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  • The Challenges of Orpheus: Lyric Poetry and Early Modern England
  • John Mulryan
Heather Dubrow . The Challenges of Orpheus: Lyric Poetry and Early Modern England.Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. x + 293 pp. index. $49.95. ISBN: 978–0–8018–8704–8.

This difficult, jargon-ridden book begins by attempting to define the term lyric as it existed in England during the early modern (here referred to as [End Page 1021] Renaissance) period. The avowed purpose of the book soon shifts from an attempt to define lyric within these contexts, to a description of Renaissance English lyric from a variety of "trans-historical" perspectives. Unfortunately, defining lyric by reference to poems already termed lyrics is clearly question begging. It is not until the penultimate chapter of the book that we are given any inkling of what a lyric poem actually might be. In referring to her selections from the poetry of Wyatt and Herbert, Dubrow remarks on her own difficulty in separating narrative and lyric strands permeating these works, and then continues: "Because of the emotions and the situations generating them, such poems are generally electrified by the emotive intensity often, though not unproblematically, associated with lyric" (205). This is the first we have heard that lyric poems are associated with the emotions. The phrase "though not unproblematically" suggests a problem with lyric as emotion that is not addressed in this book. This is typical of much of Dubrow's analysis. A situation is described as complex, the complexity is articulated, but the author offers no solution, unless one considers hedging phrases like "not unproblematic" as "gestures" (216) toward a solution.

This "problematizing" approach to Renaissance lyric makes The Challenge of Orpheus a difficult read. Unstated generalizations about what constitutes lyric are challenged, even refuted, but one is never quite sure about what is really being claimed for the genre. Thus while lyric is to be distinguished from the epic and dramatic modes, it also exhibits characteristics of both. And while lyric is often associated with the personal and autobiographical, "classical lyrics warn us against the parochialism of making of one's little world an everywhere" (40). One assumes that lyrics are short poems, but there are also long lyrics and lyric poems that are attached to larger units, like cantos or books of poetry. Thus a sonnet is or can be a short lyric poem, but it may also be part of a sonnet sequence. Lyric is often associated with song, but not all lyrics are songs, nor are all songs lyrics. Renaissance love lyrics are often poems addressed to women, but such women can also be reduced to "bystanders" who are listening to comments about themselves overheard by a male audience, or any number of "multiple and shifting listeners" (57). A lyric poem can be private, but also communal. Lyric poems can be centralized in a printed book, or literally marginalized in a manuscript collection. Print culture can also condition the reception of lyric by relocating the poem in a new context, altering the punctuation, or cutting off part of the text. A lyric's authorial integrity can be compromised by the rewriting by other hands in a manuscript, or reinvented through authorial manuscript revision. Lyric poems can come alive through the "voiceability" (94) of ritual chanting, or indeed sanctified when the chanting emulates Protestant psalm singing. Such religious or "devotional poetry is sometimes seen as voicing the words of God" (96). Lyric poetry is known for its "immediacy" (108), but poets can also establish or mark off boundaries between themselves and their readers.

Perhaps Dubrow goes too far in describing the tensions between lyric and narrative as "hostile takeovers" (213) of one mode or another. Still, lyric can advance or impede narrative, can compete with narrative by interrupting it, or [End Page 1022] enhance narrative by creating "a puzzle that narrative attempts to solve" (203). Lyric and narrative come together in poems that "involve allusions to the future, for modal conflation often occurs in a form we might term the 'anticipatory amalgam' inasmuch as in foreseeing events that may occur it blends modes and temporalities" (204).

Thus The Challenge of Orpheus offers many valuable...


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pp. 1021-1023
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Archived 2009
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