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  • A Ciceronian Sunburn: A Tudor Dialogue on Humanistic Rhetoric and Civic Poetics
  • Michael West
Edward Armstrong . A Ciceronian Sunburn: A Tudor Dialogue on Humanistic Rhetoric and Civic Poetics. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. xiv + 224 pp. index. illus. bibl. $44.95. ISBN: 1-57003-614-4.

This is a rather confusingly titled study of the interrelations between Tudor works on rhetoric by William Temple, Abraham Fraunce, George Puttenham, and Lodowick Bryskett (whose Discourse of Civill Life is formally a dialogue), the prose and poetry of Sidney and Spenser (including the annotations of E. K.), and the works of Ramus and Cicero, especially the De oratore, in which the latter sets forth his views in a dialogue between Antonius and Crassus. Antonius claims that reading historians colored his speech with a kind of "sunburn," and Armstrong presents all these works as in dialogue with one another and variously colored by Ciceronian assumptions, just as he himself has been sunburned by Kenneth Burke: "Vaguely unconventional and . . . derivative of the dialogue genre, my method makes modest gestures toward that 'disorderly order' E. K. finds troublesome in poetry" (12), he avers, wisely anticipating that some readers may find it even more troublesome in scholarship.

Armstrong admits that Cicero's influence on Renaissance humanism is hardly news, yet he focuses on linking oratory to poetry through their Ciceronian emphasis on rhetoric as moving hearers to civil action, distinguishing this from the [End Page 1312] Ramist tendency to subordinate it to logic as a form of knowledge. Sidney and Spenser thus emerge as Cicero's true heirs rather than the Tudor rhetoricians colored by Ramus's narrower conception of the art. This thesis has some plausibility, although Armstrong's larger claim — that "rhetorico-poetic discourse" leads more directly to political action and "productive ethical inquiry" (184) than does current literary theory — seems overblown. While lamenting that literary interpretation risks "handing meaning over to a priestly cast of critics 'in the know' about the precepts, conventions, novelties, and complexities that circumscribe and define a particular poetic theory," his own rhetorico-poetic analysis hardly escapes that charge (65).

The most useful sections are those treating the understudied Tudor rhetoricians. The chapter devoted to Bryskett's Discourse clarifies its anti-Ramistic thrust and argues (unsurprisingly) that it shares assumptions with both Cicero and Spenser. By contrast, the Ramistic assumptions underlying E. K.'s commentary on The Shepheardes Calendar are illuminated in chapters 3 and 4. But these two chapters assume without real argument that Spenser himself is E. K., a fictitious annotator whom the poet created to dramatize his deficiencies. Believers in Edward Kirke's authorship may find Armstrong's analysis of the eclogues convoluted and too finespun in rigidly distinguishing Colin Cloute from Immerito, then deducing that the kindly Dido whom Colin laments in "November" "had led an intrinsically meaningless life" in Spenser's view (76). Likewise implausible are Armstrong's claims that in "Aprill" Spenser regards Colin's statement that Eliza's beauty outshines the sun as a "hyperbolic, and hackneyed, comparison" (112) and Colin's flower catalogue as only a "facile, ephemeral, and technically proficient exercise in copia" (202, n. 40) — for in the Epithalamion Spenser celebrates his own bride's eyes as outshining the stars, while the Prothalamion also features a flower catalogue. The chapter on the View of Ireland more persuasively stresses Ciceronian influence by noting its fundamentally political, rather than religious, orientation and its criticisms of English law and vacillating foreign policy. At the end, though, we may wonder why we should condemn the harsh realpolitik Spenser advocated since, applied ruthlessly, it did indeed pacify Ireland for three centuries.

The Ramist mistrust of Spenser's poetry that E. K. exemplifies is echoed in Fraunce's Lawiers Logike and paralleled by Temple's Latin confutation of Sidney's Defence. Astrophil and Stella and book 6 of The Faerie Queene also receive particular attention. Since dialogic form is "imprecise, meandering . . . and informal by design" (33), the index might helpfully have included all technical rhetorical terms discussed at intervals throughout. And Armstrong's concern for logic and rhetoric does not, alas, extend to grammar: "My argument suggest [sic] that the ramifications (or...


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