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Patrick Cheney, Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). ISBN: 978-1-4051-6954-7. 352 pp. Hbk. £65.00.

Reviewed by Stephen Hamrick

[1]  Cheney begins his study of sixteenth-century verse recognizing both the beauty and the challenge of understanding such a complex and wide-ranging poetry. Despite the 400 years of cultural change that makes this body of literature ‘not simply difficult but also alien’ (1), he asserts that readers today experience ‘both profound joy and unexpected utility in the process of [their own] identity formation’ (2). Cheney combines such a Horatian and characteristically sixteenth-century approach to writing with formalist reading strategies: ‘Every poem has a form, and every form has an idea. By reading a poem for its form, we can comprehend the idea underlying it’ (208). A very strong introduction to the central literary traditions engaged by sixteenth-century poets, the text nevertheless disappoints in its unwillingness to employ useful and proven theoretical methodologies, excluding, for example, political, gender, or postcolonial approaches (for lack of postcolonial analysis, see p. 202). Aimed at undergraduates and ‘interested faculty,’ the text provides a limited introduction to sixteenth-century poetry.

[2]  Eschewing poststructuralist, historicist, and other contextual methodologies, Cheney divides his study of the period’s poetry into three sections, including early Tudor poetry, Elizabethan poetry, and Shakespeare. He further shapes his text by examining five themes, dubbed a ‘pentad of poetic inventions’ (10), within each of the book’s three major sections: Voice (‘The Poetic Style of Character’), Perception (‘What the Poet Sees’), World (‘Ecology of Place’), Form (Genres), and Career (‘The Role of the Poet in Society’). As a companion text to Sixteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, the text positions undergraduate readers to use these themes ‘as engines or crucibles for interpretation, meaning, and perhaps social action’ (10). Influenced strongly by Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye, Cheney reads period verse from largely personal and archetypal perspectives, but without the benefit of psychoanalytical theory; the text, however, incorporates Harold Bloom’s increasingly dated anxiety of influence as a dominant authorial model (155). The text’s focus on the personal utility (for modern readers) of sixteenth century poetry and/or the archetypal movement from cupiditas to caritas reduces the poetry to so-called transhistorical truths, thereby distorting our understanding and reducing the complexity of the verse (71). The poetry of this period, for Cheney, offers ostensibly ‘timeless’ truths (203).

[3]  Consciously rejecting the vast majority of critical approaches developed in the second half of the twentieth-century, Cheney shifts focus ‘from reading for the subject of power to reading for the intertext of the author’ (3). As this telling quote and his five organizational themes suggest, Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry frames early modern verse within a largely ahistorical, author-centered, and elitist context that defines the Tudor poet as a ‘world legislator’ (5, 253), strangely recalling a Romantic poetics. Rather than the ‘alien’ poetry imagined earlier, period verse serves as a universal balm for the human soul. In this vein, Cheney asserts that ‘we might even say that we need this poetry, because the pleasure and meaning it provides help us contend with the often fraught and fractured existence we lead’ (5, 256).

[4]  As one of the stronger aspects of the text, Cheney foregrounds five ‘revolutions’ significant to the sixteenth century, ‘as each charts a change in identity formation’ (11). These include Renaissance humanism, the Reformation, the birth of the modern nation-state, companionate marriage, and the scientific revolution. Rather than historically rich contexts used to interpret early modern verse, these revolutions remain largely background and subordinate—much in the vein of traditional or ‘old’ historicisms. Smacking of Marxist, feminist, and/or other political critical theory, ‘identity formation’ actually translates, in Cheney’s readings, into the representation of poetic character (24). Even when the text raises social class as an interpretive concern, for example, it subsumes it into an understanding of authorial vocation (142). Performative identities (or the vocal performance of verse) also seem strangely absent from Cheney’s analysis.

[5]  The reconstruction of these historical revolutions or discourses, moreover, fails to account for the most recent historiography, privileging an outdated Whig-Protestant version of sixteenth-century history and literature. For Cheney, identity results from the internalization of authority, which uncritically replicates Protestant perspectives (165-166). Throughout the text, moreover, Catholic verse and the central role of Catholicism in culture remains almost entirely invisible. In terms of social and literary history, Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry relies almost exclusively on a Whig historiography that most often reduces the period to a simple part of an evolutionary social development towards democracy and, for literature, the complexity and poetic excellence of Spenser and Shakespeare. To that extent, the text replicates (and names) C.S. Lewis’ reductive evolutionary model of sixteenth-century poetry as either ‘drab’ or ‘golden’ (151-153, 234). National identity, for example, moves away from the ‘monarch and toward the land and its people’ (12), reductively depoliticizing authors and texts (80, 156, 166, 215-219). In focusing on Petrarchan verse, moreover, Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry also unfortunately simplifies this complex and wide-ranging discourse, replicating therein reductive Augustinian and neoplatonic approaches (59-60, 132, 138, 147, 216-217, 242). As with many other period discourses covered in the text, Petrarchanism receives little or no attention as a protean political tool for both men and women.

[6]  Although Cheney refreshingly includes under-read and understudied poets in his analysis – including George Gascoigne, William Dunbar, and Isabella Whitney, for example – the text values these figures largely in proportion to their preparation for, or relation to, Spenser and Shakespeare. Although the text aptly asserts that ‘a fuller literary history would’ include such under-read poets (100), structurally and thematically the text works to reinforce the pre-eminence of Shakespeare in sixteenth-century verse, confusingly downplaying his role as a playwright, while simultaneously valuing his poetry because it embodies elements of his tragic dramatic vision (279). Presented as ‘A Special Case’ towards the end of Cheney’s text, Shakespeare and his verse take pride of place, precisely because he ‘taps into the five poetic inventions organizing the present book’ (259). For Cheney, Shakespeare represents the best of sixteenth-century poetry, namely a man for all seasons (257) who recognizes the ‘eternal value’ (273) in human experience. As the gold standard for period verse, ‘Shakespeare’s poetry,’ according to Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry, ‘can remake us too’ (269). Cheney restates the positive psychosocial functions of period verse early and late, but largely fails to address precisely how such personal transformations take place.

[7]  In a final analysis, the text might usefully be subtitled the ‘Resurrection of the Author’ due to its constant return to the poet’s ‘vocational idea’ or ‘Virgilian literary career’ (98, 102, 104, 116). To this end, Cheney argues that ‘our most authoritative studies of the early Tudor era do not focus on authorship or literary career at all, but on “literary culture,” which privileges social and political institutions as agents, such as the court, print and manuscript, the process of textual production, and reading practices, not authors or their idea of a literary career’ (117). If such critical privilege exists or actually limits understanding of period verse, Cheney’s obsessive focus on literary career more dramatically distorts our understanding of that poetry. The interesting focus on Anne Askew’s engagement of epic, for example, disappointingly reduces our attention to Spenser and poetic vocation (113).

[8]  Highly useful in addressing the formal and generic concerns of sixteenth-century poets, and thus in demonstrating close reading, Reading Sixteenth-Century Poetry fails to address the equally important political and theoretical period discourses or the methodologies needed to address them. The unbalanced infatuation with authorial vocation and authorial perspectives thus limits the usefulness of the text. Cheney’s companion text may thus represent a more widespread return to traditional author-centered interpretive theories and a turn away from poststructural approaches.

Minnesota State University, December 2012