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Patrick Cheney, English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime: Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare
by Ian Balfour

Patrick Cheney, English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime: Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. xiii + 312 pp. 978-1107049628 $99.99. Hardcover.

Patrick Cheney’s erudite, painstaking study of what he posits as a linked relation between an emergent notion of authorship entailing literary greatness and an aesthetics of the sublime is a most welcome addition to our understanding of how the sublime works in poetic practice and in critical thinking in a period when the category had not yet attained a status anything like prominence. The standard histories that try to account for  the phenomenon, the appropriate categories and the term itself rightly point to the widespread circulation of the term and the concept triggered by Boileau’s translation of and commentary on Longinus in 1674. Such histories are largely correct about how huge a turning point that is but those same histories tend to downplay, unduly, the phenomenon’s importance and to a lesser extent the category earlier in the Early Modern period.

Cheney’s study felicitously follows the lead of James Porter’s recent, magisterial study, The Sublime in Antiquity, in arguing (and then practicing what they—Porter and Cheney—preach) that one should not fetishise the presence or absence of the precise term ‘sublime’. Rather, one should attend to what the slippery term points toward: actual instances of the sublime as well as words and concepts proximate to the term ‘sublime’ (not quite the same in the various Western languages: hupsos, sublimis, erhaben), some of those terms being identical with at least one strain of what one can roughly establish, in Venn-diagram fashion, as the sublime. This strategy should have been an obvious one to adopt. After all, when Longinus presents the most profound and sustained discussion of the topic in antiquity, every single example of poetry and prose predates him, often by many centuries and with scarcely an invocation of the key term in question. Porter shows how there was in antiquity a full-blown practice of sublimity and a robust discourse of proximate terms before and then in Longinus. When Longinus wrote (and it’s an odd, interesting fact that philologists are not able to pin down even what century he wrote in, anywhere from the first through the third CE), he was responding in significant measure to specific prior discussions of the topic (now largely lost) but also to a more diffuse but not-negligible body of discourse on the sublime. Still, next to no post-Longinian criticism crystallised around the term for centuries, at least a millennium, to come. Its presence in medieval criticism was subterranean and when Longinus’s treatise was edited properly in the sixteenth century and started to circulate, it did not make all that big of a splash. Milton seems not particularly to have been fazed by the fragmentary tract, noted in Of Education, but that was perhaps because Milton already knew, intuitively or by reflection, so much of what Longinus had to teach anyone.

Cheney’s distinctive, original study does for a good deal of English literature what the collective volume, Translations of the Sublime: The Early Modern Reception and Dissemination of Longinus’ Peri Hupsous in Rhetoric, the Visual Arts, Architecture and the Theatre, ed. Carolyn Van Eyck et al. (2012), did for those domains. To be sure, the category of the sublime has in the past been bandied about and invoked, gushingly and uncritically, with regard especially to Shakespeare.  With the obvious exception of some of the off-the-scale tragedies, probably foremost among them King Lear, not many critics have inquired with much precision into how the sublime operates in and as a result of the plays.  Cheney does just that and more.

The Spenser chapters are to my mind the highlight of this book: ample, detailed and revelatory. Cheney helpfully distinguishes several modalities on the sublime in the chief example of The Faerie Queene, whose epic form, even in the arguably “lighter,” more fanciful mode of romance, already predisposed it to possible sublimity, even if great examples in the genre of epic are the hardest to pull off.  Within the overarching modality of the heroic sublime, Cheney elucidates especially the theological, political and erotic strands in an analysis often indebted to Longinus, most productively via the figure of phantasia.  Add to this framework any number of readings underscoring and teasing out the sublime texture of the allegories and the sheer dazzling execution of the language, and one has a satisfyingly complete account—in its outlines and many of its details—of the sublime in Spenser.  Here, as in general, the sublime is usefully understood as an aesthetic force that is not confined to—and indeed strains against—the beautiful, usually associated with qualities such as harmony, proportion, symmetry and the like.

Cheney often calls attention in Spenser to instances of internal wonder or transport or astonishment, in its positive and negative modes, staged through characters’ reactions to given actions. These are not the most compelling examples of the sublime—Cheney is not claiming they are—and indeed their explicit thematisation of the sublime arguably renders them less sublime, if that’s possible. (A vexed issue in the criticism of the sublime is whether the sublime is always an absolute matter or there exists a sliding scale of more and less sublime. There are good arguments on both sides!) But those passages too are a real index of how poems and plays operate or at least signal trying to operate in the mode of the sublime, which is bound up, in Cheney’s argument, with a will to and even assertion of greatness in authorship.  Cheney  generally grounds his argument for authorship in critical theory of the time and the implicit claims of the poems and the jockeying for position in what was becoming the literary marketplace. But it’s a little harder to tease out the claims for literary greatness than even to isolate, in the tradition of Longinus, the aptness for this or that figure of speech for the constitution of a sublime effect.  Perhaps Cheney could have tarried a little longer with the paradoxes entailed in the odd position that the sublime author or author of the sublime is posited, in the Longinian tradition, as simultaneously both free and subject to irresistible forces, figured variously as thunderbolts or conflagrations, or to a kind of Platonic mania.

Cheney’s earlier, extended work on the sublime in Marlowe paves the way for the very fine chapter in this book, Marlowe having set a high bar for the high—numerous of the overlapping terms for the sublime contain a figure of height—for his contemporaries to which they could try to live or lift up. Certainly, he was a provocation to Shakespeare in this regard. Marlowe’s main mode of (more or less historical) tragedy lends itself to the sublime more than most genres and his command of the language—magniloquent, forceful, gorgeous—could flourish not just in a mode of high heroism but even apropos the phenomenon of, as in Edward II, the weak king, a topic that risks being a notch below the sublime, or in the figure of the not-typically-heroic scholar in Doctor Faustus.  Marlowe’s heroes, such as Tamburlaine, can be overreachers, to invoke Harry Levin’s old characterisation, but Marlowe’s language is even more the locus of overreach: larger-than-life, even cosmic and infinitising, not just in the conceptual pyrotechnics of Doctor Faustus.  ‘Tropes always tempt us to go too far’, Longinus contended, and Marlowe indulged in just this excess, sometimes at the expense of plot, as possibly in the Tamburlaine plays.

The material on Shakespeare strikes me, unsurprisingly, as the least surprising, as we have long been taught to think of Shakespeare as sublime in more registers than one. The tragedies especially were thought to be virtual paradigms of the sublime, in themselves and in the acting of a Kean or a Siddons: harrowing, pathos-laden and pathos-inducing, all in language as forceful as anything. But Cheney makes interesting choices among some of the less usual suspects.  Particularly good is his discussion of phantasia in 1 Henry IV and Cheney gamely makes the case for aspects of exemplars in the less likely genres of comedy and romance or problem play being plausibly sublime or drawing substantially on the resources of that mode.  Still, it is the brief but pointed discussions of Antony and Cleopatra and the even more predictable King Lear that help make the case for the twinned presence of the sublime and the assertion of authorship in and by the shadowy author—we have little clue as to his actual thoughts about authorship—who was Shakespeare.

Ben Jonson’s oeuvre constitutes perhaps the hardest challenge for Cheney among his chosen quartet, given the signature control and precision of Jonson’s plays as supervised into print. People tend not to accuse Jonson of writing with abandon. Yet a careful consideration of the plays can bring to light several strains of possible sublimity, not least tropes of alchemical subliming and a concern with how to transcend the mundane for the ethereal realms posited in Platonic and Neoplatonic thought. Cheney also teases out, via hints from Ovid, a specifically lyric sublime in Jonson, a mode less commonly treated than tragedy or epic but one which helps us get a handle on genre as one of the factors that frames the un-framing that is the sublime.  Jonson’s poetics were avowedly pursued in a Horatian mode, Horace being a critic not normally or primarily associated with the sublime.  Yet Cheney rightly takes a cue from Philip Hardie’s treatment of what the latter calls ‘Horace’s sublime leanings’, to tease out one aspect of Jonson’s sublimity sometimes overlooked within the Horatian paradigm of decorum: the preoccupation with literary fame and greatness. This obtains even in the brief compass of the lyric.

Throughout Cheney writes with a sure, authoritative hand, though sometimes the topic of sublime induces a critical language that is over-the-top or just says a little too much.  Can we really agree that ‘We might go so far as to say that the history of Shakespeare criticism is a history of the sublime’ (173)? I don’t think so.  Or in another register: I am not sure there is in Milton ‘an equation of sublimity with holiness and purity’ (26), nor am I convinced that ‘Milton’s sublime authorship is singular because it is intertextual’ (18). Could one not make a similar claim—and thus something not ‘singular’—about Dante or Virgil or Spenser? But such sentences are outliers in a book brimming with smart and sensible things to say on a topic that is not at all overworked in the scholarship of the period.  One can learn an awful lot from English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime.


                                                                                                                        Ian Balfour

York University



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Cite as:

Ian Balfour, "Patrick Cheney, English Authorship and the Early Modern Sublime: Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare," Spenser Review 49.1.13 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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