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memory, reading, Bacon

Andrew Hiscock. Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 332 pages. $99.

In his introduction to Reading Memory in Early Modern Literature, Andrew Hiscock recalls the work that classicists and medievalists have done recently to demonstrate the supreme importance of memory in those periods. Hiscock situates his volume as an extension of their work, an elaboration of the ways in which this preoccupation with memory continues into the early modern period. Hiscock undertakes an examination of memory in early modern literature in eight carefully researched chapters, plus an introduction. With the exception of chapter 4, which focuses on the Elizabethan fiction of three figures—Thomas Nashe, Thomas Deloney, and George Gasciogne—each chapter is organized around a discussion of an early modern English author: Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; Katherine Parr; John Foxe; Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; John Donne; Ben Jonson; and Francis Bacon. Hiscock develops a thorough understanding of the ways important early modern writers theorized and engaged memory to diverse ends: to (re)shape history, to facilitate imitation, to place moral learning in the service of moral actions, and to craft future memories of themselves, to name a few examples. Hiscock argues that early modern contemplations of memory were pervasive and regularly entered into considerations of the meaning of life, the definition of a people, goals for education, and more. Memorial discourse in the early modern world is therefore appropriately examined against the backdrop of religious schism, [End Page 171] shifting conceptions of authority, and scientific innovation. Hiscock’s study is at once broad in scope and detailed in its treatment of specific examples.

The close relationship between memorial and historical constructs is a theme often revisited in Reading Memory. At the opening of the chapter focused on Surrey, Hiscock highlights Agnes Heller’s assertion that “the Renaissance was the first era which chose for itself a past” (40). Indeed, the humanist poet’s dubious position in Henrician England provides a motive for his poetic interest in recovering and engaging with the classical past. For example, Hiscock examines a passage in “Th’ Assyryans king” where Surrey recalls a situation from the classical past in which the “expectations of royal government and self-government are irrevocably violated” (42). Here, memory is employed as a method of cultural critique. Through his discussion of Surrey’s poetry, Hiscock demonstrates that Surrey is both interested in how the past can be used to reflect on the present and fascinated with the ways that access to the past can be controlled.

In other chapters, Hiscock examines the ways that religious figures such as Parr, Foxe, and Sidney selected histories in order to legitimate their place in a shifting political and religious landscape. In the case of Parr, Hiscock highlights the ways translating, echoing, and imitating religious material from earlier ages was used by many reformers to legitimate their own beliefs and allegiances (66–68). Hiscock opens the chapter with a careful examination of Parr’s context and associations, setting the stage for his insightful reading of her Prayers or medytacions and other writings. Her position in Henry VIII’s court is at times precarious, and her spiritual associations and influences are varied. Hiscock notes that her deployment of scripture in Prayers or medytacions leads the reader to imagine the spiritual journey of the soul in terms of biblical narratives (76). Parr returns repeatedly to those things the Christian must remember in order to be saved: “O what thankes ought I to geve unto the, whiche haste suffered the grevouse deathe of the Crosse, to delyver me from my synnes, and to obteyne everlastyng life for me?” (qtd in Hiscock 77). Hiscock observes of Parr’s work that she not only encourages believers to remember their sins, but also solicits God to “remembre thy mercyes” (qtd in Hiscock 77).

The chapter on Donne explores the ways he, too, conceives of memory as a spiritual tool. Hiscock highlights Donne’s Augustinian emphasis on remembering one’s personal history as a sinner as a method for turning one’s gaze to the transcendent. For example, in a sermon Donne reflects on...


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