Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674.
By Lucy Munro
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013
In the introduction to Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674, Lucy Munro issues a challenge of sorts: "in exploring the uses of not only archaic vocabulary but also outmoded grammatical and metrical forms, I attempt ... to take seriously the cultural work that literary and linguistic style can do" (7). With this claim, Munro lays bare not only her own aims for the work, but also the stakes for the sometimes clashing modes of inquiry that characterize early modern literary scholarship. In her promise to take questions of style seriously, Munro exposes how often these elements are elided. This valuable book shows why style matters, and it also effectively demonstrates how stylistic and linguistic analysis supports the kind of contextualizing "cultural work" that it has long been suspected of ignoring. As Munro maintains, "paying close attention to the self-aware deployment of archaic linguistic and literary forms in early modern poetry and drama does not merely illuminate the individual works in which they appear." Rather, "archaism is a crucial barometer of writers' broader engagements with two forms of temporal process: the history of the nation and the development of literary style" (4).
Munro thus embraces a formidable task: tracking and analyzing literary archaism across a broad swath of early modern English literary history, and linking the use of archaism to questions of the English nation and language as well as to the evolution of a distinctive English literary tradition. In this book, "archaism" is understood as a surprisingly roomy category, encompassing the strategic resurrection of musty English words as well as the calculated deployment of outmoded or historically marked meter, genre, and style. In other words, what we tend to think of when we think of literary archaism in the Renaissance--likely something along the lines of "A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine / Y cladd in mightie armes"--represents only a small part of Munro's study here. Less obvious forms of archaism include the use of common measure, an outmoded and distinctively English meter, the Skeltonic, a rhyme pattern named for the early Tudor poet John Skelton and considered dated by the late Elizabethan period, and fading syntactic forms such as auxiliary "do." Archaic Style in English Literature takes as its focus poems and plays that deliberately engage with archaism as part of their design, positioning these works as "snapshots" of the archaic style in different contexts. Munro suggests that the book is not meant to offer an exhaustive survey of early modern literary archaism, but instead to build a case for the ways in which the use of archaism by early modern writers points to their desire both to lay claim to and to reconstitute their literary and national heritage. This method of presenting an array of snapshots works well, in large part because of Munro's commitment to exploring the impact of literary archaism in canonical and non-canonical works alike. Just as the book aims to normalize the study of style, so does it strive to present a variety of literary works as worthy of analysis. By featuring household names (Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton) together with those requiring a back story (such as the radical Protestant poet Morgan Llwyd and the Caroline prophet Jane Hawkins), Munro invokes a refreshingly expansive catalogue of early modern literature. In its inclusion of non-canonical literary works, the book "insists on both the literary interest of such texts--some periodically dismissed as doggerel or hackwork--and the value of examining works such as Hamlet or The Faerie Queene alongside texts that do similar aesthetic work or aim for a similar imaginative impact" (7).
Like its scope, the book's conceptual terrain is broad. Its approach emerges from recent studies that have also attempted to take seriously questions of language and style--such as Paula Blank's Broken English, Carla Mazzio's The Inarticulate Renaissance, and Russ McDonald's Shakespeare's Late Style--while also building on much historicist work of the past several decades, especially that which considers English nationalism through the lens of early modern literature. Recent productive developments in the language- and style-based work of historical linguistics and stylistics further broaden and enrich the book's conceptual framework. Part of Munro's endeavor here seems to be to extend the boundaries of historicist criticism, both by incorporating categories borrowed from other approaches, and by challenging some of historicism's fundamental tenets. As she suggests, the book "aims to complicate prevailing models through its attention to the temporal instability of archaic style, and its awareness of the extent to which this instability challenges the stable division between past and present on which many historicist readings depend" (12). Central to Munro's argument is the notion that archaism is "unsettling"; because it embodies various contradictions, it works to disrupt linear temporality, generic convention, and aesthetic norms. By calling forth the past, archaism revivifies vanished time in the present, and permits writers access to a shifting and slippery cache of past moments: "The archaizing writer moves backwards and forwards in time, plundering a series of intersecting pasts for material that will suit his or her project" (21). Archaism's effects are similarly multidirectional, combining the staleness of cliche with the vigor of the unexpected: "like the timeworn object, [archaism] can create a range of responses, some ambivalent or paradoxically mixed. Encountering an archaic form might provoke distancing emotions of surprise, derision or awe in readers or spectators, but it might equally incite more intimate feelings of comfort, grief or longing" (28).
The book is organized loosely by chronology (we begin with Old English and end with Paradise Lost), but the analysis tends to move fluidly among various points within the defined period of 1590 to 1674. Each chapter considers a different aspect of archaism, and yet even within these relatively narrow parameters--such as Chapter 2's focus on the influence of Chaucer and Gower, or Chapter 5's look at the effects of archaism on Stuart pastoral drama--the discussion is wide-ranging. In part, this is due to the formal and generic diversity of the literary texts covered. The works analyzed in Chapter 1, which explores the influence of Old English, offer an apt illustration of the wide net cast by Munro; they include two very different plays (Thomas Middleton's 1619 tragedy Hengist, King of Kent, or The Mayor of Queenshorough and William Cartwright's 1635 comedy The Ordinary), William L'lsle's 1628 translation of Virgil's Eclogues, and, finally, poems taken from Irenodia Cantabrigiensis and Musarum Oxoniensium, arcane mid-seventeeth-century miscellanies published by Cambridge and Oxford universities. For the early modern writers behind these dramas, poems, and translations, Old English was both "remote and familiar" (34), the mother tongue rendered uncannily foreign. Munro suggests that in deploying Old English in their work, these writers conceptualize--and challenge--linguistic and national identity. This thesis, like the broad variety of works presented in this initial chapter, also reflects a pattern continued throughout the book: arguments tend to be general and descriptive, illustrated by varied and suggestive examples. The book's introduction hints at its loose theoretical grounding by presenting not one but four capacious guiding theses: 1. Archaism is a form of imitation; 2. Archaic words and styles undermine linear temporality, reconfiguring relationships between past, present and future; 3. Archaism is intertwined with national identity; 4. Archaism is self-conscious and artificial, yet capable of arousing strong emotion (12). The result of this many-pronged approach is that, taken as a whole, the book seems rather more like a rich miscellany than a sharply argued study. Some readers may wish for greater cohesion, or for more conclusive findings; for this reader, however, the assortment is so compelling, and the readings so often sophisticated and revealing, that the loss of some unity is a small price to pay.
One of the book's notable strengths is its focus on the easily overlooked effects of linguistic change, particularly in its attentiveness to the ways that English Renaissance audiences might have understood and evaluated archaism. While contemporary readers tend to pay attention to linguistic difference between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and our own, the critical shifts that were happening within the early modern period itself are often under-acknowledged. Here, Munro trains a shrewd eye on details such as subtle lexical changes, arguing that the use of the word "thou" by radical Protestant poets revived a dying form for their own purposes, signaling an exclusive sort of linguistic code and imbuing an obsolete form of address "with new meaning and social power" (125). Similarly, she shows how early modern audiences could be struck by the indecorous bawdiness of older forms of language, especially in previously innocuous words. The word "jape" illustrates this shift--to Chaucer, the word's primary meaning was "trick" or "jest," while by the sixteenth century, its associations had widened to encompass the act of sexual intercourse, a meaning that "was uppermost in the minds of late sixteenth-century commentators, for whom it had become an obsolete curiosity" (89). Thus, early modern works that incorporate and assimilate Chaucerian diction have something to tell us about attitudes towards the changing English language, and about the temporal instability of language: "Time's erosion of language and its corruption of individual words are two sides of the same coin: processes through which literary status becomes uncertain, and through which an early modern writer's poetic forebears might become lost" (91).
In one of the book's strongest chapters, Munro takes on the intriguing question of archaism in religious writing, the primary site of engagement with archaism for most early modern audiences. The book's theses are complicated here somewhat by the fact that religious writing depended on archaism in a way that other writing did not. To use archaic terms or forms--such as common measure, a meter associated with ballads and Psalms--was to assert a sort of authenticity and to make a claim on proximity to sacred sources. In early modern culture, there was a tendency to associate "religious language with linguistic stasis" (110); religious writing was seen as fundamentally bound up with the archaic. Yet Munro suggests that this seemingly straightforward relationship is in fact better characterized as a complex network of associations. When writers of religious texts use archaism, they gesture toward familiarity, comfort, and immutable truths, but at the same time archaic words and forms retain an anxiety-inducing unruliness, with their potential to "take on meanings unintended by the original authors or translators" (113). Munro also shows how strategic archaism can represent a bold sort of boundary crossing. When Catholic poets like Robert Southwell and Gertrude More adopt archaic forms like four-teeners and common measure, they forcibly insert themselves into a specifically Protestant English literary tradition; their use of archaism thus becomes a powerful statement of inclusion.
Munro's work also shines in its capacity to cast new light on seemingly exhausted arguments. The book's final chapter, "Archaism and the 'English' epic," is predictably the most conventional in terms of its subjects; Spenser and Milton, the two writers synonymous with English epic (and whose respective epics provide the brackets for the time period under consideration), loom large. Yet even along this well-trodden path, surprises await. Munro suggests that Milton's deliberate archaism in Paradise Lost is even more extensive and resonant than prevailing critical assumptions allow. The chapter also offers a sophisticated analysis of Spenser's use of archaism in The Faerie Queene, and it features a particularly incisive and delightful reading of the effects of the Middle English "dight," a word that had a significant range of meanings available in the sixteenth-century, and which Spenser exploits to signal that his work is at once contiguous with and distinct from prior epic traditions.
The book's coda reemphasizes the value of disrupting strictly linear notions of literary history, for "writers do not merely build, step by step, on the works of their immediate predecessors, but cut back and forth between distant past, immediate past and a host of intermediate paths, drawing on established classics and rediscoveries alike" (241). For readers negotiating this complex network of literary and linguistic influences, Archaic Style in English Literature is a welcome and illuminating guide.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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