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Chris Barrett, Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety
by Andrew McRae

Chris Barrett, Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

The relationship between maps and early modern English literature has absorbed much critical attention over the past thirty years. Seminal new historicist work, most notably Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood (1992), directed attention towards questions of spatial representation, while the discovery by literary scholars of spatial theory and cultural geography around the turn of the century has added sophistication, though not always clarity, to this movement. Henri Lefebvre’s exacting The Production of Space is said to be the most requested book at the British Library over the past twenty years. Chris Barrett’s monograph takes its place within this body of work, focusing attention on what she perceives as a ‘deep anxiety … about the aesthetic and ethical dangers of cartographic logics’ in early modern literature (2-3). Her book focuses in particular on three epics: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety is not really a book about maps. Its inclusion of only a couple of cartographic images tells that story: the author has relatively little interest in the details or development of maps, preferring to rely on certain intellectual models regarding the functions and effects of mapping. Cartography is thus positioned as being an agent of warfare and state violence, and is represented as ‘unjust’ in the way that it tends to suppress individual experiences of space and place. These models are relatively uncontroversial in the wake of a generation of scholarship, but they can make Barrett’s book feel limited in some respects, reliant on a relatively fixed notion of what cartography is and does. Maps, in other words, become a stable and accepted context within which she can situate her readings of texts. Moreover, she is perhaps overly determined to position cartography as a distinct category, which had an influence on culture distinguishable from other forms for the description of space. This arguably misrepresents a period in which written and visual depictions of space often operated in tandem. To take one example, the fact that the book insists on a widespread map-consciousness in England by the time that Spenser was writing, while not mentioning the contributions of William Harrison to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, is indicative of this narrowness of focus. Harrison described his nation thoroughly and compellingly, but in words, not images.

Nor is it really a book driven by spatial theory. Indeed it is common practice for studies in this tradition to name-check some of the key theorists – Lefebvre, Doreen Massey, Edward Casey – in the opening pages, then to quietly set them aside. But it is a book that is intensely interested in literary texts, and many readers may in fact find this refreshing, even compelling. For Barrett, ‘the epic presents as the premier genre for interrogating some of the anxieties provoked by the map’s aesthetic and political uses’ (41). This leads to a book that that can feel quite traditional in its approach, especially at a time when many cognate studies are working with non-canonical sources, but plays to the author’s manifest strengths as a close reader of sophisticated literature. The book is interested in particular literary effects, produced by what Barrett perceives as cartographic anxiety, and expressed through the deployment of certain distinctive literary modes: notably allegory, personification and analogy.

The study of Spenserian space forms virtually a sub-field of the wider body of work on early modern literary space. Spenser’s epic has also posed arguably the greatest of all challenges to critics in this area, resisting efforts to explain or theorise its elusive characteristics. Barrett argues: ‘A suspicion haunts the poem, that to represent a space – whether imagistically or narratively – involves a distortive, fundamentally inapt rendering of the phenomena within or coextensive with that space. Spatial representation becomes, within The Faerie Queene, a dangerous practice that undermines the protocols and ethical uses of representation itself’ (47). His analysis centres on allegory, that ‘might be the poetic mode best suited to limning cartography’s representational power’, but that Barrett argues Spenser deploys in more complex, even contestatory ways. The landscape of The Faerie Queene is thus ‘defined by its inhabitants’ – the poem creating ‘an unmappable Britain, full of material bodies that matter’ – whereas the map (in Barrett’s arguably simplifying conception) is committed to the abstraction of space (88). While the discussion moves forward the debate on the nature of space in this poem, there is perhaps a sense in which this model of cartography is established as something of an extreme and unchallengeable position, simply for the purposes of working against. The extent to which Spenser is genuinely engaged with maps and mapping remains more open to question, and not sufficiently demonstrated here.

The chapters on Poly-Olbion and Paradise Lost are more convincing, as though these texts are more amenable to Barrett’s interpretative model. On the latter poem, Barrett argues that Milton resists the ‘violent origins’ of cartography (137). But it is the treatment of Drayton’s work, the most explicitly cartographically-minded of this book’s three epics, that Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety, for this reviewer, is most compelling. One key question for scholars of Poly-Olbion is the curious combination of pervasive busyness, lending it the feel of a georgic poem, while it determinedly erases contemporary human actors from the landscape. The activity is rather assumed by the poet’s Muse or, more consistently, personified features of the landscape. What is the poem, therefore, really saying about human interactions with the land? In addressing this question, Barrett makes better sense of Drayton’s use of personification than perhaps any previous reader. Personification is more complex than it might appear: a point that strikes a reader of the poem as obvious, though perhaps rarely grasped in existing criticism. On the one hand, it ‘alters the temporal frame from the geologic to the biologic’, and on the other hand it ‘makes it difficult to retract the figurative personhood of its [geographical] subject’ (104). The poem thus ‘offers a poetics that treats space as unimaginable without human form’, and this has significant ramifications for its environmental ethics, a subject that has exercised a number of recent critics: ‘The poem’s relentless topographical personification might certainly make possible a narrative of human dominion, but the earth’s anthropocentric appropriation might also intensify the ethical obligations among persons. The viewer becomes not less accountable to the world because it is made of bodies like the viewer’s own, but rather more accountable’ (134-5).

Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety is not an easy book to read. Its author has a liking for demanding syntax and obscure diction: perhaps in part influenced by literary theory, and doubtless also in part a product of its origins as a PhD dissertation. Though sometimes necessary for the expression of subtle analysis, the style can be unhelpful in terms of engaging a reader. It is also undermined by some weak copy-editing, especially in the early chapters. Nonetheless this is a work of considerable intellectual commitment and authority, deeply immersed in the complex literary texts on which Barrett focuses and founded upon exceptional skills of textual analysis. Anxiety might easily have been an unsatisfyingly loose analytical category, as she acknowledges herself; however, she hones her focus nicely, to ‘literary efforts to absorb, to explore, to harness, to mimic, or to challenge the [sufficiency of] the map’. This emergent technology unquestionably poses questions for those involved in the project of literary representation, not least poets with the requisite ambitions to produce works of epic. Barrett therefore convinces in her choice of topic and her argument. Despite the challenges it presents to its reader, this book repays the effort and helps to take this vibrant field forward.


Andrew McRae

University of Exeter


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Cite as:

Andrew McRae, "Chris Barrett, Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety," Spenser Review 49.1.10 (Winter 2019). Accessed February 19th, 2019.
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