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Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male
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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 1-24

Astrophil is abject. In the best courtly tradition, he pines for a lady who is beautiful and remote -- a mistress who has such power over him that she seems, in the opening sonnet, to mushroom from one into three hard-hearted females: Stella, who ignores him, Step-Dame Study, who offers blows, and a Muse who harangues him and calls him a fool. Before this trebled female presence -- a witchy cabal of personifications -- Astrophil emerges a mere fraction of a man, a weakling who gladly suffers the dictatorship of this "schoole-mistresse" of the heart. In thrall to this "Princesse" (107.10) whose displeasure takes the form of "Thundred disdaines and lightnings of disgrace" (60.4), Astrophil likens himself to the "slave-borne Muscovite" who calls it "praise to suffer Tyrannie" (2.10-1) and to the "slave, / Whose necke becomes such yoke of tyranny" (47.3-4). "Overthrowne" and quite "subdued" (40.8, 12)--the captive of those "lov'd Tyrants," her eyes (42.16)--Astrophil offers up to Stella a "conquerd, yelden, ransackt heart" and a craven soul "which at thy foot did fall" (36.12). Moreover, Astrophil is not only overmastered, the willing victim of a superior power, he is also emasculated. Within the specific gendering of amour courtois, the courtly lover is explicitly a man who is subjugated to a woman -- a situation which puts at stake not only his self-possession but his virility and phallic power. Spineless, beseeching, and at a loss, Astrophil is also -- and more specifically -- feminized, castrated, and unmanned.

The courtly lover whom Astrophil here typifies is not, however, left to languish in this predicament for long. A whole range of critical traditions, as different in their colors as in their complexions, all rush to resuscitate him and restore him to a position of manly honor and self-respect. The courtly lover might be slave to his mistress, but the poet is master of his text. The lady before whom the lover prostrates himself is but the creature of the poet's pen and the enslavement that is the poems' theme is but testimony to the writer's mastery of their form. By means of this tried and tested formula, literary criticism succeeds in rehabilitating the abject male, restoring him to a position of reassuringly manly vigor. As far back as Aristotle, for example, it was recognized that within the tradition of panegyric (upon which the sonneteer draws--"It is a praise to praise, when thou art praisde," [35.14]) the poet's self-abasement before the venerated object of his praise is merely a posture, and that the art of epideixis required such amplification and inventiveness on the poet's part as to provide a well-known platform for the display of rhetorical expertise. A rhetoric of lowliness thus converts into a rhetoric of self-promotion such that, as Joel Fineman puts it, "objective showing" quickly becomes a pretext for "subjective showing off." In his classic study of the poetic tradition in which "the lover is always abject," C. S. Lewis traces a similar move, rehabilitating the abject male and transmuting his language of emptiness and desolation into one of fullness and plenitude. The courtly lover might lack his mistress, but the allegories through which he typically expresses this deprivation offer ample compensation. Not the empty, lifeless abstractions they might at first seem, these allegories of love are, for Lewis, infused with meaning -- a rich inner significacio--and allow the poet to render concrete a vividly felt inner world. Such allegories mark a revolutionary step along the way toward a fully developed poetry of the imagination. No "frigid form," allegory enables the poet to "explore worlds of new, subtle, and noble feeling, under the guidance of clear and masculine thought." In Lewis's narrative, poetic and masculine potency converge, leaving the courtly lover not depleted but the possessor of a deep inner life and the master of a whole new dimension of poetic subjectivity.

New-historicist readings of the Elizabethan sonnet perform a similar miracle of recovery. These accounts show how aptly the traditional scene of a lover...

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