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Chris Stamatakis, Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Rhetoric of Rewriting: ‘Turning the Word’ (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Chris Stamatakis, Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Rhetoric of Rewriting: ‘Turning the Word’. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-19964440-7. XI+263 pp. Hbk. £60.

Reviewed by Will Rossiter

[1]  It may come as a surprise but there have been relatively few monographs dedicated to the study of Wyatt, and the majority of those few were published thirty or more years ago — namely those by Kenneth Muir (1963), Patricia Thomson (1964), Raymond Southall (1964), H.A. Mason (1972) and Richard Harrier (1975). There has of course been a number of important article-length studies, such as those by Joost Daalder, Thomas Greene, Stephen Greenblatt, and more recently Jason Powell and Susan Brigden, but it remains remarkable that Wyatt has not received more lengthy studies. It is not as if his life and work are short of incident. Given this paucity, Chris Stamatakis’s monograph is a welcome addition, and not only welcome but timely, given the forthcoming collected poetry and prose by Powell and Brigden’s soon to be published biography. Indeed, Stamatakis acknowledges the input of both Powell and Brigden, which is no bad thing.

[2]  Stamatakis’s study also illustrates a shift in Wyatt studies away from Greenblatt’s seminal new historicist analysis (in Renaissance Self-Fashioning), which, understandably, led to a spate of less-convincing essays providing a quasi-Foucauldian discussion of Wyatt’s poetry (but not his prose) in relation to inwardness, discourse and panoptic power. The approach of Stamatakis is noticeably more new philological than new historicist, and his study of Wyatt’s textuality — the importance of the material conditions and processes of Wyatt’s poetry and prose relative to our reading and understanding of them — marks a clear return to the archive. As Stamatakis writes in his Prologue, ‘Wyatt’s texts often suggest a self-conscious interest in the vagaries of both written and spoken discourse and in various practices of verbal turning. Indeed, his poetry’s continual interrogation of linguistic meaning, its designed elusiveness of reference, and the manifold transformations and recontextualizations that it undergoes, mean that stable, biographic identifications between the Wyatt who writes and the ‘I’ who speaks become all the more doubtful or fragile’ (3). Wyatt’s output is thus seen to turn (from) its sources, to turn its own meaning over the course of a single text, or between dyadic texts, and be turned by the courtly readership who engaged with it and gave it its afterlife (a form of translation akin to Walter Benjamin’s Überleben).

[3]  However, the archival turn does not entail that more modern theory has no place in this study, far from it. Stamatakis draws directly and indirectly on Saussurean semiotics, Derridean différance, Baudrillard’s (and Iser’s) indeterminacy and a variety of reception theories, all of which are brought into relation with early modern hermeneutics as a means of exploring ‘Wyatt’s paradigm of instant inconstancy and perpetual turning’ (196), and his use of ‘metatextual wordplay’ (194) in order ‘to comment self-referentially on the game of social converse’ (189). Indeed, Stamatakis provides his own hermeneutic framework in his Prologue: ‘Each chapter will align a theme with a particular trope (or verbal ‘turn’) and also with a type of reading, and will substantiate these practices with reference to material textuality’ (35).

[4]  Chapter 1, which explores ‘the idiosyncratic textuality and ‘grammar’ of Wyatt’s prose translation and apologias’ (35) also situates that textuality relative to early sixteenth-century literary practice, drawing on Erasmian humanism and Lutheran theology in order to illustrate the context to Wyatt’s conception of semantic ‘turning’ in his 1541 Defence and The Quyete of Mynde (1528). The superlative discussion of collatio, commentary and hermeneutics in this chapter might have said a little more about the late medieval critical apparatus which the sixteenth century inherited, as has been discussed by Rita Copeland and A.J. Minnis, just as Stamatakis later acknowledges the medieval influence upon Tudor lyrics or balets (as he rightly terms them). Chapter 2 — in accordance with the schema outlined earlier — examines how in ‘Wyatt’s ‘paraphrases’ of the penitential psalms, fallen words demand a paraphrasing rewriting (theme), as witnessed by restorative rescriptions within Wyatt’s text (trope); his paraphrases seem to have been read not simply as confessional records but as sites of lexical redemption (type of reading), as encoded in Egerton’s interlineations (bibliographic code)’ (35). Stamatakis provides a fascinating account of Wyatt’s substitutions, amendments and turning of his sources, which entail that his version of the psalms ‘transforms what is a narrative progression in his models into an explicitly linguistic progression, whereby a fallen lexis is redeemed through the material agency of the written Word’ (76), via ‘interlineation and redemptive echo’ (81). Stamatakis also rightly points out that ‘Much ink has been spilt on the penitential or ‘inward’ aspect of Wyatt’s psalm paraphrases and comparatively little on what is paraphrastic about them’ (72); as such, one would more expect more discussion of what Wyatt does with Aretino’s Italian, but this is not really addressed in detail. Ultimately, Wyatt’s paraphrases are seen to ‘locate the interrelated redemptions of both penitent sinner and of language in a chirographic sphere […] a recognition that the speaker’s redeemed discourse depends in part on a graphocentric space, the Word turned into material words on material pages’ (92).

[5]  The emphasis upon rescription relative to an anterior model continues in Chapter 3, which is perhaps the most ambitious chapter of the study, taking as its focus Wyatt’s letters to his son, his diplomatic correspondence and his verse epistles (satires). According to Stamatakis’s hermeneutic model, ‘Wyatt’s epistolary output responds to previous letters or models (theme), and foregrounds avenues for future rescription or performance (trope); Wyatt’s verse epistles and prose letters can be read as performative prompts to readerly action (type of reading), as suggested variously by item-placement, hand-type, and divergent witnesses (bibliographic code)’ (35). This might be as much as one would expect of the epistolary mode — letters respond to previous letters suggesting material for future correspondence or action. The contextualization of Wyatt’s letters to his son relative to   sixteenth-century epistolary guidance, such as that dispensed by Erasmus, Elyot and Ascham, and in particular Richard Pace’s De fructu (1516-17), works very well, although the metaphor whereby people are reduced to texts perhaps is made to bear too much weight, interesting though it is: ‘Sir Henry-as-text is to be faithfully reproduced by and as the descendant script that follows in the patrilineal stemma […] biographical relations are recast as typographic, copy-textual ones’ (112, 116). This chapter is much more convincing in its discussion of the verse epistles than in its discussion of the diplomatic correspondence. Arguing that the latter are ‘more than historico-political documents recording ambassadorial activities’ (128), that they also affirm ‘social ties between sender and receiver’ (117), or that Wyatt’s letters ‘continually strive for a performative bridge between words and enactment’ (130), does not tell us a great deal about the specificity of Wyatt’s diplomatic missives, although Stamatakis does acknowledge the pre-established conventions of such correspondence. Wyatt’s verse epistles also respond to established conventions, namely the dichotomies of classical satire, yet, as Stamatakis argues, ‘Wyatt’s rewriting of his source-texts dismantles these staple dichotomies — these topographic binaries of here and there, country and court, ridiculing satirist and ridiculed adversarius, a stoic ideal and its debased antitypes’ (133). Chapter 4, akin to its predecessor, considers Wyatt’s reception and rescription of established forms and conventions, in this case the poetics of post-Chaucerian courtly verse, with a view to reforming that poetics via ‘artful unconventionality’ (35). Moreover, Wyatt’s balets ‘seek to engender a knowing “company” of readers (theme), from whom dialogic answer-poems are often sought (trope)’ (35).

[6]  The Epilogue reinforces the ‘continuell chaunge’ of Wyatt’s output not only at the verbal or thematic level but also ‘in the external handling of the material text’ (196–7). Stamatakis illustrates this change by comparing four different redactions of the rondeau ‘Behold love’ as they are situated in the Egerton MS (both in Egerton’s Hand A and relative to Nicholas Grimald’s emendations), in the circulatory Devonshire MS, and in Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes (1557). Tellingly, whilst discussing the wordplay that is lost in translation in modern editions of Wyatt, Stamatakis cites J. V. Crewe’s statement that ‘to print Wyatt modernized is to censor his work’ (194). Indeed, the emphasis throughout is manifestly on the original documents and their particularity (modern editions of early modern texts very rarely get a look in), which is of course consonant with Stamatakis’s project and argument.

[7]  One might cavil at the argument that the majority, if not all, of Wyatt’s output constituted a self-reflexive, performative commentary upon its own material production, ontology and projected reception. There are indeed varying degrees of such autoreflexivity in Wyatt’s work — which Stamatakis is right to identify and which it would be folly to deny — but its universality is open to question. Nevertheless, Stamatakis’s examinations of the Wyatt manuscripts and his sophisticated close readings of his verbal turning are persuasive. Indeed, this is a necessary, engaging, scholarly study which deserves to be read, and with care. Wyatt’s manuscripts and textual afterlives are no less fascinating than the content of his poetry and prose, and Stamatakis does an admirable job reminding us of that.

 Liverpool Hope University, June 2012