- Reading Sensations in Early Modern England
The double-entendre of Katherine Craik's title is a fine introduction to her clever and well-considered book about both physical and emotional sensations as they relate to reading practices. Craik has done careful thinking about her subject matter and produced a study that familiarizes her readers with both the thinking [End Page 1026] of early modern English theorists on the subject and her own interpretations. Craik reveals more about the ways early readers and authors interacted with their books and experienced their reading. I was most impressed by her final chapter: "Touching Stories: Richard Braithwait, Thomas Cranley and the Origins of English Pornography." Here, Craik takes her subject matter to its furthest reaches, making academics consider the implications of definition.
The book is straightforward in its structure —an introduction, an afterword, and six chapters that describe increasingly physical reactions to the reading experience. Craik relies heavily on Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry and uses Sidney in many of her chapters. Sidney acts as a litmus, in some cases, for the authors and their concerted awareness of sensational effects on readers.
Moral and educational theorists inhabit the introduction and the first chapter and reinforce the contemporary belief in the power of reading to produce very physical (and visible) effects on the reader. Beginning with Plutarch, Craik connects reading habits to civic virtue: "Attentive acts of reading change dramatically a young man's private state of mind and, in so doing, alter his conduct in society at large" (1). These effects may be positive, but the danger arises when young men read for pleasure, a problem made particularly acute because poems themselves are "independent agents" (2). Literary texts create their own environments, offering the reader an object that can be held, touched, read, and also consumed: they enter the body and mind of the reader. Since the mind's processing is not just internal, these experiences can translate the reader, creating embarrassing and deviant behavior. For this last she discusses the work of Thomas Wright and Henry Crosse, conduct writers who theorize the intellectual and moral implications of pleasurable as opposed to scriptural reading habits.
In chapters 2 and 3, Craik deals specifically with Sir Philip Sidney and analyzes both his theory and practice of emotional-physical incitement of readers. Starting with the poetic theory, Craik uses Sidney and George Puttenham to discuss how defenses of English poetry carefully explored the ways that reading could have stimulating properties, claiming that instead of prescribing against sensation, moralists should welcome such involvement with texts. Poetry, both the reading and the writing of it, could actually improve the manners and integrity of young gentleman. Looking next at the dangerous emotions that can be evinced through literature, Craik chooses the incitement to choler for her look at Sidney's writing. She begins with a very insightful comment about Sidney's own tendencies as the "angry young man," then uses the New Arcadia for the bulk of her examples. Yet while Sidney clearly believed that passion and pleasure were key to inspiring men to fight bravely, he also recognized that the romanticizing of war was deceptive.
Picking up on the potential for insincerity —or at least inadvertently misleading emotive literature —Craik moves to John Donne's Anniversaries and Devotions for a chapter on grief. Considered the most dangerous of the humors, melancholia was supposed to have been alleviated through the "Medicaments of Elegy." Important to the cultural context of Craik's claim, discussions of changes [End Page 1027] in ecclesiastical views of death and the afterlife play an important role in her discussion of Donne's management of his emotive poetry. Changing attitudes toward mourning based on shifting ecclesiastical positions about death and the afterlife complicate the project of Donne's writing. Donne personalizes and complicates the author's role by insisting that true sorrow can be approached only by recognizing how illness and suffering "both articulates wrongdoing and betokens...