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Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry.

James Biester. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997. 226 pp. $39.95. ISBN: 0-80143313-4.

In this important study of the rise and flourishing of what he calls the "admirable style," and then its decline and transformation into "a movement in verse technique toward smoothness and facilitas, the 'easy' style credited to Waller and Denham" (157), James Biester is concerned with English poetry from the 1590s to the 1650s, above all with that of John Donne, and with its relation to classical and Renaissance rhetoric and to Renaissance English manners. With the "wonder" of his title, as also with the "admirable" of the style he examines, Biester seeks to reclaim the force of the Latin adjective admirabilis, similar in meaning to the Greek deinos, which "register[s] especially strongly the sense of a response to something that is powerfully affective either positively or negatively, something that so repulses or attracts, or repulses and attracts, that it renders the soul incapable of normal operation. Deinos has an enormous and fascinating range of meanings, including fearful, terrible, terrifying, terrific, mighty, powerful, wonderful, marvelous, strange, able, and, notably, clever" (6).

The admirable style, then, seeks to stimulate in its readers some of these powerful feelings. Of importance here is Demetrius (1st century B.C.), author of On Style, and later critics who recognize "roughness and metaphorical boldness as sources of wonder" (53). Renaissance lyric poets learned from earlier theories of other modes. "Working in a genre that was by definition not narrative, lyric poets could not frustrate the audience's expectations through marvelous scenes of recognition and reversal or through fabulous episodes [as in tragedy and epic]. Instead, they turned to style, to epigrammatic statement, puns, proverbs, hyperbole, and especially to metaphor: these were the means of endowing language with wonderful strangeness that Aristotle had specified in the Poetics and Rhetoric. By adopting roughness, obscure brevity, and far-fetched metaphors, they upset their readers' expectations and duplicated, even if in miniature, the astonishing effect of marvelous tales" (18). Lyric poets, in other words, sought to produce the same effects as narrative poets and dramatists.

None of this happened in a vacuum, and Biester's book provides the broad cultural context for these developments in literary history. The effects of poems ape those of persons. "At the summit of power, the miraculous divine exacts all love and fear; the monarch's reflected but dread majesty similarly depends on the ability to astonish; and the courtier attempts to produce the same kind, if not the same degree of astonishment" (10). In The Book of the Courtier, "Castiglione's analysis picks up the most visible thread running through the tangled tradition of wonder, the value placed on the ability to surprise, to write or speak what is contrary to expectation" (74). What the courtier tries to put into his life, this capacity to produce wonder in the observer, is what the poet tries to put into his verse. In a reading of Donne's Satyre I, Biester shows how the interests of the addressed friend, "thou fondling motley humorist" of line 1, are identical with the poet's own. "The access, position, and favor his friend seeks in the street itself are what Donne seeks through his description of the street, and of his 'friend's' behavior there. Despite Donne's jibes at courtiers and captains . . . the satire lowers its boom most frequently on his own company, on young men in precisely his condition" (91).

Biester acknowledges and makes some use of earlier works that touch upon aspects of his subject, like J. V. Cunningham's Woe or Wonder: The Emotional Effects of Shakespearean Tragedy (1951) and Baxter Hathaway's Marvels and Commonplaces: Renaissance Literary Criticism (1968), but he has written an original and exciting book. There are a few places, however, where the inclusion of examples would have made his argument easier to follow. He has an interesting section on "The Rise of Epigram" (34-38), for instance, where he notes that Renaissance "elaborations on the Aristotelian analysis of poetic wonder . . . also provide another way of understanding why English poets began to abandon the sonnet for the epigram, since the epigram is the lyric form that traditionally depends most on sudden reversal, its small shudder imitating tragedy's grand swoon" (34). Although he examines two of Donne's epigrams twenty pages earlier, a concrete display of what an epigram looks like, what it actually is, whether one by Martial, Donne, Herrick, or (again, for that matter) J. V. Cunningham is needed right here.

Manhattan College
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Taylor, Mark
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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