here, at the center of the book, Hui has larger methodological aims: he proposes that Petrarch’s synthesis of vestigia as textual gathering versus divine trace—senses derived from Quintilian, Bonaventure, and Dante—marks the founding divide between historicism and hermeneutics in modern philology (123-4). Chapters four and five refer colloquially to that divide as “the antiquity-as-ourselves paradigm” versus “antiquity-as-wholly-other” (132). Francesco Colonna’s prose romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) models the erotics of ruins, as its speaker Poliphilo explores the metonymic, even titillating, relation of ruins to the body. This radical historicity is then inverted in Du Bellay’s Antiquitez and Deffence, where Rome becomes formless dust (cendre) or mere matter for poetry. Given the work of Margaret Ferguson and Hassan Melehy, Chapter five paints a fairly counter-intuitive picture of a confident Du Bellay as “the Renaissance thief” (166).[4] Du Bellay’s Horatian refrain that “we are nothing but shadow and dust” in relation to the ancients (Umbre & poudre nous sommes, in “Du retour du printens,” qtd. 150) inaugurates for Hui a Renaissance “fever”—the fever “to make the foreign domestic” (167).

Spenser fits in this monograph, then, as terminus ad quem to what by chapter six has become a broad “dialectic between the monument and the ruin” (178). Such a dialectic means that Spenser is interesting less for what he tells us about the matter of ruin per se than for what he tells us about its spirit: “If vestigium (the trace) is form without matter, and cendre (ash) pure matter without form, then moniment is supposed to be the coalescence of form and matter into a well-wrought artifact of allegory” (179). In forty-four pages, Hui’s final chapter surveys the fragility of allegorical “moniment” as memorial and admonition over Spenser’s corpus—from The Theatre for Worldlings, The Shepheardes Calender, and Amoretti to Book II of The Faerie Queene and the Cantos of Mutabilitie. This wide-angle lens on Spenser has two effects on The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature

On one hand, it requires setting aside the book’s sophisticated version of Renaissance classicism for a brusque picture of Reformation iconolasm. If Spenser’s contributions to Van der Noot’s visionary poem portray an idolatrous ruin supplanted by verbal artifacts (183), then the “immortall moniment” (Amoretti 57) of Spenser’s love poems, Hui implies, also operates on apocalyptic antinomies of spirit and matter, decay and posterity (190). Such compression does not let us pause to consider how the sacrament of marriage Hui acknowledges in Amoretti and Epithalamion might yield a more complex picture of the survival of Romish ruins within English Protestant poetics, nor—more importantly—how the “dust and ash” of the Du Bellay chapter might temper an iconotropic picture of late Reformation history. In this vein, The Ruines of Time likewise risks becoming an exercise in absolutes: allegory “trumps” antiquity (191), the voice of Verlame is “verbum without res” (191), and “Spenser’s insistent message is that any attempt to achieve permanence within a fallen world is not only doomed but fraught with moral peril” (193).

On the other hand, the sixth chapter’s more extended reading of The Faerie Queene, particularly the Briton moniments of Book II, complicates this seemingly gnostic picture of Spenser’s allegorical ruins. We learn, for example, that Spenser’s first use of “moniment” in The Faerie Queene appears with Aesculapius in Book I in the “goodly corps” of Hippolytus that “lefte no moniment” (I.v.38.6, 9). Spenserian “moniment” changes in this respect from physical sign in the early lyric and shorter verse to heroic deed or action in the epic, recalling both Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and the humanist discourse of learning as laceratus, or mangling, with which Hui’s book began. By the time we reach Eumnestes’s library in Book II, the poetics of ruins has thus “reinsert[ed] itself back into temporality,” urging what Hui calls “an ethics of the monument” (200). Where Hui set Spenser against Camden in The Ruines of Time, Spenser becomes in canto ten a sort of antiquarian himself, curating the timeless vestiges of Eumnestes’s chamber (or Posthumus’s Landscape with Ancient Ruines) into “endlesse monuments of his great good” (II.x.46.3). Since “endlesse” usually connotes in Spenser’s verse the temporality of moral action (203-6), Briton “moniments” thus admonish Arthur, and us, to the virtues of present action rather than the past. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Raleigh’s commendatory sonnet, and even a rapid look at Milton’s “monumental Protestant aesthetics” (219), the book thus closes with a positive vision of the ruins of allegory itself: that Spenser “presents us with monuments that are endlessly mutable in the hands of their successors” (217).

This spirited conclusion to The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature positions Spenser at the crux of emerging conversations about historical poetics, Early Modern things, and the fate of philology’s “many returns” (to quote Hui) after historicism. As with that broader conversation, questions remain. What, for example, is the space of the “aesthetic” in the Renaissance—a term Hui often embraces—outside of a sublime vision of “monuments and ruins perpetuat[ing] each other in a cycle of repression and return” (221)? And how can the philological richness Hui models help us return Spenser from the proto-modern to the premodern in ways that enrich our understanding of the material roots of that artfulness? As Spenser studies is not Hui’s only intended audience, these questions naturally remain open-ended, yet the monograph bookends its efforts with a useful object lesson for Spenserians. Basing his epilogue on a brief tale of the Japanese poet Basho’s (seventeenth century) mournful haiku for a fallen Samurai castle, itself an allusion to and “spiritual meeting” with the earlier Chinese poet Du Fu (eighth century), Hui urges us to consider how the study of Renaissance poetics—conceived not as the exploration of Europe’s cultural figura but its ruins—might be a global, transgenerational, transnational field of study. Future multi-author monographs should follow this example.

Joel M. Dodson
Southern Connecticut State University

[1] Rebeca Helfer, Spenser’s Ruins and the Art of Recollection, Toronto UP, 2012, and Emily Shortslef, “Second Life: The Ruines of Time and the Virtual Collectivities of Early Modern Complaint,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 3, Summer 2013, pp. 84-104.

[2] For a recent overview, see Hui’s own review essay, “The Many Returns of Philology: A State of the Field Report,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 78, no. 1, January 2017, pp. 137-56. 

[3] Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy, Yale UP, 1982.

[4] Margaret Ferguson, “The Exile’s Defense: Du Bellay’s La Deffence et Illustration de la langue françoyse,” PMLA, vol. 93, no. 2, March 1978, pp. 275-89, and Hassan Melehy, The Poetics of Literary Transfer in Early Modern France and England, Ashgate, 2010.


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Joel M. Dodson, "Andrew Hui, The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature," Spenser Review 47.2.30 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed March 21st, 2018.
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