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Gavin Alexander, Emma Gilby, and Alexander Marr, eds., The Places of Early Modern Criticism
by Fraser McIlwraith

Gavin Alexander, Emma Gilby, and Alexander Marr, eds. The Places of Early Modern Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 289 pp. ISBN: 9780198834687. £70 hardback.


This collection of essays, edited by Gavin Alexander, Emma Gilby, and Alexander Marr, represents a major contribution to the growing body of scholarship on early modern criticism. The rich miscellaneity of the contents contained between the volume’s covers is signalled enticingly on its dust jacket, which reproduces Jean-Francois de Le Motte’s Trompe l’œil (now part of the collections of the Musée de Beaux-arts de Dijon). Le Motte’s canvas presents a distracting array of intriguing materials, from handwritten papers and printed pamphlets to paint brushes and pictures, adorning the wall of an artist’s shop and cluttering the shelf below. The chapters that ensue do ample justice to the busy spectacle of Le Motte’s still life: an essay on Jacques Peletier’s reformed French orthography (chapter 2) follows an exploration of early Tudor lyric poetics (chapter 1), while later in the book a discussion of the art and architecture of Amsterdam’s baroque Town Hall (chapter 10) comes swift on the heels of a chapter on Anne Southwell’s discovery of a feminine critical voice (chapter 9). The Places of Early Modern Criticism is a bustling collection, replete with fascinating accounts of how painters, poets, architects, critics, and readers thought about the procedures which bring works of art into being. For the editors of this volume, criticism is not the province solely of the pedant, the faultfinder, or the Momus-figure with whom the term was so often associated in the early modern period (5, 9). Rather, it is an activity in which diverse works of art and literature engage when they set forth before our eyes (in the manner of Le Motte’s painting) the materials, places, and processes of creativity. In the early modern world conjured so vividly by the volume’s essays, criticism takes place in an abundance of forms and genres and is pursued by its practitioners with the widest possible variety of different objectives in mind.

The Places of Early Modern Criticism distinguishes itself from recent publications in the field by taking an ambitiously and admirably inclusive view of the cultures of criticism which existed in literary and artistic circles between 1500–1700. Other edited collections, for example, have explored the reception of individual critical works (such as Aristotle’s Poetics) or have otherwise sought to train their focus on the period’s criticism by relating it to broader trends in Renaissance culture (such as classical reception). Single-authored studies, such as William M. Russell’s recent Inventing the Critic in Renaissance England (2020), have also tended to take a narrower geographical scope, or opted to consider almost exclusively the period’s literary criticism in isolation from critical works which explore other artistic forms.[1] Owing to the rich dynamics of cultural exchange from which Renaissance critical works were bred, these studies rarely confine themselves in practice to the boundaries which they ostensibly define. Yet none attempt, as The Places of Early Modern Criticism does, to provide a real framework for exploring the contrasts and correspondences between the heterogenous kinds of criticism which took place in different cultural and intellectual milieux.

By focusing on the broad semantic and conceptual possibilities afforded by the notion of ‘place’, the volume’s editors and contributors develop a powerful thematic link which organises and unifies its contents. Places of criticism can be institutional, like London’s Inns of Court or the Académie Française, as well as geographical: one fascinating discussion, for example, explores the influence of a New World setting on the poetics of Spanish American works which issued from the press in Lima and Mexico City (chapter 8).  Places of criticism can also be social; criticism is often found to be the preserve of cultural elites in rarefied locales, but it was also a mode of discourse in which young writers from modest backgrounds could develop their own literary careers. Yet most compellingly, perhaps, the places of criticism which this volume explores are textual. The best recent scholarship on literary criticism pays close attention to how different cultural environments shaped certain kinds of critical thinking; fewer studies, however, have considered how the history of criticism can be traced in the evolution of literary forms and textual places. These can take the form of loci communes, adagia, or topoi which are inscribed on the page or recalled in the mind of a writer or artist; they can come in the shape of printed places such as commentaries, footnotes, adversaria, or variae lectiones in editions of written works; and they can sometimes even appear as works of art themselves, which so often render up to their audiences – as Chris Stamatakis puts it in a superlative chapter on Petrarch and Wyatt – a self-reflexive ‘commentary on [their] own merits’ (37). A commonplace derived from a work of classical poetics – the Horatian injunction that poetry ought to both yield profit and delight, for example – can itself become a site of dramatic change when adapted to Christian contexts, when translated into the vernacular, and, indeed, when manipulated for different purposes by new writers.

Criticism’s textual places are thus also places of genre and form, and one of the volume’s signal achievements is to force its readers to rethink the assumption – perpetuated, at least for scholars of the English Renaissance, by various anthologies of early modern literary criticism – that this kind of writing only takes place in a relatively narrow range of forms, such as the rhetorical treatise or the prose defence.[2] Criticism can also take place as satire, as dramatic dialogue staged in the theatre, and in dedicatory epistles, as well as in imaginative rewritings, parodies, or imitations of model texts on which new authors seek to pass comment (17). Moments such as the disputation about poetics with the Canon of Toledo in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605–1615) are no less a crucial part of the history of criticism for appearing as part of a fictional narrative than is a text such as Philip Sidney’s Defence (c. 1580) or Ben Jonson’s Discoveries (1641).[3]

The editors’ lucid introduction does much to set these arguments in train, such that they are easily picked up and developed by the more focused discussions which comprise the chapters that follow. Some chapters engage the volume’s broad concerns more closely than others: Stamatakis’s chapter has a particular interest in questions regarding the genres and forms of criticism, as does Francesco Lucioli’s on ‘popular rewritings’ of Ariosto (chapter 3) and Michael Hetherington’s on the ‘logical slipperiness’ of poetic form (chapter 7, 112). Each chapter, however, proffers something interesting to enliven the reader’s knowledge of the period’s critical concerns. Rowan Cerys Tomlinson’s contribution is a wide-ranging discussion of how the art of Renaissance poetics conceives of an encyclopaedic function for poetry, as well as considering its own position as a discipline within that circle of knowledge (chapter 4). Gavin Alexander’s analysis of early modern prosodic developments (chapter 5) is similarly stimulating, as is Lorna Hutson’s exploration of how English dramatists in the age of Shakespeare manipulated their representations of time and place to produce highly convincing probabilistic illusions of character and action (chapter 6). Emma Gilby’s chapter is on wit (or ‘présence d’esprit’) in the French salons of the mid-seventeenth century (chapter 11), while Micha Lazarus delivers an important account of Longinus’s enthusiastic appropriation by English readers, many decades before the publication of Nicolas Boileau’s Traité du Sublime in 1674 (chapter 12). Thijs Westeijn’s essay, complementing the earlier chapter on Amsterdam’s Town Hall by Stijn Bussels, turns our attention to Rembrandt’s studio and attempts to reconstruct the ‘speeches’ (‘Redenvoeringen’) which, according to one visiting artist from Silesia, the Dutch master was wont to deliver to his guests in the 1650s (chapter 13, 207). A rich discussion of John Dryden’s attitudes towards debt and credit follows in a chapter by Sophie Read (chapter 14), before the volume draws to a close with Alexander Marr’s fascinating essay on the place of genius (‘locus ingenii’) in the art criticism of Roger de Piles.

The culmination is a tour of the most enigmatic and esoteric of early modern places which elicits the thrilling sense that criticism, in Renaissance Europe and beyond, is not only a discourse so rich as to rival any other form of writing, but also one which works in tandem with – rather than in opposition to – the forces of wit, creativity, and originality it seeks to describe. While some readers may wish for a greater sense of dialogue between the collection’s chapters and others still might have hoped for a greater balance between its literary-critical and art-historical contributions, the volume leaves little room for complaint. As the editors put it in their Introduction, the essays in The Places of Early Modern Criticism ‘explore the hybrid genres, disciplines, modes of thought, lexicons, identities, and practices that emerge when criticism connects or moves between different places. They examine the operations of imagination, empathy, and analogy by which artists might imagine themselves in their characters places, or poets and painters, readers, viewers, or audience members might critically and creatively swap places. They interrogate, in various ways, the relationship between the places of learned humanist excavation, the passing of individual judgement, and the gaining of social experience’ (21–22). What is more, they do so with universal aplomb.

Criticism, as a number of essays in this volume reflect, is an art of judgement. For Thomas Elyot, writing in his Dictionary in 1534, the criticus is ‘he that judgeth […] the warkes that men do write’ (23); for Julius Caesar Scaliger, the word represents a twofold faculty of judgement (iudicio) geared towards imitation (imitatio) which the aspiring poet should employ when deciding on which model to choose for his or her own compositions (8–9). Early modern critics, to be sure, are charged with ‘culling out the imperfections’ (9) of others, as William Scott puts it in The Model of Poesy (c. 1599) – but they almost always do so with the productive ambition of turning their readers into writers and setting out for them new heights to scale. Far from the cool detachment of modern criticism, the art of judgement in Renaissance Europe is deeply, passionately engaged with the objects on which it focuses – not least, because its most committed practitioners are so often poets and artists themselves. When Jonson writes that ‘to judge of poets is only the faculty of poets’ (9), he is not merely returning to an old, familiar commonplace; he is reinscribing for the English reader one of the most powerful principles that shaped the practice of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century criticism for both artists and writers alike. This volume highlights the important fact that the making of artistic judgements is never simply an impersonal activity pursued by disengaged audiences and superficial observers. For Renaissance men and women, it is just as often an internalised process of evaluation and self-scrutiny – one that gives rise to a critical voice, echoing in the back of the artist’s mind, which shapes the form of future compositions.

Looking towards the past with an eye to opening up new artistic futures in their own cultural moment, early modern critics display a refreshingly ardent and impassioned attitude towards the work they pursue. In foregrounding this aspect of their practice, The Places of Early Modern Criticism makes a subtle yet significant intervention in recent controversies concerning what some have negatively described – using, perhaps unwittingly, another spatial metaphor – as the ‘limits of critique’. Renaissance criticism does indeed capture something of what Rita Felski has polemically argued to be sorely lacking from modern literary studies – that is, the sense that criticism can be a ‘powerful mode of attachment’, charged with affect and articulating ‘the text’s entanglement with its readers’.[4] But it is also a discourse which makes a virtue of what might be termed its ‘limits’ – its conventions, its commonplaces, its forms, and its tropes, which are constantly redeployed and revivified in ways that are always surprising and often strikingly original. Whether this has lessons for modern critics, as the editors of the volume tentatively suggest it might (21), will be for individual readers to decide. What can be certain, however, is that this collection – like the works of the critics with which it engages – opens up an infinite variety of exciting new avenues for literary scholars and art historians to pursue. It is essential reading, and it will shape the field for scholars working on the history of criticism for years to come.


Fraser McIlwraith 

University College London


[1] For the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics, see Bryan Brazeau (ed.), The Reception of Aristotle’s Poetics in the Italian Renaissance and Beyond: New Directions in Criticism (London: Bloomsbury, 2020); see also Micha Lazarus, ‘Aristotle’s Poetics in Renaissance England’, unpublished DPhil thesis (University of Oxford, 2013). For a collection of essays on Renaissance poetics as a form of classical reception, see Micha Lazarus and Vladimir Brljak (eds.), Artes Poeticae: Formations and Transformations, 1500–1650, special issue of Classical Receptions Journal 13.1 (2021). Monographs and edited collections which focus almost exclusively on England include William M. Russell, Inventing the Critic in Renaissance England (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2020) and Zenón Luis-Martínez and Sonia Hernández-Santano (eds.), Poetry, the Arts of Discourse, and the Discourse of the Arts, special issue of Parergon 33.3 (2016); Nicholas Hardy, Criticism and Confession: The Bible in the Seventeenth-Century Republic of Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) focuses, by contrast, almost exclusively on Biblical scholarship and the development of the ars critica in an English and European context.

[2] A short selection of some important works in this editorial tradition includes: Joseph Haselwood (ed.), Ancient Critical Essays upon English Poets and Poësy (London: Harding and Wright for Robert Triphook, 1811–1815), 2 vols; G. Gregory Smith (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1904), 2 vols; J. E. Spingarn (ed.), Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1908), 3 vols; Edmund D. Jones (ed.), English Critical Essays: Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries (London: Oxford University Press, 1922).

[3] Joseph Warton was the first writer to describe these texts as works of ‘criticism’, more than two decades prior to the publication of Haselwood’s anthology of Ancient Critical Essays. See Joseph Warton (ed.), Sir Philip Sydney’s Defence of Poetry. And Observations on Poetry and Eloquence, from the Discoveries of Ben Jonson (London: J. Robinson and J. Walter, 1787), sig. a2r.

[4] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 175.


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Fraser McIlwraith, "Gavin Alexander, Emma Gilby, and Alexander Marr, eds., The Places of Early Modern Criticism," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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