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Certain Kinds of Ambition: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Early Modern Scholarship (with A Love Letter to James Nohrnberg’s The Analogy of The Faerie Queene)
by James Kearney

The editors of Spenser Review pose a provocative question: whither “big books” in Early Modern literary studies? I take “big” here to mean “ambitious” broadly defined rather than lengthy or gravely weighty. Small books can be and often are hugely ambitious, and works less given to solemnity can engage in serious play that ambitiously upends our expectations. As I understand it then, in the first instance the question has to do with the status of “ambition” in Early Modern literary studies. 

To my mind, Early Modern literary studies is as ambitious as it has ever been. In just the past several years, we have seen The Accommodated Animal, Thinking with Shakespeare, Mortal Thoughts, The Melancholy Assemblage, The Future of Illusion, Mediatrix, The Pain of Reformation, The Mosaic Constitution, and the Shakesqueer collection. In the next twelve months we should see Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, The Corporate Commonwealth, and The Multi-Species Impression.[1] These are “big” books by fantastic scholars. And, of course, this is only a fraction of what is out there, a fraction that necessarily reflects my own tastes and predilections.  Readers are almost certainly wondering why the recent, ambitious works that they love are not on this brief and incomplete list. This only proves the larger point: there is no lack of ambition in Early Modern Literary studies. And yet …

And yet there is another aspect of that initial question that has less to do with the work itself and more to do with the reception and impact of the work within the scholarly community. Yes, Early Modern scholars are writing terrifically ambitious works, but do they loom as large in the common conversation as they once did? And here I am not invoking those elusive creatures, “the larger public” or “the common reader”; I am restricting myself to the reading communities concomitant with literary study generally and Early Modern literary study more specifically. Even with these narrowly defined reading communities in mind, I think it is fair to ask whether “big” books catch on or “land” in the way that they once did. In terms of reception, it is safe to say that we have not had a success story like Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning since its publication thirty-five years ago.[2] And even if we consider the impact of Renaissance Self-Fashioning anomalous, the larger question remains: have we had a work of scholarship (let’s say in the last fifteen or twenty years) achieve the kind of broad-based success within Early Modern criticism that a previous generation of scholars could hope for, if not expect? My sense is that we have not. If this is true (and I certainly welcome the readers of The Spenser Review to offer alternate viewpoints), and if there has been no falling off in terms of quality or ambition—and it is my argument that there has not—then what gives? 

The problem, if there is one, lies not with the ambition of scholars but with the common conversation that these scholars might hope to enter and shape. We often hear that Early Modern literary studies specifically and literary studies generally have become much more niche-oriented. This line of argument can be overstated. I think it is less true, for instance, at the level of the individual scholar. Most scholars I know—even those who might be strongly associated with a particular sub-field—have multiple areas of expertise, have a strong understanding of the various conversations happening at any given time within literary study, and feel more or less at home in a variety of conversations. The argument that we have become much more niche-oriented, however, rings true if we look for the forest rather than at the trees, when we look for that elusive common conversation. 

The argument is usually framed in terms of something lost: that there is no longer a center to the conversation in the way that there might have been in the heydays of either continental theory or New Historicism. I think this is almost certainly true even if the reach and coherence of that common conversation has been somewhat exaggerated in hindsight, and I think that this is the main reason that even the most ambitious and successful books do not “land” in the way that they might once have done. To be clear, I am not lamenting this situation. Although having a common conversation has a strong appeal, there is fantastic scholarship being produced nonetheless. Indeed, if Early Modern literary criticism is particularly robust at the moment—and I think it is—that may be a direct result of scholars feeling free to pursue projects without pressure to join in a particular conversation dominating scholarship at a specific time. And lest we forget, the “common conversations” of the eighties and nineties were also battlefields, as both theory and historicism occasioned contentious debates about what the discipline of literary study should be or do.


The question posed by The Spenser Review also raises larger questions about how we might measure impact and influence. In a digital age, databases allow us to see how often a work is cited. Online journals can track how often articles are downloaded. Awards and reviews suggest a certain kind of reception and tell us something about the visibility of works. And sometimes impact and influence are easy to see if not measure. One might found a school of thought, create some “-ism” or other, secure lasting institutional success in the form of centers, labs, programs, etc. Of course, certain kinds of influence cannot be measured in quantifiable ways. I was recently at a conference where a speaker was introduced by a younger scholar who related that he was converted to the cause of Early Modern literary studies through the happy accident of happening upon the speaker’s book in the university library. The “serendipity of the stacks” is an idea I often talk about with my students in an effort to get them to experience the library as a material and not merely virtual space. How often are we looking for one book when the title or cover of another calls out to us to “take up and read”? Here, that happy accident evidently led to delight and a well-nigh Augustinian conversion to the cause. I have never had a dramatic conversion occasioned by a book as described above, but this testimony produced its own kind of epiphany about scholarly ambition and inspired me to frame a different kind of response to the initial query than I had originally intended. 

Ambitious books are, of course, not all ambitious in the same way. Moreover, any scholarly work is the overdetermined product of various ambitions and pressures. At a certain level, of course, our motivations are often quite prosaic: we write to obtain or secure a job; we write because our institutions demand it; at the end of the day, I suppose, we write to eat. We are embedded in social and economic and professional situations that provide particular motivations: we compete for funding and opportunity; we race or contend with various clocks, personal and professional; we strive to meet arbitrary benchmarks. At the same time, we dream big in relation to our professional lives; who wouldn’t be thrilled to take the academic world by storm or to discover they have started an “-ism” or founded a movement? And yet, ambitious scholarly work almost has to be a labor of love of sorts. Or an illness, if you prefer. To sustain interest in a project that will take years to finish, one has to cathect around the material in fundamental ways, healthy and unhealthy. And as we pursue this labor of love, we must imagine sending our “little boke” out into the larger world, to readers and audiences, which brings me back to the imagined scene of my anonymous younger scholar’s Augustinian conversion.

Even if I never experienced a conversion to the cause, my faith in Early Modern literary studies has been sustained over the years by a wide variety of works by a wide variety of authors.  I am still coming to grips with Richard Halperns’s The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation twenty-five years later. There was a time when I pressed David Lee Miller’s The Poem’s Two Bodies on everyone I knew who might be remotely interested in Spenser. I found Patricia Parker’s Inescapable Romance and Lisa Jardine’s Erasmus: Man of Letters and Bruce Smith’s Key of Green at the right times.[3] The list could go on and on, and you will have your own. Everyone does. Scholars might be thrilled to discover they have founded a movement, but when writing there is also the desire simply to reach, as Joyce said, the “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia.”[4] And we have all been—at one point or another—at least approximately, that ideal reader with the ideal insomnia. Forgive the absurdly idealistic sentiment, but on some level we write to create and recreate these fundamentally textual relations. We write for the authors who fashioned us as the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia, and we write with the hope of being that figure for someone else. 

In my conversations with other scholars, the works they want to champion or press upon me are rarely the ones that we might expect. The books that inspire and sustain us are sometimes wildly successful, but more often they are not. This state of affairs suggests a potentially interesting thought experiment. What if we imagined an alternate history where a particularly ambitious and interesting book gained the kind of traction that some of the books of the New Historicism did back in the day? Take your favorite work of Early Modern literary criticism. What if it had had the impact of a Renaissance Self-Fashioning? What would Early Modern criticism look like in its wake? What kind of critics would we be? What kind of arguments would we have? How would our conversations be different? If works of scholarship are ambitious in different ways, what kind of response would this particular flavor of ambition inspire?  

As it happens, my response to my own question is perverse and self-defeating. Looking back I find that while I have often been thrilled by the ambition of particular works, these works have rarely proven to be the kind that might start a movement. In fact, it has largely been just the opposite. One of the arguments offered to explain the success of the New Historicism, and the New Criticism before it, is that they offer models that can be replicated. Replicability is the engine and propagation the evidence of success.[5] The works that have most impressed me with their ambition, however, are those that seem fundamentally inimitable. Some works are simply too vast and monumentally learned to be replicated. Brian Cumming’s Grammar and Grace and Joanna Picciotto’s Labors of Innocence are two recent examples of works whose scholarly reach precludes imitation. Some works are so deeply immersed in the project at hand that they lay claim to the material in a way that cannot be duplicated. Lisa Freinkel’s Reading Shakespeare’s Will and Margreta de Grazia’s Hamlet without Hamlet come to mind. Some of the best scholarship is inimitable simply because it is brilliantly idiosyncratic. I have a particular fondness for works of scholarship both idiosyncratic and steeped in theory: Terence Cave’s The Cornucopian Text; Juliet Fleming’s Graffiti and the Writing Arts; Jonathan Gil Harris’s Untimely Matter; Julian Yates’ Error, Misuse, Failure; all of Julia Reinhard Lupton’s work.[6] And, of course, the idiosyncrasy of a work is often simply a function of the personality of writerly voice.  For fear of turning this piece into a list, I will refrain from cataloguing the wonderfully acerbic or generous or funny voices that have brought light and life to the scholarly meditations on literature and culture and history and philosophy and lived experience I have read over the years. The larger point is simply that certain kinds of scholarly ambition and achievement may preclude certain kinds of worldly success.   


Let me end my attempt to respond to this provocative question by turning to a particular work of immense and idiosyncratic ambition. As this is The Spenser Review, I thought it fitting to turn to what is perhaps the most ambitious scholarly work ever written on The Faerie Queene, a work of scholarship that combines many of the attributes above, a work that also happens to be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its publication in 2016: James Nohrnberg’s monumental The Analogy of The Faerie Queene.[7] 

The first thing all readers notice when faced with Nohrnberg’s Analogy is its size. My dog-eared copy of the paperback version of TAOTFQ is 791 pages of main text supplemented by a ten-page preface, a ten-page analytical table of contents (in addition to the regular table of contents), a 61-page index, and a seven-page index to scriptural passages referenced. There are 1824 footnotes. And its size is a function of its immense scholarly ambition. Nohrnberg’s chapters have titles like “The Book of Life,” “The Conjugation of the World,” “The Word of God and the Words of Men.” This is not a book of modest aims. 

Not all the early reviews of The Analogy of The Faerie Queene were entirely favorable, and one gets the strong sense from the tone of some of the reviews that the writers were defeated in advance by the size and weight of the volume. Almost all the early reviews I have read refer to the “sheer bulk” (a phrase used by more than one reviewer) of the “massive tome” in the opening of the review. One gentleman refers to it as “monstrous.”[8] Or, if they were not put off by the size, reviewers were defeated in advance by what one reviewer calls the “immense erudition” of this “stupendously learned” book.[9]   

In defense of these early reviewers, Nohrnberg’s Analogy is not a work that lends itself to summary or to easy analysis. And I will attempt no such thing here. As when encountering The Faerie Queene itself, we are all defeated in advance by the “sheer bulk” and “immense erudition” of Nohrnberg’s Analogy. Indeed, the reaction of these reviewers is not unlike the reaction of some readers to The Faerie Queene, which makes sense since the experience of reading Nohrnberg’s Analogy is not unlike the experience of reading the poem. We enter a dark wood and embark on a labyrinthine journey in which we encounter manifold wonders and learn more than we thought we wanted to know. Indeed, one early reviewer asks if Spenser is not to blame for the “overblown nature of this commentary” for “a book so evidently overweight.” After all, Spenser’s text “asks for an absolute commitment. We swallow him whole or not at all,” and in response to this demand “Nohrnberg writes out of an absolute commitment.”[10] Here, writing of out of an absolute commitment in response to a text that demands such a commitment is framed as critique, but what better accolade could a literary critic (especially a Spenserian) receive?     

It feels strange and misleading to point to a handful of somewhat negative early reviews. There were those who understood the magnificent achievement from the outset, and the work has certainly found its place in the pantheon of Spenserian and Early Modern criticism. I return to these early reviews because they are responding to the immense and wonderfully strange ambition of the book. But it is ambition of a particular kind. Indeed, whatever Nohrnberg’s ambition was, it was not to create something that lent itself to the standard review. Nor does Nohrnberg’s Analogy seem designed to be replicable or to found any movement. I do not believe that we have seen anything like it since its publication.  

And I return to these early reviews because almost everything the reviewers critique in Nohrnberg’s Analogy is something I find delightful and inspiring: its encyclopedic scope; its exhaustive and exhausting attempt to find most of the western tradition in a single poem; its inventiveness and creativity in its pursuit of different ways to read the poem. It is a book of scholarship that is both generous and generative. In his preface, Nohrnberg writes that “what began as a criticism of the poem, in the sense of an analysis of its ostensible total form, evolved into a commentary, a divulging.”[11] And what a divulging this is. Barry Weller compares it to Renaissance “commentaries on classical authors, particularly Ovid and Vergil” and like these commentaries “it is a reading not only of a particular work of literature, but of the culture which informs the work.”[12] Exactly so. And that culture is not simply the culture of Elizabethan England or even of Renaissance Europe but the immense culture of letters in which someone like Edmund Spenser was immersed and which the poet was, to some extent, recreating in his poem. 

Some of these early reviewers seem to have wanted Nohrnberg to be differently ambitious: they want his extended commentary to pin The Faerie Queene down, to articulate its meaning, “to say finally,” to borrow a phrase from Michel Foucault, “that which was silently articulated deep down.”[13] Nohrnberg has no desire for the final word; all his efforts work toward opening the poem up, acknowledging the poem’s capacity to contain worlds. In his preface, Nohrnberg writes of The Faerie Queene’s “generativity,” its “copiousness,” the “manifold character of the poem,” “the conspicuous heterogeneity of its matter,” and its “resourcefulness.”[14] Nohrnberg captures these aspects of The Faerie Queene as well as anyone ever has and, in part, he does so by replicating them. Nohrnberg’s Analogy is in many ways analogous to The Faerie Queene; it is its doppelganger, a work of scholarship that mirrors the poem’s wonderful weirdness and strange ambitions. No insomnia could ever make one the ideal reader of Nohrnberg’s seemingly bottomless book, but forty years from its publication, it still inspires some of us to try.[15]     

James Kearney
University of California, Santa Barbara


[1] Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (U Of Chicago P, 2013), Julia Reinhard Lupton, Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life (U Of Chicago P, 2011), Brian Cummings, Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity, & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (Oxford UP, 2013), Drew Daniel, The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance (Fordham UP, 2013), Victoria Kahn, The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (U Of Chicago P, 2014), Julie Crawford, Mediatrix: Women, Politics, and Literary Production in Early Modern England (Oxford UP, 2014), Joseph Campana, The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham UP, 2012), Graham Hammill, The Mosaic Constitution: Political Theology and Imagination from Machiavelli to Milton (U Of Chicago P, 2012), Madhavi Menon, ed. Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Duke UP, 2011), Valerie Traub, Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns (U of Pennsylvania P, 2015), Henry Turner, The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516-1651 (U of Chicago P, 2016), Julian Yates, The Multi-Species Impression: Renaissance / Organics, forthcoming.

[2]  Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (U of Chicago P, 1980).

[3] Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Cornell UP, 1991), David Lee Miller, The Poem’s Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 Faerie Queene (Princeton UP, 1988), Patricia Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton UP, 1979), Lisa Jardine, Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print (Princeton UP, 1993), Bruce Smith, The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (U Of Chicago P, 2008).

[4] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Penguin, 1982; 1939), 120.

[5] Of course this can be overstated. It is far easier to mimic what one perceives to be the method of a New Historicist reading than to recreate the compulsively readable literary voice of a Greenblatt or the bracing argumentative punch of a Montrose or the brilliantly crude thinking (in the Brechtian sense) of a Stallybrass. 

[6] Brian Cummings, The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (Oxford UP, 2003), Joanna Picciotto, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (Harvard UP, 2010), Lisa Freinkel, Reading Shakespeare’s Will: The Theology of Figure from Augustine to The Sonnets (Columbia UP, 2002), Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge UP, 2007); Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford UP, 1979), Juliet Fleming, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (U of Pennsylvania P, 2001), Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (U of Pennsylvania P, 2008), Julian Yates, Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons From The English Renaissance (U of Minnesota P, 2002).

[7] James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton UP, 1976).

[8] John E. Hankins, Roger Sale, and S. K. Heninger, Jr. all make reference to the Analogy’s “sheer bulk,” while William Blissett marvels at its “sheer size” and Leonard Ashley refers to it as both a “dauntingly heavy volume” and a “massive tome.” Martin Dodsworth calls it “monstrous.” Hankins, “The Analogy of The Faerie Queene,Modern Philology 77.2 (1979), 200-204: 200; Sale, “Castles Joyous, and Caves of Despair,” The Hudson Review 30.4 (Winter, 1977-1978) 560-568: 560; Heninger, “Recent Studies in the English Renaissance,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18.1 (1978): 169-197: 174; Blissett, “The Longest Study of Spenser,” University of Toronto Quarterly 48.1 (1978): 76-80: 76; Ashley, “The Analogy of The Faerie Queene,Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 40.2 (1978), 435-439: 436, 435; Dodsworth, “The Spenserian Dragon,” English 28.130 (1979): 43-51: 48.

[9] Sale, 560. H. L. Weatherby finds the Analogy “intellectually extravagant” and “Nohrnberg’s erudition …  enormous, even encyclopedic.” Waldo McNeir waxes allegorical, suggesting that Nohrnberg’s “wealth of erudition is a temptation not resisted” and that “the evil genius Excesse” presides over the book. Weatherby, “Metaphysicians in Fairyland,” The Sewanee Review 87.3 (1979), 490-499: 491; McNeir,  “The Analogy of The Faerie Queene,Comparative Literature 32.1 (1980), 96-101: 96. 

[10] Dodsworth, 48.

[11] Analogy, xii.

[12] Barry Weller, “Images of the Renaissance,” MLN 92.5 (1977), 1067-1080: 1076.

[13] For Foucault this is both commentary’s function and an aspect of its paradoxical nature. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Random House, 1972), 221.

[14] Analogy, ix.

[15] I should note that it is my misfortune never to have met or corresponded with Professor Nohrnberg. 



  • Thomas Herron 8 years, 6 months ago

    What a great tribute to Jim N.'s work. You can see the Doppelganger (tie and blue shirt, front and center) at Kilcolman Castle in the Spenser2015 conference photograph in this same issue. --Tom Herron

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  • Comment deleted 1 year, 9 months ago

  • Cypress Concrete Pros 4 months, 1 week ago

    The England in which he moves is diminished, sadder.

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  • Beaumont Onsite Truck Repair 4 months ago

    To be clear, I am not lamenting this situation. Although having a common conversation has a strong appeal, there is fantastic scholarship being produced nonetheless.

    Link / Reply
  • Artificial Eyelashes 1 month, 2 weeks ago

    I love to see this university when i visit UK next time.

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  • Kayla Nicole 1 month, 2 weeks ago

    Does the university still offer these types of scolarshihs

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  • Venmo Non profits 1 month, 2 weeks ago

    Anyone guide how apply for this scholarship

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  • LG freezer 1 month, 2 weeks ago

    I love to read this analogy about the queen

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Cite as:

James Kearney, "Certain Kinds of Ambition: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Early Modern Scholarship (with A Love Letter to James Nohrnberg’s The Analogy of The Faerie Queene)," Spenser Review 45.2.22 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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