Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Catherine Bates, ed., A Companion to Renaissance Poetry
by Richard Danson Brown

Bates, Catherine (ed.) A Companion to Renaissance Poetry. Wiley Blackwell, 2018. Xxi, 653 pp. ISBN 9781118585191. £120, cloth.

We live in a period of massive anthologies of criticism. Catherine Bates’s serious, compelling and comprehensive collection is the latest in a sequence which includes the Oxford Handbooks series, alongside more bespoke works like Andrew Escobedo’s Edmund Spenser in Context (see and It is hard to exaggerate the scale and the scope of this book: it includes forty-six chapters, each of which are between six and seven thousand words, by forty-five scholars; it stretches to over 300,000 words, and distills a huge amount of work and reflection. We traverse vast fields, moving from an opening essay which highlights the survival of the techniques and modalities of medieval verse in the early sixteenth century to a final essay which sees the origins of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas of the sublime in the work of (among others) Spenser and Milton. Reading it as a whole has been both a pleasure and something of an undertaking, although unlike Donne’s speaker – in a poem not discussed here – I do not propose ‘to keepe that hid’.

The size of the Companion is germane because the reviewer experiences the book in a way that most of Bates’s readers will not: as a printed book with linked sections and an over-arching sense of intellectual design, even if individual chapters do not necessarily take the same line. While Patrick Cheney twice alludes to the volume design of the Companion (186, 611), Wiley Blackwell’s mise en page underlines that the print volume is partly secondary to the electronic resource: the footer of each new chapter has the title, editor and publishing details, badging the part within the whole even if the reader experiences that totality only as a distant digital presence. I say this not to disparage electronic publication – indeed, as is often noted, academic publishers have been slow to realise the affordances of digital – but to draw attention to the animating tension within this collection between the individual part and the larger whole. This review is itself divided into two parts: first, a detailed overview of the whole, and second, a short reflection on changes, continuities and omissions.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bates chooses not to have a long introduction. In a brief preface she sketches her ambitions: to provide an up to date ‘snapshot of the field’ which ‘remains attuned to the period’s own literary categories and structures of thought’ (xvii-xviii). While this is admirable, it is also provokes questions which reverberate throughout: as William Kennedy later notes, ‘Our modern and deeply theorized categories of aesthetics’ are ‘anachronistic to Renaissance thought’ (570). Secondly, the categorisation of ‘non-dramatic poetry in English between Wyatt and Milton’ is not one which Renaissance (or Early Modern – both terms are used throughout) writers would have recognised, as Sidney’s Defence of Poetry demonstrates (xix). Drama in one form or another surfaces throughout the volume, but often almost as an unacknowledged relative who keeps butting in to conversations to which s/he has not been officially invited. Again, this is not a major gripe – as Hannibal Hamlin notes in a good natured grumble about where his discussion of the Psalms might fit into the structure of the volume – ‘it must go somewhere’, or in the case of drama, nowhere (455). My point is not that the Companion should have included drama, but that by virtue of this understandable editorial decision, the conversation is sometimes not as ‘attuned’ to the discourses of the past as it might have been.

Like Richard McCabe’s Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser (2010), the volume begins with a detailed Part on Contexts. Unlike McCabe’s work, this section is further divided into sections – Transitions and Translations; Religions and Reformations; Authorships and Authorities; and Defenses and Definitions. As these titles indicate, the emphasis is on plurality and change, although it should be noted that Bates doesn’t give equal weighting to each subsection: Religions and Reformations has two essays, while Authorships and Authorities has five.

Overall, these essays give a nuanced sense of overlapping, competing and changing contexts. The Transitions and Translations section begins with Seth Lerer’s ‘The Medieval Inheritance of Early Tudor Poetry’, an essay which explores complex cultural indebtedness between these periods. Lerer offers a sophisticated depiction of Wyatt and his contemporaries as, like Chaucer before them, profoundly influenced by Boethian lament. Through his revisionary readings of ‘Absens absenting causithe me to complaine’ and ‘They flee from me’, Lerer elegantly demonstrates what he calls the ‘longer legs’ of ‘the Chaucerian inheritance’ in sixteenth-century poetry (8). A. E. B. Coldiron’s ‘Translation and Translations’ is similarly revisionary, arguing that ‘translation is the Renaissance literary habitus: the pervasive condition and practices forming the generative matrix for literary production and reception’ (17), while problematising the conventional assumption that translation from Italian was the most influential on English poetry. On Coldiron’s data, translation from French comfortably outscores all other languages (20). The final essay of this section is Lynn Enterline’s inventive consideration of Marvell’s Nymph poems in the context of Ovid and the grammar school. Attractively, Enterline sees Marvell as like Shakespeare exhibiting ‘a truculent kind of indebtedness to the cultural capital of the classical past’ alongside a resistance to humanist education (33). My only disappointment with this essay is that she couldn’t find space for ‘The Nymph Complaining on the Death of her Faun’, though that crops up elsewhere.

The Religions and Reformations section is perhaps a more orthodox starting point for a volume of this kind, but again contextual information is leavened with sensitive close reading. Gary Kuchar’s work on the Sacraments both explains the terrific complexity of different faith positions (52) and conveys a sense of how poetry mediates that complexity through deft readings of poems by Alabaster, Southwell and Herbert. Susannah Brietz Monta updates Barbara Lewalski’s notion of a protestant poetics by arguing for a more plural ‘Reformation-era poetics’ (63). I particularly liked her image of The Reformation as ‘a family fight, with all a feuding family’s viciousness’, which will be useful in the classroom, and her suggestive analogies between the different yet related poetic practices of the Catholic Southwell and the Protestant Herbert (65).

Authorships and Authorities spreads its conceptual net more widely, which is one reason perhaps why this section is larger than any other in the first part. Steven May and Arthur Marotti’s chapter on ‘Manuscript Culture’ is the first of several to stress the social and occasional character of poetry in Early Modern England; as they note poignantly, ‘The professionalization of the role of the poet in the modern era may have been an aesthetic advance, but it also represented a cultural loss’ (93). In this reckoning, the manuscript economy is the vital conduit for the social consumption of poetry, thus Sidney and Donne are ‘committed scribal publisher[s]’ who demand contextualising in these conditions (86). The arguments of this chapter are nicely extended by Jonathan Gibson’s ‘Miscellanies in Manuscript and Print’. For Gibson, manuscript miscellanies are ‘texts in process’, which were then imitated by the print anthologies of Richard Tottel and others, and which offer the reader voyeuristic access to ‘coterie experience’ (104-05). Englands Helicon (1600) ultimately breaks this paradigm by being a miscellany constructed from printed materials rather than manuscript ones.

Stephen Dobranski’s essay charts the way in which ‘the modern notion of authorship’ grew out of ‘a collective publishing enterprise’ (124). What emerges here is the slow process through the seventeenth century by which publishing conditions in England grew more like those in France, where authors’ rights were in use much earlier. As with the two previous chapters, the imitation of the ‘intimate’ forms of manuscript by printed books shows the connections between these different media in a period of cultural change, particularly in the work of Milton (120). Wendy Wall explores female authorship through the work of Hester Pulter and Isabella Whitney to caution against essentialising accounts of these writers; as she puts it, ‘Our scholarly urge to find traces of historical women can lead us to ignore the reality that “voice” and “authorship” exist in a precarious and indeterminate relationship’ (135). This has the bracing effect of making Whitney seem like a curiously modern writer, whose Sweet Nosgay (1573) is a collation of texts by multiple authors – a sampled work of ‘social and literary assemblages’ (134).

The final essay of this section is a curveball by Jonathan Crewe on Izaak Walton as the hagiographer of Donne and Herbert. Crewe argues against the modern view of hagiography as being ‘synonymous with whitewashing’ (142): rather, it is a viable Renaissance genre which reveals ‘the multidimensional “political theology” of the Anglican Restoration’ (152). Crewe’s readings of Walton – and thus of Donne and Herbert – are enthralling. He is particularly funny on the way ‘Donne’s own scripting of his life and death, as well as Walton’s “channeling” of him, makes Donne his own auto-hagiographer’ (148), while his presentation of Herbert’s saintly-yet-problematic masculinity seemed to me both searching and well judged (148-9). But I particularly enjoyed his final polemical warning against ‘the arrogance, condescension, and prosecutorial zeal that strangely characterize so many of our recent dealings with writers we batten on professionally, and undertake to “teach”’ (152). This is an unusual note in the Companion, and all the more welcome for that.

The last section of Part 1 is on Defenses and Definitions, beginning with Robert Matz’s excellent ‘Theories and Philosophies of Poetry’. The strength of this essay is both in the way it relates Renaissance theory to modern theory, with the starting point that both poetry and criticism are potentially reprehensible forms of idleness (154-55). Matz is particularly sharp on the way in which Renaissance didacticism was amenable to New Historicist scepticism about old-fashioned claims for the ‘specialness’ of literature: ‘As with the belief in poetry’s special access to truth, this New Historicist criticism of Renaissance poetry and poetic theory […] challenges the view of poetry as a special, aesthetic kind of language’ (159), a perception which suggests perhaps that we as a subject community have been over-trusting in the authority we concede to the didactic poetics of Sidney and Puttenham. Matz’s concluding comparison of Daniel’s under read Defence of Rhyme with Sidney’s ubiquitous Defence is provocative, as Daniel’s anti-essentialist, custom-based poetics anticipates ‘postmodern, psychoanalytic, social, and historical approaches to our subject’ (162-63).

Joseph Loewenstein’s chapter on ‘Tudor Verse Form’ offers a different kind of revisionism, resisting ‘teleological’ accounts of versification in favour of an exploration of the formal predicaments of sixteenth-century poets. This essay supplements Lerer’s opener in exploring the problematic medieval inheritance as regards metre (170-72); it pays rich attention to the quantitative experiment and questions of mise en page and the constraint of print as a technology on the presentation of manuscript verse (177). The hero of Loewenstein’s account is Richard Stanyhurst. Stanyhurst has got a better reception from several critics in recent years than he has in the previous four hundred (Nashe famously described his translation of the first four books of the Aeneid as ‘Thrasonical huffe snuffe’),[1] but Loewenstein’s evocation of Stanyhurst’s ‘distinguishing strangenesses’ is the best I know of in explaining why this angular text should possibly have had a greater impact. Thus Stanyhurst achieves ‘a metrical pattern in which orthography takes precedence over speech, in which the meter is orthogonal to stress, and in which the poet performs as artificer before an audience that has been mobilized as connoisseurs of that artifice’ (175). My only complaint about this brilliant essay is the assertion that Phyllyp Sparowe is a lament ‘for a dead parrot’; Monty Python notwithstanding, the bird is that sadly diminished species, a house sparrow (passer domesticus): ‘my sparowe dyd pas/All sparowes of the wode/That were syns Noes flode’ (167).[2] In the last essay of the first part, Patrick Cheney’s essay on genre is a bravura statement of the value of Renaissance literature, arguing that the Renaissance was fully theoretical. What I found most interesting in this essay is the reflection it throws on the surrounding essays: Cheney is concerned, in a way which is less evident than with other contributors, to promote the ongoing value of literature as a social tool – as he puts it: ‘In English Renaissance poetry, genre equips the reader for living’ (191, original emphases). Even with caveats, such a statement abrades against the more sceptical approach of, for example, Matz.

Like Part I, Part II on Forms and Genres, is also divided into a suite of smaller sections: Epic and Epyllion; Lyric; Complaint and Elegy; Epistolatory and Dialogic Forms; Satire, Pastoral and Popular Poetry; and Religious Poetry. The ambition here is to cover almost every conceivable genre, though as we shall see in Part III, some of these categories leak over into other taxonomies. Nevertheless, this is a suggestive way of organising a series of chapters which share much in terms of the poets discussed, the interest in close formal reading, and the kinds of context deployed to illuminate this work. As with Part I, the sections are by no means equal: Lyric dominates here with seven essays to Epic’s four, with the remaining genres having two to three essays each. This departure from the hierarchy of Sidney’s Defence reflects contemporary tastes and reading lists (see e.g. 217), although the section on Epic and Epyllion still precedes Lyric.

Part II begins with Gordon Teskey’s lucid and skillfully condensed account of The Faerie Queene, which covers archaism, stanza form, cantos, the complex debts to Chaucer (with a valuable emphasis on Troilus and Criseyde, 204), and an overview of each Book which sees Spenser in critical dialogue with Tasso and Virgil – he is a ‘forward-looking’ poet, whose aim is to ‘ennoble eroticism’; he is less distrustful than his predecessors about the place of women in epic (205-06). My only hesitation about this subtle essay was the suggestion – made almost as an aside – that Books V and VI ‘are comparatively straightforward, for Spenser’ (207).  David Loewenstein follows with a sympathetic account of Paradise Lost. Loewenstein also takes a book-by-book overview, alongside a reading of the poem as an epic which is unusually interested in theology. Again, there’s much useful insight, such as the suggestion that ‘The God of Paradise Lost is a deity of emotions’ (219), and his argument that Milton’s view of sexuality was more than simply patriarchal (220-21). In his discussion of Milton’s politics, Loewenstein cites an early biographer, Jonathan Richardson, who noted that the reader of Paradise Lost ‘must be Always upon Duty’, which again opens fertile avenues for classroom discussion (224). Shannon Miller’s essay on Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder explores the forms of the poem, in particular its rhymes, to highlight the ways in which Hutchinson offers a gendered response to Genesis, sympathetic both to Eve and to the creative work of childbirth. Despite the strengths of these essays, there is a missed opportunity in terms of any direct comparison between Milton and Hutchinson’s reworking of the Bible.

Jim Ellis’s essay on ‘The Epyllion’ contextualises this as a genre of the 1590s and in particular the Inns of Court, and sees these works as an assertion of the pleasures of an unmoralised Ovid over those of Petrarch (240, 245). This is striking in terms of the debates of the Defenses and Definitions section: epyllion emerges as a deliberate flaunting of didacticism, which in terms of subject matter ‘verges on a cheerful perversity’ (241). If there is a moral to be drawn from poems by Lodge, Marlowe, Marston, Shakespeare and others, Ellis suggests, it is chiefly in the acquisition of the rhetorical skills which (for example) transforms Leander from ‘being an object of desire to being a desiring subject, one who objectifies others’ (244). A particular highlight of this essay is the way in which it draws in contemporary drama by making the point that London audiences were made up of the same people who were enjoying these poems (241-42). 

Ellis’s essay anticipates Gordon Braden’s contribution on Petrarchism, the first in the Lyric section. This essay is a fruitful marriage of the political with the literary: Petrarch’s attacks on the Avignon papacy made him acceptable to Protestant writers, while the adaptation of the Canzoniere in England shows the brilliance of the sonnet form as a form of literary training, what he calls ‘callisthenics for the individual talent’ (251). Both Wyatt and Sidney evince ‘discomfort with the emotional weather of Petrarch’s sequence’ (255), a discomfort which is also played out in the Petrarchan manoeuvres of the Elizabethan court and in Ralegh’s Cynthia poems, and finally in a superb account of Shakespeare’s Sonnets which empathetically sides with the female subject against the self-loathing, misogynist speaker (257-60). Chris Stamatakis’s chapter on Wyatt and Surrey is the first of several ‘paired’ readings of congruent or contrasting figures. It looks back to Lerer’s essay in its sense that these poets were as much vested in ‘the recollection of a literary past’ as in anticipating a literary future (263). Stamatakis does beautiful work in reading Wyatt and Surrey’s high degree of self-consciousness about verse forms and mise en page as a kind of obsessive recursion to haunted ‘places’ (268); this is particularly impressive in his account of Wyatt’s syntactically undetermined and seemingly chaotic ‘I lede a liff’ (272-73).

Bates’s own essay on Astrophil and Stella and Amoretti strikes a different note, more akin to Cheney’s essay – ‘English lyric poetry – if not English poetry per se – had arrived’ with these sonnet sequences (277). This seems more than a little ungenerous to Chaucer, not to mention Wyatt and Surrey, though Bates’s animating sense is of the novelty of the sonnet sequence as inaugurated by Sidney. Bates reads Sidney and Spenser in terms of their high degree of generic self-consciousness, and again Lyric takes on aspects of Epic: ‘Where Sidney works to subordinate epic to lyric by determinedly de-heroizing Astrophil… Spenser moves in the opposite direction, casting himself as the hero of his own personal odyssey’ (282). Danijela Kambaskovic-Schwarz’s essay dramatises some of the difficulties of accommodating Daniel and Drayton within this kind of literary history. Her central argument is that these poets used ‘sophisticated characterization and proto-fictional mechanisms’ to develop first-person narratives in their sonnet sequences, which is a plausible approach (298). However, the claim that Daniel was the first English sonneteer to ‘adopt’ the ‘seeming truthfulness of the speaker’s voice as a writer’, in imitation of La Vita Nuova, seems far-fetched in the context of Astrophil and Stella (290).

In contrast, Christopher Warley’s piece is a delightful – even a beautiful – love letter to Sonnet 146 alone, and in particular, its final then, and inter alia, Booth, Kant, Auerbach and Rancière. The argument, though complexly argued, is that the final then incarnates a ‘regime change’ between different conceptions of art (304). This is a high point in the Companion because of the quality of Warley’s close reading and the way he uses this extreme close up to explore his sense that ‘there is no tension between treating the sonnets as art and treating them as history’, a debate which is played out in many of these essays (304). It is the first sighting of the idea of beauty via Kant, but the problem remains that Kant’s category of ‘subjective universality’ is hard to specify – ‘Beautiful unity ends up also meaning equality: beauty has to be true for everyone’ (307). Though it’s courageous and welcome to have such a discussion, this made me wonder whether beauty is the only, or the sufficient, term to describe this variously maimed, tormented and obsessive poem? Warley’s essay suggests that such debate is endless, as in its use of Donald Stauffer’s essay showing various New Critics disagreeing about the detail of 146. But the problem remains, and the undergraduate reader of this poem may – inevitably, mercifully? – be less gripped by its dilemmas and its cruces than Warley is.

We return to paired poets in Barbara Correll’s essay on Donne and Marvell’s lyric poetry. This piece gives an overview of Donne and Marvell scholarship, taking in biography and again the tension between formalism and historicism. Alongside readings which emphasise the metapoetic aspects of their work, Correll surfaces a worry about the contrast of Donne and Marvell which doesn’t obtain with more familiar pairings like Wyatt and Surrey or Sidney and Spenser: reviewing the critical literature, she comments that ‘comparisons between [Donne and Marvell] appear frequently, though they are seldom sustained’ (317). This is perhaps another case of work having ‘to go somewhere’ (455). Syrithe Pugh redirects attention back to the reaction to Petrarchism in her essay on Jonson and his followers. She argues – with sparkling close readings throughout – that Jonson redirects lyric poetry from Petrarch to Horace, and that the shift to the technology of print for these writers encodes a complex cultural politics, whereby the print volume repeatedly gestures to the intimacy of manuscript culture, recapping arguments made earlier by Gibson and Dobranski. In Pugh’s resonant phrase, Jonson was ‘an amphibian of manuscript and print’ (327), and the forms of the verse manuscript miscellany are visible in Epigrams, The Forest and in Herrick’s Hesperides. A particular pleasure in this essay is its undeceived political readings – Forest 12 is ‘essentially a begging letter’ (331) – alongside its attentiveness to the musical contexts at the root of lyric poetry.

In the next section, lyric gives way to Complaint and Elegy. Rosalind Smith, Michelle O’Callagan and Sarah C. E. Ross tackle Complaint with a lively sense of the mode’s plurality and permeability – ‘complaint might be seen to contain multitudes’ (350). They advance a useful tripartite division between the related categories of erotic, religious and political complaint. Complaint proliferates in the sixteenth century through Tottel’s Miscellany and then through a ‘sudden intensification’ of erotic complaint in the 1590s (343). Spenser’s Complaints are rightly seen as a landmark because of their use of the mode both as ‘a site for the exploration of poetics as well as for the expression of a broad range of types of protest’ (344). Spenser also reverberates in the final section on the recently published complaints of Elizabeth Melville and Hester Pulter, one of whose poems is seen as a conscious echo to The Ruines of Time (349). One Spenserian question not fully engaged here is the authorship of ‘The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda’, which the writers ascribe to Mary Sidney, but which other recent scholarship sees as Spenser’s ventriloquised version of the Countess of Pembroke.[3] Andrea Brady reads ‘Funeral Elegy’ in terms of social institutions and custom. Thus most funeral elegies follow a distinct decorum and ‘ritual frame’; major poets like Spenser demonstrate their difference by the ways in which they deviated from this (354). Brady’s reading of Daphnaïda as a text which ‘does not match this spectacle of lamentation with the solace of predictable belief’ is rewarding (356), and her contrast between major writers and others is cashed with accounts of a number of seventeenth-century elegies. Brady is one of the few scholars to wrestle with the problem of how such poetry strikes students, confronting head on the worry that repetitive grumblings don’t look like ‘“real poetry”’; Brady’s answer is essentially sociological – repetitive funeral elegies reveal the ‘social functions of verse’ (354) – but the question is worth asking and anticipates Michelle O’Callaghan’s essay on satire.

The next section on Epistolary and Dialogic Forms includes essays by M. L. Stapleton and Cathy Shrank. Stapleton argues that verse epistles moved from the imitation of Ovid in the sixteenth century to increasing imitation of Horace, charting a shift from the ‘Feminocentric Ovidian epistles’ of Turberville and Whitney to the ‘patroness-training’ exercises of Donne (373). Shrank’s essay on ‘Answer Poetry’ supplements May and Marotti’s chapter in showing the embeddedness of verse writing as a social practice. The close readings in this essay are particularly thoughtful: Shrank picks up the ‘note of yearning’ in the final stanza of Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ (382), while her account of The Shepheardes Calender is persuasive in its attention to the ‘stalemate’ which persists in eclogues like ‘Februarie’; as she notes in a further twist to the conversation through the volume about didactic poetics, this poem shows ‘the troubling possibility that poetry can fall on deaf ears, however moral or eloquent’ (380).

‘Satire, Pastoral, and Popular Poetry’ is, as a category, something of a ragbag; nevertheless, the three essays here are each differently valuable. As mentioned above, Michelle O’Callaghan’s essay on ‘Verse Satire’ fruitfully engages with the genre’s marginality – its ‘suspect’ status and its frequent absence from modern anthologies despite its prestige in the period (389). She distinguishes between satire and libel, developing the idea of epigram as ‘sociable’ verse form – a nice touch here is the appearance of Sir John Davies both as the writer of an influential set of Martialesque epigrams, and as the subject of squibs himself (395). A final section considers the sexual politics of satire and libel as in the main verse written by men about women, which in the context of the court produced grotesque misogyny; this might have been developed by considering the way in which writers like Marston moved from verse satire to drama after the Bishop’s Ban, though O’Callaghan chooses not to pursue this avenue. Her essay is a lucid advocacy of satire; my only caveat is that the characterisation of such writing as ‘verse which wore its learning lightly’ doesn’t square readily with the messy, allusive, insidery argot coined by poets like Donne, Marston, Hall and Guilpin, which is another aspect of why the genre is ‘suspect’ now (392). Catherine Nicholson’s essay on pastoral is another highlight, focusing on the genre as a potentially dangerous form of idleness: ‘The proximity of idyll to idleness and idleness to idolatry made pastoral retreat perilous for an English poet’, and indeed critics as Nicholson begins with Rosamund Tuve worrying at analogous issues in 1955 (403). Moving from Barclay’s Codrus and Mynalcas (1521) as a road not taken into realist English pastoral, and Fleming’s influential Virgil translation, Nicholson presents the pastorals of Sidney and Spenser as essays in artifice and allegory. Her commentary on E. K. is a particular pleasure: he is a ‘half-hearted’ reader of moral and political allegory, much more interested in ‘the minutiae of poetic workmanship’. In this reckoning, E. K.’s nerdy love of rhetoric contrasts with the ‘graceless inattention’ of Rosalind, ‘a type of the ordinary reader’ who needs to be coaxed into realising how cleverly Spenser’s poems are constructed, how much work has gone into them (408-10).

The next essay is a major of direction. As her title indicates, Patricia Fumerton’s essay is a compelling attempt to extend the canon: she is ‘Digging into “Veritable Dunghills”: Re-appreciating Renaissance Broadside Ballad’. This re-appreciation comes in several forms: an account of the problematics of the tradition(s), stressing the tensions between ideas of authenticity and the patchy, surviving evidence; a brilliant account of the metrical ambiguities of the ballads, with the inset story of her research team on the English Broadside Ballad Archive being unable to agree on rhyme schemes and scansions; an empathetic account of the adjustments that singers would make to text and tune in performance (which made me think of Bob Dylan’s repeated adjustments of traditional materials to his own melodic and lyrical patterns); and a consideration of the changing mise en page of ballads as texts, paying careful attention to portable woodcuts and decorations. Fumerton shows the ways in which traditions are created and audiences can reify what was once an innovation into the seemingly timeless and natural – thus the black-letter type face was originally an import from the Continent, but came over time to be ‘associated by all levels of the populace with the good ol’ days of England’ (421). Plus ça change, as one wants to say to ‘purist’ advocates of nationalist insularity.

The final section of Part II on Religious Poetry has essays by Femke Molekamp,  Hannibal Hamlin and Helen Wilcox. Despite the slight sense of happenstance to the organisation of the previous section, Molekamp’s essay follows on well from Fumerton’s, as she explores female religious poetry. As she notes, recent work in this field means that we have moved on ‘from the notion that Renaissance women were “chaste, silent, and obedient”’ (437). She explores biblical translations and original poems inspired by biblical themes by Mary Herbert, Aemelia Lanyer, Anne Southwell, and Lucy Hutchinson as at once self-expressive and critical of ‘misogynistic hermeneutic framework[s]’ (437). Later sections explore communities of female readers, and that the circulation of female religious poetry remained more of a manuscript than a print phenomenon. One sidelight on Anne Lock’s sonnet sequence, which was published with her translation of Calvin’s Sermons of Iohn Calvin upon the Songe that Ezechias made after he had bene sicke and afflicted by the hand of God (1560): though Molekamp lists this under Lock’s name, you can only find it on EEBO by searching Calvin, which underlines Lock’s continuing marginality. Hamlin’s essay on the Psalms is a thorough exposition of the challenge they presented to Renaissance readers because of the lack of any understanding of the principles of Hebrew poetry before the mid eighteenth century. He is superlative on the ‘eight and six’ forms adopted by the Sternhold-Hopkins psalter, making the point both that these meters were ubiquitous and underpin the poetry of much later writers like Emily Dickinson and A. E. Housman (448-49). His readings of the psalm experiments by Wyatt and Surrey view them ‘as a literary project’, which incorporate aspects of epic (450, 452). Hamlin’s essay is also notable for being one of the very few to mention Scottish poets, with its brief discussion of Alexander Montgomery and David Murray. Wilcox’s essay on Donne and Herbert is an enlightening version of an old comparison. She situates their innovative poetic practice within the ‘enormous upheaval in religious practice’, seeing Herbert as a devotional optimist to Donne’s pessimist (460). Wilcox sheds a different light on the didactic question, distinguishing between Donne and Herbert’s outward commitment to a Sidneyan model, and how their poetry actually works: we’re not taught ‘what to believe’ doctrinally but are instead given images ‘of the inner life of the soul in its impassioned, troubled, amazed, fearful, puzzled, and joyous relationship with God’ (461). Wilcox’s conclusion – that ‘It goes without saying that these two poets still speak to readers in the twenty-first century, despite the vast differences of religious and literary contexts then and now’ – is worth pausing over (468). Though it is an exciting time to be studying these poets because of new approaches she mentions (including manuscript circulation and renewed attention to the poets’ prose works), the notion that the value of these writers, with their increasingly distant belief systems, can ‘go without saying’ seems premature. It’s still the job of criticism to do that saying.

Part III, Positions and Debates, is a sequence of eleven essays with no subsections on broader theoretical and historical issues. As mentioned previously, some of these essays may have found a place elsewhere – for example, Andrew Hadfield’s piece on Chorography is in essence an account of the contexts of the country house poem with close readings of key texts; ditto Kenneth Borris’s essay on Allegory. Again, this is not to reorder Bates’s anthology but to highlight the difficulty to making these calls in contexts where overlap and continuity are inevitable. Willy Maley’s ‘Archipelagic Identities’ begins this part with a typically bracing series of questions and challenges about questions of empire and nation as they pertain to the study of Renaissance poetry. Maley’s advice – that you only frame such questions ‘With great difficulty and delicacy’ – is borne out by the essay as a whole (474). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Maley’s serial challenges is his comparison of Spenser and Milton’s different reactions to Arthur and the Saxons: they were unified in their hostility to the latter, but disagreed about the former (481). Was Spenser ‘a Scotophobic Britoskeptic’ (480)? Personally, I hope not, but questions of this kind do keep both poets relevant in our current time of recrudescent nationalisms. Hadfield’s essay carefully explores the technological and perspectival changes which mean that ‘conceptions of space were fundamentally transformed’ during the period (485). The essay focuses on close readings of ‘To Penshurst’, ‘To Robert Wroth’, ‘The Description of Cookham’ and ‘Cooper’s Hill’, alongside Polyolbion, and a brief excursion into Spenser as the ‘first major English chorographic poet’ through the Mutabilitie Cantos (489). I particularly enjoyed his against-the-grain reading of the opening of ‘To Robert Wroth’, which argues that Jonson implies that ‘no one invites [Wroth] to the party because no one likes him’ (488). Similarly, his sceptical reading of the ‘political labelling’ of Denham as a royalist poet enables ‘Cooper’s Hill’ to offer a more complex vision of Britain. It is a poem ‘in which the narrator hopes for the best but has a fearful inclination that he might be about to witness the worst’, which again reminds this writer of the pointless travails of Brexit (492).

Joseph Campana’s essay on ‘Masculinity’ gives an overview of recent work from the perspective that existing accounts overstress performance at the expense of other categories. What Campana calls ‘the unit of masculinity’ (503) cannot be reduced to body parts, but is rather a complex assemblage of cultural properties, which he calls ‘the architecture of interrelation’ (506). This argument is framed by a reading of the Verdant in the Bower of Bliss. For Campana, Spenser is more interested in ‘The precarious life of masculinity’ as opposed to the heroic, which underpins a subtle contrast between Spenser’s use of Verdant and Mordant as ‘principles rather than characters’ as opposed to Odysseus, Aeneas or Rinaldo who are the central figures of their epics (505-06). Stephen Guy-Bray’s ‘Queer Studies’ chapter makes an effective contrast with Campana’s, since he views ‘the performative aspects of gender’ as a major contribution to the field (515). Guy-Bray charts the shift from the 1970s to the present moment, moving from ‘the “Great Homosexuals of History” model’, to one informed by queer theory, with the overarching perception ‘that queerness is at once marginal and ubiquitous’ (514, 516). In terms of new developments, Guy-Bray notes work in Renaissance drama and prose, suggesting that the arbitrariness of generic and chronological divisions, which again highlights the difficulty of leaving these genres to one side in this volume. Guy-Bray notes the comparative neglect of Spenser by queer theorists (except Jonathan Goldberg) in comparison with Shakespeare, and that Book IV is ‘rapidly emerging as the queerest of the poem’s six books’ (514).

The next two essays are also in a kind of dialogue. Douglas Trevor’s essay on ‘Sensation, Passion, and Emotion’ is an ambitious overview of the ‘“affective turn”’ (524). The chapter goes from New Criticism to New Historicism and beyond to explore in subtle detail the contradictions and tensions between these approaches in relation to theories of sensation. He brings this work together in a reading of Donne’s ‘Oh might those sighes and teares returne againe’ in terms of what he calls the ‘messiness of early modern affective and psychological experience’ (526). For Trevor, Donne’s poem can’t be reduced to either a Galenic or an Augustinian reading because his terms promiscuously sample aspects of both. The sonnet ‘is itself a kind of emotional waterwheel of words that exceeds its own iterative frame’ (528). Cumulatively the essay is an effective warning  against ‘the temptation to resolve ambiguities, often by claiming to have historicized them away’ (528). Michael Schoenfeldt is one of Trevor’s key examples of New Historicist approaches: Trevor sympathetically sees in his work ‘why studying the passions often poses methodological contradictions for contemporary scholars’ (522-23). Schoenfeldt’s own essay on ‘The Body in Renaissance Poetry’ has a couple of striking aperçus – on the ‘near visceral pleasure’ of formal poetry ‘dedicated to unruly passion’, and ‘Perhaps because Petrarch’s poetry is so aesthetically magnificent, we forget the implicit perversity of the project, and the damage it has done to erotic expressions since’ (532) – but the essay as a whole falls slightly short of this promise. It presents a series of close readings of key lyrics where the body figures in one way or another, but the pressure of these opening remarks is not as sustained in the essay as a whole.

Adam Smyth’s superb ‘Poetry and the Material Text’ recalls the earlier essays by May and Marotti and Gibson. It considers the interrelationship between the book as physical object and as literary text, arguing that ‘early modern writers and readers thought profoundly about media and materiality in relation to verse in a way that was particular to their era’ (547). Smyth’s examples include shape poems, taking in both Puttenham and Donne as well as less familiar examples, which are reproduced to dizzying effect (548-49), and the playing on the materiality of text in poems like Cowley’s ‘Written in Juice of Lemmon’ and Vaughan’s ‘The Book’. His final section considers the physical location of poems in printed collections and individualised bindings of different texts. Smyth explains that the individual reader could compose and combine his or her own selections ‘producing a printed but also bespoke and unique collection or miscellany often expressive of their own political, religious, or aesthetic commitments’ (552-53). Jessica Wolfe’s ‘Science and Technology’ presents what is essentially a catalogue raisonné of poems which deal with science, or scientific subject matter in the light of recent theory. She covers georgic poetry, aetiology, cosmological writing, the influence of the New Science, before a final turn to the older perspectives of numerological reading. It includes one of the most substantive engagements with Neo-Latin poetry in the Companion in its discussion of the widely-read Palingenius, alongside work by Francastoro, Vida and Bembo (558-59). William Kennedy’s essay resembles Wolfe’s structurally in the panoptic view it gives of Renaissance poetry from the perspective of ‘an economics-based criticism’ (570). As I noted earlier, Kennedy begins with the tension between modern theoretical terms and those used in the period; he prefers the contrast between Platonic furor and Aristotelian craft, which enables him to stress Renaissance writers’ ‘association of craftsmanship and technique with the process of revision and redaction’ (571). The economic lens applied to poetic careers reveals a Spenser who ‘finds refuge in his companionate marriage, acceding to a private household economy based on Reformist values’ in Amoretti and Epithalamion (573), while a shrewd comparison of Daniel and Drayton notes the latter’s utter failure ‘in a clientage system that was nearing extinction’, where the former more successfully achieves aristocratic and royal support (574).

While the final three essays do not precisely cohere with one another, they nevertheless continue various strands of the debate from the rest of the volume. Richard Strier’s ‘New Historicism, New Formalism, and Thy Darling in an Urn’ runs Fumerton’s essay a close second for the best title. This is a playful, pedagogic re-reading of ‘The Canonization’ which embraces both close reading – but not in the manner of Cleanth Brooks – and New Historicism to address the animating question of why we do close reading (584). It is reminiscent of Warley’s piece in its teasing, fluent re-encounter with a familiar text. Strier provides characteristically multivalent answers to the question of why close read: on the historicist hand, close reading is the only way ‘to gain access to the intimate struggles and ambivalences and resolutions of past minds’ in terms of religion and ideology (590). But on the more formalist hand, Strier concludes that ‘The Canonization’ is ‘both a tour de force and a mess’, then notes his own Johnsonian turn: ‘How energizing it might be for such judgements – with appropriate argumentation – to come back into literary studies!’ (590). It is a good provocation, and the pleasures of the essay lie partly in its openness to such moments; consider also his anecdote about his experience of teaching ‘The Canonization’, where he moved from being irritated in the past with the poem’s textual variants to now embracing them as a valuable resource (589-90). This is a clever and memorable way of telling the story of the textual paradigm shift in our subject. Kenneth Borris’s essay on ‘Allegory’ is a more defensive and quietly polemical piece. Attacking what he calls ‘allegoriphobia’ in recent criticism (595, 606), he argues for the centrality of allegory to Early Modern literary culture, with appropriate contexts and striking imprese, and for its constitutive importance to Sidney, Spenser and Milton (599-601). Though I was not fully persuaded by his insistence that there is an absolute bifurcation between ‘allegorist’ and ‘realist’ or ‘rhetorical’ criticism, he does useful work in resisting the idea that allegory is automatically authoritarian: ‘Extensive complex allegories like Spenser’s epitomize, rewrite, and rethink their cultures’ (597). In the final essay, as I have noted already, Patrick Cheney traces the sublime back to the Renaissance, and in particular to Spenser (‘the first truly sublime poet in modern English’ (620)) and Milton. Read in conjunction with Borris’s essay, what comes through is the plurality of approaches we use to read Renaissance poetry. Thus where Borris ties Spenser to allegoresis as a traditional yet flexible tradition, Cheney has him as the poet of incipient sublimity and an almost Romantic magnificence (621). There is a speculative energy to this essay, which dovetails well with his earlier essay on genre, but it works perhaps less well with where the volume started – the medieval inheritance. 


As this overview makes clear, the major shifts in the subject area are clear in essay after essay: a revaluing of the continuities between medieval and Renaissance writers; the (re)discovery of female poets and the imperative to read their work in new and fruitful ways; new perspectives on gender and sexuality, including queer studies and masculinity; the impressive dividends of manuscript scholarship in terms of problematising and developing older accounts of technological change; the greater attention almost all scholars now pay to the materiality of texts, whether these are in manuscript or print. Underpinning this work is an ongoing conversation in the wake of New Historicism about the practice of close reading – if there is a consensus in these essays, it is that historicism does not preclude significant attention to poetic effects and vice versa. Bates’s Companion does enormous work in bringing many of these perspectives together in impressive and authoritative essays.

As well as major shifts, there are also major continuities. This is clear in the poets who continue to matter. Though equivalent publications from the 1960s or 70s would not have included discussion of writers like Lucy Hutchinson or Hester Pulter or even Lady Mary Wroth – because their works were unknown or not at that moment in time rightly attributed – they would have devoted much space to Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herbert and Milton. This elect group of big hitters or (sort of) ‘laureate’ poets – you might want to add a Daniel or a Drayton or a Ralegh or a Herrick – continue to prove remarkably durable and to map how we understand ‘Renaissance poetry’ in English. This sense of continuity is also present in the poems and poets who receive the most exhaustive analyses. Though Bates rightly draws attention to Spenser’s presence ‘under the categories of epic, lyric, and pastoral’ and the gains made ‘through such a diversity of approaches’ (xix), it is striking that poems by Shakespeare and Donne receive chapter-length readings (by Warley and Strier). This perhaps undisclosed sense of which poets merit such quizzical, testing rereadings suggests a continuity with New Criticism, and in particular William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930).

This leads me to omissions. As I have noted, there is relatively little on Neo-Latin poetry; the same goes for other European literatures – this is an absence signaled in the Preface by the restriction of focus to ‘non-dramatic poetry in English between Wyatt and Milton’, but not perhaps by the volume’s overall title (xix). Though there are brief excursions into the major French and Italian writers throughout, there is little on Irish, Welsh or Scottish poetry. Indeed, it is interesting that in the context of the volume as a whole, Coldiron and Enterline’s arguments about the centrality of translation perhaps gain less traction than one might have expected. Beyond Braden’s chapter on Petrarchism and Hamlin on The Psalms, no individual translation seriously threatens the hegemony of the canonical original writers. It is also the case that with some notable exceptions – Joseph Loewenstein on Skelton and Turberville, Nicholson on Barclay and Fleming – generally the writers of the 1580s and 90s dominate discussion in this volume as they do in the classroom. This is not a problem for a volume which aims to be a starting point for undergraduate and graduate readers. But there are some curiosities: we still struggle to accommodate Skelton to the Renaissance, although he is a significant figure both as a ‘laureate’ poet and as a satirist and a metrical experimenter. Thomas Tusser’s practical georgics Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry – probably the single best-selling book of poetry in Elizabethan England and a monument to a different kind of metrical ingenuity – is absent altogether.[4] The Mirror for Magistrates is mentioned, but not in any systematic way. Finally, though there are some useful mentions of music (see in particular Pugh and Fumerton’s essays), references to other art forms are not extensive; there is little, for example, on the visual arts or ecphrasis beyond Ellis’s essay. If this sounds like a negative way to end this long review, it is not intended to be. As I have suggested, the best essays in this collection do precisely the work which Bates wants them to in demonstrating the vitality of the field, and by opening issues for further enquiry. And though many readers may experience the Companion piecemeal through the direction of reading lists and databases, there is no substitute for reading the whole.


Richard Danson Brown

The Open University



[1] For Nashe, see G. Gregory Smith (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1904), I.316.

[2] John Skelton, The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 78 (Phyllyp Sparowe, ll.266-68).

[3] See Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford UP, 2012), 315.

[4] For the numerous editions of Tusser’s work, see Andrew McRae,  ‘Tusser, Thomas (c. 1524–1580), writer on agriculture and poet’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed.   Retrieved 5 Sep. 2018, from




  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Richard Danson Brown, "Catherine Bates, ed., A Companion to Renaissance Poetry," Spenser Review 48.3.4 (Fall 2018). Accessed December 16th, 2018.
Not logged in or