- Untutored Lines: The Making of the English Epyllion by William P. Weaver
William P. Weaver examines the English Renaissance epyllion as being informed by the art of rhetoric taught to schoolboys. In the Introduction, he acknowledges how critics ‘have noted the thematic significance of the boys that populate the English epyllion’ (p. 3). In particular, Weaver highlights the manner in which these narratives chart a boy’s path to adulthood. Weaver takes this significance further to argue the influence of ‘the progymnasmata, or “preliminary exercises”’ of ‘the written rhetorical themes’ on the epyllion (p. 3). Thus, Weaver analyses English epyllia as reflections of classroom [End Page 294] exercises taught to the poets as adolescents. He takes ‘the study of grammar and rhetoric’ at a literal, formal level to the extent that he divides the English epyllion into the mythological and historical. The reason for this dichotomy is explained by Weaver’s cool assessment that some epyllia – such as Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece – were already conveniently paired for this analysis.
In Chapter 1, an extension of the Introduction, Weaver builds on the notion of the progymnasmata not simply being a series of rhetoric exercises but also an introduction for the boys into a new cultural environment. Apart from young scholars being beaten with a stick, Weaver describes how boys were encouraged to be imaginative with their Latin sources. His discussion focuses on Quintilian’s primordia, literature that does not fit within ‘the disciplinary boundaries of grammar and rhetoric’ (p. 29). The primordia suits Weaver’s argument because it allows the subjects of his study – Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Heywood –to be inventive with their representations of developing adolescents.
Chapter 2 sees Weaver apply his thesis to Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. The most striking feature of this chapter is Weaver’s insight that ‘the narrator describes Hero’s clothing but Leander’s body’ (p. 55). This seemingly unremarkable observation is interpreted as representing two different types of rhetorical discourse. Likewise, the Mercury and Neptune episodes are not exciting departures but essential to ‘Hero and Leander’s rites of passage to adolescence’ (p. 65). Marlowe’s epyllion mimics a student’s initiation into a grammar school.
In Chapter 3, the influence of humanist boyhood exercises and the Renaissance culture of learning are investigated in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Weaver expands on his discussion of Quintilian’s primordia by examining its influence on Joachim Camerarius’s Elements of Rhetoric, an unrelenting series of grammar school exercises. He focuses on an exercise called the chreia. Students create a verbal discourse that either expands or condenses ‘a notable saying or action’ (p. 81). Venus is seen as practising the chreia in which her attempts of seduction mirror grammar school exercises. She is literally the sexy schoolmistress.
Thomas Heywood’s Oenone and Paris, an imitation of Venus and Adonis, is the subject of Chapter 4. It examines Heywood’s strategy of non-verbal paraphrasing of Ovid from memory. Unsurprisingly, this type of abstract imitation is a writing exercise dreamt up by Quintilian and Erasmus called enargeia.
Chapter 5 returns to Shakespeare with the representation of adolescence in The Rape of Lucrece. Weaver skilfully interprets crisis and process, two types of adolescence, as being divided between Tarquin and Lucrece. What [End Page 295] is interesting is that the aftermath of Lucrece’s rape starts her ‘training in circumstantial narration’ (p. 137). Her ability to cope with the traumatic event is enabled through her performance of ethopoeia, a vicarious imitation of a legendary character’s hardship.
The next chapter focuses on Sir John Davies’s Orchestra Or a Poeme of Dauncing, described by Weaver as ‘a parody of humanist encomium’ (p. 151). The interest in Orchestra stems from its ability to illuminate the very discourse it is ridiculing. The epyllion’s overlong praise of dancing becomes a meditation on the pros and cons of topical invention.
The final chapter examines Thomas Edwards’s Cephalus and Procis...