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Uncommon Tongues

Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance

By Catherine Nicholson

Publication Year: 2013

In the late sixteenth century, as England began to assert its integrity as a nation and English its merit as a literate tongue, vernacular writing took a turn for the eccentric. Authors such as John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe loudly announced their ambitions for the mother tongue—but the extremity of their stylistic innovations yielded texts that seemed hardly English at all. Critics likened Lyly's hyperembellished prose to a bejeweled "Indian," complained that Spenser had "writ no language," and mocked Marlowe's blank verse as a "Turkish" concoction of "big-sounding sentences" and "termes Italianate." In its most sophisticated literary guises, the much-vaunted common tongue suddenly appeared quite foreign.

In Uncommon Tongues, Catherine Nicholson locates strangeness at the paradoxical heart of sixteenth-century vernacular culture. Torn between two rival conceptions of eloquence, savvy writers and teachers labored to reconcile their country's need for a consistent, accessible mother tongue with the expectation that poetic language depart from everyday speech. That struggle, waged by pedagogical theorists and rhetoricians as well as authors we now recognize as some of the most accomplished and significant in English literary history, produced works that made the vernacular's oddities, constraints, and defects synonymous with its virtues. Such willful eccentricity, Nicholson argues, came to be seen as both the essence and antithesis of English eloquence.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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Introduction: Antisocial Orpheus

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pp. 1-18

In the late sixteenth century, just as England began to assert its integrity as a nation and English its value as a literate tongue, vernacular writing took a turn for the eccentric. John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1579), and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (1587) loudly announced their authors’ ambitions for the English...

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Chapter 1. Good Space and Time: Humanist Pedagogy and the Uses of Estrangement

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pp. 19-44

A rich body of criticism attests to the imprint left on Renaissance writers by their grammar-school education in classical literature,1 but a basic feature of this pedagogical program has received little attention: in order to promote their vision of Latinity, sixteenth-century humanist pedagogical theorists first had to reinvent English. As Ardis Butterfield points out, the training bestowed...

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Chapter 2. The Commonplace and the Far-Fetched: Mapping Eloquence in the English Art of Rhetoric

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pp. 45-71

As Thomas Elyot reminds readers of The Boke named the Governour, rhetoric was the foundation of the earliest commonwealths: “[I]n the firste infancie of the worlde, men, wandring like beastes in woddes and on mountaines, regardinge neither the religion due unto god, nor the office pertaining unto man, ordred all thing by bodily strength: untill Mercurius (as Plato supposeth) or...

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Chapter 3. “A World to See”: Euphues’s Wayward Style

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pp. 72-99

Reprinted in some twenty editions in the decades following its initial publication, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) made John Lyly the most influential prose writer of the late sixteenth century.1 The richly ornamented, densely patterned style of Lyly’s romance produced a popular sensation, a host of imitators, and a distinctly mixed set of critical responses: for every Francis...

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Chapter 4. Pastoral in Exile: Colin Clout and the Poetics of English Alienation

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pp. 100-123

No writer labors more conspicuously to claim the mantle of exemplarity than the “new poete” of The Shepheardes Calender, who presents himself to readers as the latest to walk a hallowed and well-trod path to literary glory. As E. K.’s introduction to the 1579 poem reminds us, pastoral is the time-honored birthplace of poetic excellence, the “nest” of literary ambition: “So flew Theocritus, as...

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Chapter 5. “Conquering Feet”: Tamburlaine and the Measure of English

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pp. 124-163

Part 1 of Tamburlaine the Great (1587–88) forcefully inverts Spenser’s vision of the English poet as exile, recasting him as a violent intruder. Christopher Marlowe, a recent arrival to the professional London theater, invited audiences to see in the audacious progress of his barbarian hero the image of his own poetic daring, claiming Tamburlaine’s legendary conquest of the East as a...

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Coda: Eccentric Shakespeare

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pp. 164-172

The period of theoretical and formal innovation that we now claim as a point of origin for modern literary history appeared to its immediate successors as a dead end. Neither the ministrations of Latin-speaking nursemaids nor the rigors of double translation succeeded in naturalizing classical eloquence in Renaissance England. No English compiler of tropes and figures achieved...


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pp. 173-206


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pp. 207-216

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pp. 217-218

I am an avid and grateful reader of acknowledgments. Poring over others’ books taught me what I wanted my book to be; poring over their acknowledgments taught me that I couldn’t—and didn’t have to—get there on my own. No doubt there are people for whom writing is an ideally solitary pursuit, but for me it’s a necessarily communal endeavor (so much so that there’s a long...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208801
E-ISBN-10: 0812208803
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245585
Print-ISBN-10: 081224558X

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 3 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 866922464
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Uncommon Tongues

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Eloquence in literature.
  • English language -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- Style.
  • English language -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- Rhetoric.
  • National characteristics, English, in literature.
  • Rhetoric, Renaissance -- England.
  • Lyly, John, 1554?-1606. Euphues.
  • Spenser, Edmund, 1552?-1599. Shepherd's calender.
  • Marlowe, Christopher, 1564-1593. Tamburlaine the Great.
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