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Barbarous Antiquity: Reorienting the Past in the Poetry of Early Modern England.

Barbarous Antiquity: Reorienting the Past in the Poetry of Early Modern England

By Miriam Jacobson

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania

Press, 2014

Early in Miriam Jacobson's impressive new study of Eastern imports and English poetry, she contrasts our contemporary approach to the reading of poetry with the early modern approach:
   Although poetry is always drawing attention to its sinews and
   musculature, today we are supposed to wrestle through this
   infrastructure to arrive at a poem's meaning ... But early modern
   language was neither transparent nor fixed in meaning, nor was
   composition distanced from the physical exertion of writing and
   printing as much as it is in our digital age. Though this could be
   said about all poetry, early modern writers and readers in
   particular demonstrated a heightened awareness of the "thingness"
   of words, not only as building blocks of text but also as marks on
   a page and as imports from other countries and cultures. (15)


Barbarous Antiquity examines the nature of early modern English poetry--above all, its semantic flexibility and "thingness"--at a crucial moment in its development. In the late sixteenth century, Jacobson argues, the growth of English trade with the Ottoman Empire coincided with a waning in the authority of Greek and Roman literary models. The fruits of this trade (new goods from Constantinople, Persia, and India) furnished English poets with new words and images that they, in turn, imported into their representations of classical antiquity. In the poetic imagination, then, the eastern Mediterranean became a kind of palimpsest, with visions of the classical world bleeding through at one moment and visions of the Ottoman world blotting them out at another. Although English writers generally found the growth of Ottoman power disturbing, many also found this double vision of the East useful as they progressed from close imitation to freer adaptation of classical literary models. "In this way," Jacobson writes, "the classical antiquity represented in early modern English poetry became newly barbarous" (1).

In each chapter, Jacobson "reorients" a central text by focusing on the imported words and images that helped its author to "remediate" the classical past. Chapter 4, for instance, explores Shakespeare's descriptions of Arabian horses and Turkish bulbs in Venus and Adonis, images that mark the poem's main points of departure from its Ovidian source. Other chapters uncover connections between George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie and sugar, Ben Jonson's Poetaster and inkhorn terms, Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece and the lately introduced concept of zero. In the final chapter, Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman's Hero and Leander oozes with pearls, dyes, and ink. Tracing the etymology of key words, the origin of imports (e.g., sugar from Crete, the concept of zero from India), and their presence in English life, Jacobson develops a rich picture of a cosmopolitan literary culture eager for "strange things and stranger words" (4). To give voice to this culture, she enlists not only poets and playwrights but early modern monarchs, merchants, naturalists, and travelers, as well as the authors of manuals on horticulture, cooking, and horse breeding.

Why these things and texts? Barbarous Antiquity considers imported objects and technologies that fit into Bruno Latour's category of social mediators, things that "reconfigure] the markets and culture into which they [are] imported" through a material change (128). Latour contrasts mediators with intermediaries, which "indicate] a change through an abstract, symbolic relationship" (16). Silk stockings, to use Jacobson's example, were once intermediaries in so far as they "symbolized upper-class luxuries"; then nylon, the material development that made stockings more widely available and changed their symbolic value, emerged as a mediator (16). Jacobson argues that words and poems, which are typically intermediaries, can also become agents of change, "mediating between the ancient classical past and the contemporary mercantile present" (17). She illustrates this point nicely with a reading of Edmund Spenser's translations of Joachim du Bellay's Les Antiquitez du Rome. Tracing Spenser's uses of the words antique and antic--which could be spelled, and perhaps also pronounced, alike during this period--she explains that Spenser capitalizes on ambiguities in spelling to communicate his powerful, and characteristically Protestant, ambivalence about Rome. Thus, in his translations, a single homonym mediates between the eternal city (antique) and an early modern Rome that is grotesque, barbarous, and dark [antic).

As for the texts, Ovid sits at the heart of Barbarous Antiquity because of his early modern status as a "counter-classical" poet (10). That is, in the violence and subversive sexuality of his poems, he offered early modern writers both a classical model to resist and a paradigm of resistance. Hence, "[e]arly modern poetic remediation" not only makes frequent use of Ovid's poems but "is Ovidian in nature" (11). Ovid's otherness is established in the book's first chapter, which deals with imitation and neologism in Jonsonian poetics. Here, Jacobson highlights two scenes of purgation in Poetaster: the banishment of Ovid (the character) and the moment when the "eponymous poetaster" Crispinus is "forced to vomit his neologisms" (41). In her reading of the banishment scene, Jacobson argues convincingly that Ovid's poetry was understood in this period to double the contaminating force of the Eastern lands to which he was banished. Not without Ovidian sympathies, Jonson exiles Ovid reluctantly, and his treatment of Crispinus reveals a similar ambivalence toward "inkhorn" terms, which included foreign words as well as naturalized Latin and Greek. At the play's end, Jonson, like Gabriel Harvey and so many writers of the period, delights in his own invented words, even as he wags his finger at them.

Jacobson's method proves fruitful throughout this study in that it allows her to provide fresh readings of major texts while respecting the variations in their authors' attitudes toward classical models. For Puttenham, at one end of the spectrum, exotic poetic forms (e.g., Turkish poems shaped like imported candy lozenges) supersede the authority of classical models. At the other end, for Shakespeare in his narrative poems, Eastern imports make possible subtle and respectful revisions to Ovid, helping Shakespeare to offer readers some consolation for the sad fates of Lucrece and Adonis. Both Shakespeare chapters are strong, but Chapter 3, "Publishing Pain: Zero in The Rape of Lucrece," is especially virtuosic, following both the cardinal number and the unhappy heroine on their long journeys to England. As they meet in Shakespeare's poem, Jacobson finds ciphers hiding seemingly everywhere: in the Os of exclamation on the page, in Lucrece's body, in the round cameos and engravings that carried her throughout early modern Europe, and even in the pool of blood that surrounds her in death. Ultimately, "the poem's Os, circles, zeros, and ciphers allow the poem discursively to liberate Ovid's heroine from her sentences of invisible evidence, silence, and death, supplying a voice for her in print" (89). Also especially recommended is the book's epilogue, which looks ahead to seventeenth-century English commerce in Africa and the Americas, and in which the very poems under discussion in the preceding chapters "assume the roles of foreign imports" (25).

Barbarous Antiquity deserves recognition for its many accomplishments, and not just from those of us who admire the Elizabethan polygraph Gervase Markham or who believe that marzipan has perhaps the best etymology in the OED. It is, first and foremost, an exemplary study of poetry and material culture, in that text and object consistently arise to illuminate one another, with neither receding into the role of mere annotation. Jacobson's principles of selection allow her to tell an integrated story, focused in equal measure on English poetry and on the English interest and participation in global trade. Binding this story together are those individual words (e.g., sweet, orient, and subtlety) that belong to the realms of both commerce and poetics. Barbarous Antiquity also demonstrates that English fascination with the Ottoman world took a different form in early modern poetry than in drama. Where previous studies have explored on-stage representations of Eastern ethnic types (e.g., the "savage Turk"), this study finds that poets tended to register England's Ottoman preoccupation in imported words and images, though their interest was no less keen for being subtly encoded. The exception to this pattern, as Jacobson notes, is The Faerie Queene, in which Saracens are to be battled, not bartered with. Fortuitously, Lee Manion has taken up just this aspect of Spenser's epic (i.e., its participation in the tradition of "medieval crusading romances") in his recent book, Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature (2014).

Finally, Barbarous Antiquity is elegantly written. Although seriously engaged with historians and literary scholars, Jacobson never lets them overstay their welcome in her prose. Her reading is deep, and her corrections to earlier scholarship are judicious. Only one aspect of her main argument calls out for further development. Eager to contrast servile imitation with liberated "remediation" of classical texts, Jacobson offers a rather flat portrait of humanist attitudes toward imitation. Remediation, with its focus on materiality and social change, may yet prove the right model for what late Renaissance poets did to classical texts, but some attention to their own paradigms of imitation would only have made that aptness more evident. Simply to have acknowledged what G. W. Pigman has called "the bewildering variety of [Renaissance] positions" on imitation, as discussed either by humanists (e.g., Bartolomeo Ricci) or modern scholars (e.g., Thomas Greene), would have bolstered the case for applying this model to these texts.

The study also has one recurring flaw: Latin and Greek words and passages are awkwardly handled. We read, for instance, that the English word barbarous "was originally a classical Latin term for invading northerners" (7). True, some English writers may have naturalized the word from Latin, but it derives originally from a Greek word for all non-Greeks. Losing this layer of the word's history, Jacobson also loses an opportunity to discuss the concept of the barbarous other as part of the inheritance of empires. In a similar lapse on page 181, Jacobson claims that "the Latin root of flood is fluvus [sic], or river." Fluvius may be distantly cognate with flood, but it is not, according to the OED, its root. Other errors interrupt larger arguments. A mistranscription on page 50 [bii should read dii) compounds the confusion of a misattributed quotation (from Heraclitus of Ephesus, not the Book of Ephesians). A mix-up on page 141 (lentus, not ferre, means "unyielding") derails a sentence that would correct a mistranslation in Golding's Ovid. Of the five words in Greek characters in the main text (13,175), not one is both correctly spelled and accentuated (e.g., on pages 13 and 142, where the infinitive [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "to make," is meant, we read [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], presumably a misspelled and wrongly accentuated accusative form of the noun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Not all of these errors are equally distracting, but they are conspicuous in a study whose first declared method is philology.

Still, these are infrequent irritations in an otherwise excellent book. Jacobson's elegant readings shed light on both major texts and authors, words and things. As a result, Barbarous Antiquity reveals an early modern English poetry that is not only more cosmopolitan and sensuous but also more personal and moving.
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Author:Shapiro, Aaron
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:1874
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