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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.4 (2004) 618-621

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Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature. By Joshua Scodel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. viii + 367 pp.

Long before Aristotle's theory that virtue is a mean between extremes, moderation held an important place in Greek thought; one need only recall the proverb that Milton renders as "the rule of not too much" (Paradise Lost 11.531). Nor do many days pass without the media's reporting some political pronouncement about pursuing middle ways or avoiding extremes. In less skillful hands than Joshua Scodel's, excess and the mean might have degenerated into an inventory of commonplaces from literature, ethics, politics, religion, medicine, and so on. One of the remarkable aspects of this erudite and important book is that its focus on such a familiar, almost banal, opposition illuminates so many kinds of writing, including texts as well known as Paradise Lost and Donne's "Satire 3."

Scodel wisely wishes not to give the impression of a clear development from the celebration of means to extremes during the period that he primarily discusses, the 1590s to the end of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless he does reveal that the celebration of extremes becomes more common by the middle of the century, especially in royalist circles. But he is not interested in presenting a chronological account; instead, he organizes his book thematically and generically.

Since Scodel excels at reading early modern texts in dialogue with their classical models and within their generic contexts, a summary of his work [End Page 618] cannot suggest the rewarding detail of his analyses. But it can at least indicate his exceptional range. In the first of five parts Scodel considers Donne's and Bacon's revisions of the mean. In "Satire 3" Donne rejects the English church's frequent presentation of itself as a mean between Roman Catholicism and extreme Protestantism and establishes a mean of Pyrrhonist continuing inquiry between hasty embracing and dismissing of rival Christian sects. In the verse epistle to Sir Henry Wotton, "Sir, more than kisses," Donne avoids the common glorification of the middle state for the independence to move among the ranks. Bacon is unusually flexible and complex in his use of means and extremes, conventionally arguing that adherence to the mean is necessary to preserve order but innovatively criticizing Aristotelian scientific method as extreme rationalism and maintaining that the extremism of Christian charity motivates his own method.

In the second part Scodel deals with georgic. Spenser, Sylvester, Drayton, and Milton use the contradictions of Virgil's Georgics, which represent the farmer as embodying the golden mean in an Italy of temperance and abundance and as helpless to temper the harsh elements, to challenge monarch and court as the source of national ideals, and to reflect on the promise and perils of England. In Davies, Denham, Waller, and Cowley the tension between the celebration of moderation as the source of social concord and the practice of extremes in conquest and in trade becomes apparent. The third part treats erotic excess in lyric and drama. Despite medical and theological exhortations to moderation in conjugal sex, Elizabethan and Caroline writers—Daniel, Lyly, Lodge, Sidney, Davenant, and Carew—celebrate extreme forms of passion with varying degrees of assurance. Later in the century Davenant, Dryden, and Behn celebrate noble erotic excess as superior to base economic interest. The fourth part of the book devotes much-needed attention to a variety of symposiastic lyric. Scodel analyzes Jonson's ambivalence about drinking as a source of poetic inspiration; the defiant celebration of drunken excess by Waller, Habington, and Randolf; and Herrick's construction of a private realm of intoxication as a reaction to the defeat of the royalists. From the civil war to the Restoration, in Lovelace, Brome, Cotton, and Rochester, symposiastic lyric becomes coarser and sometimes obscene. A pair of sonnets by Milton opposes the celebration of drunken excess by allowing the moderate consumption of wine a limited role at the convivial table. The fifth (and perhaps finest) part focuses...


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