Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Nicholas Breton and Early Modern Explorations of the Mind

Nicholas Breton and Early Modern Explorations of the Mind

Douglas Clark

[1]  Nicholas Breton (ca. 1554/5-1626) had a prolific and heterogeneous literary output, spending most of his adult career vying for the patronage of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, though as Conny Loder contends in the only scholarly monograph to analyse the intellectual vitality of Breton’s canon to date, ‘Today, he remains neglected’ (Loder 2014: 9).[1] The presiding factor in this critical neglect seems to stem from the apparently prosaic nature of his writing, despite its generic variety and intellectual scope. Drew Daniel, for instance, comments in his assessment of the correlation between Breton’s poem ‘Of the Four Elements’ and Empedocles’ materialist philosophy that ‘Breton’s curio of justly forgotten verse is helpful because of its very pitch perfect mediocrity’, emphasising the value of its ‘mundane exemplarity’ as a means to understand how a certain strand of classical philosophy percolated through early modern intellectual culture (Daniel 2014: 289). The ostensibly poor quality of Breton’s verse and prose has often occluded the usefulness of Breton’s work as an expedient means by which to deepen our understanding of English Renaissance literature and thought. His work has often been marginalised and even denigrated, yet, his work has begun to be profitably studied for its subject matter.

[2]  Judging from recent scholarship, a prevailing interest still lies in Breton’s writing. His works have been variously cited to substantiate the importance of numerous aspects of early modern culture, ranging from: experiences and representations of the deaf; the invention and manipulation of genres; commendation of geographical exploration; the celebration of cuckoldry; advice manuals to mothers; and the history of penitential verse (Cockayne 2003; Fowler 2003; Fuller 2007; McEachern 2008; Poole 1995; Gazzard 2016). The following essay continues in this tradition of critical reclamation. In the spirit of this special edition, I aim to illustrate the importance of Nicholas Breton’s literary voice by investigating his specific interest in exploring the qualities and inner-construction of the mind in a selection of his verse and prose works. Clarifying Breton’s interest in mapping aspects of the psyche in relation to his literary contemporaries will help to further emphasise the critical utility and value of his work, beyond the aesthetic concerns which have confined his writing to the extremities of the early modern canon. This examination will help to demonstrate how his work modifies or deviates from early modern paradigms of mind and interiority as conceived in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing.

Dreams and the Sorrow of the Mind
[3] Breton’s creative energies often seem to be divided between exploring the mind and its associated functions, and deliberating upon the peculiarities of mental travel into countries ‘unknowne’ (Breton 1597: sig. G1r). Dreams, for instance, frequently function as particularly useful narrative devices for this objective, as witnessed in ‘The Blessed Weeper’ (1601). In this meditative poem, the poetic speaker uses the ghostly vision of Mary to contemplate the constraints put upon the mind to conceive of the interior and exterior world. The speaker caught ‘half in a slumber, and more half a sleepe’ (Breton 1601: sig. D4r, l. 2) describes how the apparition of Mary Magdalene appeared to them in a dream-vision as vehicle to convey her penitential ‘weeping’ (sig. D4r, l. 6). By the conclusion of the forty-nine stanzas of rhyme royal in which the ‘discourse’ of her ‘passions’ are laid out, the speaker suggests that ‘her speech … wisht all women might such VVeepers be’ (sig. F4r, ll. 442-443). Patricia Badir astutely argues that this text demonstrates Breton’s distinctive attempt to depict female forms of mystical spirituality that are rooted in intellectual and ethical virtue, rather than bodily sacrifice. We should, thus, understand the Magdalene figure to be used as a model of self-reflection that taps into the ‘incomprehensibleness of spiritual experience’ (Badir 2009: 115), questioning the constraints placed upon the mind which one must struggle with in order to conceive of the world and the moral self. Bearing witness to the ‘truth’ (Breton 1601: sig. F3v, l. 395) of Mary’s tears, the speaker finds an answer for their initial quandary stated at the beginning of the poem, as they expressed how their ‘troubled senses at a strange debate’ questioned ‘VVhat kind of care should most my spirit keepe’ (sig. D4r, ll. 3-4). The mind, as depicted in this poem, provides succour for the troubled ‘spirit’ and corporeal ‘senses’, acting as a receptacle for this dream-vision of divine intervention. It is able to house the vision of Mary Magdalene, allowing for the poetic speaker to delineate the cathartic truth of penitential grief for himself and his intended audience.

[4] Breton’s ‘The Blessed Weeper’ represents an example of early modern penitential verse which is structured upon contemplating the complex operational dynamic between sense experience and mental activity. His work, moreover, subverts normative paradigms of female physicality and sacrifice being depicted as the font of curative spirituality in this strain of Renaissance poetry, although the conclusion of the speaker’s contemplation of sorrow and its purifying effects does intimate a rather prescriptive use of female grief – ‘all women’ are encouraged to cultivate their minds to follow Magdalene’s example of being paragons of spiritual and physical purity. Critics have drawn parallels between Breton’s writing and that of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, largely because of Breton’s proclivity for depictions of despondency and weeping in his penitential verse (Kuchar 2008; Sweeney 2006). Comparing the ‘plain’ style of poetry that Southwell and Breton represent, Sweeney describes Breton’s ‘O wretched wight’ poem within The Workes of a Young Wyt (1577) as a complaint which relies on the ‘Petrarchan foregrounding of the body and the effects of emotion’ to situate its poetic ‘action’, lingering on the function of the mind as merely an allegorical aesthetic backdrop to structure his moralistic verse (Sweeney 2006: 186). This particular poem, alongside the mental landscapes elucidated upon in A Floorish upon Fancie and The Toyes of an Idle Head (1577), are proposed to typify Breton’s cultivation of mental schematics within his writing:

When he does turn to the inner landscape of the mind he places it in the dream-world … Breton uses poetic landscape the way the theatre might – a prop against which to present his text, or as emblem, not as a method of eliciting a response which gives him insights into his own psychological state (Sweeney 2006: 186).

To this end, Sweeney proposes that Breton does not share ‘Southwell’s sharper understanding of psychology’ as his poetry often ends in allegorical moralising reminiscent of Tudor morality plays (Sweeney 2006: 188). Breton does, however, continuously reflect on the nature of mental experience through a variety of his poetical works, and the greater implications of psychological inquiry for his own mind and those who might read his poetry. We have seen previously how the dream-vision in ‘A Blessed Weeper’ is used by the speaker as a means to understand and possibly augment their own ‘spirit’ (Breton 1601: sig. D4r) in accordance with female modes of penitential practice. Although Breton does often linger upon the relationship between body and mind as a way to promote an ethical ideal of human virtue, the poetic landscape of the mind that Breton constructs throughout his canon is not facile, or merely subordinate to the concerns of a ‘Petrarchan foregrounding of the body’.

[5] By drawing comparisons between Southwell’s ‘Vale of Tears’ from his collection Moeoniae in 1595 and Breton’s poem, Sweeney proposes that Southwell’s ‘non-generic’ ‘psychologised landscape’ is ‘integral to the narrator’s self’, unlike the landscape of Breton’s Workes of a Young Wyt and A Floorish Upon Fancie: ‘it [Southwell’s landscape] is created by the narrator’s interior experience, not merely for it to be played out upon’ (Sweeney 2006: 186). Identifying Breton’s ‘O wretched wight’ poem within Workes of a Young Wyt as a ‘version’ of Southwell’s ‘vale of tears’ (Sweeney 2006: 186) which concentrates on erotic betrayal rather than spiritual grief, Sweeney highlights how Breton’s poetic speaker converts the sorrow he feels over the actions of his cruel mistress into ‘musicke’ through the percussive beating of his ‘breste, / And sobbing sighes, which yeelde a heauy sounde’ (Breton 1577: sig. D1r). The poetic environment that Breton cultivates through this piece serves to place focus upon the physicality of the wight’s body, rather than his mind in Sweeney’s estimation. Yet if we continue through this larger work we will find the image of a ‘wight’ (this time being described as ‘wofull’ and ‘in pitious plight’) being used for the specific purpose of providing an insight into the poetic speaker’s own psychological state (Breton 1577: sig. E4v).

[6] The descriptor of ‘woeful wight’ is later used to portray a man within a portion of the poetic speaker’s own dream-vision in Workes of a Young Wyt – a man who is ‘driuvn by destinie’ to wander the ‘luckless land’ of the speaker’s mind (Breton 1577: sig. E4v-F1r). He can, in Breton’s terms, find no ‘comfort’ ‘nor sparke of joy, to cheere the mourning mynde’ (sig. F1r). Engaging this pitiable man in conversation, the speaker reflects that ‘his words more halfe amazed in minde’ stimulated ‘more inward griefe, then now I can descrie’ (sig. F1r). This encounter leads the psychological journey to reach its conclusion, as the speaker descends into a cave beneath ‘hard happe hill’ (sig. F4r) to hear the laments of the ‘ghost’ like figure of ‘Care’ (sig. G1r) and the other ‘sundry sorrowes’ (sig. G1v) of those who reside in the ‘dungeon of despair’ (sig. G2r). The speaker’s vision is ended by the collective ‘shriking’ of the unfortunate souls who are led to enter a mysterious chamber inside the dungeon (sig. G2r). Started from his slumber by this noise, the speaker hopes that God ‘send us all the ioyes of heaven at last’ once ‘worldy woes are past’ (sig. G2r). Instead of concluding decisively by eliciting ‘cheering communal prayer’ (Sweeney 2006: 188), the rather chilling experience of the speaker’s dream-narrative shifts onto a poetic episode where the speaker is forced by his ‘Muse’ to write ‘madly’ in ‘remembrance’ of his ‘passion’ for ‘the delicate ladie’ he espied within a ‘garden’ in a previous moment of his waking-life (Breton 1577: sig. G2v). The pain that Breton’s poetic persona feels over both spiritual grief and sexual desire never deserts him – it is continually stimulated and exacerbated either by the cultivation of melancholy within his own mind, or by the intervention of his poetic muse throughout the work as a whole. This persona is thus left in almost complete subservience to internal sorrow and external inspiration. In this way, to augment Sweeney’s proposition, the psychic trauma and mental landscapes portrayed in Breton’s Workes of a Young Wyt are created and cultivated both by the narrator’s interior experience, and through the mind’s active relationship to sense experience, memory, and the whims of a cruel muse. This creative dynamic allows Breton’s poetic speaker to provide a more robust poetic commentary on the nature of mental phenomena and how the landscape of the psyche is developed in harmony with emotional affect.

[7] The figuration of mental landscapes proves to be a vitally important tool for how Breton wishes this particular text to be interpreted as a product in the early modern marketplace. As he notes in the primordium to Workes of a Young Wyt, this collection ostensibly marks his inaugural foray into the world of published poetry: ‘this is first tyme I have stird my brayne’ (Breton 1577: sig. A3r). Envisioning potential readers of his poem as consumers of an aesthetic product, sampling and judging his verse as one would taste ‘Cheese’ or ‘meat’ (sig. A2r), Breton encourages his reader to account for his ‘braine’ as ‘a new digd ground, / My rimes wild Oates, which every where abound’ (sig. A4r). Whether the reader judges that ‘it is bald rhyme, not worth the reading’ or that ‘it is good enough to reade, when a man hath nothing els to doo’ (sig. A2r-A2v), Breton wishes his reader ‘well’ (sig. A2v). Regardless of their reaction to this particular text, the poet hopes that his future labours will ‘prouide you some other newe ware for your olde golde’ (sig. A2v). He conveys an understanding of his book’s role within the early modern market place and its relationship to earlier forms of versification.

[8] Breton, in this preface, demonstrates a witty understanding of his own value as a commercial poet, as well as being sympathetic of the thoughts which are stimulated in the minds of the browsing readers in the bookstalls of St. Paul’s – he ‘imagines his verse thumbed through, sniffed at, and criticized’ (Harrison 2014, 245-46), in addition to considering what the contents of his own ‘brayne’ signify. The commonplace rhetorical topos of poetic humility which prefigures Workes of a Young Wyt explicitly foregrounds the importance of organic landscapes as they and the speaker’s verse develop through the collection as a whole. We are made repeatedly aware of how crucial the conveyance of interior, mental experience is to the progress of the speaker’s voyage through their mind, in addition to how we understand and judge the work as an aesthetic accomplishment: whether ‘it is prety poetrie’ or ‘mean stuffe’ (Breton 1577: sig. A2r). The creation of mental landscapes are, therefore, integral to the development of the narrative in Workes of a Young Wyt – the piece as a whole is framed by the sustained conceit of the brain as arable land which may produce poetic fruit or grain. This image of organic potency within the poet’s pastoral mental world (one which is just about to bloom) prefigures the succeeding cornucopia of verse works, providing justification of the poet’s creative capabilities.

[9] Reflecting on the mind’s constitution and the exploration of its interior landscape pervades a large breadth of Breton’s works. One of his later works, Strange News out of Divers Countries (1622), portrays itself as a found narrative, divulging to the reader ‘strange matters’ from ‘a strange land’ whose ‘strange people’ worship Nature as a ‘goddesse’ (Breton 1622: sig. A3r-A3v). The narrator opens the piece by providing a brief exposition on the qualities of this country (the language, religion, dress, and social formalities adhered to). This opening serves to introduce the discovery of a cache of travel writing from one of this ‘strange’ country’s own inhabitants – a fool of the population’s ‘owne chusing’ (sig. B2r). The fool’s papers and books expound upon the natural topography of his own land as well as some locations which still remain ‘unknowne’ to its own inhabitants (sig. C1v). This fantastical travel narrative reaches its conclusion with the speaker noting, upon this fool’s death, how he entered the inner chamber of the fool’s library and delved to the bottom of his ‘olde chest’ (sig. C4v) to find a number of dreams that the deceased had set down in poesy. This epistolary voyage is, then, only complete once the tour of a foreign wit’s pastoral dreamscapes has been presented to the reader.

[10] We are made aware that the fool’s poetry which ‘fitted the humour of his noddle pate’ is ‘left for a Legacie to his cousins Loblollies’ (Breton 1622: sig. C4v). This seemingly absurd poetic legacy is realised in the recital of eleven contemplative verse fables written in iambic heptameter. Each poem features the interaction between two types of different animals (for example, a monkey and bee), and although the fool’s sleep is punctuated by ‘laughing at the sport’ that a duck and goose make (sig. D2r, l. 18), or is perturbed by the ‘musicke’ (sig. D3r, l. 11) that a peacock and an ass create in unison, no particular conclusion or moral judgement is made by the fool himself upon these episodic dreams. Only at the end of the poetic sequence, after forests, fields, rivers, brooks, and the occasional dunghill have been psychologically traversed, does the fool seem to reflect on the meaning of his dreams via the death of ‘a great wilde Bore’ (sig. D3r, l. 1) at the hands of ‘Huntsmen’ (sig. D3r, l. 14) and their ‘mastiues’ (sig. D3r, l. 16): ‘Wherewith I wakt, and marueld what this kind of hunting meant’ (sig. D3r, l. 18). The fool’s thoughts on this matter are, however, left without comment.

[11] Attempting to provide a rationale for the implicit meaning of this dream sequence may, at first, be rather problematic. As Garrett Sullivan observes, sleep and dreaming in this period were often equated with both the binding of the senses and the overindulgence of them:

In the case of sleep-as-sensory binding, reason is literally disabled as the body slumbers; in that of sleep-as-sensory-overindulgence, reason fails to assert authority over a body whose intemperance manifests itself during both sleep and waking. (Sullivan 2012: 18)

Such scenarios may be illustrated in the prophetic, passionate, and supernatural dreaming of Philisides and Gynecia in Books two and three of Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia, in addition to the ‘dreame of loues and lustful play’ (I.1.47.4) which leaves the Redcrosse Knight ‘straight benumbd and starke’ (I.1.44.5) and the ‘wastefull luxuree’ (II.12.80.8) of Verdant’s eroticised slumber in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Adhering largely to a classical Platonic notion of ‘wild’, ‘unruly’, and ‘lawless’ (trans. Waterfield 1993: 571c and 572a) pleasures being roused from the particular material qualities and moral disposition of a person in sleep, the actions of these dreamers to their dreams would seem to justify Sullivan’s proposition that ‘sleep is a time where the operations of reason are suspended’ (Sullivan 2012: 51) marking the limit of one’s ability to control the power of the appetites or passions.

[12] The threat of ungoverned passions and the formation of portentous dreams of personal and political significance that pervade Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are, however, amiss in many of Breton’s works which employ dreams as narrative devices, especially in Strange News. Nor do they conform to the predictive dreams that early modern dream theorists such as Julius Caesar Scalinger explicate while examining the Aristotelian tradition of dream interpretation in his 1533 work New Epigrams (Haugen 2007, 820-21). Neither do they adhere to the divine or politically portentous dreams which Thomas Hill explores in The Most Pleasant Art of the Interpretation of Dreams (1571). More exactly, Breton’s Strange News out of Divers Countries culminates in a series of episodic dream-poems which linger on the frequently violent relationship between beasts and animals, without providing the moral maxims or axiomatic statements often expected from the fable genre. The foolish poetic dreamer is always at an advantageous position to be entertained or titillated from the frequently violent interaction between the animals, avoiding any psychic harm from the episodes; he merely views, rather than interacts.

[13] Although these dreams lack any divine import, they are not merely fanciful or nonsensical in nature – these fictive dreams may be interpreted as oblique, satirical commentaries on the iniquitous nature of human relationships. For instance, ‘A Dreame of a Chough, a Pie, and a Parot’ details the dangers of sartorial extravagance via a roguish parrot who is equated to one who gulls ‘giddie heads’ to ‘sell their lands’ (Breton 1622: sig. D1v, l. 18); whereas the ‘A Dreame of A Swan and a Goose’ seems to emphasise the consequences of both marital impropriety and the transgression of class boundaries through a tale of an adulterous Swan. The sequence ultimately seems to be bound together through the reiterated topoi of retributive violence enacted upon or by each individual group of animals mentioned, as well as the schadenfreude that the fool derives from these creations of his mind. Instead of being shown a developing mental landscape which expands as the poetic protagonist thinks, reflects, and journeys onwards through their own mind, the reader’s passage through Strange News is gradually funnelled through successively narrower architectural confines. It begins with a consideration of the quality of this reportedly strange land, to then delineate the fool’s abode, library, and then finally his chest as a means to understand the ‘humour of his noddle pate’ (sig. C4v) through an analysis of his dreams. Its narrative arc is directed towards introspective obscurity, rather than on an illuminating expansion on the quality of mental experience. Moreover, unlike ‘The Blessed Weeper’ and Workes of a Young Wyt, the dreams of Strange News are utilized in misanthropic fashion, rather than being deployed for morally virtuous purposes.

[14] The topics of mind-travel, dreaming, and personal introspection are fundamental to Breton’s writing, and these features, as witnessed in Strange News, often converge in rather peculiar ways. A Floorish upon Fancie and The Toyes of an Idle Head (1577) centres upon depicting another voyage into the poet’s mind itself. The narrative thrust of this piece is directed toward analysing the unknown qualities of the human psyche. Like ‘The Blessed Weeper’, A Floorish upon Fancie is didactic in method, though instead of instructing women readers to be pious and penitent in their lives, A Floorish upon Fancie wishes to instruct ‘young gallant youthes’ who are ‘rather addicted to trauaile through the world’ to direct their minds along a path of wisdom so they may attain ‘perfect Paradise’ (Breton 1577: sig. A2r). It details how they should take some time to ‘sit at home’ in order to attain ‘wisdome’, instead of looking to travel the world for their ‘owne advancement’ (sig. A2r). By providing a cautionary tale of his own inadvertent adventure into the realm of poetic creation (Fancie), the narrator attempts to persuade any potential reader to employ their reason if they plan to voyage around the world in order to attain ‘the fort of fame’ (sig. A3v).

[15] The poetic speaker prefigures his tale by describing how any potential student of the text may interpret ‘eche point’ contained within it, in addition to the narrative itself, as being inspired by one of the ‘maisters’ of poetic art – ‘fancy’ (Breton 1577: sig. B1r). Taking this intermediary role between master and student, the speaker conveys how the content of the text should adhere to what is expected from its title (‘The Schoole of Fancie’), otherwise, as he suggests, his ‘minde from reason greatly swerues’ (sig. B1r). Breton uses poulter’s measure, alongside a jocular instructive tone, to convey the subsequent treacherous and lugubrious meanderings the speaker has had to take through his own psyche – travelling to and exploring ‘school of fancie’ (sig. B1r) to then journey over ‘Harebraine Hyll’ by the thicket of ‘wild and wanton will’, past the ‘Lodge of luckelesse Loue’ to ‘the Fort of Fancie’ (sig. B5r), where he eventually meets Fancie’s servants, her fool, and the queen who presides over the injurious part of his mind. This journey into the psyche is constructed to highlight how indulging in one’s own creative fancy and ‘wordly vanitie’ (sig. C3v) will result in the destitution of the mental faculties as well as the financial poverty of any aspiring gallant or writer. Instead, seeking ‘perfect pietie’ (sig. C3v) should be the goal of any ‘younge gentilmen’ (sig. A2r) who might read this text.

[16] Much of the poetic ‘art’ (sig. B1r) of the poem and the succeeding section of the book, Toyes of an Idle Head, adheres to this densely alliterative alternation between fourteeners and alexandrines. It is unsurprising that at this early stage of Breton’s career that his verse forms seem to draw upon, in Brennan’s terms, the ‘outdated style of versifying’ of his stepfather, George Gascoigne which is ‘heavily dependent upon laboured alliterative effects and narrative prose links between poems’ (Brennan 2004). The alliterative and assonantal traits of the poulter’s measure that Breton utilizes may be indeed associated with older forms of literary artifice from sixteenth-century English psalm tradition, of which Gascoigne was an integral part (Hamlin 2004: 116). The possible mnemonic benefit of his highly alliterative verse form for those wishing to learn from this cautionary tale would seem to complement the work’s morally didactic function, but the metrical form of this text is not simply a sign of archaism: it represents a popular, if common, facet of Tudor poetic aesthetics (Munro 2013, 118-19). While Henry Howard’s ‘Psalm 55’ of 1547 is noted as one of the earliest instances of this verse form being employed in English, the contributors to Songes and Sonettes or Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) regularly utilize poulter’s measure (Hollander 1988: 170; Warner 2013: 121). Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney also employ this form for the first time in the Shepherd’s Calendar (1579) and ‘old’ Arcadia (1580). Through this popular verse form, Breton explicitly denigrates his own poetic powers, questioning the efficacy of his own verse to instruct and delight. On the other hand, A Floorish Upon Fancie’s rhetorical framework, which is indebted to his reluctant and injurious relationship to his poetic muse of fancy, may implicitly highlight the deleterious effects that his creative relationship to Gascoigne has had on his verse. Nevertheless, A Floorish Upon Fancie’s on-trend aesthetic form and its unique dedication to exploring the topography and nature of the psyche in verse for the benefit of those who would read and study its content, should be understood as a notable part of the flurry of poetic innovations within the mid to late sixteenth century.

[17] A similar instructive purpose informs Breton’s later heterogeneous collection of poetry and prose, The Wil of Wit (1597). Where The Wil of Wit may lack the descriptive richness attributed to the pastoral landscapes in Strange News out of Divers Countries, or the architecture of the mind portrayed in A Floorish upon Fancie, its prolonged examination of the psyche and the internal faculties does provide another intriguing and important example of Breton’s interest in the human mind.

Navigating the Mind in The Wil of Wit

We must probe right down inside and find out what principles make things move; but since this is a deep and chancy undertaking, I would that fewer people would concern themselves with it (Montaigne 2008: 380)

[18] Contrary to Montaigne’s (ironical) wish that fewer people would concern themselves with investigating the nature of volition, concepts of the will were abundantly used to help conceive of, and subvert, models of psychic and moral order in early modern England.[2] Our mental life, according to Thomas Wright in The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1621), should be directed towards eradicating sin – we must ‘chasten’ our body in order to ‘bring it into servitude’, but to do so we must first understand how our passions may corrupt our souls (Wright 1621: 5). Wright directs the reader to consider how every person may know ‘the nature of his enemies, their stratagems, and continuall incursions, even unto the gates of the chiefest castell of his soule, I meane the very witte and will’ (5). In this exploration of the potential attacks upon the ‘castell of the soul … the very witte and will’, we are invited to contemplate the body as the soul’s repository, and the soul as a unified object. Wright proposes a conception of the soul based upon an architectural metaphor (this ‘castell’) which suggests order, hierarchy and structural integrity. Our wit and the will are seen as the figureheads of this order, however the characteristics that Wright ascribes to the will actually serve to undermine the integrity of the soul’s proposed constitution.

[19] Wright’s largely Augustinian reading of the will proposes that it should both govern and be governed in order to protect the soul from the molestation of inordinate passions, that our will should play a crucial role in the moral temperance of the self, and that the will should impose authority and order in the subject even though it is vulnerable to external influence and is prone to be misled. The will is deemed to be equally powerful and vulnerable in such a state. The dialogue between Will and Wit in Breton’s The Wil of Wit thus provides a telling imaginative example of the period’s concern with trying to theorize and represent the higher faculties of the mind. Reflecting on the necessitous function that the faculty of the will takes in the individual is vital for Breton’s work – it is not simply eradicated from the moral subject, or typified as a fatal component of its internal constitution as we witness through a similar, albeit fleeting, dialogue in Philip Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia:

R.           Your will is will; but Reason reason is.
P.           Will hath his will when Reason’s will doth miss.
R.           Whom Passion leads unto his death is bent.
(OA, Book II, ‘The Second Eclogues’, 119).

The reconciliation portrayed between Reason and Passion in the Arcadia conveys how ‘the rational faculties as equal to the passions’ and that ‘the two are in constant need of each other’ (Steenbergh 2009: 184). Control over the will is vital to operational harmony and peace between these personified faculties of the self. The power that the will has to determine the fate of the individual is similarly accentuated in The Wil of Wit, though it is not so quickly or easily achieved in Breton’s work; the chivalric romance, bucolic detail, and swift reconciliation which underpins the dialogue between the shepherds of Reason and Passion is missing from the Wil of Wit. Even within Breton’s attempt to explicate through a prolonged dialogue between Will and Wit, it still remains unclear whether the intellect or the will is to govern the ethical telos of the human subject.

[20] The Wil of Wit, Wits Will, or Wils Wit is comprised primarily of six discrete discourses.[3] The work as a whole is unified by a common advocacy of moral temperance, conveying this message by emphasising the importance of companionship for the human subject to achieve ethical purity. It depicts the turbulent relationship of the human subject’s internal faculties in a mode reminiscent of Tudor Interludes such as Wealth and Health (1557), The Marriage of Wit and Science (1570) and The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom (1579), though rather than offering a relatively crowded and comical psychomachia which is grounded upon promoting a humanist ethical ideal, The Wil of Wit features only two internal faculties to further its own sustained and detailed reflection upon the nature of the individual’s mind. This exploration of the human subject’s psyche relies upon the notion of self-voyage, but unlike Floorish upon Fancie, it depicts a world almost completely devoid of detail or setting. Sole focus is placed upon the operative relationship of the wit and will of the human subject which, in turn, leads to the discovery of how they constitute and are constituted by mental space. Their subsequent exploration of the mind fittingly troubles the coherence of its organisational structure. As Breton pronounces in the introductory poem to the work as a whole, Wit and Will’s work is to be ‘agreede’ for the proof of ‘good Bretons will’ (Breton 1597: sig. A4r): these two powers must operate together for the benefit of the human individual so as to provide a lesson on temperance and equality that the reader should come to understand in Wit and Will’s ensuing discussion. Their relationship, delineated for the reader through an in utramque partum dialogic mode, is in fact characterised in Breton’s text by ambiguity instead of operational unity.

[21] We are introduced to the structure of Wit and Will’s inner-world initially through Will’s opening lament, where he reflects on the condition of his own psyche without his companion, Wit:

Longe have I travelled, much ground have I gone … Oh my wit, I am from my Wit, and haue beene long. Alas the day. I haue bin almost madde, with marching through the world, without my good guide, my freende, and Companion, my Brother, yea, my selfe. Alas, where is hee? When shall I see him? How shall I seeke him, and whither shall I walke? I was too soone wearie of him, and am now weary of my selfe without him. (Breton 1597: sig. B1r)

Will laments the absence of Wit since the only sense of self Will can envision at this juncture is one that involves his companion, his ‘guide’. Being reunited with Wit would provide a remedy for the misery Will feels in this state of functional suspension, yet, the emptiness Will feels only occurs because of his decision to follow a path without the aid of his Wit. Will recognises this deficiency in his allegorical constitution when he acknowledges that his own ‘wit’ suffers from the disconnection from his brother ‘Wit’, leading Will to question his own sense of purpose.

[22] Fortunately, Will soon finds Wit, and they proceed to engage in a conversation which details how they came to be separated at the ‘Well of Wisdome’ (Breton 1597: sig. B2r), and how Will was saved from the ‘Ditch of Despair’ within a ‘wilderness of woe’ by the aged character, Experience (sig. B2r). Journeying alone, Will only managed to venture down a ‘straye pathe’ (sig. B2v) – the character of Experience eventually leads Will to recognise the folly in his actions and entreats Will to seek Wit out. By reuniting, Wit and Will may reach their ultimate and rather abstract goal of ‘paradise’ (sig. B3r), but what they would do afterwards or how they would achieve their reconnection is left unaccounted for by Experience and Will alike. If we are supposed to use this discourse to help us reflect upon the intended temperance of our own wisdom and desire, the obscure correlation between these two characters of Wit and Will does not help matters. We do, fortunately, receive a more rounded account of what this paradise entails when Wit explains to Will how he was separated from his kin.

[23] Wit mentions that they had both been travelling from ‘Fancie’s Forte’ but had parted from Will in the ‘Lane of Learning’, and had subsequently tried to reach the ‘Fort of Fame’ (Breton 1597: sig. B3v). In this respect, The Wil of Wit may stand as a development of the mental journey that had been undertaken twenty years previously by the speaker of A Floorish Upon Fancie, where the speaker describes the structure of ‘the fort of fame’ (Breton 1577: sig. A3v) as well as the mental anguish he suffered in his journey to this destination. Attaining true wisdom and fame are still deemed to be positive objectives in The Wil of Wit, as well as being loci which cannot be achieved by the sole power of one’s wit. Even though Wit actively explored and revelled in an idyllic region of the mental world while lost, he was still greatly affected by Will’s absence: ‘Oh, there was a place of pleasure: if in the world there bee a Paradize, that was it: Oh that thou haddest beene with mee’ (Breton 1597: sig. B4r). In spite of Will previously describing his need of Wit to achieve Paradise, it seems that Wit had apparently found it by himself without the aid of Will at all (albeit he wishes that his brother were there to experience it with him). Although this would imply that Wit would be able to achieve bliss without Will, Wit is extremely perturbed by this situation and does not enjoy paradise for what it should be, suggesting that paradise for these two faculties can only be achieved when both Wit and Will work in harmony.

[24] By the conclusion of this lengthy dialogue, Will argues that the blame for their separation lies in Wit’s hands: ‘wil had beene good, had not wit beene bad: wil had not lost wit, had wit lookt vnto him: Wil would doo well, if wit woulde doo better: wil woulde learne, if wit woulde teache him (Breton 1597: sig. C2v). In these somewhat deferential sentiments, Will manages to consolidate the rift between himself and Wit. Both Wit and Will agree that their companionship must be upheld for both their sakes, mutually deciding to ‘bee merrie, shake hands, sweare company, and neuer part’ (sig. C2v). A final resolution is then made to seek out the aid of Care, in order to comfort the worst of woes: ‘the griefe of minde’ (sig. C4r). It would seem, then, that Wit and Will may facilitate each other’s happiness through due care and attention to each other.

The Will of Wit: The Subject Split
[25] Breton resolves this fittingly obtuse dialogue by illustrating how Wit and Will agree to work towards attaining virtue, encouraging the reader to work towards the ‘profit of themselves, and good example to others’ (Breton 1597: sig. D1v). Their final declaration is given to the reader (by Will) as follows: ‘From our heart … ingenii voluntas’ (sig. D1v). Ingenii voluntas: wit’s will, or the will of wit. The genitive case of the Latin noun ingenium (meaning the natural capacity of intelligence, or wit), here, shapes the syntax of the parting phrase. This sense of possession implied by the phrase’s syntax seems to eradicate the invitation given to the reader in the title of the text to ‘chuse you whether’. Indeed, the choice for the reader to determine which faculty is the possessor and which is the possessed informs the whole of the discourse, yet this opportunity for personal choice or judgement that is presented to the reader seems to be set at odds with the underlying didactic purpose of the work: Will is supposed to agree to obey Wit in order to achieve the good. It would seem that Will is in fact Wit’s possession after all, though no evidence is given to the faculties’ actual collaboration in the text, apart from this final agreement to collaborate. Their estrangement, as highlighted at the beginning of the discourse, is thus left relatively unresolved.

[26] Achieving the good is supposedly the Wit and Will’s primary goal, but the chief problem of Breton’s work is found in the attempt to represent the ‘will’ as a faculty of the human subject. Wit’s interrogation of Will’s parentage and reason for being only yields the fact that Will seeks ‘Content, by hooke or crooke’ because ‘the fates appoint it so’ (Breton 1597: sig. C3r). He lacks the ability to reflect on and justify his nature to Wit. Due to this failure of self-knowledge, Will professes to Wit: ‘Oh Lord that Will were wise’ (sig. C3r). Will, thus, only has a vague conception of why he exists, and only finds refuge in the realm of man’s mind once he agrees to follow Wit into his ‘closet of conceit’ (sig. D1v). They would then exist inside man’s mind within the sub-structure of Wit’s own personal space (his closet), but this only comes to be once Wit has convinced Will to stay with him. Will apparently has no natural home other than man’s mind in general. Further to this, both faculties are said to have come into existence through the power of their own dreams, even though they recognise that these dreams are ones that mankind has facilitated: Wit and Will were apparently in a state of dreamlike contemplation of their own existence until they ‘did awake with the fall’ (sig. C2r). The mind then houses Wit and Will, yet it is also depicted as a space in which these mental faculties may lose themselves within, and are generated from.

[27] Will’s pre- and post-lapsarian actions are made distinct from the wild and lawless nature of human dreaming as Plato outlines in The Republic. Their actions also diverge from the depiction of the ‘wild and wanton will’ found past the ‘Lodge of luckelesse Loue’ near the ‘Fort of Fancie’ (Breton 1577: sig. B5r) as previously depicted in A Floorish upon Fancie (1577). Instead of emphasising its ability to stimulate morally transgressive behaviour, Breton chooses to focus on Will’s apparent lack of reason as his primary negative attribute, even though Will displays enough acuity of mind to reprimand Wit extolling exceedingly banal adages like ‘Faint hart neuer woon faire Lady’ (Breton 1597: sig. C3v). Will states that such sentiments caused him to wander from Wit’s council in the first place. Wit’s predilection for romantic notions ironically proves him to have the more ‘rude will’ (Shakespeare 2012 [1597]: 2.3.24), in Friar Lawrence’s terms, than Will himself. This depiction of the will’s lack of connection to excessive or transgressive eroticism also subverts the normative depiction of this internal faculty as highlighted in a vast array of dramatic, poetic, and philosophical writing in the early modern period, as I have argued elsewhere (Clark 2016). Taking Will’s advice on board, Wit professes that he will aim to avoid such romantic sentiments: ‘Wee wil to Care, and intreate him, to lend vs his helpe, for without him in deede we shall make an ilfauoured ende’ (Breton 1597: sig. C4r). Although Will’s own operational lack is promoted throughout this discourse, his moral purity and use of reason is deemed to be crucial for his eventual alliance with Wit.

[28] If we read this discourse as promoting that the will desires the good to the extent to which the intellect offers it, Breton may be arguing that our own operations should be governed by the Wit. But how can the Wit operate without the will, as the opening of this discourse suggests: ‘what is Wit, without good will’? (Breton 1597: sig. A4r). The conclusion of the narrative and the didactic imperative of its opening are set at odds with the freedom of choice that the title of the piece suggests. Breton’s work also seems to propose that the good can only be achieved through harnessing the power of the will. Governing the human faculty of the will seems to be in the capacity of an individual’s wit, but it is the character of Will who assents to the terms that Wit offers in Breton’s work. Finding the will and harnessing it for the good is, crucially, only achieved by a will that is willing to be ruled by our intelligence, but this goal is put in jeopardy because of the inherently wayward nature of the will itself.

[29] The will, in this respect, is depicted as a part of the psyche which is vital to the formation of selfhood but is somewhat of a wandering vagrant in the mind or soul of the individual. Breton’s work also credits the wit and the will with governing the telos of our being, though there is deemed to be a tension between these faculties when working towards this virtuous end. Even if the human subject is judged not to have the power to achieve summum bonum without external aid (for example, God’s grace), the necessity of the will in directing the human agent towards a good and noble end is constantly stressed. We are presented, then, by The Wil of Wit with a segment of the psyche which is hypostatised in order to properly define its function, yet the will is placed in a position where its natural function, its wilfulness, must be negated or compromised for its ‘proper’ function as part of the virtuous self to be exercised. Thus, in his imaginative exploration of the psyche and its inner-workings, Breton conceives of the mind as a space which may generate its own disorder, and may only find purpose through the chance collaboration of a witless Wit, and an innocent and obedient Will.

Nicholas Breton: Psychonaut
[30]  Taking stock of Breton’s intricate and involved exploration of the mind and its workings, as suggested at the beginning of this article, may allow us to reconsider the value of his writing, especially when placed alongside other imaginative early modern literature which centres upon portraying figurations of mental space. What I have attempted to clarify is Breton’s interest in depicting the complexities of the human psyche in a variety of generic forms – ones which do not simply assume an overly erotic or soteriological discursive function, unlike the popular depiction of faculty psychology in early modern moral philosophy. His negotiation of the mind and its topography does not seem, in the examples given, to coalesce with the amatory poetic inflection of the mind’s spatial construction, as witnessed, for example, in Spenser’s Amoretti (1595): ‘Her temple fayre is built within my mind, / In which her glorious ymage placed is’ (Sonnet 22, ll. 4-7). Breton does not solely harness fashionable ideals of Platonic beauty and love to construct and shape the landscape of the mind, and his use of dreams also often lacks the erotic inflection usually associated with their literary deployment in the period. Rather, such fictive dream-visions, as discussed, may be used as narrative devices which serve a rhetorical function of self-deprecation, as well as a means to provide oblique satirical commentaries upon contemporaneous trends in courtly fashions and etiquette. Moreover, as opposed to constructing narratives which comment upon the general state of the mind, evidenced within Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall and a plethora of other early modern moral and natural philosophy, works like A Floorish upon Fancie and The Wil of Wit offer comprehensive and sustained accounts of Breton’s own idiosyncratic imagined construction of the mind and its intriguing topographies. We must take seriously the conception and intricate depiction of mental loci found throughout his canon if we are to fully appreciate the diverse depiction of inner experience in the early modern literary tradition. Aligning Breton’s writing with contemporary work on cognitive ecologies may be helpful to pursue this objective.

[31] A wide range of concepts, theories, and critical practices have sprung up from or have been aligned with the study of literature and the mind in recent years, such as philosophies of mind, cognitive studies, embodied cognition, and the concept of psychogeography. Although these critical approaches may not be entirely applicable to the texts discussed in this article, they do provide a helpful theoretical framework to understand Breton’s writing. The argument contained in David McInnis’ study Mind-Travelling and Voyage Drama in Early Modern England is particularly useful if we are to more fully define the discursive strategies of Breton’s work. Building on the use of distributed cognition theory which features in the work of Evelyn B. Tribble, John Sutton, and Bruce McConachie, McInnis suggests that ‘the early modern stage was a technologically advanced machine for imaginative travel’ that offered people a pleasurable ‘psycho-physiological experience of distant lands without leaving their home’ (McInnis 2013: 3 and 20).[4] Here, McInnis devises of the notion of ‘mind-travel’ to explain how the early modern theatre provided the pleasures and moral risks of ‘escapist travel’ (121) for its spectators. In a similar vein, Andrew Bozio’s work on embodied thought in early modern drama provides a historicized analysis of the theory of ‘cognitive ecology – that the mind is distributed across bodies, objects, and spaces – in order to suggest how drama represents and engages this spatialization of thought’ (Bozio 2015: 265). Redefining these concepts (the ‘spatialization of thought’ and ‘mind-travel’) in relation to the period’s poetry and prose, I suggest, may advance our understanding of the intellectual practices of the period, especially in relation to writers like Breton. Where McInnis uses ‘mind-travel’ expression to depict a kind of mental exercise, enabled by the voyeuristic nature of early modern theatre which leads to shaping the lived experience of pleasure within the human audience member, I, on the other hand, would propose that we may make good use of word ‘psychonaut’ to distinguish the type of prolonged and deliberate voyage made into the realm of the mind by writers like Breton.

[32] As noted in the OED, the two morphemes ‘psycho’ and ‘naut’ derive from the Greek soul or mind, and voyager or traveller, respectively. However, the current definition of the psychonaut stresses the use of psychotropic drugs to be involved in the potential voyage through the mind: altering an individual’s state of consciousness is crucial for this kind of exploratory voyage to occur. I propose that we give this term a new literary context – one distinct from the kind of correlation that it may potentially have with the literature of the British Romantics, or the Avant-Garde writings of the American and British Beat Generation. The term psychonaut may be appropriately applied to work like Breton’s, as it deals with the detailed exploration of the mind through the narrative devices of private contemplation and dreams without any connection to drug use, or, indeed, any form of extreme or delirious religious experience: a psychonautics fuelled by wit, instead of a chemical or divine hit. I contend that Nicholas Breton is an exemplary psychonaut, and that his oeuvre, as outlined above, reflects upon the nature of the mind by exploring the dynamic relationship between inner, mental experience and the spatialization of thought. Closets, chests, caves, forts, and schools provide material focal points by which to consider the pain, grief, disappointment, and frustration associated with the attempt to quantify the dynamic development of mental processes, when stimulated by sense experience and emotional affect. Breton’s imaginative explorations of the mind’s topography and internal architecture do also simultaneously emphasise the difficulty associated with the conceptualisation of thought. Travelling through the space of the mind ultimately highlights the significance of the illogical or inconceivable facets of the early modern psyche.

[33] ‘The Blessed Weeper’, A Floorish Upon Fancie, The Workes of a Young Wyt, and The Wil of Wit all represent telling examples of Nicholas Breton’s concern with trying to represent the attributes and internal topography of the psyche. This essay has considered Breton’s unique literary depiction of mental experience for the purpose of contributing to and advancing the scholarly understanding of early modern conceptions of mind. I have articulated how we may understand Breton’s literary exploration of the mind in relation to his contemporaries, providing a critical and theoretical framework that should prove useful to advance and further explore the wider cultural importance of his diverse articulation of inner experience and psychology in early modern intellectual culture, so as to help reconfigure the early modern literary landscape.

University of Exeter


[1] Two major attempts have been made to organise Breton’s canon: A. B. Grosart. 1879. The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton. Vol. I and II (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), and Jean Robertson. 1952. Nicholas Breton: Poems not hitherto reprinted. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press). Other notable editions of Breton’s work can be found in U.K. Wright. 1929. A Mad World my Masters and Other Prose Works by Nicholas Breton: Vol. I and II (London: The Cresset Press), and H.E. Rollins. 1936. The Arbour of Amorous Delights by Nicholas Breton and Others, 1597 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). No complete edition of Breton’s canon exists to date. [back to text]

[2] See also “On Restraining Your Will” in Book 3 of the Essays. Other examples include: William Baldwin, A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie (London: 1547); Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford: 1621); Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome: Three Bookes (London: 1608); Haly Heron, A New Discourse of Moral Philosophy (London: 1579); Richard Hooker, Of Lawes Ecclesiastical (London: 1604); Phillipe De Mornay, The True Nature of Man’s Owne Self (London: 1602); Juan Luis Vives, An Introduction to Wisdome (London: 1544).[back to text]

[3] The Wil of Wit forms the opening section of this work. The other parts are: The Authors Dreame; The Scholler and the Souldiour; The Miseries of Mauille; The Praise of Women; A Dialogue between Anger and Patience. [back to text]

[4] See: Bruce McConachie. 2008. Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); John Sutton. 2012. ‘Porous Memory and the Cognitive Life of Things’, in Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press); Evelyn B. Tribble. 2011. Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Palgrave).[back to text]


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