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Catherine Nicholson, Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance
by David Scott Wilson-Okamura

Catherine Nicholson, Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2014. vi + 218 pp. ISBN: 978–0812245585. $55.00 cloth. 

In the last quarter of the sixteenth century, argues Catherine Nicholson, English poetry got delightfully weird. To use Cicero’s term, it became more “Asiatic”: more elaborate, more gorgeous, and also more foreign-sounding. To use C. S. Lewis’s term, it became more “Golden.” Why this happened Lewis didn’t claim to know; and Nicholson, modestly, does not try to explain, economically or politically, why English poetry bloomed so richly in the last, florid decades of the Tudor dynasty. Instead, she renews our attention to an old paradox in classical and classically-inspired rhetoric. To communicate, speech must be clear, pervial, transparent. But to excite the passions, speech must also be strange, “exquisite” in the old sense of far-fetched, recherché. Nicholson puts her weight on the strange end of the see-saw and offers three case-studies to illustrate its power: Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) by John Lyly, The Shepheardes Calender (1579) by Edmund Spenser, and Tamburlaine the Great (1587) by Christopher Marlowe. A coda traces the paradoxically foreign-sounding discourse of English nationhood in the second tetralogy of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Nicholson’s first chapter is on the Elizabethan schoolroom. The pioneering work on this subject, William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke,[1] has never been replaced, though interest has periodically revived. Whereas Baldwin showed just how far a mere grammar-school education could take you (if you were a genius like Shakespeare), more recent studies, such as Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine’s From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-Century Europe (1986), Jeff Dolven’s Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (2007), and Andrew Wallace’s Virgil’s Schoolboys: The Poetics of Pedagogy in Renaissance England (2010), have focused on problems and limitations—what students in those classrooms did not learn. Nicholson is not so concerned with the success or failure of classroom methods as with the values that those methods implied and inculcated. Her authors include the usual suspects, Virgil, Cicero, and Sallust, along with the usual schoolmasters, John Cheke, Thomas Elyot, Roger Ascham, and Richard Mulcaster (who founded the Merchant Taylors School where Spenser was educated). In Chapter 2, these are joined by the English rhetoricians Richard Sherry, Thomas Wilson, and George Puttenham. The rhetoric manuals agree with the teaching manuals, that classical authors are both exotic and familiar, dangerous and domestic, tantalizing and comforting. Many of the examples, especially from the schoolroom chapter, will already be familiar. Who knows not Cheke’s horror of outlandish loanwords, Ascham’s admonition against the Italianate Englishman, or Elyot’s tactic (for which Nicholson coins the useful phrase neologistic couplet) of naturalizing foreign terms by pairing them with native synonyms: “devulgate” and “sette fourth,” “daunsinge” and “saltation”? What Nicholson shows is that neither impulse, the fear of foreignness nor the lure of what’s strange, was able to exterminate or even exist without the other.

In defining strange, Nicholson emphasizes geography, but the past is famously a foreign country too. Some readers will be reminded of Thomas M. Greene’s argument, in The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (1982), that the whole intellectual momentum of the Renaissance can be understood as a romantic struggle, heroic and futile, to bridge the widening historical distance between ancient texts and modern conditions. The contest, antinomy, or just pendulum swing of homely and exotic, familiar and alien, is one that Spenserians, in particular, have been mulling over for some time. Thirty years on, the most famous example is still Stephen Greenblatt’s chapter on the Bower of Bliss in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), where what threatens to absorb the fresh-faced English colonist is not the menacing Irish kern but the Old English siren. What’s different here, with Nicholson, is not the conceptual apparatus (the threat of foreign entanglements, the lure of foreign destinations) but the emphasis on style for its own sake. Greenblatt must surely rank as one of the great close-readers of the twentieth century; and the comfortable, arm-patches elegance of his own Attic style is enviable. But Greenblatt’s readings and Greenblatt’s style were always in the service of something beyond or outside of the art which he interpreted so lovingly: in the eighties and nineties, that something was power; later, religion. Nicholson’s engagement with both themes is oblique. There are no Oedipal confrontations, but no apologies either. Nationhood is a persistent theme, but style is never its handmaiden.

The argument of Chapter 3, on Lyly’s Euphues, is familiar in outline, fresh in detail. It has nothing to offend and much to gratify a New Historicist pur et dur. Nicholson argues, convincingly, that the Asiatic style of Lyly’s prose romance is the verbal equivalent of foreign travel in Lyly’s plot; and that both serve as an index of Euphues’s moral character. Developing hints from Ann Moss and Arthur Kinney, Nicholson compares Lyly’s language and loose structure with those of commonplace books, such as schoolboys were supposed to compile from their reading of Livy and Cicero. These books, as Moss showed, were used for taming new texts, but also toying with new ideas. We like the toying part, but according to Nicholson, Lyly thought there should be more taming. The romance plot of Euphues is “aimless” (91), and so is the merely additive style. Both seem like they could go on forever. But what was exhilarating on page 200 can feel tedious on page 400. Again, the conceptual apparatus is familiar from books like Patricia Parker’s Inescapable Romance (1979), Colin Burrow’s Epic Romance (1993), David Quint’s Epic and Empire (1993), and John Watkins’s Specter of Dido (1995). What’s changed here is that romance is no longer the obvious favorite. For Parker and Quint, epic was stodgy and conclusive, an instrument of empire or authority; romance was plucky, open-ended, free-spirited. (I am simplifying, obviously.) In Nicholson’s account, Lyly is proud of his “aimless overflow” (91)—the phrase applies equally to his plot and sentences—but feels guilty about it too. Nicholson doesn’t put it this way, but her Lyly thinks he should be writing an epic. This seems plausible. But if he did feel guilty, the guilt seems to have been short-lived, for when Lyly writes a sequel, he doesn’t reform his prose. Stylistically, Euphues and His England (1580) is just as aimless and Asiatic as the original Euphues (1578).

Chapter 4, “Pastoral in Exile: Colin Clout and the Poetics of English Alienation,” is adapted from an article in Spenser Studies, “Pastoral in Exile: Spenser and the Poetics of English Alienation” (2008). This is the shortest chapter in the book; the argument hasn’t changed since the article was published, but takes force from its new context. Spenser may have been an exile, as Richard McCabe and Andrew Hadfield have argued, but so was everyone who was trying to write English poetry in this period: “estrangement and exile [were] the necessary conditions of a properly English eloquence” (12). There is some exaggeration here. Necessary ignores the English plain style, on which I’ll add a few words below, but substitute usual and the rule is useful. Some of the definitions are brittle too. In Virgil’s pastoral, the Britons are a race “completely cut off from the whole world” (Eclogues 1.66); Nicholson stretches this to mean that “Britain remains the sign of all that is antithetical to poetry” (103), which is not the same thing. A few paragraphs down, we are told that “no other form insists so strongly [as pastoral] on the interdependence of poet and place, song and setting” (103), which is only true if we exclude drama (and possibly not even then). The more important claim, for the argument of the whole book, is that “Spenser’s vernacular pastoral embraces linguistic estrangement and geographic dislocation as the emblems, and engines, of English poetry” (103). Even if we don’t agree that “alienation is the defining characteristic of Colin Clout” (103), we can all see that Spenser has peppered The Shepheardes Calender with what E. K., in his epistle to Gabriel Harvey, calls “straunge” speech. Most of these foreign-sounding terms (such as whilom, eke, and queme) are actually native words, but from another era (or region, in the case of queme). Since the 1930s, scholars have noticed that E. K. exaggerates the number of archaisms, but they have not understood why. Nicholson has an answer: sounding foreign was part of the late Tudor aesthetic; and that is why E. K. inflates Spenser’s eccentricity: to make him seem central.

I do wish that Spenserians would be more sparing of the word exile. Ovid was an exile (generally speaking; technically, he was merely relegated, which meant that he could be recalled); and Spenser was an Ovidian (also a Virgilian, also a Ciceronian). But Spenser was not an exile. As Thomas Herron and Michael Potterton have repeatedly demonstrated, Ireland in the Renaissance was a lively place, intellectually, not just a dangerous one, militarily. Unlike Ovid, bored on the Black Sea, Spenser enjoyed the society of translators, adventurers, speculators, and other poets. Sidney spent time in Ireland, as did Raleigh, as did Sir John Davies, Spenser’s friend Sir Lodowick Bryskett, Sir John Harington, and Geoffrey Fenton. It’s true that, for the queen’s deputy, an Irish posting could be financially ruinous. (The same was frequently true for ambassadors.) But for young, mid-level administrators like Spenser, Ireland was the land of opportunity: a place where capable men of parts could get ahead without a pedigree, buy land, and build a castle (or at least a nest egg). Instead of an exile, we should think of Spenser as an expatriate.

But the hero of this book is Marlowe, not Spenser. The last chapter, on Tamburlaine, is the longest and seeks to restore the strangeness—even the offensiveness—of blank verse. In my own account of why Spenser did not write The Faerie Queene in blank verse, I followed Derek Attridge in emphasizing the looseness of that form, compared with hexameters (for classical epic) and complicated rhyme schemes (for vernacular). Nicholson, though, explains the form as an expression of character: specifically, of Marlowe’s “overreaching” characters, Doctor Faustus, the Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine. This works locally, to explain the resistance (admittedly, short-lived) of English listeners to “Marlowe’s mighty line” (the admiring phrase belongs to a later phase of critical reception, and is coined by Jonson). Tamburlaine was a beast; and it took a few years before his idiom could seem other than bestial. But Tamburlaine, as Nicholson shows, was also named by George Puttenham and Samuel Daniel as a civilizer of the nations, cultures, and languages that he conquered. Again, what seems like a foreign threat to national identity could also be seen as foundational, constitutive.

Blank verse was a European phenomenon, not just an English one. Nicholson acknowledges this, but doesn’t make it part of her argument. Likewise, some of what she says about Marlowe’s deliberate abrasiveness could also be said about Chapman and Donne; and some of it has been said, about Chapman and Donne, by James Biester in Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry (1997). This proves, however, that the argument can be extended, not that it’s false. That French poets invented a Trojan genealogy for the French kings does not contradict, much less invalidate the fact that English poets were doing the same thing for English princes. So it is with style: to the degree that everyone in Europe was schooled in classical rhetoric, it is not surprising that everyone wrestled with the classical paradox, that an arresting style must be understandable and foreign-sounding at the same time.

Nicholson doesn’t mention him, but the basic problem that she deals with is similar to one that Frank Kermode sketched in Shakespeare’s Language (2000). On the one hand, Shakespeare’s theater-goers had to catch his words on the fly. But some of the knottier speeches (Kermode specifies Coriolanus) must have been caviar to the general. How much of Shakespeare did those first audiences actually grasp? To what degree did he create the taste by which he was enjoyed? Maybe they were better at listening than we are (having been schooled by long sermons in church). But Tasso’s audience had the same problem when he recited Jerusalem Delivered (1581): unless you had the book in your hand, it was reportedly hard to follow. This effect was a direct consequence of Tasso’s classically-inflected theory of style: as we know from Tasso’s correspondence, the poet labored to make his language strange, the better to make it forceful and moving.

But Tasso was writing an epic; Marlowe was writing a tragedy. Both genres are supposed to be in the high style; and, according to Aristotle’s Poetics, one of the methods for achieving that style is foreign-sounding diction, including archaisms. It’s natural to focus on the high school, since that’s what the rhetoric manuals focused on too, especially the ones derived from Cicero. But Tudor poetry also has a style that C. S. Lewis called “drab” and the Stanford School (of Yvor Winters and Wesley Trimpi) called “plain.” That style finds no place in this account—just as it found no place in my own account, Spenser’s International Style (2013). The plain style is an old concept by now, and you would think it had been properly masticated. Instead it’s proving to be a lump that neither of our recent theories can digest; and that should make both of us uncomfortable.

David Scott Wilson-Okamura
East Carolina University

[1] Thomas Whitfield Baldwin, 2 vols., (Urbana: University of Illinois P, 1944).  


  • Sacramento Fencing Pros - Roseville 4 months, 1 week ago

    Nicholson is not so concerned with the success or failure of classroom methods as with the values that those methods implied and inculcated.

    Link / Reply
  • Lincoln Mobile Mechanic 4 months ago

    Greenblatt must surely rank as one of the great close-readers of the twentieth century; and the comfortable, arm-patches elegance of his own Attic style is enviable.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

David Scott Wilson-Okamura, "Catherine Nicholson, Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance," Spenser Review 45.1.11 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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