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Elisabeth Chaghafi, English Literary Afterlives: Greene, Sidney, Donne and the Evolution of Posthumous Fame
by Mary Ellen Lamb

Elisabeth Chaghafi, English Literary Afterlives: Greene, Sidney, Donne and the Evolution of Posthumous Fame. The Manchester Spenser. Manchester University Press, 2020. vii + 209 pp. ISBN: 9781526144959. $116 hardback.


The subtitle of this important monograph (‘the evolution of posthumous fame’) is perhaps somewhat misleading. Rather than tracing literary responses to these authors after their deaths (as does, for example, Gavin Alexander’s Writing after Sidney), English Literary Afterlives tracks the gradual progression of the prehistory of a biographical criticism that draws on literary works to capture the internal life of poet. Presenting a counternarrative to an author’s agency in self-fashioning, it locates the process of forging authorial reputations in the network of professionals in the print industry as they produce editions, often with prefatory lives of authors. The impressive details amassed in the discussion of how authors came to be read through their works after their deaths provides needed insights on how perceptions of authorship shifted from the sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. The compilation of material revealing a prehistory of literary biography is compelling and perhaps even irrefutable. Underlying this weighty analysis is a provocative question. Considering ‘the conspicuous gap between authors’ works and the available information about their lives’ (13), is a literary biography that attempts to find connections between an early modern author’s life and works even feasible? In the context of the general argument of English Literary Afterlives, the last sentence of the book implies a critique of modern practice: ‘the quest for a “complete” author, whose life and works add up to a consistent whole, continues to be a driving force of literary scholarship.’ In addition to the general argument, there is much in English Literary Afterlives of interest to Spenser scholars, who may especially appreciate a new paradigm for reading Astrophel.

Chapter 1 orients the general argument by discussing differences between two proto-biographies of poets separated by almost a century: Thomas Speght’s ‘Life of Geffrey Chaucer’ included in his 1598 edition of Chaucer and Gerard Langbaine’s ‘Life of Cowley’ included in his Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691). Speght’s life of Chaucer, sometimes described as the first biography of an English poet, is modelled on the vita activa, or a life of public service, in which Chaucer’s poetry is tangential to any sense of his exemplarity. In his survey of such topics as parentage, education, marriage, friends, and death, Speght is more concerned with the externals of Chaucer’s life than with a sense of his internal selfhood as revealed in his works. In his depiction of Chaucer’s reception among poets, Speght foregrounds Edmund Spenser, who expressed his esteem for Chaucer in Book IV ‘Of Friendship’ in The Faerie Queene. Langbaine, on the other hand, aims to draw a portrait of Abraham Cowley as located in his writings. Rather than drawing from the easily accessible biographical details of Cowley’s life, Langbaine selects passages from his works, prefaces, and dedications to communicate a sense of Cowley’s inner self. The subject of Spenser appears in Langbaine’s expansion of an anecdote describing a twelve-year-old Cowley reading The Faerie Queene to ‘a miniature portrait of the inner life of a young author’ (47). Langbaine’s attempt to portray Cowley’s inner life through his works, which he often ventriloquizes as Cowley’s own voice, owes much to Izaak Walton’s Lives, the subject of Chaghafi’s last chapter.

The ghostly career of Robert Greene, the subject of Chapter 2, provides a particularly compelling example of a ‘posthumous reshaping of an authorial career that had already ended, by a network of people involved in book production’ (81). The gap between biographical facts and a writer’s works is particularly wide in Greene’s case, for all that can be definitively known is that he was university educated, that he wrote best sellers in number of genres, and that he died in 1592. From these sparse facts emerged a fictional narrative of prodigality and repentance that created a new category of popular authorship. This posthumous version of Greene was created in part through the Harvey-Nashe debate.  As an allegedly lowbrow writer whose range of disparate writings (according to Harvey) revealed his inner confusion and disorder, Greene served as a foil for Harvey’s perception of respectable authorship. Spenser, on the other hand, was a model author, and Harvey enhanced his own credentials by concluding his Foure Letters and Certeine Sonnets (1592) with a poem written by Spenser in 1586 expressing his friendship for Harvey. In Strange Newes (1592), Nashe disputed this friendship, drolly describing Spenser’s vain attempts to shake off a tenacious Harvey. Nashe also defended his own chosen genre of satire by disputing Harvey’s judgement of Mother Hubbard’s Tale as a rare lapse on Spenser’s part. Through these differences, Harvey and Nashe together merged Greene’s writings with an authorial persona that was finally a fictional character. In addition to the Harvey-Nashe debate, Greene’s authorial persona was further linked to his writings in 1592 by three posthumous pamphlets:  Greenes Groatsworth of Witte, The Repentance of Robert Greene, and Greenes Vision. Imagined as written in Greene’s voice, whether living or from beyond the grave, these pamphlets provided a retrospective vision of a prodigal life and subsequent repentance that was finally less an evaluation of a single author than a debate about the nature of authorship (82) itself, which increasingly prepared readers to connect authors’ lives with their works.

The posthumous retrospective creation of Philip Sidney in terms of his writings took a different form than for Robert Greene, as Chaghafi details in Chapter 3. Following Sidney’s death from wounds incurred on the battlefield in Zutphen in 1586 and his subsequent funeral in 1587, elegies poured forth, especially from the universities, celebrating Sidney as a soldier and courtier. This was the first wave of responses. A second wave of responses appeared after the print publication of his writings – Fulke Greville’s 1590 edition of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia followed by the 1593 edition sponsored by the Countess of Pembroke, together with Thomas Newman’s 1591 print edition of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. By rendering Sidney’s writings newly accessible to the broad reading public, these editions promoted a wider understanding of Sidney as a poet, often figured in his writings as Astrophil or Philisides. It is to this second wave that Spenser’s Astrophel (1595) belongs, and Chaghafi’s discussion goes a long way to defend this work against frequent allegations that its elegies were too late and too detached. As Chaghafi explains, the Astrophel heralds Sidney’s rebirth as an author in print rather than mourning his death as a soldier and courtier. By reproducing only Spenser’s writings, most modern editions obscure Astrophel’s inclusion of elegies from other poets, and especially three by Matthew Royden, Walter Raleigh, and an anonymous poet (probably Greville or Dyer), previously printed in The Phoenix Nest (1593). Together, the elegies of Spenser’s collection present Sidney as Astrophel, a shepherd mourned by a community of shepherds. Under the name of Colin, Spenser’s depiction of his own membership in this community explains his inclusion of his poem Colin Clouts Come Home Again; for Spenser’s Colin is, like Astrophel, a fellow poet in print within this shepherd nation and, like Astrophel, Colin assumes an active role in transforming his society. Spenser’s Astrophel does more, then, than celebrating Sidney. It sets out an idea of the poet ‘in the abstract who in death as well as in life forms an integral part of the fictional nation of poets … to make a wider statement about authorship and the role of the poet’ (120). Chaghafi considers other posthumous remakings of Sidney in addition to Astrophel, in particular Sidney’s identification as Astrophil in his poetry sequence Astrophil and Stella. She argues that perceptions of this text as partially autobiographic are erroneous. Circulating in various forms in manuscript, manuscript readers would have perceived it as a collection rather than a narrative. Moreover, the title ‘Astrophil and Stella’, which presents Astrophil as the speaker of all the poems, was provided in a manuscript owned by William Drummond, while the actual use of the name ‘Astrophil’ appears only in songs eight and nine. Chaghafi concludes that the perception of Astrophil as a Sidney’s fictional self-portrait originated more with the print industry than with Sidney himself.

Chapter 3 is followed by a brief ‘Interlude’ focused on Spenser’s own afterlife. Given the printing of both sections of The Faerie Queene in 1596, the dearth of printed elegies following Spenser’s death in 1599 is surprising; Chaghafi lists only three, one by John Weever in 1599 and the other two by Nicholas Breton and Francis Thynne in 1600. None of these elegies represent a serious celebration of Spenser. Perhaps even odder, Matthew Lownes’ publication of the folio edition of Spenser’s works in 1609 included no retrospective summary of his life or work. Jonathan Edwin’s 1679 edition of Spenser’s works was the first to offer a preface describing Spenser’s life, influenced by dubious anecdotes of his failed ambition and consequent destitution included in Thomas Fuller’s A History of the Worthies of England (1662) and Edward Phillip’s Theatrum Poeticarum (1675). Edwin’s anonymous preface, ‘Summary of the Life of Mr. Edmond Spenser’, depicts Sidney’s generous gift to Spenser despite a begrudging servant; interestingly, in that anecdote he specifies Arthur’s dream of Gloriana in canto 9 of Book I of The Faerie Queene and the despair afflicting the knights in stanzas 28-30 as the texts that Sidney found so moving. The munificence of Queen Elizabeth, Spenser’s subsequent patron, was checked by her councillor (i.e., Burghley). The anonymous writer ventriloquizes lines from the ‘Ruines of Time’ – ‘O Grief of Griefs! O Gall of all good Hearts!’ – as expressing Spenser’s disappointment over his diminished award; he retaliated by writing the unflattering portrait of Burghley in his ‘Mother Hubbards Tale’. Based on so little actual information, these attempts to link Spenser’s life to his works were highly fanciful. The use of quotations from Spenser’s works to express Spenser’s actual feelings expressed for a specific reason at a specific point of time shows the influence of Izaak Walton, the subject of the next chapter.

According to Chapter 4, these early modern attempts to find a unifying narrative linking poets’ lives to their works reach their apogee in Walton’s various Lives. Chaghafi traces the changes from Walton’s early ‘Life and Death of Dr. Donne’ prefacing his 1640 edition of Donne’s sermons through several versions to his biography of Donne included in his immensely influential Lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. George Herbert (1675), in which Walton ventriloquized Donne’s poems to reflect his frame of mind at a specific time of writing. This technique was already in process by his 1658 Life of John Donne, in which Walton dates Donne’s writing of his Devotions to a specific time of illness, adding that in these verses ‘the reader may see, the most secret thoughts that then possest his soul, Paraphrased and make [sic] publick’ (159). For Donne’s ‘Hymne to God the Father’, a poem that does not lend itself to biographical treatment, Walton imagines Donne’s arrangements for setting it to music to be sung as a hymn, transforming his personal experience to a congregation’s shared celebration of God’s grace. Walton attributes to him words which he claims groundlessly that Donne ‘did occasionally say to a friend’: ‘Oh! The power of Church-musick! That Harmony added to it has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude’ (154). Walton transferred the techniques he had developed by 1675 to his life of George Herbert in a reading of ‘The Temple’ as a spiritual autobiography recording Herbert’s inner conflicts as he made a conscious choice to leave public life to become a country parson. For both Donne and Herbert, Walton focused on spirituality as a connection between their poems and their inner lives.

Elisabeth Chaghafi has written a highly significant book which deserves to be taken seriously. Her analysis of the formative role of workers in the print industry in shaping writers’ reputations sheds important insights into the shifting perception of authorship in the early modern period. The depth of critical information, including bibliographic details, she provides throughout is impressive. Her warning to treat with caution the desire to find a unifying pattern connecting authors’ works and their lives is well taken. I wonder, however, if it might be possible to take a small step back. The concluding example of Izaak Walton’s attribution of motives and even his ventriloquism of words to authors surely represents an extreme case. As another extreme case, we can smile at naïve assumptions by early-twentieth-century scholars that Shakespeare wrote his tragedies as a response to some difficult problem in his life. These obvious abuses of biographical criticism need not, however, disallow the entire endeavor. It is through their lives that authors engage with their cultures, and the removal of an understanding of authors’ specific circumstances risks the loss of discerning the kinds of engagements their writings represent. If Chaghafi’s warnings were to be taken to the next level (as she does not), then they would render connections between a writer’s life and writing tenuous not only in biographies, but in much criticism. As publishing academics, we continue the activity of early modern workers in the print industry; for the posthumous creation of an author’s reputation through a retrospective evaluation is as much a part of our own literary criticism as it was for the biographical prefaces of early modern editions. I would like to balance Chaghafi’s judicious warning against filling in the gaps separating a writer’s works and life with a counter-warning to avoid an over-cautious approach that depletes a work’s meaning by ignoring writers’ lived experiences within their contemporary cultures. In pressing our way forward in the house of interpretation we must be, like Britomart, bold but not too bold.


                                                                                          Mary Ellen Lamb

                                                                                          Southern Illinois University-Carbondale





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Cite as:

Mary Ellen Lamb, "Elisabeth Chaghafi, English Literary Afterlives: Greene, Sidney, Donne and the Evolution of Posthumous Fame," Spenser Review 51.2.8 (Spring-Summer 2021). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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