The Sonnet in Ruins:
Time and the Nation in 1599
Huw Griffiths Petrarch in Venice
1. With this essay, I want to think about an English history whose destiny is not, after all, monarchical, anti-republican or insular. I will be reading for an England that will no longer have been England, that will have been anti-monarchical, pro-republican, cosmopolitan. The implausibility of this conjectured history is what I will be working towards and, particularly, the knowledge of this impossible history as it could have been contained within the form of the sonnet. So, an alternative history of England and also an alternative history of the sonnet, where subjects are replaced by citizens and self-expression by public discourse. Or if these alternatives are not, in the end, possible, an England that is monarchist, anti-republican and insular but all of those things quite otherwise. Modernity displaced, ruined and out of time, what Geoffrey Hill, in his sonnet sequence on the Wars of the Roses, 'Funeral Music', calls 'restless / Habitation, no man's dwelling place.' (26) In the second sonnet of the sequence, he brings up the impossibility of a future as happy ending, reconciled as if at the end of a Shakespearean tragicomedy:
(Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future
Flashed back at us, like steel against sun,
Ultimate recompense.) (27)
Hill places in parenthesis this romance vision of 'ultimate recompense' realised in an imagined future; the romance of an impossible future is quickly reversed by a reminder of history's recall:
Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: Fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Struck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind's
Flurrying, darkness over human mire. (26)
This turn towards a 'recall' of history, of a Jamesonian 'Real' of history, is what I see as characteristic of some instances of the sonnet form and provides me, for the moment, with a way of thinking about the relationship between form and history in the late sixteenth century, as the sonnet form emerges alongside the arrival of a specific English nationhood that is, after all, monarchical, anti-republican, insular -- subject-bound.1
2. I am drawing some of my critical inspiration from recent calls within Renaissance studies for a return to considering form in our understandings of text, textuality, culture and history. This could never be a return to a narrow formalism that simply re-inhabits the critical space left by the long dead New Criticism, but a formalism that pays full attention to the developments in literary criticism and cultural studies from the 1980s onwards that have asked us to attend to the material production and productivity of cultural artefacts. These latter developments have, however, typically avoided tracing the historical specificity of that aspect of culture designated 'literary' -- that is, literary form itself. Stephen Cohen argues that whilst the study of extra-literary culture has benefited from the application of the literary technique of close reading and that, at the same time, the study of literature has been enhanced by an engagement with cultural studies' politically charged materialism, the study of 'literary form as a cultural practice -- has fallen into disfavour and neglect.' (24) Cohen calls instead for a 'historical formalism' which may emerge as 'both a measure and a means of historical change.' (33) Such historical formalism will have, at its heart, Frederic Jameson's concept of an 'ideology of form' (The Political Unconscious, 98) in which the form of literary texts is understood to emerge from historically specific modes of production and ideological conflicts, the individual text 'crisscrossed and intersected by a variety of impulses from contradictory modes of cultural production all at once.' (95) I would like, within this broad notion of an ideology of form, to put forward an alternative history of the English sonnet. This would not seek to eclipse the part this poetic form is seen to have played in the emergence of a modern self-consciousness, but would place that development within a political context where self-reflexivity in lyric verse is not solely part of a developing modernity. Instead, poetic forms that turn back in on themselves, self-regarding like the English sonnet, are produced by political pressures placed on transparent communication and by the potential that poetic form has to register a resistance to those pressures.
3. The three sonnets from 1599 that I pay particular attention to are two sonnets from the preface to Lewkenor's English translation of Contarini, an account of the governmental structures of Venice, and the sonnet that forms the final chorus to Shakespeare's Henry V.2 These poems instantiate the tension that is evident in all lyric poetry between the passing of a particular moment and the striving for the eternal. By focussing on the idea of the 'ruin', explicitly present in two of these sonnets and available as a subtext to the other, I hope to demonstrate an historicised formalism, a formalism that is attendant to circumstance and historical change, even as it acknowledges the impulse towards stasis that is a feature of the sonnet form. At the same time, I will offer an understanding of the early modern English sonnet that departs from the more common study of that form in the light of its production of subjectivity effects.3
4. I will argue that the form of these poems can be read as a product of the ideological conflicts that emerge in the breakdown of consensus surrounding monarchical authority in the late years of Elizabeth's reign. The ironies of the ruinous and anachronistic nature of these poems' narrations of national history will be seen to work in tandem with the form of the early modern English sonnet. Examining this relation will provide some understanding of the limited and restricted nature of political expression in Elizabeth's 'second reign'.4
5. The literary, historical and mythical material that English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries draw on in their development of a sense of nation is littered with ruins, both real and symbolic. Amongst these ruins are the ransacked citadel of Troy, the plundered remains of the Roman Empire, the fallen Tower of Babel and the empty shells of the English and Welsh medieval abbeys -- 'Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.' (Shakespeare, Complete Sonnets 527) Ruins in this period are, almost necessarily, ironic. They disclose failure in the place of achievement. Our idea of the Renaissance is rightly taken up by developments in architecture, building and construction, but these great works are always shaded by an awareness of destruction -- destruction that both precedes and succeeds them. The fragments of classical civilisations act as a foundation for the achievements of the Renaissance throughout Europe, yet the awareness of distance between the ancient and the modern produces a profound sense of anachronism, of irony, and of mortality.5 Similarly, the presence of medieval religious buildings in the British national landscape calls forth an awareness of an ancient history, but one that is lost, broken and ruined. This paper will examine the emergence of these ironies within the formal structures of the sonnet -- its rhetoric and verbal patterning -- whilst insisting on a historicised understanding of the individual poems.
6. In the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the figure of the ruin is deployed as a means to discuss the public world. The image of the ruined wall or building connects the piece of writing to the world of historical change and of political shifts and aspirations. Buildings and architecture constitute the public realm of human achievement and political interaction. Although undoubtedly political in its own way, the Romantic literary ruin of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is very different from this.6 A similar emphasis may be placed on the futility of human ambition, such as you might find in Shelley's famous 'Ozymandias' sonnet, but the Renaissance literary ruin does not engender a feeling of contact with 'the sublime' in quite the same way.
7. Instead, the Renaissance ruin connects the poetic task of memorialising with political and religious histories of "ruin and reform".7 With the anachronistic and untimely figure of the early modern ruin we gain an insight into the relationship between the emergence of the discrete nation-space as a horizon against which people make sense of their political identity and the conflicting histories of classical retrieval and religious reformation that underpin this development.
8. In 1599, questions of political identity for English writers inevitably drew them into discussions of alternative political configurations to that currently headed by an ailing and arguably despotic monarch. It was, in 1599, possible to see hereditary monarchy as a failure on two fronts -- as inherently problematic in that it might allow a disastrously inadequate leader to assume power and as immediately problematic when, as was the case with Elizabeth, a country had run out of clear successors to the throne.
9. Nevertheless, it is also true to say that the articulation of such ideas was difficult in a politically oppressive and increasingly paranoid atmosphere. The sonnets that I look at here testify, both in form and content, to these two trends -- a need to imagine alternative political configurations for the nation and the difficulties of articulating this. In their textual relations -- the preface to an account of the Venetian republic and the epilogue to an epic national drama -- they also enact the process of transmission for these ideas. Their particular rhetoric might offer us, then, something of a 'measure of historical change', if not an obvious 'means' (Cohen 33).
The antique Babel, Empresse of the East,
Upreard her buildings to the threatened skie:
And Second Babell tyrant of the West,
Her ayry Towers upraised much more high.
But with the weight of their own surquedry [pride],
They both are fallen, that all the earth did feare,
And buried now in their own ashes ly,
Yet shewing by their heapes how great they were.
But in their place doth now a third appeare,
Fayre Venice, flower of the last worlds delight,
And next to them in beauty draweth neare,
But farre exceedes in policie of right.
Yet not so fayre her buildings to behold
As Lewkenors stile that hath her beautie told.
10. Spenser's sonnet is part of the prefatory material to Lewis Lewkenor's 1599 translation of Contarini's 1543 book which describes the Venetian republican political system. Contarini's detailed account of Venice is a celebration of the Venetian constitution and its longevity. Its translation into English by Lewis Lewkenor has been associated with a growth of interest in alternative forms of government during the difficult 'second reign' of Elizabeth. Andrew Hadfield has argued that, 'It is surely no coincidence that [Contarini] . . . should be translated into English in 1599 when criticism of Elizabeth was reaching epidemic proportions.' (Hadfield 41) Lewkenor's apparent connections with the Essex and Sidney circles further indicate the potential for this text to participate, not only in the factional politics of the late Elizabethan court, but in the political debate that emerged in the difficult years of the 1590s.
11. The year, 1599, was itself a moment of climax for political tensions that had been gathering since the late 1580s and the year that court factionalism emerged on the international stage. The Earl of Essex was sent to Ireland to combat Hugh O'Neill's extensive and militarily successful rebellion against English rule. Essex understood this as a form of political exile, engineered by his opponents at court, and his campaign in Ireland was largely uninspired, ending up in a secret truce brokered with the Earl of Tyrone, O'Neill himself. The two men, on horseback, waded into the centre of a river on the Ulster border and, without anybody overhearing, negotiated some kind of deal. This deal, whatever it was, was treated with a great deal of speculation and suspicion in the English court. It was widely believed that Essex was, with O'Neill, planning for a world without Elizabeth, a world in which Ulster and the English were no longer at odds, where Essex held sway over an England that had liberated itself from the Tudor grip on power. This episode provides, for me, an image of the Jamesonian 'Real', a history that our interpretations of text should be oriented towards but that is only available in the traces of textuality -- a silence at the heart of our histories that provides for speculation on alternatives.8
12. It is into this atmosphere of political instability, fraught with the possibilities of regime change, that Lewkenor's republican manifesto was launched. In his prefatory poem, Spenser describes the ruin of two ancient edifices -- Babel and Rome. He draws on commonly-made connections between Babel, the archetypal tyrannous empire, Babylon, and both ancient and contemporary Rome. These comparisons come from Protestant apocalyptic readings of the bible. The Geneva Bible made these comparisons explicit in its annotations to the story of Babel in Genesis, to the apocalyptic narratives in the Book of Daniel and to the Book of Revelations itself.9 The implicit comparison in the poem is between Babel, the ancient Roman Empire and the contemporary state of Rome, itself often called the 'whore of Babylon' in Protestant polemic. Venice, though, has now emerged to replace these former cities, and to outdo them in her 'policie of right'.10
13. Her republicanism will, perhaps, save her from the fate of Babel, Babylon and Rome who had all 'upreard' their buildings, threatening the skies and were brought down by the weight of their own pride ('surquedry'). I say 'perhaps', because there is, here, a sense in which modern Venice might be expected to follow suit. 'But in their place doth now a third appeare,' does not predict unequivocal glory for the real Venice. However, it is in the writings of Lewkenor that she will survive in her idealised form, the real city coming a poor second.
14. Lewkenor was read in England by those interested in the possibilities of political configurations that offered an alternative to the tyrannous monarchy that they believed themselves to be living under. He was popular amongst the Essex circle and Spenser, as part of this political circle, is here stating his own sympathies for an anti-tyrannical stance. The Venice that is being celebrated in this volume, and introduced by Spenser's poem, actively competes against and transcends the tyrannies of the past.
15. The role of the writer is, though, crucial and Venice can seemingly only be idealised in written form. It is the task of the writer to undo the ruins of fallen beauty and to reconstruct them in our memories. Spenser's poem suggests that it is only on paper that such a faultless political state can exist and that human endeavours for perfection are doomed to failure -- even Venice herself.
16. But yet . . . but yet . . . the form of Spenser's writing here, and the rhetoric of the sonnet, renders ironic the potentially optimistic links being made here between an apocalyptic view of the world and the search for a new way of doing things in the 1590s. It is precisely in the writing of this poem that pessimism about the potential for this message is revealed. What I want to call the recessive rhetoric of the sonnet works in tandem with the ironies of the ruin to stifle the expression of any opportunity for political development potentially implied in the publication of this English translation of what is, essentially, a republican tract.
17. One way of characterising traditional sonnet structures -- what I am calling their 'recessive rhetoric' -- is to understand them within the rhetorical figure of metanoia. George Puttenham refers to this figure as 'the penitent' or 'the repentant' in The Art of English Poesy in that it indicates a turning back from an original statement (Puttenham 215). In searching for a definitive statement, sonnets refine their own definitions through refutation and counter-refutation. The insertion of the 'turn' or caesura at the start of the ninth line of the English sonnet is the most characteristic example of this. The 'But' of Shakespeare's sonnet 18, 'But thy eternal summer shall not fade' is merely the best known example of a trait that structures a wide range of early modern sonnet-writing in which topics are defined through negation and through 'repenting' of, and turning back from, earlier definitions (Shakespeare, Complete Sonnets 417). Spenser's own Amoretti can be included in this, with the 'But' in the ninth line of the second sonnet announcing the participation of this sequence in the recessive logic of the sonnet (Spenser, The Yale Edition 601).
18. The sonnet that Spenser writes for the opening material of Lewkenor, however, takes the recessive rhetoric of the sonnet to extensive lengths. It is not just that each change of fortune for the world's succeeding empires is met with a 'yet' or a 'but'; Spenser's attitudes to the vicissitudes of history also go through several reversals. The first 'but' follows the narrative pattern of this sonnet in which pride comes before a fall, the 'ayry' towers of Babel and Rome collapsing, with the second quatrain of the sonnet beginning, 'But with the weight of their own surquedry, / They both are fallen'. This repeated narrative of circumstances is itself reinterpreted by the end of the second quatrain with, 'Yet shewing by their heapes how great they were.' The 'yet' here could have two implications -- either as an alternative for 'but', or indicative of a continuing sense of their power into the present -- 'Still showing by their heaps how great they were.'
19. Even this line, with its apparent move towards reinterpreting the ruins not as symbols of moral degeneration, but as emblems of human achievement, is rendered ironic through Spenser's use of the word 'heapes'. This word has negative connotations elsewhere in Spenser's writing.11 However, Venice itself arrives in the expected position of the sonnet's turn -- presumably to resolve the fluctuations and refutations of the octave: 'But in their place now a third appeare'. This description of Venice is, though, staggered by further qualifications; it is not so beautiful as either Rome or Babel, whilst ('But') exceeding them 'in policie of right'.
20. These qualifications are still further qualified as Spenser, repenting of this celebration of Venice, tells us that the city is further outdone by Lewkenor's writing in the book which this sonnet prefaces. Venice, itself, will not be able to resolve the processes of historical decay that have been traced in the form of the sonnet but Lewkenor's beautiful writing may offer some aesthetic and political compensation for these losses. In most other prefatory poems, such hyperbolic comparisons could be read as merely conventional but in a poem which exploits the penitential rhetoric of the sonnet form to such a high degree, this final qualification only adds to the irony rather than providing the closure that is always, at least notionally, on offer in the English sonnet's last rhyming couplet.12
21. Elsewhere in Spenser's writing -- notably the complaint poem, The Ruines of Time, and translations of du Bellay in Ruines of Rome, Visions of Bellay and A Theatre for Worldlings -- the succession of apocalyptically ruined cities is linked to a search for firm grounds on which to base claims for England's emergence as an imperial successor, part of the translatio imperii in which the mantle of empire is passed steadily west from Troy, through Rome and on to England. Spenser's own writing, translating these texts into the English language and into an English context, enacts the processes of translation.
22. Andrew Escobedo has identified this search for historical origins in sixteenth and seventeenth-century writing with an accompanying sense of loss, associating this particularly with the 'monument', a general term referring to remains from the past:
The figure of the monument, as antiquaries often referred to the physical remains of the past, produces a double effect: it reminds the English nation of its history, closing the gap between past and present, but its materiality assures that it will itself disappear some day, signalling the loss or death of history. (21)
Although addressing this question of the 'monument', the relationship of Spenser's sonnet to the formation of a sense of the English nation as nation is different. The implication that England is part of this ongoing line of ruined empires whose histories are revealed as always lost, behind them, is certainly there in this sonnet. However, its relationship to a project for the potential future political configuration of the English nation is more interesting.
23. As the sonnet closes, it invites us to consider the place of writing within historical change and to think about Lewkenor's ability to effect political discussion amongst his readers. In doing so, it just barely articulates the otherwise unstated political context within which Lewkenor's translation of Contarini might have been received. In his recent book, Shakespeare and Republicanism, Andrew Hadfield acknowledges that he may have overstated the case for the presence of republican discourse in early modern England and that if his detailed picture of the scope of republicanism within English sixteenth-century political theory produces the impression that such writing 'was ubiquitous and that it could not be avoided' then 'this would be wrong.' (Hadfield 47)
24. One of the things that is missing from Hadfield's otherwise important and welcome rewriting of the political contexts in which Shakespeare's writings should be understood is an appropriate understanding of literary form and, as a result, he misses an opportunity to trace ideological conflict in the particular forms of writing that he deals with.13 Paying more attention to questions of form, genre and rhetoric might allow us to see not just what was being written, but offers insight into how that writing relates to the historical circumstances from which it emerged and in which it was received -- particularly into what assumptions might be made about the potential for favourable reception that such ideas might have.
25. As I have argued elsewhere, in relation to Shakespeare's Lucrece, the poetry of the 1590s features rhetorical formations which highlight particular difficulties of expression (Griffiths 2006). The recessive rhetoric of the sonnet is, I believe, part of this tendency. Its definitions and redefinitions move towards clarity that is then rendered ironic in the awkwardness of its expression. The 'penitent' and self-cancelling nature of the Elizabethan sonnet can be read as a product of the ideological conflicts that emerge in the breakdown of consensus surrounding monarchical authority in the late years of Elizabeth's reign. The occluded nature of its rhetorical forms mediates a culture that itself finds it difficult to articulate forms of government or representation that exist outside of hereditary forms of dynastic monarchy, at the same time as successive political crises render it necessary to attempt just such a formulation.
26. The anachronisms of the ruin that interrupt the timely progression of a teleological narrative of national origins can be seen as analogous to the turning back from easy progression that is a feature of the sonnet form itself, a movement towards a unity that is revealed as specious. The radical untimeliness of the ruin, as it relates to an emerging sense of nationhood, is realised in sonnet form. This may, at least, be one reason for Shakespeare's choice of the sonnet form at the close of his ironic national epic, Henry V. This sonnet, or this play, may not mention ruins at all but, as with the trope of the ruin, it deals with the revelation of defeat in the place of national triumph, turning back in its closing moments from the overt celebration of English victory over France to a reminder that this trophy was lost within a generation:
Thus farre with rough, and all-unable Pen,
Our bending Author hath pursu'd the Story,
In little roome confining mightie men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time: but in that small, most greatly lived
This Starre of England. Fortune made his Sword;
By which, the Worlds best Garden he atchieved:
And of it left his Sonne Imperiall Lord.
Henry the Sixt, in Infant Bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this King succeed:
Whose State so many had the managing,
That they lost France, and made England bleed:
Which oft our Stage hath showne; and for their sake,
In your faire minds let this acceptance take.
Patricia Parker, in Shakespeare From the Margins, has written very influentially on the 'preposterous' nature of Shakespeare's English histories, including Henry V -- a play which reminds its audience of English loss and failure at the end of a story of apparent national success. Whilst acknowledging the careful and pioneering work that Parker has done to make us aware of the importance of form and rhetoric in our historicist analyses of early modern texts, I would like to offer an extension of this historical formalism through an investigation of the form in which this reminder takes place -- the sonnet.
27. None of the Chorus's speeches are included in the First Quarto text of the play but are inserted into the 1623 Folio, a text that is presumed to be based on Shakespeare's foul papers. In this final speech, the Chorus speaks a perfect English sonnet with rhyme pattern and iambic pentameter intact. The references in the first two lines of this final Chorus to an 'Author' and a 'pen' seem to refer an audience or reader beyond the dramatic context and into the scene of writing, a more conventional location for the formation of a sonnet. These references to the material practices of writing indicate a particular self-consciousness about literary form in this speech. Again, though, the sonnet's rhetoric is not the locus for the development of a particular form of subjectivity. Rather, the recessive nature of the sonnet is a further extension of the play's ironies and links the form both of the drama and this chorus-sonnet to late Elizabethan receptions of political narrative. Ruinous anachronism meets up with the self-cancelling nature of the sonnet to reveal, through irony, the difficulties for transparent political communication in the 1590s.
28. The political contexts for Shakespeare's Henry V are well established. Written and performed in 1599, at a time of heightened anxiety for the nation's security, Henry V is not so much a celebration of English history as a response to a number of contemporary crises: the problem of succession for an ageing Elizabeth, the Irish rebellion and growing discontent and factionalism in the English court.14 However, it also has to be said that the articulation of these contemporary concerns in this play is far from straightforward.
29. Yet, the search for alternative political configurations that is increasingly seen as a feature of the 1590s and particularly of writing that is related to the Sidney and Essex circles, is also present in Henry V. The ambiguities of Shakespeare's attitudes towards the role of the king throughout the English history plays have been the subject of critical interest for some time. In Shakespeare and Republicanism, Andrew Hadfield has argued for seeing the first tetralogy as Shakespeare's version of Lucan's Pharsalia. An interest in the Pharsalia has been identified both by Hadfield and others, especially David Norbrook, as indicative of an emerging republican discourse in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
30. Henry V may seem like a move away from the more radical interrogations of kingship that are a feature of the history plays from earlier in the 1590s. However, in its equivocal portrayal of Henry himself, in the various complaints of his troops throughout the course of the play, in the references contained within the play to contemporary concerns such as Ireland and the royal succession and in the Chorus's reminder of Henry VI's failure and hence the failure of monarchy by succession, Henry V may play more of a role in the 1590s' search for alternative forms of government than might, at first, be thought. This, though, is not clearly stated in the play. If Henry V toys with republicanism, as I think it does, this can only ever be an occluded republicanism, a product of the difficult and paranoid political circumstances of the 1590s.
31. These difficulties can be traced in the form of this final sonnet and may, indeed, have guided Shakespeare's choice for this particular chorus. There is, of course, a major turn in this sonnet which comes with the arrival of 'Henry the Sixt' at the start of the ninth line. However, the ironies of this sonnet's conclusions about Henry V's French success have already appeared earlier on in the poem. The octave is taken up with the ongoing argument of the chorus that the stage is an inadequate medium for the portrayal of such heroic events. As the play has gone on up until this point, these kinds of statement from the Chorus have been open to an increasingly ironic reading, as Henry's actions have been seen on occasions not always to match up to the apparent optimism of the Chorus's depiction of him as a national hero. In the fourth line of this final Chorus -- 'Mangling by starts the full course of their glory' -- the subject of the verb, 'mangling' is left ambiguous. The primary meaning of this line is clearly that the pen of the author has 'mangled by starts' the glory of the men depicted. However, a secondary interpretation must also be allowed in which it is the men themselves who 'mangled by starts' their initially heroic enterprise.
32. The ironies of the 'full course' of these men's actions not being allowed to play out -- either through their own faults or those of the dramatist -- are initially reversed by the praise of Henry in the second quatrain but the self-cancelling rhetoric of the sonnet comes fully into play with the arrival of Henry's son at the 'turn'. The apparent narrative of national progress that has been seen throughout the play and that is partly echoed in the octave of the final sonnet is turned towards anticlimax in the sestet of this last chorus.
33. The trope of the ruin, in early modern writing, renders narratives of national destiny ironic. It reveals inevitable failure in the place of the greatest achievement; it provides a history of conflict in the place of unity and peace. The presence of ruins in the national landscape makes the historicist project of forming a discrete nation-space, rendered present through linear narrative, seem untenable. Homi Bhabha, in the influential essay, 'DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation' writes that, 'The linear equivalence of event and idea that historicism most commonly proposes, signifies a people, a nation, or a national culture as an empirical sociological category or a holistic cultural entity.' (Bhabha 140) The time of the nation as linear narrative, achieved within the discrete horizon of the nation-space, cannot be sustained beyond the discovery of the ruin.
34. The two occasional sonnets that I have looked at so far in this essay both present narratives of nationhood which turn back on themselves, refrain from moving towards a telos of political clarity and national destiny. The Spenser sonnet seems to offer an endorsement of a political future in which a debate over forms of government, and particularly over forms of republicanism, may contribute to the formation of the nation. However, its recessive and metanoiac rhetoric seems, at the same time, to reveal the impossibility of any such debate. The Chorus at the end of Henry V, apparently concluding a glorious chapter of English history, nevertheless reveals the collapse of any progressive narrative of nationhood.
35. The marginal nature of these sonnets -- one being part of a book's prefatory material and the other a speech from a Chorus that does not participate in the main action of the play -- offers us ways of thinking about the communication of historical narrative and political debate. The function of these two poems is, purportedly, to facilitate the wider dissemination of the political knowledge contained within the main bodies of the texts. However, they both highlight the difficulties that such dissemination might face. An examination of the form of these sonnets -- structured through the self-cancelling rhetoric of metanoia -- may point us in the direction of how these poems mediate the political circumstances in which they are produced.
36. Recognising the nature of these sonnets' rhetoric allows us to understand the circumstances in which they are produced as propitious neither to the transparent communication of alternatives to hereditary monarchy, nor conversely to a straightforward celebration of the status quo. Henry V is conventionally read as a celebration of monarchy, however vexed that celebration might be. Lewkenor's account of Venice is a text that, on first publication, actively pursued the promotion of alternatives to hereditary monarchy. That these two texts share rhetorical strategies of reversion and self-cancellation is both illustrative of, and a product of, the circumstances of their production. Furthermore, it shows that some of the particular characteristics of late sixteenth-century poetry -- its self-reflexiveness, its peculiarly articulate inarticulacy -- might not always be sufficiently understood through references to the emergence of a modern sense of selfhood. Rather, Jameson's concept of an 'ideology of form' may alert us to the conflicting ideological motivations that work to produce the sonnet form in the late sixteenth century.
37. Spenser's sonnet dedication to Lewkenor's translation is one of four short poems, three of them sonnets, that precede the dedications proper. The sonnet that comes immediately after the Spenser sonnet, written by 'I.Ashley' is a much more negative depiction of Venice's virtues and beauties. It also exhibits the use of explicitly Petrarchan tropes, common to Elizabethan sonnet-writing but which might normally be confined to discussions of love, desire and subjectivity:
Fayer mayden towne that in rich Thetis armes,
Hath still been fostered since thy first foundation.
Whose glorious beauty cals unnumbered swarmes
Of rarest spirits from each forrein nation,
And yet (sole wonder to all Europes eares,
Most lovely Nimph, that ever Neptune got)
In all this space of thirteene hundred yeares,
Thy virgins state ambition nere could blot.
Now I prognosticate thy ruinous case,
When thou shalt from thy Adriatique seas,
View in this Ocean Isle thy painted face,
In these pure colours coyest eyes to please,
Then gazing in thy shadowes peereles eye,
Enamour'd like Narcissus thou shalt dye.
Ashley imagines Venice as a type of Petrarchan mistress, pursued by suitors -- a 'Fayer mayden' and a 'Most lovely Nimph'. The turn of the poem, though, presents a different view of Venice. Moving from an eternity of beauty in which Venice has sustained its virginity, 'In all this space of thirteene hundrede yeares' to a situation, 'Now', when the poet prognosticates Venice's 'ruinous case'.
38. This sonnet is again structured through recessive rhetoric and by metanoia. The praise of Venice as an example of the perfect city state is positioned within a reversal in which time has caught up with her. Ashley is less equivocal than Spenser in his attitude towards Venice's ruin. He sees it as inevitable and does not gesture towards Lewkenor's or Contarini's text as compensation.
39. What is also interesting about this is the language within which Ashley depicts the ruinous future that he is predicting for Venice. The lyric tension between the fleeting moment and the eternal all turns on Ashley's 'Now'. But, in this he steers away from Protestant apocalyptic and, instead, rewrites Venice as a Narcissus-figure, something straight out of the conventions of Petrarchan sonnet-writing. Venice moves from cruel virginal mistress to narcissistic self-regarding lover, staring at her own reflection until she drowns in the Adriatic. The one lingering suggestion of apocalypse or, at least, of judgement, is in the reference to Venice's 'painted face'. In that 'now' a moment for an English republicanism is passing, has passed.
40. Ashley uses Petrarchan language, imagery and poetic structure that would not be out of place in a sequence of love sonnets. The self-regarding, self-cancelling structure of the sonnet is both narcissistic and indicative of a particular political context in which republicanism might, now, be discussed -- but now -- or yet -- only in ways that can be repented of by the writer.
41. It might seem odd to have prefaced this discussion of three occasional late sixteenth-century sonnets with a brief foray into the complex writing of the contemporary poet, Geoffrey Hill. This might be doubly unexpected as Hill's politics are more frequently identified with that national destiny I see being resisted in the recessive rhetoric of these sonnets -- monarchical, insular and conservative.15 And yet, in the forms of 'Funeral Music', Hill's 1968 sonnet sequence, there is a sense, too, that history is being told otherwise, crossed by multiple voices that can not be fully enclosed within the form. The final sonnet of the sequence is narrated in the voices of three 'soldier-martyrs', executed in the course of the Wars of the Roses, all by different, successive Kings -- Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. The three, speaking as 'we' in this final sonnet, move towards a bitter understanding of their role in history, beyond their own subjectivity -- 'Set apart in timeless colloquy: / So it is required; so we bear witness'. But then, the sonnet 'turns', as they see the inadequacy of their deaths as historical allegory:
If it is without
Consequence that we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How should that comfort us -- or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end 'I have not finished'. (32)
In its impossible conjunctions of apocalyptic vision and precise historical concerns, Hill's sonnet and the sequence from which it comes, evokes the untimely trope of the ruin as I understand it -- presenting us with the need to rethink our histories, to inhabit them differently and to approach that through careful work on the mediating forms in which that thinking might take place.
Go to Jonathan Gil Harris' response. Send EMC your comments on this essay. Go to this issue's index. Go to The Electronic Seminar. Notes
1 See Jameson's essay, 'Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan': 'Nonetheless, it is not terribly difficult to say what is meant by the Real in Lacan. It is simply History itself: and if for psychoanalysis the history in question here is obviously enough the history of the subject, the resonance of the word suggests that a confrontation between this particular materialism and this historical materialism of Marx can no longer be postponed.' (384) It is towards the Real of history, however inaccessible except through attenuated acts of signification, that Jameson urges us to orient our critical readings of all texts.
2 I realise that, as with many of Shakespeare's plays, there is no certainty about the date of composition or performance for Henry V. The inclusion of references to contemporary events in the 1623 Folio text of the play, a text that is presumed to be based on Shakespeare's foul papers, leads most editors, though, to a fairly firm conclusion that this play was staged in the first half of 1599. See T.W. Craik's Arden Third Edition for a detailed and clear introduction to the dating of this play (Craik 1-6)
3 Since the changes that have taken place within literary studies, and Renaissance studies in particular, from the 1980s onwards, this has been the most fruitful line of enquiry into English sonnet writing, its apotheosis remaining Joel Fineman's Shakesepeare's Perjured Eye.
4 The term, 'second reign' comes from John Guy's 'Introduction' the 1985 collection of essays, The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade (Guy 1985).
5 Thomas Greene's book, The Light in Troy describes wonderfully this feeling of ironic distance prevalent in Renaissance European writing and his interpretations have been a great influence on my own readings of English Renaissance poetry.
6 The classic analysis of the romantic ruin within a developing sense of nationhood in this later period is Anne Janowitz's England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape.
7 '. . . may no such storme / Fall on our times, where ruine must reforme' (Sir John Denham, 'Cooper's Hill (1642), ll 149-50)
8 For an account of the political biography of Essex see Paul Hammer's The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics.
9 These comparisons are made in Daniel's vision in chapter 7.
10 Some English Protestants felt that it might be possible to convert Venice to Protestantism, on the grounds of her innate resistance to Roman authoritarianism.
11 An example of this can be found in Spenser's description of the House of Pride in Book I of The Faerie Queene. The poem describes the dungeons of Lucifera's palace as being filled with wretched captives -- people who have succumbed to worldly pride. Amongst these are the ruins of important Roman figures -- the Tarquins, Julius Caesar etc., 'All these together in one heape were throwne, / Like carcasses of beasts in butchers stall.' (I.v.49.1-2)
12 The structures of the English sonnet allow for the kind of self-cancelling rhetoric in ways that the structures of the Italian sonnet do not. The rhyming couplet at the end of the sonnet appears to offer a moment of definition but frequently, instead, offers a moment of revision in which the statements of the previous twelve lines are negated, or we are encouraged to read them ironically.
13 Hadfield dismisses formalism in what have, by now, become fairly conventional terms in his endorsement of new historicism and cultural materialism for their banishment of 'an arid formalism that refused to see literature as inherently political.' (Hadfield 8) Whilst I would agree that this kind of formalism would, indeed, be 'arid', I would want to argue, instead, that without an understanding of literary form and a careful analysis of the forms of individual texts, then a fully politicised account is not possible. In fact, Hadfield's rejection of formalism seems, itself, hopelessly out of date and smacks of the kind of ritual killing-off of formalism that inaugurated many historicist readings of early modern literature in the 1980s. The decapitated head of new criticism, built into the foundations of new historicism, has been making a welcome return in recent years, making its presence felt in a number of ways, but particularly in the greater attention paid to the rhetorical strategies of early modern writing. Hadfield claims that this sonnet 'is not one of Spenser's most remarkable.' (92) I don't think that this is true. I think the poem is rather remarkable, if fairly 'clunky' in its syntax and uses of metre. However, that is not the point. A fully historicised formalism would not be dedicated to isolating the aesthetic object, but rather to analysing the processes which have gone into the production of that form.
14 Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield's linking of the play into a number of different political problems from the 1590s is the starting point for all such discussions of Henry V. The Elizabethan experience of Ireland seems to have been a catalyst for some engagement with republican thought. Thomas Beacon, author of the prose-dialogue, Solon His Follie, is credited by Markku Peltonen as 'the first Englishman to make thorough and positive use of Machiavelli's republicanism of the Discorsi' (Peltonen 76). Solon His Follie is an attempt to articulate solutions to the problems in the Elizabethan settlement of Ireland from the point of view of the New English. These problems not only got worse, but became more public, throughout the 1590s. This may have had the effect of heightening awareness of the potential for the experience of Ireland to produce radical political solutions, so adding to the difficulties of late 1590s politics that I am tracing in the form of these sonnets.
15 Tom Paulin sparked off an ongoing and fairly pointless row about Hill's politics with his acerbic TLS review of a collection of essays on the poet's work. This was later published as an essay in his Minotaur. For an alternative, and more sympathetic reading of Hill's engagement with the past, see Andrew Roberts' 'Geoffrey Hill and Pastiche' and John Kerrigan's 'Divided Kingdoms and the Local Epic'.
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Cohen, Stephen. 'Between Form and Culture: New Historicism and the Promise of a Historical Formalism' Renaissance Literature and Its Formal Engagements. Ed. Mark David Rasmussen. London: Palgrave, 2002. 17-33.
Craik, T.W. Introduction. King Henry V. By William Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1995. 1-111
Denham, John. 'Cooper's Hill' (1642) Expans'd Hieroglyphics: A Study of Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill, With a Critical Edition of the Poem. By Brendan O Hehir. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California P., 1969. 109-34.
Dollimore, Jonathan and Sinfield, Alan. 'History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V' Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis. London: Routledge, 1985. 206-27.
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Hammer, Paul. The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1999.
Hill, Geoffrey. King Log. London: Andre Deutsch, 1968.
Jameson, Fredric. 'Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism and the Problem of the Subject' Yale French Studies. 55/56 (1977) 338-95.
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Janowitz, Anne. England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape. Cambridge, Mass.. Blackwell, 1990.
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Paulin, Tom. 'A Visionary Nationalist: Geoffrey Hill' Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State. London: Faber and Faber, 1992. 276-84.
Peltonen, Markku. Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought 1570-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1995.
Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1936 (reprinted 1970).
Roberts, Andrew. 'Geoffrey Hill and Pastiche: "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Pegyt'. The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.1 (2000) 153-66.
Shakespeare, William. King Henry V. Ed. T.W. Craik. London: Routledge, 1995.
---. Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2002.
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---. The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Ed. William A. Oram et al.. New Haven and London: Yale U.P., 1989.
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