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  • Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation
  • Alessandra Petrina
Greg Walker . Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. x + 556 pp. index. $65. ISBN: 0-19-928333-8.

As the captivating title shows, Greg Walker's book charts the development of writing in England from a first stage of Henry VIII's reign, when the king was seen as the ideal, benevolent ruler, to a second phase when his tyrannical attitude became ever more pronounced: 1527 is the watershed. This development is represented by writers and scholars devoted to a wide range of intellectual pursuits: editing medieval texts (William Thynne and Sir Brian Tuke), writing drama (John Heywood), compiling mirrors for princes (Sir Thomas Elyot), and composing lyric poetry and translating biblical texts (Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey). Thus Walker gives voice to a fascinating dialogue between literature and politics, implicitly offering a definition of the humanist writer as endlessly engaged in the attempt to offer his prince a model for good government.

Thynne's edition of Chaucer's works is described as "the literature of counsel calling for a return to accommodation at court" (56). The scholar refuses recent interpretations underlining the revolutionary character of this work, and redresses the balance by restoring Tuke to his role in the enterprise, though it seems far-fetched to claim for him an equal share of the editorial work. Though the decision to republish Chaucer's works may have had political motivations (spelled out in Tuke's preface), it is rather strained to read "The Knight's Tale" as suggestive of political advice to Henry VIII; after all, it was not written with this particular monarch in mind. Walker is on safer ground when he discusses works actually written during the reign of Henry VIII. One answer to growing tyranny is the speculum principis, and this is analyzed in the central and most authoritative chapter, dedicated to Thomas Elyot. The Renaissance model of advice for princes, Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince, focusing on the advisor rather than the prince himself, confirmed the great humanist illusion on the centrality of the [End Page 941] scholar-philosopher. Elyot's career is reconstructed against his attempts to rise in the political sphere and in the favor of the king, and in the larger context of Henry's parable fall from king to paranoid tyrant. Walker analyzes all of Elyot's works as an instance of the changing attitude of the humanist advisor faced with the growing indifference of the ruler. The medieval tradition of advisory writing teaches us that the writers themselves sometimes doubted the efficacy of their treatment: the Fürstenspiegel was a homage to a patron who would not always read it. Walker seems to believe both in the attention of the late medieval king to the literature of counsel, and in the disinterestedness of the writer who composed and presented it (the word patronage is never used), though this might be true in Elyot's case.

The last section focuses on Wyatt and Surrey, and here, though firmly grounding his discussion on intellectual history, Walker leaves room also for textual analysis, offering the reader an elegant and illuminating commentary on some of Wyatt's less-frequented works, such as his Paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms or the surprising "My Mother's Maids." The overall purpose of the book may unduly lead the interpretation of the individual text: it is difficult to share Walker's opinion that "The Soot Season" contrasts "the stable continuities and spontaneous renovative energies of the natural world . . . to the anxious sterility of the courtly subject" (428), as the only reference to the self in the lyric ("my sorrow springes") does not warrant such a reading. This remains, however, a minor flaw in a compelling work, and might be ascribed to the writer's reluctance to leave out issues that, though interesting, are marginal to the central topic (as is the case of the Shakespeare quotation on p. 10).

The historical background is richly and painstakingly documented by a staggering quantity of sources, including archival material examined with care and insight, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0236
Print ISSN
0034-4338
Pages
pp. 941-942
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-27
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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