BMCR 2006.10.19

Vulgar Eloquence: On the Renaissance Invention of English Literature

, Vulgar eloquence : on the Renaissance invention of English literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. xiii, 224 pages : facsimiles ; 22 cm. ISBN 030011012X $40.00.

The premise of this engaging but flawed monograph is that the very notion of ‘English literature’ — the ‘vulgar eloquence’ of the title — would have seemed obviously oxymoronic in the Renaissance, as the possibility of literary excellence in the vernacular came to be recognized in England only gradually in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As the prefatory epistle to Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender complains in 1579, ‘our Mother tonge, which truely of it self is both ful enough for prose and stately enough for verse, hath long time ben counted most bare and barrein of both.’1 The tendency to disparage modern languages as rough and unfit for learned or elegant writing was a phenomenon across Europe, and other languages produced probably the best-known reactions against it, in the defences of the vernacular by Dante and Du Bellay. Keilen, however, makes a special case for England: the English, he argues, faced a peculiar crisis of identity, as historians finally rejected the legend, relayed by the twelfth-century Geoffrey of Monmouth, that the nation had been founded by Aeneas’ great-grandson Brutus, and acknowledged that Britain’s true relation to Rome was not as a cultural descendant but as a victim of conquest, later abandoned by her conquerors. England had thus to recognize itself as aligned historically with the barbarians rather than with civilization.

This emphasis on the memory of defeat and conquest offers an original perspective on England’s attitude toward her flourishing vernacular culture in this period, and Keilen uses ideas from post-colonial theory to interesting effect as he describes the ambivalent dynamic whereby English poetry appealed to classical models and ideals even as it strove to distinguish itself and to claim independence from classical culture. His central claim is that England dealt with her sense of cultural inferiority by recalling that even Rome had her roots in a rude and uncivilized past and had experienced her own sense of cultural inferiority to the Greeks: as Du Bellay had put it, ‘Quand Ciceron, et Virgile se misrent à ecrire en Latin, l’Eloquence, et la Poesie etoint encor’ en enfance entre les Romains, et au plus haut de leur excellence entre les Grecz.’2 This is reflected, Keilen argues, by the way in which English writers invoke the myths of Orpheus, Philomela and Circe in order to formulate their ideas of a nascent vernacular culture — myths through which, according to Keilen, ‘Antiquity had…express[ed] the origins…of its own poetic activity’ (p. 2). These myths, in some of their Renaissance handlings, structure the book, each of the three chapters focussing on one of the myths in conjunction with one major writer.

As well as laying out this rationale, the introduction also devotes many pages to a spirited defence of the book’s concern with the aesthetic or narrowly ‘literary’ against the tendency in modern criticism, under the influence of New Historicism, to blur distinctions between imaginative literature and other forms of document, reading all primarily as reflections of the prevalent ideology. The call for more attention to be paid to how the writers of the period themselves conceptualized the category of the literary (or as they would have referred to it, of poetry) is timely and persuasive, though it seems to me that peculiar kinds of engagement with the political are a constitutive part of this, and that Keilen’s study could only be enriched by considering some of the ways in which synchronic political pressures interacted with these writers’ constructions of and attitudes to literary history.3 The introduction closes with an overview of the book’s broad claims and scope. The rest of the book does not, however, entirely bear out the promise of the introduction. Despite their lively style and some potentially interesting and imaginative ideas, all three chapters are marred by loose argumentation and a low standard of proof. I shall give some examples of the recurrent problems after I have summarized the arguments of the individual chapters in so far as they are clear to me.

Chapter 1, ‘Choosing Orpheus: The English Eloquence of Whitney’s Emblemes,’ looks at Whitney’s emblem ‘Orphei Musica’ as a hybrid of the modern genre of the emblem poem and humanist allusion to classical culture, which questions the inferiority of the vernacular to the ancient. Whitney praises another English poet, named only ‘E.P’, as an ‘impe of Orpheus…who…Orpheus farre excelles’. Keilen nicely suggests that Orpheus here stands both for the civilizing force of classical culture (Whitney references Horace’s Ars poetica in the margin, and follows his allegorical interpretation of the beasts charmed by Orpheus) and for a barbaric, pre-classical past (Keilen points to the fact that, unlike a 1555 French image of Orpheus, the image accompanying Whitney’s emblem contains no building in the background, and therefore seems to picture him in his origin as one of the sylvestres homines before Horace’s moment of civilization). Keilen identifies this primitive Orpheus, whom he describes (rather confusingly) as ‘counterclassical’, with Whitney’s vernacular impulse: the emblem thus expresses an ambivalent relation between the modern and the classical past.

Chapter 2, ‘Shakespeare’s “Wild Musick”,’ explores the relation between England’s violent conquest at the hands of Rome and the cultural benefit received from the experience. The chapter focusses on Ovid’s version of the rape of Philomel, and builds up to a brief (3 pp.) but insightful closing discussion of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, with its very explicit imitation of and allusion to Ovid’s story. The central idea is that rape works as a metaphor, in both these texts, at once for military conquest and for the ravishing power of eloquence. Keilen reads the Ovidian episode as ‘a parable about the foreign origins of Latin literature,’ in which ‘both Tereus and Philomela are figures for the Roman writer and for the Hellenistic literature to which Roman writing succumbed when conquest imported it from Greece.’ (p. 92) Finding in Jonathan Bate the argument that Shakespeare’s Lavinia stands ‘for the classical corpus that he violently deflowers in… making a new vernacular text,’ Keilen adds that the identifications can also be reversed, with Lavinia standing for a Shakespeare ravished by the classics, ‘casting England and English writing as the fortunate victims of a Roman conquest.’ (p. 93)

In Chapter 3, ‘The Ancient Neighbourhood of Milton’s Maske,’ Keilen reads Comus (by now predictably) as being self-reflexively about Milton’s relation to classical literature and to its reception in Shakespeare. These are seen as symbolized both by the woodland setting and by Comus’s absent but mentioned mother Circe. The chapter opens with an interesting excursus on silva both as collection of texts (and therefore of raw materials for the imitative poet) and as a place where the poet may go to compose. Drawing on the widespread Renaissance derivation of Circe’s name from miscendo and consequent association of her with mingling in generation, Keilen claims that she is central to the Aeneid, where she represents both the mingling of Aeneas’ Trojan with Lavinia’s Latin blood, and the mingling involved in Virgil’s imitation of Homer. While Comus presents the vernacular tradition as inseparably mingled with the classical, the Lady’s resistance to Comus represents Milton’s anxiety to resist the lure exerted by both, which threaten to make him a mere copyist, and to devise a more ‘dialectical process of imitation’.

The bulk of each chapter, however, is given over to a maze of byways in which almost every turn is unconvincing. The major problems which recur throughout fall into two broad categories: imposed meanings and implausible ‘allusions’. I’ll give a few examples of each.

In the emblem examined in chapter 1, Whitney claims that if there are any hearts so hard as not to be softened by E. P.’s music, they will succumb to his great ‘curtesie’. Keilen finds it ‘difficult to know what “curtesie” means,’ but decides that it ‘is a translation of eloquentia,’ specifically ‘the native and the modern as opposed to the foreign and the ancient’ signified by the word ‘musicke’. This is an arbitrary wresting of the passage, which merely praises E. P. for patronage (OED ‘courtesy’ 2a: ‘generosity, benevolence’) as well as poetry. (Compare Spenser on Amyntas in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe : ‘Both did he other, which could pipe, maintaine, / And eke could pipe himselfe with passing skill.’) Often these imposed meanings take the form of elaborately metaphorical readings with no adequate justification offered. For instance, the description of Aeneas and his men rowing down the Tiber at Aeneid VIII.95-96, variisque teguntur/Arboribus, viridisque secant placido aequore silvas (‘passing under a canopy of various trees, they cleave the green woods in the calm surface’), is an ‘extraordinary passage’ in which ‘Virgil presents the wood of his poem — in the sense of the raw material that he culls from other texts — as influential imagery (from the Latin fluere, to flow), mixed by the motion of his poetic bark.’ (p. 160) Images also come in for this kind of treatment. For instance, Keilen claims that ‘the idea that ancient medals and modern books are fundamentally the same’ was a sixteenth-century ‘commonplace’. (p. 62) An example of this ‘analogy’ is that Badius Ascensius’ printer’s mark, which depicts a printing press, appears on the title page of the first printed numismatic text, printed by Badius Ascensius — as it did on every book he printed. Should we then say that the Aldine Press’s anchor mark on its editions of Aristotle and Plato identify philosophy with seafaring?

Implausible ‘allusions’ likewise feature in Keilen’s handling of both images and texts. A Whitney emblem is said to ‘refer…to Sambucus’ Emblemata‘ (p. 73), simply because one of the three figures it depicts (named as Quinctilius) is bearded and holds a pen, while one of the more than 160 emblem-pictures in Sambucus’ collection also contains a bearded man with a pen (this time Homer). Similarly, because in one of the images in Costalius’ Pegma Orpheus is bearded and his robe billows slightly, ‘Sixteenth-century readers might have recognized [him as] God himself’ (p. 40). A contemporary illustrator, Keilen explains, depicts God with beard and billowing robe in a biblical creation scene: Costalius gives Orpheus a beard, then, ‘in order…to affiliate that distinctive kind of writing with the ageless authority and value of God’s original creation’ (p. 50). With written texts, Keilen needs neither explicit reference nor recognizably specific verbal echo to be confident he is spotting and interpreting an allusion. Camden’s argument that the Romanorum iugum (‘yoke of the Romans’) was salutary in bringing civilization to Britain is said to ‘imitate’ the myth of Orpheus, because Orpheus civilized primitive men: ‘in making this allusion’ Camden claims Orphic status for his own text (p. 97). It also ‘intersects’ Ovid’s Philomela episode, because the word iugum, which also means ‘loom’, occurs there too — showing that Camden sees his ‘antiquarian research reflected in the nightingale myth’ (p. 98).4 When (in a poem which likewise makes no reference to Philomela) an early Tudor poet tells us that the nightingale sings ‘Swete swete iug iug’ (not a bad rendition of elements of the nightingale’s song), Keilen proposes that ‘we assume that “iug” is a contraction or an echo of iugum,’ and thus that this poem makes the same allusion. Similarly we are told at the end of the book that Milton’s magic herb haemony ‘places the tale of Philomela before our eyes one final time,’ because it is referred to as a ‘root’, and Ovid mentions the ‘root’ ( radix) of Philomela’s tongue (p. 170). There are also a few factual errors, but these are relatively minor.5

These traits are particularly unfortunate because the author sometimes has thought-provoking things to say, for which indeed more plausible evidence would often have been available. Yet the speciousness and extreme subjectivity seem oddly deliberate. He reports the complaint of anonymous reviewers that he does not ‘argue in the normal sense of the term’ and that his approach is ‘puzzling,’ and responds by asserting that literary critics ‘ought to aspire…to…poetic license’ (pp. 30, 31). He seems to associate this with the fact that he is ‘interested in the mythology, rather than the truth, about the origins of England’s vernacular literature,’ in ‘the imaginative…literary history that the English Renaissance fabled for itself’ rather than objective literary history (p. 12). Such fabulation is indeed a valid and interesting object of study, but surely there is an important distinction to be made between analysing a fable and inventing your own. There is more pleasure than persuasion to be gleaned from this book, which may be what the author intended, but it could mislead an incautious reader.


1. Spenser: Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (Oxford: OUP, 1912), p. 417. On the rise of the vernacular in England, see Richard Foster Jones, The Triumph of the English Language (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1952); in Europe generally, Fredi Chiappelli (ed.), The Fairest Flower: The Emergence of Linguistic National Consciousness in Renaissance Europe (Florence: Presso l’Accademia della Crusca, 1985).

2. Joachim Du Bellay, La Defence, et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse (Paris, 1549), fiiiir. The opening chapter of Marc Bizer, La Poésie au Miroir: Imitation et Conscience de Soi dans la Poésie Latine de la Pléiade (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1995) also examines this relation between Renaissance and Roman feelings of cultural inferiority.

3. For instance emerging nationalisms and the humanist belief in the centrality of eloquence in the functioning of society, both reflected in Gabriel Harvey’s observation, ‘it hath universally bene the practice of the most floorishingist states and most politique commonwelthes, from whence we borrow our substantialist and most materiall precepts and examples of wise and considerate government, to make the very most of their vulgar tongues.’ (G. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), vol. I, p. 123)

4. Camden mentions nightingales only once, in reporting a Latin verse describing the original location of Salisbury on a waterless hill where no nightingales sing (a passage to which Keilen does not refer). (William Camden, Britain, or A chorographicall description of the most flourishing kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, tr. Philemon Holland (London, 1610), p. 247)

5. ‘Homerus, Philomela cui dicata est’ is translated ‘Homer, who was called nightingale’ (p. 56); the Old English character thorn is confused with ‘d’, distorting the etymology for ‘wood’—OE wod does not‘mean “song,” “poetry,” or… “inspired”‘ (p. 117); Circe rather than Canens is made the mother of Faunus, and thus great-grandmother to Lavinia (p. 159).