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  • A Most Copious Digression:An Erasmian Analysis of the Rhetoric of Virginia Woolf's Comments on Letters in Jacob's Room
  • Phillip Arrington (bio)

Scholars and historians of rhetoric have variously characterized Desiderius Erasmus's De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia (On Copia of Words and Ideas). Originally published in 1512 and intended for students at John Colet's newly opened St. Paul's School (King and Rix 2005, 2), De copia has been lauded as "the most widely used textbook in England," "reaching a far wider readership than many of [Erasmus's] other publications" (Sowards 1958, 123; Taylor 1972, 16, 3); as "the standard work on rhetorical dilation," although Erasmus himself "was not a professional rhetorician" (Conley 1990, 120); and as a major "contribution" to the general study of "style," even advocating the cultivation of style for its own sake (Kennedy 1980, 206)—an intent Erasmus himself openly denied in a letter to one of his friends (Sloane 1991, 115, nn. 3–4).1 Recent scholars, however, have tried to stress Erasmus's dual interest in both stylistic and inventive copia (Sloane 1991; Arrington 2008, 186–87) and the "Protean" theory of "language and literature" underlying what only appears to be a "rhetorical treatise," since the work's form "exceeds the limits of [Erasmus's] overt intentions," given the author's own "commentary" on [End Page 543] the "subject matter" itself (Cummings 2014, 183).2 While admitting his De copia may be too "clever" (quoted in Sloane 1991, 117, n. 19), Erasmus nevertheless revised it up until the end of his life and valued it enough to place it "first in his catalogue of published works" (Jardine 1993, 144).

But does Erasmus's Protean theory "exceed" the author's intentions in other ways? Could it also offer what scholars have so far neglected to recognize, a useful method for demonstrating how and whether any text achieves copia? Precisely because Erasmus understood that language (verba) was as "Protean" as knowledge and thought (res), he might not be unhappy that any critic should ask if a writer's text evinces that "golden stream … overflowing" in both stylistic and intellectual variety (2005, 11). As I have argued elsewhere, "Erasmus's Copia is not about style at all … but about verbal, textual, and even ideational mutability … a transformational grammar long before anyone had heard of … Noam Chomsky … a 'generative' rhetoric long before anyone had heard of Francis Christenson" (Arrington 2008, 179–80). One way to support this assertion would be to select a text quite different from those written in Erasmus's own time, and quite different from those he hoped Colet's students might compose, a text from an already acclaimed author whose writing perhaps many would not even think of as "rhetorical." To do this, I've selected a short section on letter writing from Virginia Woolf's 1923 novel, Jacob's Room. My aim is to show that the rhetorical impact this section arises from Woolf's tightly integrated stylistic and inventive copia. If my demonstration is convincing, Erasmus's Protean copia may have far more analytical potential than scholars and historians have recognized or yet tried to explore.


This view of Erasmus's famous work, I realize, clearly departs from most scholarly characterizations. The De copia's acknowledged transnational reach and popularity may have been symptomatic of "the cult of eloquence" which "had been growing in significance since the time of Petrarch and Boccaccio" (Rix 1946, 603; Sowards 1958, 125). The physical condition of used copies of the book would indicate far greater interest in the first seventy pages, focused on a copious style, than on the copia of invention in the later pages (Baldwin 1944, 25). But the De copia's real importance, R. R. Bolgar suggests (1954, 273–75), [End Page 544] may lie in providing an inside look into how humanism re-shaped the writing "process" that Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, and others learned in school, because, for Erasmus, copia is both a "literal and figurative expression for writing itself" (Cummings 2014, 185), and this meaning cannot be fully appreciated if the second half of Erasmus...


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