Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.27

Andrew Hui, The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature. Verbal Arts: Studies in Poetics.   New York:  Fordham University Press, 2016.  Pp. x, 282; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780823274314.  $28.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Susanna de Beer, Leiden University (

This book posits the emergence of a distinct Renaissance poetics of ruins, explaining “how Renaissance poets used the topos of architectural ruins to think about the life cycle of their own works—from conception, composition, print, revisions and circulation to afterlife” (p. 5). Hui’s vision can be summarized as this poetics being a transformation of the ancient poetic immortality topos, which compared poetry to monuments, under the influence of the Renaissance reality of the Roman ruins.

On the one hand, Hui argues, “confronted with the monumental detritus of antiquity, Renaissance writers hoped to craft a more enduring artefact” (p.2). This hope was supported by the very survival of ancient literature as proof that the ancient writers’ claims of poetic immortality had indeed come true. Renaissance writers thus continued the Horatian adagium of “a monument more enduring than bronze,” but replaced the ancient monuments with the ruins they saw around them, an even stronger point of reference to set their poetic aspirations against.

On the other hand, as Hui points out, “beneath this exultant sheen of poetic everlastingness, humanist poets were never entirely comfortable with such hyperbolic claims, since so much of ancient letters clearly did not survive” (p.4). The ruins thus offered not only a contrasting image, but also an analogy for the present state of antiquity’s literature and language(s). This spurred the poets to restore this situation in their literary works, while also reminding them of the contingency of cultural survival in general.

As poets realized that literary survival was not guaranteed by fixity or permanence, Hui states, “the Renaissance poetic response to ruins is […] to create a work of art that absorbs the past and is in turn open to future appropriation and mutation. The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature imagines fluid multiplicity rather than fixed monumentalization as a survival strategy in the classical tradition” (p.3). Although I am not convinced that this is a typical Renaissance strategy, through the passage in Ovid’s Amores which Hui quotes in comparison, the author convincingly shows that it is typical for Renaissance authors to use the ruins to thematize the “crisis of preservation”.1 Moreover, unlike their ancient predecessors who limited the expected life cycle of their works to the Roman empire, Renaissance writers realized that the reception of their work could also be guaranteed beyond their own nation or language. At the same time, they set a new limit by their emphasis on apocalyptic time (p.46).

Hui’s book is different from many other books on the Renaissance fascination with ruins and on ruin poetry, as it is not interested in poetic descriptions of ruins as such, but only in the way the ruins are employed as metapoetic tropes for literature and literary survival. Moreover, and this is arguably the greatest strength of the book, it adopts a comparative transnational approach. This is especially important because it does justice to the transnational nature of the poetic discourse on ruins, as well as the chain of receptions within this discourse. Not without reason, Hui chooses three authors (Petrarch, Du Bellay, and Spenser), who are “not only the most illustrious writers of their vernacular literature who talk about ruins, but they also talk to each other precisely on the subject of ruins” (p. 18). Hui’s comparative approach also immediately shows its worth in the insights about the Renaissance poetics of ruins used to formulate his own critical positions towards the individual authors discussed.

In the introduction Hui describes his methodology as “embracing the principles of close reading and cultural semantics developed by Eric Auerbach and Leo Spitzer” (p. 14). In keeping with the topic of his book he sees an analogy between the humanist reconstruction of the ancient past and his own philological reconstruction of the humanist poetic discourse on ruins. As a specific method of entering this discourse he turns to cultural semantics because he believes “that a single word contains within itself a microhistory of ideas, resonating with overtones beyond its literal sense” (p. 17). Accordingly, Hui has chosen “three words with expansive semantic reach and deep etymological roots”: vestigium (trace) in Petrarch, cendre (ashes) in Du Bellay, and moniment (monument) in Spenser (p.17).

Before moving on to these authors, Hui concisely but comprehensively outlines his understanding of the two main elements in the book’s title: poetics and ruins. Chapter 1 “traces the geneaology of the poetic immortality topos from antiquity to the sixteenth century” (p. 30), while Chapter 2 offers a “synchronic portrait of Renaissance Rome” as a means to introduce the humanist fascination with ruins.

Chapter 3 traces the poetics of ruins in Petrarch’s oeuvre, discussing examples from his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, the Africa, the letters, and the Secretum. Hui is interested not only in Petrarch’s poetic and metapoetic meditations on the ancient ruins, but also in how this work is implicitly driven by the discourse of ruins. Thus the chapter moves from Petrarch’s investigations into the past as a piecing together of fragments to create an ideal Rome, to his search for vestigia in terms of imitation. In practice this means that much of the chapter traces Petrarch’s intertextual links with predecessors like Cicero, Virgil, Lucan, and Dante.

Chapter 4 on the Hypnoteromachia Poliphili is perhaps the odd one out, because no specific word is chosen to characterize it and it is much shorter than the other three. Nevertheless, it is informative of the erotic and comic aspects of the Renaissance fascination with ruins as “a yearning for an unattainable wholeness” (p. 137).

Chapter 5 centres on the word and the idea of cendre (ashes) in Du Bellay’s oeuvre, with a special focus on Les Antiquitez de Rome. Hui shows that ashes as an image of Rome and Latinity in ruins enabled Du Bellay to “plunder its scattered remains and export them to France” (p. 19). Moreover, through an analogy with dust and Lucretian atoms, ashes can also signify the “atomization of other texts” out of which all literature is produced. By so doing Hui suggests that Du Bellay focuses on the impossiblity of really restoring or bringing to life the ancient texts or the ancient city, something that Petrarch still wished for.

In Chapter 6, discussing passages from A Theatre for Voluptuous Worldlings, the Amoretti, the Shepheardes Calender, The Ruines of Time, and the Faerie Queene, Hui shows the ambivalent place that scenes of ruination have in Spenser’s work. Spenser both mourns them and sees them “as victorious signs of divinely sanctioned punishment” (p. 180). By starting with the ancient etymologies of the word moniment, Hui convincingly shows that Spenser indeed conceives of his poetic works as memorials, but also sees the “limitations of the poetic immortality topos”. Like the previous ones, this chapter also identifies the poetics of ruins in the form of Spenser’s oeuvre, enumerating several ways in which allegories in the Faerie Queene can be perceived as ruins (p. 212).

In the Epilogue the author returns to the initial question posed to him by a Japanese friend: “Why are the ruins still there?” (p. 1). At the end of this book, which Hui conceived of as the long answer to that question, he comes to the conclusion that even though there is an Asian poetics of ruins, it lacks the typically European hope for poetic immortality and sublimity that is inspired by the association with ruins.

These short summaries can by no means do justice to the admirably rich interpretations and varied reading strategies each chapter has to offer. The three words that form the basis for Hui’s cultural semantics are very well-chosen, as they each highlight a different aspect of the discourse on ruins, summarized by the author as follows: “If vestigium is form without matter, and cendre is matter without form, then moniment is supposed to be the coalescence of form and matter into a well-wrought artifact of allegory” (p. 179).

The book as a whole is very well grounded in primary and secondary literature covering a substantial part of the authors’ oeuvres, alongside a wide range of other cultural-historical and philosophical topics. Moreover, it offers very readable translations and discusses a number of relevant works of art in comparison.2 This is no small achievement, given the interdisciplinary nature of the topic. The book thus speaks not only to scholars in Renaissance (art) history and Classical Reception Studies, but also to specialists of the authors discussed.

Hui is an attentive reader and an associative writer. He is very good at drawing comparisons and connecting dots that were not connected before. The poetics of ruins has also clearly sharpened his skill in observing fascinating analogies, such as the analogy between the longing for the absent past and that for the absent friend in Petrarch (p. 117), the analogy between sexual and archaeological desire in the Hypnoteromachia Poliphili (p. 140), the analogy between translation and the ruin in Du Bellay (p. 165), and the analogy between the “non finito” and the ruin in Spenser (p. 214- 215), to name but one example for each chapter.3

However, this associative style of writing—Hui characterizes it himself in the chapter on Du Bellay as moving “through the agitations of associations rather than the trajectory of a single argument” (p. 146)—also means that the book offers no systematic overview of the wide range of connections between the discourse of ruins and the Renaissance poetics it brings to the fore. This is also a result of Hui’s decision to assign every author his own word and thus emphasize individual appropriations of the poetics of ruins. This leaves less space for a potentially productive exploration of links between the themes in different chapters. One could for example identify an ethics of ruins in the link between the medieval notion of the ruin’s power to teach a moral lesson on the vanity of all things (p. 67) and Spenser’s interpretation of monimenta as true reminders of “the divine admonishment of human vanity” (p. 185).

Likewise, a politics of ruins could be discerned in Petrarch’s wish to ‘reconstruct’ Rome in writing, in Du Bellay’s “nationalist zeal for creative destruction” (p.179), and in Spenser’s “sense of nationhood” (p.192). Such a conception ties in with the fact that the Renaissance fascination with ruins, apart from eliciting universal meditations on human aspirations and cultural survival, is also very much a fascination with the fate of Rome: whether it was just, whether it was reversible, and if so, how? These questions drive much of the “ironic reasoning” that Hui rightly observes in Du Bellay: “[H]e uses the authority of the ancients to legitimate his own appropriation of the ancients” (p. 167). This same ironic reasoning can be observed in Du Bellay’s attitude towards Latin, which should be plundered and replaced at the same time. I would suggest that the irony goes even further, since Du Bellay also wrote about Rome in Latin, and stated in Latin that—in contrast to Rome itself—Latin was still very much alive.4

One could go on with examples like this, with the risk of even further complicating the already very complex discourse that Hui’s book addresses. Indeed, he deserves praise for having restricted the number of examples he gives to support his thesis, while at the same time not limiting himself to only one cultural realm. In this way, he sets an example for a type of Renaissance studies that bridges both temporal and linguistic divides, just as ruins do.


1.   Hui quotes from Ovid’s Amores 1.15 on p. 218.
2.   The book has 14 black and white and 8 color illustrations.
3.   I find the analogy between the ruin and the printing plate (p. 48) less productive.
4.   In the passage of Du Bellay’s Latin Descriptio Romae, quoted on p. 172.

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