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Thomas More's Epigrammataz political theory in a poetic idiom* There is a bias in the study of political theory towards discursive modes of theorising which is reflected in criticism of the corpus of Sir Thomas More. For historians of political thought the focus of attention is Utopia, with companion works such as The History of King Richard HI and the Epigrammata referred to only incidentally. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the Epigrammata as a work of interest to political theory, and to More's use of the epigrammatic form not only as a vehicle for political expression but as an idiom of a political language whose finest expression was Utopia. This is not to claim for the epigrams a quasi-speculative status but to take the viewpoint of political theory in its widest aspect, that is the study of political discourse and its changes in time. More's epigrams as we have them, seem to have been written between 1509 and 1519. They were first published with the third edition of Utopia in 1518, and revised and partially corrected by More for a new edition in 1520. The Epigrammata of 1520 comprises 253 mostly short Latin poems. The first five were presentation pieces written in 1509 for the coronation of Henry VIII, and 102 others were translations from the Greek Anthology. More took some interest in having his verses published, but their good reception amongst his contemporaries has not been echoed in modern readers. When noticed at all they are likely to be dismissed as practice pieces, amusing trifles or worse: "the Epigrams help us by contrast to seize on what is significant in More", wrote one critic; "they are a large and damning fact both in More and in the educated world" which appreciated them. Perhaps the largest obstacle to sympathetic criticism is the miscellaneous character of the collection. The poems were written over a decade and seem to reflect a variety of interests or even, as Alistair Fox has argued, the recovery of balance in an author given to extremes. How, then, should the epigrams be read — as trifles, exercises in translation and imitation, or as records of a personality on its journey towards integration? More himself gives some help here. In 1515 he wrote in his letter "To Dorp" that publication was more deliberate than composition: Usually we are swept along by an impetuous drive to write. But when we go over something again and again that we have set aside for a time, we act with decision. More clearly acted with decision not only in publishing his epigrams but in revising and correcting them, and in deleting some pieces and adding others for a new edition. It is one thing to write and another to publish: the decisions are separable and their contexts may differ, as in the case of More or John Locke. Without wishing to minimize the importance of More's intentions in writing his epigrams — indeed, they enter into the present argument — this paper focuses on the author's decision to collect them and publish them as one work. And that work, various as it is, remains of 116 D. Grace interest not only to the literary critic but to the historian of political thought. Upon one thing all critics of the epigrams agree: they contain some forceful political comments, especially against tyranny. Bradner and Lynch, the modern editors of the Epigrammata, estimate that there are 23 poems "on kings and government", but these are only the most explicity political pieces. My own reading yields a higher number of directly political poems — 31 — and suggests that many others in the collection are indirectly political. Even on Bradner and Lynch's lower figure, however, the political emerges as the largest and most unusual thematic category in the book, others being more conventional such as the faults of women, the closeness of death and the folly of astrology. Both the number and intensity of More's political poems were exceptional for the time, but most unusual was his use of epigrammatic form. Bradner and Lynch note that while many of his political topoi were "commonplaces of classical and mediaeval...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 115-129
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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