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Jeffrey Kahan and M. Thomas Hester (eds.), Talking Renaissance Texts: Essays on the Humanist Tradition in Honor of Stanley Stewart (The Ben Jonson Journal – Special Edition, 2009)

Jeffrey Kahan and M. Thomas Hester (eds.), Talking Renaissance Texts: Essays on the Humanist Tradition in Honor of Stanley Stewart. Special Double Edition of The Ben Jonson Journal, Volume 16, Numbers 1-2, May 2009.

Reviewed by Peter Sillitoe

[1]  For this special double issue of The Ben Jonson Journal, editors Jeffrey Kahan and M. Thomas Hester have gathered together an impressive array of literary talent in terms of early modern scholarship in order to offer a detailed and wide-ranging collection of essays on the Humanist tradition whilst supplying a fitting tribute to the work of Stanley Stewart, one of two founding editors of the journal.Given this latter fact, it is perhaps unsurprising that the collection opens with a brief foreword (viii-x) that surveys the great achievements of Stewart in the highly competitive world of Renaissance criticism and study. As is typically the case in such collections, the foreword has to demonstrate how the essays cohere: in this case the volume is described as having a ‘central concern with how the meaning of Renaissance English literary works rests on the texts and textures to which they are indebted.’ (ix). Continuing on from this introductory theme, the collection also includes an introduction to ‘The Work of Stanley Stewart’ (1-14), which sets the scene for this literary and critical tribute by surveying his major achievements as a critic and editor.

[2]  Moving on from this opening salvo, we have the first essay ‘proper’, an award-winning contribution by Sara van den Berg entitled ‘Full Sight, Fancied Sight, and Touch’: Milton’s Sonnet 23 and Molyneux’s Question’ (16-32). In this article, the author addresses several correspondences between William Molyneux and John Locke in the 1680s and ’90s in light of a central concern with blindness and understanding. From this, Milton’s final sonnet is examined in terms of the similar subject matter, because, as van den Berg reminds us, ‘no critic has considered how the new materialist philosophy of the seventeenth century complicated the traditional interpretation of physical blindness as an emblem of moral blindness and redefined the relationship between body and soul’ (18). Thus, the critic goes to work in a detailed and persuasive close reading of Milton’s sonnet alongside discussion of philosophical materialism in the later years of the seventeenth century.

[3]  In ‘Reading “more wit” in Donne and Catullus’ (33-56), M. Thomas Hester examines the classical author’s work and Renaissance reputation alongside John Donne’s poetry, arguing that Donne’s ‘love poems attempt to respond to the crises predicated in Catullus’s epigrammatic love lyrics – [a] … poetic and sexual crisis’ (34). Hester surveys a range of poetry from both writers in order to demonstrate some of Donne’s thematic appropriations of the classical past in ‘The Relique’, ‘The Extasie’, ‘The Flea’, and ‘The Canonization’. The latter, according to Hester, is the Donne poem ‘that most fully dramatizes the ways in which Donne answers Catullus’s plea for “An impossible love”’ (43). Finally, the article turns its attention to the influence of Catullus on Donne’s poetic work on the death of his wife. This rewarding piece of scholarship will prove to be crucial reading for scholars interested in further connections between Renaissance poetry and the classical heritage of literary production.

 [4]  Staying with scholarship on Donne, the third essay in the collection, by R. V. Young, considers the issue of religion as opposed to sexual desire. In ‘Donne’s Catholic Conscience and the Wit of Religious Anxiety’ (57-76) Young argues for a new understanding of Donne’s religious beliefs in terms of how these issues inform his poetic discourse, as opposed to recent work that foregrounds the courtly and political cultural climates of many of his most famous works. Young argues that we should take note of the religious dimensions of Donne’s poetry because ‘[n]o thinking, educated man in England during this time could avoid the necessity of an intimately personal response to religious crisis’ (58). Staying with discussion of religion in the period, Arthur F. Kinney’s essay on ‘George Herbert’s Early Readers’ (77-98) reminds us of Herbert’s religious beliefs and expertly re-contextualises them in terms of his poetry (‘Love (III)’) whilst arguing for a renewed understanding of his uses of eroticism alongside the emerging discourse of interiority (86). Indeed, Kinney presents a very compelling case for the ‘physicality’ of religion and love in the work, and offers a detailed literary reading of the open-endedness of ‘Love (III)’.

[5]  Following on from the related works on religion and poetic discourse, a compelling essay by Robert C. Evans introduces gender and women’s writing into the equation. In ‘“Despaire behind, and death before”: Comparing and contrasting the “Meditative” Sonnets of Anne Vaughan Lock and John Donne’ (99-116), Evans traces the literary routes and connectedness of Donne’s Holy Sonnets back to the earlier 1560 sonnets entitled A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, ‘almost certainly composed by Anne Vaughan Lock’ (99). Offering a comparative study of the two authors, Evans argues for differences and, mainly, similarities in their related literary outputs, focusing particularly on the tone and themes shared by Lock’s work and Donne’s ‘Batter my hart’. The article excavates a neglected potential influence on Donne and, indeed, the canon of seventeenth century poetry, and opens up space for further productive work on this neglected topic.

[6]  Moving on to Jonson studies, we have Grace Ioppolo’s excellent essay on ‘The Monckton-Milnes Manuscript and the “Truest” Version of Ben Jonson’s “A Satyricall Shrubb”’ (117-131). Ioppolo examines the Monckton-Milnes manuscript — a collection that includes a wealth of early modern poetry by writers including Jonson, Donne, and Shakespeare — in terms of the manuscript’s revelation of lines potentially cut from the printed texts of Jonson’s ‘Shrubb’ in the second folio collection of his 1640 Works. In doing so, the article persuasively reminds readers of a need to view a certain, specific text as, potentially at least, an original version of authorial composition (119). This is a revealing and fascinating subject and should prove most valuable to scholars interested in manuscript circulation, print, histories of the book and textual transmission, as well as to Jonson critics more generally. Furthermore, the article is able to substantiate the authorship of the poem by Jonson and offers a probable reason for the writer’s removal of certain lines that appear in the earlier manuscript.

[7]  Staying with archival work on Jonson (a great strength of this collection) we come to an essay by Jeffrey Kahan entitled ‘“Shakespear wanted Arte”: Questioning the Historical Value of Ben Jonson’s Conversations with Drummond’ (132-147). In this engaging study, Kahan investigates ‘the authenticity of Conversations in order to raise some questions about its presumed historical and literary value’ (134), tracing the complex interactions between the various versions of the work in order to arrive at more stable conclusions about authenticity than have been established previously.

[8]  Further work on Jonson appears in ‘“The Primrose Way to the Everlasting Bonfire”: The Choice of Hercules in Shakespeare, Jonson, and Milton’ (148-167), where John Mulryan argues that the works of the three writers can be linked together in terms of their common literary deployment of the classical figure of Hercules. Mulryan persuasively links numerous Shakespeare plays to the work of Jonson (including Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue) and of Milton (including the masque Comus and Paradise Lost).

[9]  Moving on to pastures new, the collection then offers up an engaging piece by Paul J. Voss. In ‘Catholicism in Print: Tudor Books in the Douay College Museum at St. Edmund’s’ (168-196), Voss points out that analysis of primary printed materials from the early modern period is vital for a clearer, deeper understanding of religious discourse in the period. Indeed, whereas scholars have often highlighted the importance of print to Protestantism in the period, Voss reminds us that Catholicism, too, placed great emphasis on printed matter as it tried to maintain a foothold in Tudor England’s social, cultural, and religious landscape. Voss surveys the particularly rich collection of such materials at the museum, and highlights his important point with intelligent discussion of many of the books there.

[10]  The next, Shakespearean, section of this special issue begins with Richard Harp on the Bard. In his ‘Proverbs, Philosophy, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and King Lear‘ (197-215), Harp assesses the two dramatic works in terms of ‘the philosophical context of proverbial wisdom’, whilst also analysing ‘proverbs’ contribution to the thematic and philosophical issues’ of Venice and Lear (197-198). In doing so, he goes back to the grammar school education of a Renaissance playwright, where a writer like Shakespeare would have learnt the proverbs of the classical past, and then reads the two plays alongside this formative educational process. In ‘Othello’s Tragedy and Uncommon Law’ (216-247), Cyndia Susan Clegg reviews previous critical work on the play and offers readers the compelling idea that ‘[s]uch vilification of the racial other poses a difficulty […] in understanding Othello as a tragedy because it inevitably and necessarily imposes upon the play’s action a discourse of corruption and degeneration’ (218). Thus Clegg examines ‘how Renaissance books on Africa and the Islamic world represented categories of religion, ethnicity, and national origins … [and so] suggest how Shakespeare’s audience might have responded to the Moor of Venice as a tragic figure’ (219). An array of early modern writing on the broad topic of Renaissance views on exoticism is analysed next to the play, with many thought-provoking points raised by this intelligent and persuasive essay.

[11]  Remaining with scholarship that privileges an engagement with primary materials, in ‘Eloquence Repaired: Thomas Wilson’s New Myth of the Origin and Nature of Oratory’ (248-265), Scott F. Crider makes the point that it is worth retracing the religious connotations present in Wilson’s The Art of Rhetoric in order to fully assess his work (266). A revaluation of the sacred dimension of the work provides a basis for future work on major Renaissance writers, as Crider traces the merging of ‘Ciceronian and Christian’ discourses (254).

[12]  The final two essays in this collection return to Shakespeare. In ‘Meter and Meaning in Shakespeare’ (266-280), Tom Clayton displays impressive linguistic and stylistic talent in arguing for a heightened attention to meter and stress in early modern criticism. Indeed, Clayton writes well when he observes that he has ‘become increasingly impressed by the extent to which Shakespeare’s meter, especially but not only in his dramatic verse, strongly suggests and even determines meaning, if allowed to have its metrical say before interpretation based on lexicon and syntax . … has its turn’ (268). This thesis is then applied very persuasively to Shakespeare by way of George Puttenham, and the essay, like many in this collection, should be commended for the way in which it opens up intriguing new research opportunities for a variety of Renaissance texts.

[13]  The collection concludes with John Channing Briggs’s ‘Romeo and Juliet and the Cure of Souls’ (281-303), which stresses the continuing popularity of the play alongside its literary and dramatic aesthetics in order to remind us of how and why the text evokes such a strong sense of emotion and catharsis in audiences and readers alike. Indeed, as Briggs informs us, the work ‘is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays in its power to elicit our speculation, after the fact, over alternatives to the actual course of the action’ (293). Briggs offers a thoughtful and sensitive reading of the play’s language and thematic concerns as he explores the generic features of tragedy in light of this famous play.

[14]  In conclusion, this special issue is positively brimming with cutting-edge research in a number of related literary and critical specialisations. Of course, a potential problem with this approach is the fact that the collection occasionally appears to lack a strict focus. Yet overall, the dominant theme here is one of combined scholarly excellence in tribute to an exceedingly important voice in Renaissance scholarship.

University College Cork, May 2010

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