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Lucy Munro, Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674
by Richard Danson Brown

Grandam Words: Archaism and Controversy


Lucy Munro, Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. xii + 308 pp. ISBN: 978-1107042797. $99.00 cloth.


Archaism is always controversial. For Everard Guilpin in the late 1590s, Spenser’s diction was a cause célèbre. This famous passage—cited in brief by Munro at the head of a chapter on archaism in the Early Modern Theatre—highlights the oddness of Spenser’s idiom: 

Some blame deep Spencer for his grandam words,

          Others protest that, in them he records
          His maister-peece of cunning giuing praise,
          And grauity to his profound-prickt layes.[1]

Munro suggests that Guilpin’s comment conveys both “the old-fashioned fustiness” of archaism and highlights “the perceived differences” between literary generations: Guilpin labels Spenser’s style to differentiate it from the practice of younger writers (138-9). Yet the poem is more interested in evoking the senseless diversity of opinion than it is in offering serious criticism. Alongside Spenser, Guilpin presents contemporary views of Chaucer, Gower, Daniel, Markham, Drayton, Hall’s Virgidemiarum (1597/98—itself a crucial precedent for Guilpin’s satires), and Sidney, all of which illustrate the irrational volatility of Opinion: “Thus doth Opinion play the two edg’d sword, / And vulgar iudgements both-hand playes afford.” Guilpin focuses on Spenser’s diction chiefly because it was controversial, not because he has any particular axe to grind about “grandam words.” They are simply the most talked-about aspect of Spenser’s poetry in the 1590s, and such talk (perhaps) has as little value as the censure of Sidney “for affectation” which the poem also reports.[2]

In this important study, Lucy Munro does much to restore a sense of the controversy of archaism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Spenser was not alone in using “grandam words,” and on this account, archaism is a cultural practice which entails more than just peculiarities of diction. Munro extends discussion to include the revival of outmoded verse and theatrical forms, the mise-en-page of black letter, and the curious seventeenth-century attempts to write poetry in Anglo Saxon. The great virtue of this book is thus the breadth of its cultural sympathies: it connects the controversy around archaism with major currents in Early Modern culture and politics. Alongside Spenser, Munro discusses canonical poets and dramatists (Shakespeare, Milton, and Jonson receive generous coverage), less familiar work (for example, William Cartwright’s The Ordinary [c.1635]; the poetry of the nun Gertrude More; the Virgil translations of William L’Isle [1628]); and considers the importance of archaism to religion and nation. Her study makes an innovative contribution to literary history by virtue of its reading of archaic style as a sophisticated gesture whose meaning changes over time. Archaism enabled competing literary, national and religious agendas to be negotiated during the time covered by the book’s title, before neoclassical orthodoxy redefined archaic features as blemishes which should be “written out” of even canonical texts like The Faerie Queene (240). Time is rightly at the heart of Munro’s study; as she puts it, the archaistic writer creates a “polytemporal aesthetic,” participating in “a form of time travel,” where the writer’s identity and the reader’s sympathies are complicated through the destabilizing effects of techniques which point to different moments simultaneously (45, 14, 3). This destabilization is, I would suggest, implicit in Guilpin’s remarks: obsolescent “grandam words” rub against the arch allusion to the first line of The Faerie Queene in “his profound-prickt layes,” where the double entendre anticipates aspects of the innovative, scabrous, unsettled idiom of late 1590s verse satire.[3]

The book is organized around four central theses: that archaism is a form of imitation; that it undermines temporality; that it is intertwined with national identity; and that it is highly artificial yet capable of arousing strong emotion in readers (12-30). The sense that archaism undermines temporality partly accounts for the organization of the study. Rather than opting for a historical or diachronic structure, Munro chooses a more synchronic method, where the organizing principle is as much driven by the forms being alluded to as by the archaistic texts themselves (see 139-40 for the invocation of Judith Burnett’s work on diachronic and synchronic generations).[4] The first chapter considers the appearance of Old English in seventeenth-century plays, translations and poems, while the second looks at the use of Chaucer and Gower in relation to “the anxiety of obsolescence” (69). This method is itself a polytemporal manoeuvre, which destabilizes the reader who might have expected a study of archaism in the English Renaissance to have begun with E. K.’s defense of the practice in the Epistle to The Shepheardes Calender. Munro’s explanation for her chosen starting point suggests that the 1590s marked changes in national self-confidence about English as a literary language and the shift of archaism from pastoral to a broader range of genres. Soon enough, too, “new pressures on notions of Englishness,” such as the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne, led to archaistic experiments which “reflected and participated in the debates surrounding these events” (6).

Munro’s synchronic approach is particularly evident in Chapter 3, which discusses archaism in religious writing. Alongside the linguistic conservatism of the King James Bible, with its herds of kine and fondness for do + auxiliary forms (107), the chapter includes a brilliant study of the archaizing strategies of Catholic poets like Robert Southwell. Munro sees Southwell’s adoption in the 1590s of the old-fashioned common measure (and the related fourteener) as a self-conscious attempt to naturalize his theological position, “to create an aesthetic for Catholic poetry that is both accessible and plain, and also, subliminally, comfortingly ‘English’” (118). Similarly, Chapter 5’s account of changing fashions in pastoral drama in the seventeenth century sees the different practices of Fletcher, Milton and Jonson as reflecting broader power struggles within the Stuart court and the problematic links between pastoral and “real-life social conditions” (202). The study’s “multitemporal collage” (103) is thus liberating and creative in the way it resists the pull of more conservatively organized literary histories. Nevertheless a difficulty remains that the reader is only fleetingly allowed a sense of the origins of these stylistic ideas. Reaction to Spenser figures throughout the study, but there is no overview of archaism as a European literary phenomenon of the kind recently provided by David Scott Wilson-Okamura (see reviews by me and Robert L. Reid in The Spenser Review 43.3.53-4).[5] The difficulty here is not only organizational, but conceptual. Because Munro does not trace theories of archaism back to influential works such as Joachim Du Bellay’s La Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française (1549), in which moderate archaism is seen as a hallmark of poetic innovation (“ainsi qu’une pierre précieuse et rare”), there is a sense that the transgressive edge of the “grandam words” is sometimes muffled, particularly in relation to that keen student of Du Bellay, Spenser.[6] This is all the more striking since Munro cites Kenelm Digby’s account of Spenser’s diction, which defends it in terms which ultimately derive from Du Bellay (79).                                                                                                                                                                    

Spenser figures chiefly in Chapters 2 and 6, on respectively the archaistic handling of Middle English, and Archaism in Epic. Chapter 2 illustrates the strengths of Munro’s approach, as she analyses starkly differing responses to the work of Chaucer and Gower. Unlike the Caroline poet George Daniel, who dismissed Chaucer because of the outmodedness of his language, or Shakespeare and George Wilkins, who confidently “assert the value of archaic style” through their dramatic revivification of antique Gower in Pericles (92), Spenser’s continuation of “The Squire’s Tale” in The Faerie Queene Book IV betrays “a certain nervousness about his engagement with medieval literary culture” (85). Munro follows the pioneering work of Craig A. Berry in revealing the extent to which Spenser sees Chaucer as an “impure source,” a problematic forerunner whose incestuous narrative causes the New Poet cultural anxiety (86).[7] Spenser’s anxiety is related to the anonymous Return to Parnassus, in which the issue of Chaucer’s ambivalent sexual propriety recoils on the way his work is understood by credulous characters. As Munro summarizes: “Chaucer’s works are seen as vulnerable not just to incomprehension but also to damaging forms of linguistic corruption or misreading, processes that could leave a formerly prized author an obscene laughing-stock” (103). The skill of this chapter lies in the way it enmeshes Spenser’s rewriting of Chaucer in a web of diverse and divergent cultural associations; particularly striking is the juxtaposition of The Faerie Queene with Pericles and the contention that Shakespeare and Wilkins offer a more confident engagement with the medieval past than Spenser had done. 

Shakespeare’s late plays also figure prominently in Chapter 6, which again turns to issues of verse form. The willingness to read complex cultural affiliations in the choices of form is a strength of this study, which by implication challenges Wilson-Okamura’s contention that content and style were separable in the Renaissance.[8] In this case, Munro focuses on the fourteeners in Act 5 of Cymbeline, which Shakespeare uses to evoke Posthumus Leonatus’s dead family. As Munro suggests, while Spenser may have considered the fourteener when starting The Faerie Queene in the 1570s, by the early seventeenth century, it was massively old-fashioned. She traces Shakespeare’s interest in the fourteener to a range of key precedents, chiefly in the translation of classical epics: Phaer’s Aeneidos (1558-73), Golding’s Metamorphoses (1565-67), and, more recently, Chapman’s Iliad (1598-1609). Her argument is both complex and textually alert: Cymbeline’s fourteeners are not a kind of stylistic burlesque but a self-conscious attempt to yoke the forms of the play to its themes at this crucial moment; as she puts it, “the debates about nationhood and national identity found elsewhere in the play are also operating on a stylistic level” (220). She pays generous attention to Shakespeare’s use of short lines, which have the effect of disrupting the highly predictable beat characteristic of fourteeners; the single line fragment, “A thing of pity,” deftly calls “attention to the violent way in which Posthumus was born” (220). Munro rightly points to the fact that Phaer had included dimeter and trimeter lines in his translation of Virgil, but overlooks their origins. Phaer’s short lines follow the half lines in the Aeneid itself, which suggests that Shakespeare’s imitations of them are doubly archaic, evoking both an antique English verse form and, distantly, the unfinished state of Virgil’s original.[9] 

Munro’s account of The Faerie Queene in the same chapter is more problematic. She focuses on the single collocation “fowly dight” in the context of the unmasking of Duessa in I.viii. This is in turn compared with analogues in Ariosto, and with the Spenserian translation of Tasso by Edward Fairfax, Godfrey of Bulloigne. Interestingly, it seems possible that Spenser’s use of “dight” gave it something of a comeback, at least in the context of epic (212). Close reading of the archaic term reveals ideological orientation: what we witness is a “stridently Protestant refashioning” of epic, as Duessa’s graphic undighting aligns her with apocalyptic figures from Revelation and Isaiah and contemporary anti-Catholic writings (215, 208). Spenser’s Protestantism in turn inflects Fairfax’s Tasso, so that his version of Clorinda is, in Munro’s reading, somewhat unhelpfully entangled “in a network of Spenserian associations” (214). The unmasking of Duessa remains a disturbing and unforgettable episode—Munro quotes Andrew Hadfield’s suggestive description of it as a “cruel parody of a blazon”—yet I found myself uncertain whether the evidence of this collocation justified the conclusions drawn from it, or whether the use of this single language act may adequately characterize the archaism of The Faerie Queene as a whole (208). In essence, Spenser’s diction becomes a cipher through which to read his religious politics: as Munro puts it, his archaism “renders” his “epic ‘English,’ marking his distance from both classical and continental influence; however, this is a very particular—and very Protestant—form of Englishness, as the presentation of Duessa ‘fowly dight,’ with its allusions to anti-Catholic polemic reminds us” (235). Such an approach puts a huge strain on that phrase, so it is worth briefly considering its ideological and poetic value elsewhere in the poem. As Munro notes, Spenser liked the phrase and repeated it four times, usually in the context of episodes of abjection, such as the goats’ buffeting of Malbecco, “where his hore beard / Was fowly dight” (III.x.52; 211). Evidently the phrase was poetically and symbolically useful, both in its multiple connotations and in its capacity to be easily linked into rhyming clusters—this passage comes in the fifth line of the stanza and anticipates its C-rhymes. Malbecco’s fate is certainly unsettling once he is transformed into a spectral personification of “Gelosy” (III.x.60; itself an archaic form of the word), but his maltreatment here seems to be part of the rough comedy of fabliau which resonates throughout the episode, as in the alexandrine of the former stanza, when he makes his escape: “And he emongst the rest crept forth in sory plight.” So while Munro suggests that Spenser adopted archaic diction as a result of his ideological commitments, the evidence she uses does not fully support the claim. Similarly, the plurality of Spenser’s idiom—its connotative generosity and sheer poetic oddness—is relatively unexplored in this account. The Coda compares the beginning of Butler’s Hudibras with the beginning of The Faerie Queene from a similar perspective: where Butler “remorselessly burlesques” his hero, Spenser offers a “remarkably straight-faced treatment of knightly endeavour” (237). Maybe so, but any earlier writer of chivalric epic, including Ariosto, would look straight-faced alongside Butler’s comic rhymes and satiric intent.

The broader question, then, is whether this enormously subtle study offers an adequately nuanced account of Spenser’s archaism and its complex tonalities; to go back to Guilpin, what was it about Spenser’s diction which made it so enduringly controversial? Guilpin’s less often quoted phrase—“His maister-peece of cunning giuing praise”—suggests some of the ambiguity encoded in the archaisms and perhaps how they were understood at the time, as forms of linguistic equivocation: masterpieces of double-edged praise.[10] Though modern Spenserians and linguists have observed that in fact Spenser’s diction is significantly less archaic than it initially seems, the taint of “grandam words” remains, while the issue of the aesthetic purpose of such an idiom remains provocative.[11] Following the work of scholars like Judith H. Anderson, I would argue that Spenser’s tone is significantly more comedic than is often allowed for, and that this needs to be borne in mind in reading his archaisms. Munro’s account of Milton’s pervasive archaism in Paradise Lost in the same chapter is in contrast more compelling and more keyed to the dissenting aesthetic of that poem. Initially observing that Milton reserves archaism for “Satan and his followers,” Munro then suggests that he uses it to problematize the epic project per se: “Milton suggests that the established techniques of the English epic are a seductive snare, and classical epic itself a poisonous trap” (230-31).

In conclusion, this study deserves to become a standard work because of the breadth of its reference, the quality of its readings, and the strength of its overall argument. It is particularly strong in relation to drama—see for example the inventive reading of the overlapping archaic elements in Hamlet (157-67)—and has much to say about the cultural positioning of Spenser and the ways in which seventeenth-century writers reacted to his work. It makes the reader conscious in vividly new ways of the extent to which Renaissance literature depends on the creative recycling and appropriation of the old-fashioned and the outmoded. In this light, the sometimes surprising revelation that Shakespeare and even Jonson were accomplished archaizers administers a salutary jolt to conventional literary history. The case that Shakespeare used archaism throughout his career might indeed have been made even more strongly. Ancient Pistol—a character whose name readily becomes an archaic double entendre—is one of the few Early Modern archaizers Munro does not discuss, yet his controversial argot—where bombast competes with grandma—can sound as though he has come on stage fresh from reading The Shepheardes Calender as much as Tamburlaine: “An oath of mickle might, and fury shall abate” (Henry V, 2.1.63).[12]

Richard Danson Brown
The Open University


[1] Everard Guilpin, Skialetheia, or A Shadow of Truth, in Certaine Epigrams and Satyres, ed. D. Allen Carroll (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974), 90.

[2] Guilpin, Skialetheia, 91.

[3] See Carroll’s notes in Guilpin, Skialetheia, 223-24, for puns on “pricked” notes of music and sewing. For the bawdy word play, see Judith H. Anderson, “‘Pricking on the Plaine’: Spenser’s Intertextual Beginnings and Endings,” in Reading the Allegorical Intertext: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton (New York: Fordham University Press), 208, 54-60. For my reflections on the idiom of 1590s satire and epigram, see “‘Such ungodly terms’: style, taste, verse satire and epigram in The Dutch Courtesan.”

[4] Judith Burnett, Generations: The Time Machine in Theory and Practice (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).

[5] David Scott Wilson-Okamura, Spenser’s International Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 57-66.

[6] Joachim Du Bellay, Les Regrets, Les Antiquités de Rome et La Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française, ed. S. De Sacy (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), 245-46.

[7] Craig A. Berry, “‘Sundrie Doubts’: Vulnerable Understanding and Dubious Origins in Spenser’s Continuation of the Squire’s Tale,” in Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance, ed. Theresa Krier (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 106-27.

[8] Wilson-Okamura, Spenser’s International Style, 147-50. See my review for my reservations about this approach.

[9] See David Scott Wilson-Okamura, Virgil in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 102, for the Aeneid’s half lines and their status in the Renaissance.

[10] See Carroll’s notes in Guilpin, Skialetheia, 223, which connect this passage with E. K.’s Epistle to Harvey.

[11] For the frequency of archaism in The Faerie Queene, see Manfred Görlach, An Introduction to Early Modern English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 140, and Andrew Zurcher, Spenser’s Legal Language: Law and Poetry in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Brewer, 2007), 8.

[12] Shakespeare, Henry V, ed. Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 126. As Taylor notes in his introduction “Pistol is probably less appreciated now than he ever has been,” a situation for which his linguistic affectations are partly responsible (64).


  • WillSadler 12 months ago

    Thank you for this information. It's so fascinating to me that each period in Literature is so unique and has something different from the previous or next ones. This year I have a literature course, and for me, it's something very interesting but complicated at the same time. There is so much information and things I have to read and analyze. This month we're talking about Shakespeare, a classic, and this week was dedicated to Romeo and Juliet. And it was the first time when I read it. I also found this page when I was looking for some info, and there are Romeo and Juliet essay examples, which provided me with even more info on that play. And you know, after reading them, it's not easier for me to write on them, but I understood the characters better. And I can't wait for the next play or book, because I think it will be even more interesting.

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    It presumes a thorough knowledge of the poetry and of the criticism on that poetry.

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Cite as:

Richard Danson Brown, "Lucy Munro, Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674," Spenser Review 44.2.44 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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