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Helen Cooney and Mark S. Sweetnam, eds., Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance English Literature
by Kathleen Miller

Cooney, Helen and Mark S. Sweetnam, eds. Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance English Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012. 246pp. ISBN: 978-1846822810. €55.00 hardback.


The Four Courts Press publication Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance English Literature (2012), edited by Mark S. Sweetnam and Helen Cooney, takes a fittingly eclectic approach to Renaissance English literature given the volume’s title and the scholar and poet to whom it is dedicated.  Finding as its inspiration Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s academic work, Enigma and Revelation features twelve essays that interrogate Renaissance literature through varied lenses, with an eye to highlighting the measured approach to “text and context” and “historical specificity” that defines Ní Chuilleanáin’s scholarship (Cooney and Sweetnam n.p.).  The resulting volume succeeds in this quest, with a number of historicized readings suited to the overarching themes of the volume and current trends in Renaissance literature studies.  The twin notions of enigma and revelation, including their biblical associations, are opened up to a multiplicity of interpretations and readings, and are examined organically, flexibly, and in sometimes surprising ways in the essays included.

A Professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, Ní Chuilleanáin is an academic, poet, and translator.  While the volume foregrounds her academic work on the Renaissance, echoes of these other professional interests emerge throughout Enigma and Revelation.  Thus, explicitly and implicitly the dedicatee seems present in these essays, with references to Ní Chuilleanáin ranging from direct engagement with her scholarly work, as in Thomas Herron’s “‘This concealed man’: Spenser, Ireland and Ormond(?) in Shakespeare’s As you like it,” to subtle reminisces of her other interests: Deirdre Serjeantson’s “Anne Lock’s Anonymous Friend: A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner and the Problem of Ascription” concludes with a few lines of Ní Chuilleanáin’s verse and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin’s examination of the “untranslatable” word sprezzatura in “‘A certain disgracing’: Resonances of a Renaissance Word” includes a quotation from Ní Chuilleanáin on the role of the translator.  Ó Cuilleanáin describes the emergence of the word in Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano and its subsequent translation in Sir Thomas Hoby’s English editions of the work, also commenting on Hoby’s “translation practice.”  Ó Cuilleanáin asserts “that botched or controversial translation solutions can serve to illustrate the fertility of the original concept” (86), concluding the essay with words from Ní Chuilleanáin:

A culture which feels cosmopolitan, universal, in which the individual is able to feel “normal,” the centre and logical culmination of a civilized world, unconsciously depends on the works of numerous translators, as the Middle Ages did on Saint Jerome’s Latin version of the Bible, or as the eighteenth century did on works as different from each other as Pope’s Homer and Macpherson’s Ossian.  But the more important job of the translator is to show us the limitations of the civilization we live in.[1]

Ó Cuilleanáin’s engagement with the dedicatee, as with those made by other contributors, brings greater complexity to the text.  The range and creativity of these gestures to Ní Chuilleanáin’s work add to and support the volume.

A preface by Helen Cooney addresses the broad themes and guiding parameters behind Enigma and Revelation, acknowledging the breadth of the works covered, noting the texts addressed are neither exclusively sacred nor secular, but more often a combination, and that these cover a period from 1500 to 1670.  Fourteenth-century Italian humanism, Cooney explains, was received in England not with “a passive imitation, but an embrace that was a startling mixture of the utilitarian and the creative” (12).  Cooney further establishes the interaction between “renaissance humanist enterprise and the reformation movement” as a focus of the volume, observing that “the relationship between renaissance and reformation in England, certainly in its first phase, was more dissonant than harmonious” (12).  Cooney’s preface provides context and purpose for the essays, while leaving room for the scope of interpretations and approaches that are bound to emerge in an edited collection and that certainly do in this volume.  Within this framework, religious, political, and linguistic concerns become central to how these texts are read and interpreted.  Many of these essays place emphasis on the process of reading, both how a text may have been read by contemporaries and how it is now critically read by scholars.  The approach is consistent with Cooney’s description of a shift in the Renaissance toward acknowledging both the reader’s and author’s intention: “the surface of the text became something of an ‘interface’ between writer and reader, and the acts of reading and writing took on the quality of a dialogue” (13).  The emphasis on dialogue that Cooney describes is celebrated in many of the essays included in the volume. 

With contributions from emerging and established academics, Enigma and Revelation covers considerable ground.  A number of the contributors illuminate Irish connections in their research.  Taken collectively, the essays contribute toward the goals of the volume, but individual essays offer up engaging close readings, springboards for further research and new takes on canonical works, and are even in quality and insight.  I will detail a number of the contributions to give a sense of the interpretive ground covered in the volume, briefly considering how many of these emphasize the “dialogue” between reader and writer.  The first essay in the volume, John Scattergood’s “‘Let se who dare make up the reste’: Fear and the Interpretation of Skelton’s Speke Parott,” examines how John Skelton uses the vehicle of poetry to address political concerns and “what, for both the poet and his audience, the constraints on the writing and interpretation of such a poem may be” (18).  Scattergood details the breakdown in the interpretive dialogue between the poet and his audience, resulting in the failure of the poem to meet its aims—a work too obscure, too laden in metaphor and allegory, perhaps too enigmatic, and ultimately interpreted by an audience that disappoints the author—even those readers who understand the poem refuse to admit their appreciation of its meaning.  Scattergood’s is a tightly argued essay and provides a suitably complex introduction to the volume’s guiding themes.  Readers are central, too, in Helen Cooney’s “Facie ad Faciem: Reader, Protagonist, and Self-reflection in Spenser’s Legend of Temperance.”  In her essay, Cooney proposes that the reader participates in a “process of allegoresis” in order to unfurl the complexities of the book’s allegory and the profound enigma that makes up the book’s “mathematical midpoint,” canto vii, stanzas 42 to 3 (88). The process of piercing this “veil of allegory,” solving the enigma, Cooney explains, ideally results in an epiphany, not merely a singular answer (88).[2]  Cooney then applies this process to her own reading of the text.  She extends and complicates previous understanding of the Palmer, critically examines the role of Original Sin, and notes the wide-ranging texts, or “pre-texts” (89), that must be considered in such a reading.  Cooney’s attention to process results in a fluid essay that is true to the volume’s goals.  Erin Sebo’s “The Lady Loves Her Will: Riddling in The Marriage of Sir Gawain” begins by historicizing English riddling and describing the decline of the riddle in the Renaissance, with the author noting: “in an increasingly mapped, measured and scientifically explained world, the sense of the mysterious so integral to early English riddling failed to strike a chord.  It was anathema to the rationalism of protestant christianity” (36).  Noting the survival of riddles in traditional narratives, Sebo provides a reading of the riddling found in The Marriage of Sir Gawain, a loathly lady narrative.  Sebo’s close reading, her adherence to the notion of the meta-contest, a term she coins in her essay, and her use of Bakhtin in theorizing the figure of the loathly lady result in a succinct and appealing essay, where enigma leads to revelation and that process is teased out in detail. 

In a number of the essays, contributors pay particular attention to the biblical connotations of the terms enigma and revelation.  Crawford Gribben’s “Millennialism and the Renewal of Nature: Thomas Fairfax, the Diggers and Andrew Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’” combines close reading and historical specificity.  Contextualizing the work within the English revolution and the accompanying hunger and famine experienced in the late 1640s, Gribben offers a close reading of Marvell’s country house poem “Upon Appleton House,” considering millennialism and the regeneration of nature in the work.  Marvell mourns a lost England in the poem, explains Gribben:

“Upon Appleton House” looks back to a period in which life in England felt like life in Eden.  England had been the “garden of the world,” the “Paradise of four seas,” guarded with “wat’ry if not flaming sword” to ensure that fallen humanity—that is, foreigners—could not regain access to the paradisiacal conditions it still enjoyed (ll.323-6).  But the civil wars had disrupted that order.  Englishmen too had come to experience the fall—“what luckless apple did we taste, / To make us mortal and thee waste?” (ll. 327-8)—and were searching for a paradise they could regain.” (192)

The irresolution and lack of closure evident in the work gesture to the insufficiency of millennial ideologies to resolve the crises facing the country.  Again, the dialogue between reader and author is considered, as Marvell “encoded in his poem a message for his patron,” Thomas Fairfax, “implicitly cautioning his patron against the dangerous millennial ideologies of the day” (198).  The volume concludes with John Flood’s “‘Very far from being dark and affectedly mysterious’: Women, Philosophy and the Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 in Seventeenth-Century England” and his lively examination of the common links between writings by women philosophers.  Reflecting on a select sphere where women were both active readers and writers of philosophy, Flood considers their interpretations of Genesis in relation to “reason, revelation and gender” (216).  Though these selections offer but a brief sense of what Enigma and Revelation has to offer, they indicate the ways in which contributors approached the volume’s themes and the range of contexts within which these texts and terms could be interpreted and understood. 

Enigma and Revelation makes an appealing contribution to Renaissance English literature studies.  Editorial choices made by Sweetnam and Cooney are effective, with the preface and an untitled foreword giving an appropriate introduction to the collection.  By uniting the concepts of revelation and enigma, the volume covers interesting new ground when taken as a whole, and I felt the potential of these notions was examined within the text in all their multiplicity of meanings.  The interpretive leeway taken by contributors led to strong and creative readings of texts and writers, enigma and revelation, resulting in subtle but valid connections between essays.  Literature scholars will certainly find value in the essays offered, while the consistent emphasis on context and “historical specificity” will appeal to historians.  The essays in Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance English Literature converge in a volume that speaks both to the figure to whom it is dedicated and to many relevant issues in current Renaissance English literature studies.  This is an excellent volume and would be an asset to any library.


Kathleen Miller

 Trinity College,  Dublin

[1] Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ‘Poetry in Translation’, Dublin Arts Festival 1971 Souvenir Programme (Dublin, 1971), 26.

[2] Cooney refers to Jan Karel Kouwenhoven, Apparent Narrative as Thematic Metaphor, p. 11.


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Cite as:

Kathleen Miller, "Helen Cooney and Mark S. Sweetnam, eds., Enigma and Revelation in Renaissance English Literature," Spenser Review 43.1.11 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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