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Colin Burrow, Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity
by Charles Green

Colin Burrow. Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2019. viii + 496 pp. ISBN: 9780198838081. £38.99 hardback.


The imitation of authors, or imitatio, is one of the slipperiest subjects in literary studies. Authors, like all language users, inherit a common store of words and ideas particular to their time and place. Literary works follow generic trends that develop collectively over time. It is therefore never possible fully to disentangle originality from influence. The same goes for literary criticism: a book review can only be a book review because other people have written book reviews before, and its expressive range will be prescribed by them in all sorts of ways, both generative and limiting. This is easy to forget in a world that appears to value novelty above everything else. As Colin Burrow puts it in Imitating Authors, ‘There is a general rule in literary and intellectual history: people lie, even to themselves. Those who claim to be new are usually deeply indebted to the people whose influences they most strikingly disavow’ (231). And yet we know that, for all this, to study literature in the first place is to be drawn to what seems so clearly distinctive and inimitable about certain texts and the people who wrote them.

Burrow offers the most expansive account of imitatio’s history in Western literature and thought yet attempted, from Plato and parrots to twenty-first-century robopoets. In picking out that history’s key protagonists in easily digestible sections, Imitating Authors feels a little like an imitatio-specific History of Western Philosophy (1945). However, the book is more than a chronology of imitatio’s theorists and practitioners; it is also about its fascinating interactions with fellow travellers in the conceptual realm. For many ancient Greek thinkers imitatio was in a complex relationship with the ethically dubious practice of mimesis; yet, mimicking the lexis of an exemplum could also be a part of acquiring a hexis, or way of being, a process of virtuous habit-forming Burrow describes as ‘dispositional imitation’ (70). As Burrow explains, by swapping out analytical approaches to imitatio with primarily metaphorical ones, Roman authors sought ways of distinguishing between true rhetorical greatness and superficial verbal copying in notions of heredity and bodily reproduction. The late-medieval humanists who then rediscovered those classical works (often imagining them in corporal ways, as constitutive of what we would still call a corpus) were no less concerned with these distinctions, or their impact on constantly shifting ideas about authorship. For Erasmus, Burrow writes, an author worth imitating was not merely a series of textual formulae but a genus (cognate with ingenium/genius) underpinned by ‘adaptive’ or ‘genetic’ qualities that allowed him to fit his words to any occasion (176). No author was as worth imitating as Cicero, and it was in wrangling over the question of how one should accomplish this that Erasmus and his contemporaries established many hitherto overlooked foundations for the stylistic innovations of Elizabethan literature, alongside modern ideas like intellectual property.

It is with early modernity, and particularly with John Milton, that this story of ideas arrives at many of its best moments. Showing how the genre of epic became a focus for humanistic anxieties about the historically contingent nature of virtue, initially in an exploration of the imitative character of Don Quixote, Burrow illuminates Milton’s (and, to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson’s), central importance to imitatio’s history, as the archetypal imitator and imitated author. Milton had a big hand in establishing the modern notion that ‘model’ might also mean exemplum, which associated imitatio with proportionality and design at a time when Christopher Wren’s architectural models prefigured London’s post-Fire reconstruction. As he rapidly became the hottest property in English literature, Milton’s name was caught up in debates about the nature of property more generally, and particularly those concerning whether readers might have a right to an important literary work in the same way common folk might have access to a piece of countryside. In William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Burrow observes, this literature/landscape analogy is evoked in a meeting with a soldier reminiscent of Milton’s Death, while London’s new automated attractions are presented in terms reminiscent of Milton’s Hell. Furthermore, Mary Shelley figures Frankenstein’s powerful monster both as Milton’s Eve and the author’s insuperable literary achievement. Even the theorists of Artificial Intelligence who debated Alan Turing’s infamous ‘Test’ (itself first articulated as a kind of poetic experiment) found Paradise Lost an unignorable framing device, ’seeing in Satan the cautionary model of the classic ‘bad’ imitator seeking to overthrow his creator.

Throughout Imitating Authors there is a curious, creative tension between playful assertiveness and suspicion of overarching argument. Its vast intellectual optimism leads it towards pan-historical and theoretical insights from which it at times seems almost to withdraw, recalling, for example, that every ‘literary law’ is ultimately ‘a heuristic aid rather than an immutable truth’ (124). Burrow calls attention to the various kinds of ‘noise’ – ‘transmissional’, ‘hermeneutic’ (e.g., 127, 130) – that are as much a part of each text’s story as its author’s intentions, despite being overlooked in much literary criticism. It is in combining sweeping conceptual clarity with attentiveness to this kind of contextual hubbub that the book’s considerable value lies, across a range of subdisciplines: intellectual history, genre/rhetorical studies, and the bourgeoning field of reception studies, to name a few. The light it sheds on the intellective processes underpinning historical reading and writing practices also lends it to exponents of genetic criticism, another growth area.

Perhaps the book’s most significant contributions, however, derive from Burrow’s seemingly effortless translational methodology, which allows him to track literary and intellectual currents across time and space in new ways. Again, this is particularly fruitful for Burrow’s analysis of early modern literature, prompting him, for example, to make up for the ‘series of historiographical accidents’ (227) that have led to the influence of continental thinkers like Philip Melanchthon and Johannes Sturm (Melanchthon’s pupil) on late-sixteenth/early-seventeenth-century English writing being much ignored. It also informs his fascinating reappraisal of Jonson’s translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica, which, following John Dryden’s influential judgement, has often been considered a ‘low-value’, word-for-word rendering. In fact, it is infused with what Burrow calls Jonson’s ‘procreative poetics’ (250), and can be seen to take up Cicero’s instruction that translators should not operate merely as transmitters of meaning, but as judicious shapers and developers of new texts. Indeed, as Burrow notes, translation relates to imitatio in unavoidably complex ways, demanding multifaceted creative input alongside technical capability. The translator is a curious kind of imitating author.

While Burrow is careful not to overreach these arguments, they together combine to make two claims that are more or less consistent throughout Imitating Authors, representing two sides of the same coin. The first is that anxieties about inept, counterfeit or malign simulacra haunt the history of imitatio, often in specifically spectral ways. In making this point Burrow builds on the wealth of critical approaches that followed the publication of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence (1973), which brought a conspicuously Freudian lens to the study of literary relationships. As Burrow points out, even the essays of G. W. Pigman, which have offered critics a valuable taxonomy of species of imitation – including the ‘transformative’, ‘dissimulative’ and ‘eristic’ – have tended to focus on its more competitive manifestations, imagining authors anxiously (or cynically) burying their influences, or violently overwriting them, so as to ward off any charge of unoriginality.

Burrow’s second big claim, that imitatio has simultaneously been a profound catalyst for literary innovation, represents an important check on this critical tendency. In tracing how people have historically approached imitatio, he demonstrates that the oldest notions of hexis – of imitating to acquire habit, disposition or ‘practical wisdom’ (403) – have never been far from the surface. For authors, imitatio offers up a frontier of creative possibilities, its very indefinability being a constant source of fresh imaginative power. Even Milton, whose negative association of imitatio with diabolical forces in Paradise Lost seems so obvious, also turns its ‘shadows and reflections’ to new creations in describing Eve’s first moments, and, at the same time, the creation of his own poetic self (288-89). Like the imitating authors he brings to life, Burrow, too, uses the opacity of his subject as rhetorical rocket fuel. Surely, Imitating Authors offers lessons for creative writers as well as critics, signalling a world of literary predecessors, practices and forms waiting for a knowingly imitative literary culture to inherit it once again.

Charles Green

University of Chichester


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Charles Green, "Colin Burrow, Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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