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Wendy B. Hyman, Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry
by Katherine Hunt

Wendy B. Hyman. Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. ix + 216 pp. ISBN: 9780198837510. £61.00 hardback.


In Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry Wendy Beth Hyman establishes the surprising contribution of the carpe diem poem to early modern epistemology. This book, at once expansive and intricate, aims to re-centre this kind of lyric and use it to explore - even explode - our ideas of materialism, scepticism, and knowledge-making in English Renaissance literature. Hyman examines invitation poems from the familiar (Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd’; Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’) to ones which, in their foul misogyny, have been understandably neglected. In defamiliarising these poems Hyman argues not only for their relevance to Renaissance ways of knowing, but also for the bearing they have on other literary forms (narrative and epic verse, drama), and the visual and material culture of the period.

What we might assume to be the straightforward proposition of the carpe diem poem -a man tries to persuade a woman into sex - takes on, in Hyman’s analysis, far greater proportions as a variety of ‘skeptical thought experiment’ (4). The Renaissance invitation poem takes its lead from classical authors, in particular Horace: poets who did not contend with Christian ideas of judgment, sin, or the afterlife. In order to convince a woman that losing one’s virginity is really no big deal, one has to believe - or to experiment with believing - that there will be no punishment for this infraction, in this world or the next. There is nothing after this life, the carpe diem speaker seems to say, so why not just do what you want (or, more precisely, what I want)? What Hyman shows so persuasively is that these poems do far more than voice the desire of creepy men. Instead, they open up a way of thinking that forces the speaker (and the reader) to confront the shortness of time that is the logical conclusion of the carpe diem poem’s argument, and to ask whether and how the act of writing is up to this task. The invitation poem’s focus on erotic ends, Hyman argues, collapses in on itself. One of the real achievements of the book is to work through the epistemological and ontological implications of this trope, and to show how erotic verse attempts to ask questions about the nature and limits of knowledge.

Chapter 1 considers the materialism that underpins the thought experiment of the carpe diem invitation, and in particular its dependence on Lucretian atomism. The world is made of matter, which can be generated and recombined but inevitably decays. Hyman thinks carefully about the identification between atoms and letters in De rerum natura, and its connection to the commonplace Renaissance conceit that writing is a kind of making. If a poem can make something, as Lucretian atomism helps us to understand, these invitation poems do their making on, or with, the bodies of the women who are their subjects. This is ‘the terrible price’ that the carpe diem poem ‘exacts from the once-venerated objects of love lyric’ (14). John Donne’s ‘Anagram’, for example, is shown to set up the combinatorial approach to both writing and women’s bodies on which the trope draws, and which finds a particularly unpleasant expression in Herrick’s description of women as ‘Onely true in shreds and stuffe’ (44). Chapter 2 expands on the double work of the carpe diem lyric, seemingly interested in seduction but unable to stop ‘think[ing] itself into alterity’ (141). By appealing to matter, the poems are engaged in a disputation at once with the silenced but resisting women to whom they are ostensibly addressed, but also with a collapsing Christian worldview, and the desert of doubt that lies beyond.

An invitation requires an addressee - another person to receive and to listen, perhaps also to reply - and this impels the trope ‘towards drama’ (23). The chapter closes with drama itself and, in one of the book’s more surprising moments, a display of carpe diem’s influence on Measure for Measure that will profoundly affect how we read this play. Both Angelo and Claudio offer Isabella a kind of carpe diem invitation, and it is one with a measurable pay-off (Isabella’s virginity for Claudio’s life). This topos, then, as Hyman argues, ‘provides a philosophical instrument and a rhetorical scaffold’ for the questions we are continually asked in this generically troubled, difficult play (67).

The book is full of unexpected comparisons and connections like this, which all seem so natural once Hyman spells them out. In chapter 3 she shows the links between the invitation poem, the contemporary visual conventions of vanitas and memento mori, and the Renaissance discourse of ruins: just as stone and brass will decay so, inevitably, will women’s bodies. These disturbing visions, like Herrick’s ‘shreds and stuffe’, are a sinister outcome of the Petrarchan lyric. But the female body also resists the carpe diem poem’s logic in its unknowability, at least when it comes to the hymen: the ‘point imaginary’ (8; Abraham Cowley’s phrase), which is the subject of the fourth chapter. The female body is at once the site of making, of matter, and of decay, then, but also the location of knowledge’s continual frustration.

Edmund Spenser appears in the final chapter, in which Hyman discusses Guyon and the destruction of the Bower of Bliss in The Faerie Queene Book II, alongside John Milton’s Comus, or A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle. These texts, Hyman argues, contain a carpe diem lyric ‘inset’ within them at crucial moments (142). Here, our attention shifts away from the persuader to the persuaded: in both, the protagonists - Guyon and The Lady, both representatives of virtue - are the recipients of the invitations.

Guyon is invited into the Bower in what ends as a carpe florem lyric (a subset of carpe diem): the rose song. This culminates in an imperative typical of the invitational mode: ‘Gather the Rose of loue, whilest yet is time’ (II.xii.75.8). Deflowering is made literal in the Bower of Bliss, and it is urgent because almost as soon as the rose blooms, it fades: the rose’s ‘leafe, the bud, the flowre’ is ‘Of mortall life’ (II.xii.75.2). But isn’t the Bower supposed to be a quasi-Edenic space, free from decay? The warnings about time’s devastating effects, Hyman shows us, do not ring true. When we read this moment in the light of the invitational mode, we can see that Guyon’s destruction of the Bower aligns him not with the strength and resistance of pure Temperance, but rather with the ravaging effects of Time itself. As he performs this violent deflowering, Guyon is transformed from the recipient of the invitation to the agent of decay. Guyon’s identification with Time is echoed in Book III, when the work of ‘wicked Tyme’ destroys the Garden of Adonis (, just as Guyon did the Bower. Here as elsewhere, Hyman shows us how the carpe diem lyric offers us a way to understand other literary forms; in this case, even one of the most-discussed moments of Spenser’s epic takes on new significance.

The misogyny of the carpe diem trope is exhausting but Hyman finds the hero of her argument in the Lady of Milton’s A Maske, who turns the invitation around. In this masque, the erotic invitation is no longer a means by which to conquer a virgin. Instead, it is a prompt for self-knowledge: not on the part of the would-be seducer, but of the young woman whose virtue is here on trial. Both texts in chapter 5 ‘utilize the motif’s volitional energy to encapsulate problems of knowledge that they also take seriously as lived, moral problems’ (142). We are a long way from the trivial erotic invitation now: those thought experiments that Hyman set out at the start of the book have become ideas to live by.

Hyman takes as her epigraph for this final chapter Milton’s claim, in Areopagitica, that he ‘cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out to see her adversary […]: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary’ (141). Areopagitica is certainly a text that confronts lived and moral problems, but seems a highly unlikely piece of writing in which to find an echo of an erotic invitation poem. But the connection Hyman makes shows one of the features of the book as a whole: to display how pervasive in early modern literary culture are the intellectual moves of the carpe diem trope. There is real pleasure in this book in watching Hyman unfold her topic: to take this lyric form, often overlooked, and to use it to think with. Indeed, some of the highlights of Impossible Desire are the implications of its argument for other literary forms: epic and masque in the final chapter; but also drama and narrative verse elsewhere. In the world of the carpe diem invitation, the only place safe from decay is the ‘eternal present of the lyric poem’ (141), but this is a form that does touch and affect other forms, and expands out to think about lived experience, too. In taking seriously its connections to writing and the world Hyman asks important questions about what the Renaissance lyric wants, and tries, to know.


Katherine Hunt

University of East Anglia




  • concrete hamilton 6 months, 4 weeks ago

    The material that makes up the world can be created and recombined, but it will inevitably degrade.

    Link / Reply
  • Cary nc Tree Removal 6 months, 1 week ago

    So cool and awesome. This is so interesting!

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Cite as:

Katherine Hunt, "Wendy B. Hyman, Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed February 22nd, 2024.
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