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Conceived Presences: Literary Genealogy in Renaissance England.

Professor Falco's study of literary descent in the English Renaissance takes as its title and epigraph Franciscus Junius' comment, in The Painting of the Ancients (1638), about the importance to contemporary artists of the "conceived presences of ancient and the true presence of modern masters." Ancient models, it is implied, could partially be imagined, but recent ones were "true." Falco's contention is that even recent exemplars were problematic for English writers of the sixteenth century, for whom the native vernacular literary past felt inadequate and who first turned to continental models such as Petrarch, Tasso, Castiglione, and Ronsard. In the later part of the century native writers themselves - especially Sidney - achieved the stature that made them worthy if ambivalent models, and it is this development on which Falco focuses, following several scholars (including Walter Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom) who have shown that any writer's relationship to his forebears involves conscious or unconscious differentiation as well as imitation.

As Falco traces this theme, by far the most substantial chapters are the two that follow his lengthy introduction - not coincidentally the two sections previously published in major journals. The first of these deals with Sidney, tracing in interesting detail, by analysis of the elegies published after his death in 1586, the change whereby he was idealized first as a military and chivalric hero - a strategy also intended to buttress interventionist policies in Protestant Europe - and only later as a literary figure, a "precursor from whom to descend" (94).

Spenser's relationship to Sidney, the subject of chapter two, is particularly intriguing and complex, because Spenser's Shepherdes Calender, often taken as particularly innovative work for Renaissance poetry in England, actually appeared before the Sidney works that were celebrated by Spenser as seminal in his tributes of the 1590s. This delay represents for Falco a genealogical "back formation": Spenser had to wait several years after Sidney's death to create him as his own forebear - one whom he both praised in "Astrophel" (1595) and criticized for wasting his talents (and life) in military action. Spenser's qualified and delayed praise of Sidney is thus a concrete instance for Falco of a major writer's need to invoke a predecessor who is given the status of traditional authority, and at the same time partly to detach himself from such a figure.

Two subsequent chapters deal with Jonson and Milton. Jonson's relationship to the Sidney family forms the core of several poems, most importantly "To Penshurst." Again, the issue of genealogy is a complicated one for a poet whose own descent was not noble though he depended on aristocratic patronage, and who "forged" his kinship with earlier poets in both senses of this double-sided word. Milton for his part was the first major writer (according to Falco) to take his literary past as a given, and who could therefore enable his own followers to "get on with the business of overthrowing their predecessors" (207). For Milton, excellence inhered not in heredity but in election; it could be obtained only by merit, not ties of kinship. Milton's distaste for genealogy can be seen, for example, in the downgrading of chivalric and heraldic "trappings" in the first and ninth books of Paradise Lost.

Falco's study is a free-wheeling one that circles around its topic in associational rather than sequentially developed ways. This is particularly evident in the last two chapters and the introduction - the parts of the book, one suspects, that were added to give broader context and significance to the more careful and limited analyses of the chapters on Sidney's followers. To this reader, these broader sections are the less satisfactory. On the basis of limited examples - a few lines in Penshurst or Lycidas - the largely mythological "Herald of the Sea" who makes a brief appearance as a mourner in Book One, Falco draws very large conclusions connecting his authors' literary and social values. The word "genealogy" becomes overused; it is not clear, for example, why the flawed heroes of Book One of Paradise Lost are a "renounced genealogy" or "family tree to repudiate" (180-81) - except to reinforce Falco's rather loose thesis by a kind of verbal cement. But the author nevertheless shows that kinship, real or imagined, is important in multiple ways to the authors he discusses.

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Author:Lyons, Bridget Gellert
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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