BMCR 2020.10.10

Latin erotic elegy and the shaping of sixteenth-century English love poetry: lascivious poets

, Latin erotic elegy and the shaping of sixteenth-century English love poetry: lascivious poets. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. vii, 263 p. ISBN 9781108493864 $80.00.


When a Renaissance poet treats erotic desire realistically—describing the occasional misalignments of human anatomy, say, or expressing skepticism about the beloved’s virtue—scholars often suggest that the writer is complicating, problematizing, or transforming Petrarchan love. The great Italian poet functions in such scholarship as “feudalism” or “religion” do in modernization narratives: he names the hazy, idealized, and (though one would never admit it) dull origin from which original, creative individuality departed. Against this tendency, Linda Grant’s new book, Latin erotic elegy and the shaping of sixteenth-century English love poetry, insists that Renaissance love poets never were (fully) Petrarchan.

Instead, she suggests that Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, Mary Wroth and others read and responded to Latin love elegy: not only Ovid, but Catullus, Propertius, and even Sulpicia. This poetry has a raunchier and more realistic view of erotic love than does the neo-Platonic Petrarch, who imagined his Laura as an embodiment of ideal beauty. Latin love elegy, Grant claims, also offers more complex, ambiguous roles for women, one that Mary Wroth and Mary Sidney exploited in entering a male-dominated literary world. Rather than reading English poets as rebelling against Petrarch the Patriarch, Grant argues that English lyric had many fathers, and perhaps a few mothers: not an Oedipal nuclear family, but a mess of erotic and filial relations, a literary polycule.

Even the use of filial language proves problematic for the relations of influence and intertextuality Grant has in mind. Building on Charles Martindale’s work, and a broader scholarly shift from thinking of reception hierarchically (in terms of originating sources and secondary, derivative later texts), Grant reads relations between texts “as always anachronistic in a positive sense,” exploring “a less linear… and more contingent, reciprocal, or relational reading strategy” to connect Latin elegy with Renaissance poetry (11). In practice, she uses insights gleaned from later texts to ask new questions of their classical predecessors, and she replaces singular, ordered pairs of source and influenced text with webs of interlocking texts from different genres. This methodology parallels the book’s probing of how “literary eroticism may be used to interrogate, contest, possibly even subvert, social and cultural hierarchies” (12). Early modern erotic and pornographic literature, Grant argues, complicates exclusively moralistic theories of Renaissance poetry. If the classical authority is neither singular nor perhaps even an authority, then similarly, cracks open in the façade of the dominant, sexist ideology of Petrarchan lyric.

After a methodological introduction, Chapter 1 documents how Renaissance readers encountered and responded to Latin elegists. It then has chapters reading Wyatt and Catullus; Philip Sidney and Propertius; Donne, Nashe, and Ovid’s Amores; and Mary Sidney, Mary Wroth, and Sulpicia. The first chapter argues that as humanism “extended the medieval school curriculum” (27) and printing made otherwise rare manuscripts available, Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus were “read together” (20) and understood as examples of a single genre. Renaissance readers related to Catullus and others through imitatio, the “collection of ‘flowers’ from wide and various sources to make a new form of ‘honey’” (31). This imitatio complicates scholarly narratives, like that of Thomas Greene’s influential The light in Troy, which posit singular, angst-ridden relations between Renaissance poems and classical ideals. Rather, Renaissance poets—Grant discusses John Skelton, John Leland, and Ben Jonson—were looser, more freewheeling, and more promiscuous in their relation to sources. They found in Latin elegy a vision of love “bound up with a languorous sexuality and textuality… which offers a more active role to the mistress” (33). Modes of reading Ovid, for instance, ranged from Arthur Golding’s pious, Calvinist allegory through Aretino’s shocking, pornographic retelling of the Dido episode in the Aeneid in an “Ovidian mode” (59). The chapter closes with the evidence for Renaissance engagement with Sulpicia, concluding that “her texts were… certainly read, known and discussed across human Europe” (62).

Chapter 2 traces parallels in how Catullus and Wyatt construct masculinity in terms of reliable, authentic speech. While Wyatt’s “depiction of mistress who is tainted and duplicitous” is often read as a departure from his supposed “Petrarchan model” (63), Catullus describes Lesbia in very similar ways. In both cases, the “positioning of female words as unreliable” (65), stages “a vocal performance of moral uprightness and integrity” (71). Instead of physical strength or sexual prowess, this masculine ideal prizes “verbal honor and fidelity” (72), particularly in male social bonds. Grant pairs close reading of Catullus’s and Wyatt’s lyrics with parallel, contemporaneous treatments of speech, reliability, and gender in political contexts: respectively, Cicero’s Pro Caelio and Henry VIII’s letters. In the place of the dubious biographical readings which surround Wyatt, Grant suggests we use historical materials to establish discursive fields for key terms in the poem. In a final twist, Wyatt’s unreliable beloved can also embody “a previous literary tradition” or “elegy itself” (90). Even as love elegists construct masculinity in sexist terms, this meta-poetic trope offers spaces for a different, less patriarchal poetics.

Meta-poetics move to the center in Chapter 3, which investigates the muse in Propertius and then in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 1. The presence of a muse in love lyric is surprising, since muses traditionally belong to epic: Grant argues that Astrophil’s muse is “a self-conscious, critical, and revisionary response to Propertius’s Cynthia” (95). By casting Cynthia (his romantic partner and poems’ inspiration) as his muse, Propertius follows a Callimachean tradition in which lyric secularizes epic, such that poetry becomes “a human art rather than a divine one” (98). But Propertius also creates a space for Cynthia to speak or write herself, since Cynthia’s ghost requesting he burn his poems about her echoes traditions about Virgil’s similar request. Grant argues that Cynthia wants “to move from being the subject of poetry to being a poet” (103). This development parallels Ovid’s characterization of his muses as “partial, subjective, and involved,” rather than being “serene and impersonal” (104). As Propertius develops Cynthia’s character, Sidney similarly invests a great deal in Stella (Astrophil’s would-be beloved). While Astrophil’s parodic muse scorns the high aspirations of Sidney’s Defense of poetry, Stella “safeguards Petrarchan and neo-Platonic virtue and morality” from Astrophil’s debased, amorous assaults (119). Throughout, Grant emphasizes the meta-poetic significance of the muse, as well as how Propertius and Sidney begin to imagine Cynthia and Stella as poets in their own right.

While Chapter 4 elaborates further the opposition between idealized Petrarchism and Latin love elegy, it also experiments with “backward reading,” using Donne’s and Thomas Nashe’s poems to uncover political themes in Ovid’s Amores. The chapter first uses Amores 1.5 and 3.7 to establish two poles of Ovidian erotics, “encoded via extended ideas of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’” (139), or a successful, sexually dominant masculinity and its failing, effeminate double. Both Donne, in “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” and Nashe, in his Choice of Valentines, “merge [the two] into a single poem,” in both cases negotiating the “fear of sexual failure,” in Donne’s case through “poetic distraction” (138). As with Wyatt, masculinity is defined through verbal control and wit. But in the second half, Grant inverts the direction of influence. First, she argues that idealized, Petrarchan love was imbricated with the virgin-cult around Elizabeth: Laura’s chastity offered English courtiers a model to accommodate their female queen within patriarchy. Both Nashe and Donne, in eroticizing their beloveds, were subverting the political order, albeit through misogyny. Then she turns to Ovid, arguing that his treatment of Venus “engage[s] obliquely with Augustan mythologizing about the foundation of Rome” (144). Opposed to “Augustus’ moral legislation,” which “attempted to re-establish the polarity between ‘matrona and meretrix,’” respectable wife and disreputable prostitute, Ovid’s Venus is “inherently multifaceted” (145). Indeed, Grant argues, even the Aeneid’s Venus lingers uncomfortably between being Aeneas’s mother and a potential incestuous partner. Thus, attention to the politics of Elizabethan Petrarchism offers new insight into Ovid and Virgil, showing how their love poetry undermines “ideological use of imagery to support Augustan power” (148).

While the first three readings emphasize the spaces male poets create for female characters (and the limits thereof), Chapter 5 turns to how women writers exploited and negotiated the genre. It thus represents those earlier arguments’ payoff, showing how the possibility that the “female voice, even when ventriloquized in male-authored Petrarchan texts, may be manipulated to open up the dominant narrative” exists not only for modern interpreters, but also for early modern women (152). As throughout, Grant emphasizes intertextual parallels over direct, definitive influence. What Sulpicia does to and with her male predecessors (that is, “seize upon these sparse moments of narrative contestation that already exist in her predecessors’ poetry and transform them,” 165), Mary Sidney and Mary Wroth do with theirs. By “publicizing her love and her writing,” Sulpicia contests norms of feminine modesty and privacy: she “sets no limits to the circulation of her [writing] tablets,” imagining her poetry as involving the “public circulation of her body” and reclaiming the figure of the prostitute as a public woman (163). Similarly, in her translation of Robert Garnier’s French play, Marc Antoine, about Anthony and Cleopatra, Sidney focuses on the “erotic Cleopatra” (177), who contests Anthony’s negative “representation of her” as initially idealized and subsequently faithless (177), implicitly challenging associated generic conventions. Sidney’s Cleopatra eventually “makes moves to destroy the very beauty which so often defines her” (179): if the Petrarchan blazon objectifies female bodies, Cleopatra contests that objectification by disfiguring herself. Finally, in Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Wroth places “the mutilated female body at the heart of erotic experience” (185), a device through which she meditates on the gendered violence attendant in earlier love lyric, since Grant reads “this heart as itself a figurative stand-in for a tradition of love poetry” (186). The “masochistic quality” of Pamphilia’s imagery troubles the conventional sentiments of love lyric: like Sulpicia and Sidney, Wroth at once assimilates and revises previous materials.

Grant’s book is impressive on several levels: the individual readings are lively and ingenious, the handling of classical and Renaissance contexts in specific, local detail is skillful, and a broad argument unites the chapters. Scholars writing about English love lyric will learn from the broad range of classical models, as well as the more complex, historically specific sense of what a “model” was for a Renaissance love lyricist. Classicists will benefit from local insights into canonical texts, as well as the more capacious account of how to think about reception.

I have one minor criticism and a larger lingering question. Narrowly, it is frustrating that texts are not quoted generously. Even relatively short poems (like Wyatt’s admittedly famous sonnets) are not provided in full, and often, phrases are quoted in a clipped, abbreviated fashion. Unless the audience is expected to have the poems memorized, either the book has to be read alongside the primary texts, or the reader will have trouble following and evaluating portions of the readings. (Other than this relatively minor point, the writing is clear and easy to follow.)

More broadly, while Grant is wonderfully complex and light-handed in her treatment of nearly every poet she handles, the one, ironic exception is Petrarch, whose work is presented as full of convention and cliché, particularly sexist objectification and neo-Platonic idealization. To some extent, this presentation clarifies the distinctiveness of the materials on which the book focuses. Nonetheless, the example of Vittoria Colonna, at least, suggests that some female poets took Petrarch as their model. Moreover, recent work by Virginia Cox and Ramie Targoff (and, in a different way, Aileen Feng) has complicated familiar arguments about Petrarch and gender. Moreover, Roland Greene (and before him Pierre de Nolhac and B. L. Ullman) have traced Petrarch’s own debt to and revisions of the Latin elegists, a discussion of which would complicate Grant’s sharp antithesis. I cannot help wondering what subtleties Grant would have uncovered if she had included Petrarch in her analysis, rather than using him as its defining negation. But that very question, of course, only arises because of the book’s overall brilliance and nuance. It is an important contribution to the study of classical and Renaissance lyric, as well as their intersections.