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Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies

Rebecca Totaro

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Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies

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The Literary Invention of Margaret Cavendish

Lara Dodds

As a reader of her literary predecessors, and as a writer who herself contributed to the emerging literary tradition, Margaret Cavendish is an extraordinary figure whose role in early modern literary history has yet to be fully acknowledged. In this study, Lara Dodds reassesses the literary invention of Cavendish — the use she makes of other writers, her own various forms of writing, and the ways in which she creates her own literary persona — to transform our understanding of Cavendish’s considerable accomplishments and influence. In spite of Cavendish’s claims that she did little reading whatsoever, Dodds demonstrates that the duchess was an agile, avid reader (and misreader) of other writers, all of them male, all of them now considered canonical — Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Bacon. In each chapter, Dodds discusses Cavendish’s “moments of reading” of these authors, revealing their influence on Cavendish while also providing a lens to investigate more broadly the many literary forms — poetry, letters, fiction, drama — that Cavendish employed. Seeking a fruitful exchange between literary history and the history of reading, Dodds examines both the material and social circumstances of reading and the characteristic formal features and thematic preoccupations of Cavendish’s writing in each of the major genres. Thus, not only is our view of Cavendish and her specific literary achievements enhanced, but we see too the contributions of this female reader to the emerging idea of “literature” in late seventeenth century England. Most previous studies of Cavendish have been preoccupied with literary biography, looking into her royalist politics, materialist natural philosophy, and ambivalent protofeminism. The Literary Invention of Margaret Cavendish is significant, then, in its focus outward from Cavendish to her most enduring and positive contributions to literary history — her revival of an expansive model of literary invention that rests uneasily, but productively, alongside a Jonsonian aesthetics of the verisimilar and a Hobbesian politics of social strife.

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Milton and the Poetics of Freedom

by Susanne Woods

In our contemporary Western culture, “freedom” is a powerful term with elastic meanings and contradictory uses; it has both driven rebellion and justified empire. John Milton’s world, like our own, struggled to understand freedom within what was already considered a heritage of political and personal liberty, compounded in the seventeenth century by theological questions of freedom. In this important new study, Susanne Woods reveals Milton’s central place in the evolution both of ideas of freedom in English-speaking culture and in creating a poetics that invites readers to enact the freedom Milton defines. For Milton, we find, freedom is fundamentally about human choice; God gave humankind genuine free will, with reason and the light of conscience to enable choice. True freedom comes from who one is, formed and asserted by the choices one makes. This is true for the reader as well as for the author, Milton believed, and the result is what Woods terms an “invitational poetics.” By locating freedom in thoughtful choice, in other words, Milton must offer his reader opportunities to consider alternatives, even to his own well-argued positions. In six chapters, Woods examines these invitational poetics on several levels: as they develop in Milton’s prose and early poetry, in theory as well as practice; as they are expressed within prose sentences and lines of poetry through choices of diction and syntax; and as they inform character, plot, and genre. Chapter 1 connects Milton’s most famous statement about his ongoing interest in liberty with debates that preceded him. Chapter 2 shows Milton’s Elizabethan predecessors grappling with the possibilities and limits of poetic indirection; Philip Sidney, in particular, provides an underappreciated rhetorical and theoretical foundation on which Milton’s invitational poetics could build. These background chapters allow us to see Milton’s evolution toward a poetics of choice, followed by their confident manifestation in the great poems. Later chapters consider Paradise Lost as Milton’s grand disquisition on knowledge, choice, and freedom; and Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes in relation to the ambiguities of choice and vocation. Finally, Milton is situated in relation to the most influential seventeenth century political thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and Woods examines the influence of Areopagitica on political culture since Milton’s time, placing Milton’s ideas in a tradition that leads to modern contestations of freedom.

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Rethinking Shakespeare's Skepticism

The Aesthetics of Doubt in the Sonnets and Plays

by Suzanne M. Tartamella

In this original and compelling new study, Suzanne M. Tartamella casts new light on seemingly quite familiar material — Shakespeare’s Sonnets and a number of his plays, including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Antony and Cleopatra. By placing the Sonnets within the context of the literary history of praise poetry, and exploring the underlying influence of early modern skepticism on Shakespeare’s writing, this book truly enhances our understanding of the subtleties and complexities in all of Shakespeare’s work. In our own contemporary culture of doubt and anxiety, investigating the classical skepticism present in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays deepens our sense of his relevance, suggesting that he could just as easily have traded ideas with Friedrich Nietzsche as with Ben Jonson or John Donne. To truly consider this Renaissance philosophy of doubt, Tartamella traces Shakespeare’s relations with his poetic precursors, including Petrarch, Dante, and Sidney. During the Reformation, then, an age of radical experimentation and reform, Shakespeare revised conventional methods of praise by doing more than simply mocking or challenging these literary precursors; rather, he transformed a poetics of praise into a poetics of appraisal. Tartamella’s approach here encompasses both new historicism and a wide-ranging history of ideas. As a result, perhaps the most intriguing demonstration of this poetics and its manifestations are Tartamella’s cross-genre examinations of the Sonnets and some of Shakepeare’s best-known dramatic characters, drawing unique and original correlations. The sonnets to the young man, with their melancholy tenor, are linked to the ghost in Hamlet, while the more physical and combative sonnets to the dark lady are related to Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. These complex relationships, further considered in her final discussion of Antony and Cleopatra and the ways in which it harmonizes the characteristic problems of both sonnet sequences, are truly at the heart of Shakespearean tragedy and comedy. Students of both literature and philosophy will find this book important, as it offers a nuanced analysis of the intersections between literature and intellectual history, a comprehensive examination of Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, the history of epideictic poetry, and an exploration of the impact of skepticism on the whole of Renaissance literature.

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Satan's Poetry

Fallenness and Poetic Tradition in <i>Paradise Lost</i>

by Danielle A. St. Hilaire

Readers of Paradise Lost have long been struck by two prominent—and seemingly unrelated—aspects of the poem: its compelling depiction of Satan and its deep engagement with its literary (and specifically epic) tradition. Satan’s Poetry brings these two issues together to provide a bold, provocative, and fresh reading of the poem—one that responds to the resurgent interest in Milton’s Satan by examining the origins of conflict and ambiguity in Paradise Lost. Without needing to resolve whether Satan is the hero or the villain, a mastermind or fool, Satan’s Poetry examines the more fundamental role of Satan as the origin of the fallen world, the entity that initiates the poem—perhaps, indeed, that initiates poetry itself. Paradise Lost, like all else in our fallen human existence, is permeated by Satan’s evil, which alters human life in ways that cannot be remedied within the course of human history, but Milton’s epic demonstrates that this generative evil does not ultimately determine what fallen creatures can do with that life. The whole point of the poem, then, can be seen as an attempt to understand what Satan’s fall means for us, the poem’s fallen readers, and only by achieving that understanding and working within our fallenness can our fallen state be resolved in the promise of redemption. Drawing on the philosophical frameworks of Hegel and Adorno, Satan’s Poetry argues that satanic creation, although fundamentally negative, nevertheless exists positively in Milton’s universe by virtue of its dialectical relation to God’s creation. Qualitatively different from God’s creation, producing only fragments, satanic creation is essential for Milton because it is the only mode of creation available to fallen consciousness, and therefore the only kind available to the poem seeking to create itself. So it is unnecessary, St. Hilaire concludes, to assume that sympathy for the devil means implicit agreement with the devil, or that Milton’s narrator must dissociate himself from Satan in order to justify God’s ways. Paradise Lost is Satan’s poetry because it participates in a form of existence that is in need of redemption; it is by embracing this fact that it renders itself fit for redemptive reading.

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To Repair the Ruins

Reading Milton

edited by Mary C. Fenton and Louis Schwartz

Recent John Milton scholarship has seen a revival of interest in the practice of close reading: historically and theoretically informed attention to the author’s poetic and rhetorical style. Responding to this emerging trend, To Repair the Ruins examines how close reading functions as an act of recovery, an attempt to close the gap between past and present, or as an act of repair that uses the past to reenvision a ruined or fallen present. In this volume’s 12 essays, esteemed scholars offer fresh perspectives on the significance of close reading for Milton criticism, presenting both new topics in Milton studies and new ways to read and think about previously considered topics. Part 1 of the book calls for revival—for a return to close reading, an exploration of Milton’s undervalued Latin poems, and a reexamination of neglected aspects of Paradise Lost. Part 2 analyzes Milton’s understanding of inward experience and the relationship between reading, self-reflection, and action. Part 3 explores the historical record—medieval Catholicism, Milton’s biography, and seventeenth century religious conflicts—to shed light on forgotten or obscured details central to the meaning of particular texts. Finally, part 4 assesses not merely the author’s reception history, but also the ways in which Milton’s work has been used to address the concerns and even amend the problems of later readers—from politicians to visual artists to prisoners. Each chapter, in one way or another, attempts to bridge the gap between literary and historical studies—between the delight we may take in the beauty, in the unstable, sometimes bewildering proliferation of meanings we encounter in a poem, and the worldly commitments of an author trying to prosecute arguments in a world of policy and ideological or theological conflict. A significant contribution to Milton studies, To Repair the Ruins will also be of interest to scholars concerned with general discussions of close reading, as well as Protestant revisionist poetics, art, environment, and devotional practice.

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