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Peter Auger, Du Bartas’ Legacy in England and Scotland
by Sebastiaan Verweij

Peter Auger, Du Bartas’ Legacy in England and Scotland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 288 pp. ISBN: 9780198827818. £60 hardback.

 

A starter for ten: which poet and what text(s) in early-modern British literary history were most influential in the development of narrative religious poetry and Protestant epic? If your answer was Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene or John Milton’s Paradise Lost, you were wrong. The correct answer, as Peter Auger argues in this book, was the Semaines by Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas (1544-1590), translated into English by Joshua Sylvester as Devine Weekes. Auger unpacks the immense impact of Bartesian poetics from its emergence in the late sixteenth century through to the eighteenth, taking in a wide range of reception case studies of poetry by men and by women, some adhering closely and others innovating the vast example set by Du Bartas. As Auger suggests, the works and vision of the French poet figured as a ‘unifying’ presence in the British canon: sparking admiration and imitation at both ends of the Anglo-Scottish border, and catering alike for highly educated humanist audiences, and for humbler readers and writers who found a place for Du Bartas in ‘their everyday devotional life’ (226).

Du Bartas’ poetics is predicated on the knowability of God’s works through a dual reading of the Book of God (Scripture) and the Book of Nature (the created world). Poetry figures as the ‘third element in a coterminous living trilogy of texts through which readers could access divine truths’ (4). La Semaine ou création du monde (1578) presents the first week of Creation, and expands on the Book of Genesis by means of the interpolation of scientific exploration and extensive moral and theological reflection. Du Bartas’ La Seconde Semaine (1584) aimed to guide the reader from Eden to the Last Judgement: it was yet more digressive, and its encyclopaedic scope so ambitious that the poet died before the work could be completed. Together the poems number over 20,000 lines and feature a design that, in the words of Sylvester’s OUP editor Susan Snyder, was ‘encrusted, almost overwhelmed, by the accumulated detail’.[1] The Bartesian project was fundamentally open-ended: it first acquired a set of marginal glosses (by Simon Goulart), and could be further and infinitely expanded upon. Given this complexity, it takes a brave and committed scholar to assess Du Bartas’ sprawling achievement, Sylvester’s translation and related poems, and their profound influence on English and Scots literary cultures throughout two centuries. With steady hand and unfailing expertise, Auger guides his reader through the various and complex evidence for reception.

Auger presents his argument in two parts. The first traces Du Bartas’ influence from his well-known and influential friendship with James VI of Scotland (Chapter 2), to a number of partial translations by English and Scots writers before Sylvester (Chapter 3), to Bartesian influences on late-sixteenth century English poetics, not least those developed by Philip Sidney (whose own translation of Du Bartas has never been found), and William Scott’s Model of Poesy (Chapter 4). Chapter 5 concisely reviews the publication of Joshua Sylvester’s Devine Weekes and Workes as the blue-print upon which much of Du Bartas’ vision would subsequently be modelled in Britain. King James looms large in the early reception history of Du Bartas. Not only did the two poets translate and print each other’s works and so collaborated in an international Protestant poetic vision, but James also presided over a cultural renaissance at his Scottish court where a Bartesian poetics was influential and led to further translations (for instance, Thomas Hudson’s Judith). Auger’s discovery of a presentation manuscript to James among the Royal collection, of ‘La Suite de la Seconde Semaine’ that went unnoticed by all editors and contains over 800 lines of additional verse and a personal address to the king, convincingly cements this formative literary friendship. Auger also suggests that James’s appropriation of a Bartesian poetics instilled in other followers of the Jacobean age (both English and Scots) attitudes of deference, compliance, and confirmation that ultimately resulted in an ‘authoritarian poetics’ (77). Du Bartas’ association with Stuart rule and royalism would prove enduring throughout the seventeenth century.

Yet writers could, and did, turn from the French Huguenot’s example. Auger notes how that virtually at the point at which the influence of the Semaines was established in England, ‘the seeds of Du Bartas’ cultural obsolescence were already sown’ (100-1). This was owing to Philip Sidney’s humanist poetics, which saw value beyond the Scriptural example, and to Edmund Spenser. Spenser’s place in this book (discussed in Chapter 4) is modest precisely because of his alternative vision for Protestant epic and divine poetry. Despite his admiration for Du Bartas that seemed widely shared among his circle, notably by Gabriel Harvey, and despite Spenser’s praise of Du Bartas in the Ruines of Rome, Spenser would conceive of a poetry that was fundamentally different. Where Du Bartas ultimately trusts in the veracity of his creation, Spenser’s poetic visions remained (as in the Shepheardes Calendar) ‘ambivalent, cryptic, satirical, and discontented’ (93). Auger highlights that The Faerie Queene’s allegorical mode emphasises the difficulties of interpretation: where Du Bartas is fundamentally trusting in Scriptural truth and his ability to categorise it, Spenser wrote for ‘distractible readers’ (97) in the throes of original sin. Despite these differences, various later readers continued to think of Spenser and Du Bartas in tandem. For instance, Auger cites William Wordsworth’s assertion that few readers could ‘endure’ to read Du Bartas, but that ‘when his poem was translated into our language, the Faery Queen faded before it’ (222). In actual fact, Auger shows that exactly when during the eighteenth century Du Bartas finally lost his grip in the canon, Spenser’s position solidified, and it is for this reason (among others) that Du Bartas’ influence is today much harder to assess.

The book’s second part does much to remedy this as it takes Du Bartas’ influence forwards into the seventeenth century. It commences with discussion of several close imitations, e.g., by William Alexander, John Davies of Hereford, and Phineas Fletcher (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 turns to increasingly innovative fusing of the Bartesian example with other traditions such as meditative verse, for instance by Joseph Hall, Francis Quarles, Anne Southwell, and Anne Bradstreet. If Du Bartas’ was mostly a poetry of historical, natural, and external description, the addition of a third ‘Book of the Soul’ (152) by poets such as Hall opened up this descriptive mode for more explicit examination of the self. This structural shift turned Du Bartas into a ready example for women poets, too: Anne Bradstreet, for instance, anagrammatically expressed her kinship (‘Anna Bradestreate’ / ‘Deer Neat An Bartas’) and found in Du Bartas ‘the ideological agenda of international Protestantism for her community in New England’ (171-2). Chapter 8 tracks yet more outright rejection of the poetic assumptions and naturalistic description of the Devine Weekes, for instance by John Milton and Lucy Hutchinson. A final Chapter 9 traces Du Bartas’ influence in the works of a raft of ‘late successors’, some still finding value in the model, but others, such as John Dryden, expressing discomfort and even embarrassment about the stylistic aspects of Sylvester’s translation which had gradually become unfashionable.

Much of this book is intricately book-historical and prosopographical: that is, tracing printing and circulation histories of Du Bartas and the many translations and imitations, as well as the French poet’s personal and cultural relations with British authors. It also examines closely what aspects of Du Bartas – poetic, structural, or stylistic – were reproducible, and how such fashions waxed and waned across the centuries. What this book does less of is sustained close reading and analysis of the many Bartesian imitations, and often only short examples from long and complex works need to stand in to illustrate aspects of reception. Some readers may wish for more detail here. Yet Auger is able to fall back on his several previous articles, book chapters, and a Ph.D thesis, which present exactly this sort of closer analysis of individual texts. It is this back catalogue that allowed Auger to write instead a broad and synthetic survey of Du Bartas’ reception across more than two centuries. The book is itself – to misappropriate here a favourite Bartesian trope – a kind of microcosm not only of Auger’s scholarship, but also of the impact of Du Bartas in toto in early-modern Britain.

For such a well-researched book it would be childish to quibble over missed references. There is, of course, always scope for more. Since this book traces the movement of a Protestant poetics from Scotland to England (which in itself is a hugely welcome and persuasively argued undercurrent of Auger’s book), I would have welcomed some engagement, for instance, with other scholarship on cross-border literary contact along confessional lines. In other places, Auger alludes to alternative visions for devotional narrative verse (beyond Spenser and Milton) but rarely elaborates on these. An early example relates to the Scots court poet and Jacobean favourite, Alexander Montgomerie, who surprisingly eschewed any poetry in strict Bartesian vein, but in fact wrote a cryptic dream vision with devotional application. There are other examples of religious narrative verse with more complex and often looser relationships to Du Bartas: for instance Elizabeth Melville’s Ane Godlie Dreame, or Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum. If, as Auger argues, we cannot really conceive of post-1580s scriptural poetry without reference to Du Bartas, I would be keen to hear more about the place of some of these above-mentioned works within this larger Bartesian scheme.

Early in the Introduction, Auger admits to what is his largest challenge: the fact that ever since Ben Jonson called Du Bartas ‘not … a poet, but a verser’ (7), readers at times have struggled to appreciate Bartesian epic and its British derivations on grounds of aesthetics, style, and readerly pleasure. Whereas this book pays close attention to much inventive poetry that deserves surer footing in the canon, other imitations are more challenging: William Alexander’s Doomes-day is called even by Auger an ‘exhausting’ poem (133), and Edward Browne’s work is ‘instructively awful’ (164). Yet Auger navigates such texts with great sensibility. In sum, the many ways in which the Semaines impacted on a Protestant poetics are impeccably examined here, so that Auger finds overwhelming support for his opening assertions on the centrality of Du Bartas to English and Scottish literary culture, and that ‘there is no other early modern literary work for which so much evidence survives of how it was read, praised, translated, imitated, and reworked’ (1). In literary histories, seventeenth-century Protestant verse is usually seen through the twin lenses of the devotional lyric tradition exemplified by poets such as Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan (who, as Auger suggests, took virtually no notice of Du Bartas in their development of a lyric mode), and the narrative poetry exemplified by Spenser and by Milton (who in turn rejected much of the Bartesian project). The strength of Auger’s book is that he has once more established Du Bartas as a vastly influential model and viable third route: indeed, in Auger’s estimation, as nothing less than ‘essential reading for any student of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary and devotional culture’ (226).

Sebastiaan Verweij

University of Bristol

 

 



[1] Susan Snyder, ed., The Divine Weeks and Works of Guillaume de Saluste Sieur Du Bartas, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), I, 3.

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51.2.11

Cite as:

Sebastiaan Verweij, "Peter Auger, Du Bartas’ Legacy in England and Scotland," Spenser Review 51.2.11 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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