Age of Iron: English Renaissance Tropologies of Love and Power.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. xviii + 314 pp. $55. ISBN: 0-8071-2246-7.
Age of Iron takes a cultural approach to seventeenth-century English literature, with emphasis on the writings of Donne, Jonson, Marvell, Milton, and the Book of Common Prayer. Like other good cultural critics, the authors use culture to illuminate literature and literature to illuminate culture. Unlike many cultural critics, they posit that in the early modern period culture was inseparable from religion. Oswald Spengler argued as much in his Decline of the West. Without the basic belief, conviction, and energy a living religion provides, civilization turns into an empty shell. Carrithers and Hardy do not mention Spengler and might prefer not to be associated with his conclusions. But they concur that, in a traditional society, culture is essentially religious. As a result, they offer a way of seeing the English seventeenth century from which postmodern critics might draw a useful lesson: "We understand religion as the ocean, so to say, while economics, court politics, law, even literature were the currents , the waves, the whitecaps, even sometimes the foam, always to be known within the underlying religious context." "Religion, therefore, is not merely a topic to be studied ... but is the matrix within which all the others occurred and within which contemporaries understood subjects now seen as essentially secular." Not just religion itself -- in sermons and devotional poetry -- but almost any topic of study, such as "Parliament, the Jacobean stage, colonization, or the draining of the fens," is best understood within that "matrix" (i).
Carrithers and Hardy posit two other big ideas. First, as their subtitle suggests, they understand that people within a culture are motivated by two large forces, sometimes but not always opposite: love and power. A common weakness in New Historicism is instinctively to understand the subtlety and reach of power but to ignore the eminence of love. Signs apparent to earlier historians, for instance that Queen Elizabeth was widely loved by her subjects, are seen as tricks and disguises of power. Similarly, distinctions vanish between public allegiance and social control, love and desire. There were reasons why Elizabeth could generally rely on the love of her subjects while James and Charles could not. One, the authors argue, is that Elizabeth was sufficiently confident in herself to permit laughter at Accession Day tilts (65) and at court, whereas James was too puffed up. "Elizabeth I based her entire iconologic program on love, whether courtly, chivalric, religious, or divine
.... The Stuarts, by contrast, spoke to their subjects in the language of power" (96). By way of illustration of their relative popularity; "One must not forget that the largest spontaneous London celebration between 1603 and 1641 came when Charles returned from Spain without a Spanish bride" (94).
The authors' second big idea is that people at that time instinctively thought and wrote in tropes. Their discussion is shaped by four major tropes: theater, journey, defining moment, and ambassadorship. They see them not as literary devices but as ways of viewing the world, "habits of thought," in Debora Shuger's phrase. I would add that, for people in the late middle ages and high Renaissance, analogy was not only a trope but an aspect of reality itself. The best explanation of deep-level tropological thinking I know, for modern readers who lack the habit and cannot recognize its presence, is Ralph McInerny's important study, Aquinas and Analogy. Our modern way of seeing the world derives ultimately from John of Ockham and nominalism. Although belief in the reality of universals and in an analogical metaphysics declined in the seventeenth century, it was still fundamental.
Of the remaining chapters, I shall focus on the Book of Common Prayer, which the authors discuss mainly as theater. The theatrical trope concerns power, disguise, artificiality; conversely it enacts love and uncovers reality. Even the enemies of theater recognized that potential when they preferred the true theater of God's Revelation to the false stage. The authors say their experience shows that "Few are intimately familiar" with the Book of Common Prayer, few immerse themselves in its rituals or view them imaginatively (98). Having myself participated in Anglican liturgy for many years, including daily chapel at school with occasional incense and plainchant, I can second their testimony. Just as one cannot well understand Shakespeare without ever seeing his plays staged, even less can one understand the Book of Common Prayer without participating in its rituals--as did Donne, Herbert, and many early readers. It was not just a book imposed by Laud, it was ritual theater, in which most people immersed thems elves, daily or weekly. One error the authors surprisingly fall into is to underestimate the similar power of the Mass. Studies by Scarisbrick, Duffy, Haigh, Bossy, and others confute Cranmer's remark that Latin kept it from being "understood of the people."
One unpalatable lesson this book gently implies is that critics lacking religious experience may be "color blind" to important aspects of early modern culture and writing, to borrow a recent British historian's analogy. If Carrithers and Hardy are right, that will be true even if such critics steer clear of sermons and overtly religious works. Just as Donne, Jonson, Marvell, and Milton were immersed in early-modern habits of thought, so we are immersed in contrasting late-modern habits of thought. The best early writers did not succumb to their habits abjectly; nor should we.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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