Masculinity and the Hunt: Wyatt to Spenser.
By Catherine Bates
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013
Anyone who attempts a coordinated reading of the so-called "mid-Tudor" poets, inside or outside the classroom, must contend sooner or later with the singularly weird performance known commonly as "Gascoigne's Woodmanship." In that knotty lyric, the speaker recounts his own miserable resume as a hunter, which comes to pass as a synecdoche for his life's more pervasive inadequacies, amid an effort to recast these paradoxically as actual strengths. In a rather startling critical shift, Catherine Bates's Masculinity and the Hunt in effect removes this neglected poem from its eccentric station in the canon to a spot much nearer the conceptual core of period sensibility. The upshot is a stimulating and remarkably integrated rereading of Sir Thomas Wyatt, George Gascoigne, George Turberville, Fulke Greville, Sir Philip Sidney, and Edmund Spenser.
Since "the hunt" of course endures as one of the most ubiquitous images in our entire cultural vocabulary--and perhaps nowhere becomes more pervasive and complex than in the erotically charged arena of early modern poetry--pursuing the metaphor even across the more delimited field of mid- to late-Tudor verse demands tight organization and focus, skills that fortunately sustain Bates throughout most of her enterprise. More impressive still is the curious application she discovers across the writers surveyed. Armed with the anthropological awareness that the practice's ceremonial importance as a rite of initiation and an index of masculine prowess quickly came to exceed its more primal relevance to subsistence and survival, Bates begins by tracing the paradigm of the "good hunter," whose skill rescues him from both the shame of his inept counterpart and the feral nature of the "wild man," from classical epic down through late medieval romance. She then proceeds to delineate how, unlike the culture heroes of this tradition who ultimately uphold their status even under the most dubious circumstances (as we find in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), the "hunters" we encounter in Tudor literature at best display a fraught relationship with the very gender dominance that their activity ostensibly underpins. The near-programmatic tendency of these writers to fashion personae who "either choose--or are put into positions in which they repeatedly fail--to hit, hunt, or shoot properly and invariably end up getting hit or hitting themselves or tragically hitting the wrong thing" identifies for Bates "the deeply countercultural nature of a good number of early modern texts" (40, 34).
An emphasis on failure is, on the one hand, nothing new to students of post-Petrarchan lyric: the Italian master virtually institutionalized erotic frustration as the principal source of poetic expression for generations of his followers. What is new in Bates's reading is the way that the Petrarchan figure of Cupid simultaneously configures both the "good" and "bad" hunter: never failing as an erotic predator to bring down his prey, yet (as an arch-poetic manifestation of internal desire) never managing to realize his longings. This becomes quickly evident in Wyatt's familiar work--affording the native English audience with its earliest vernacular exposure to the Petrarchan mode--which fittingly inaugurates the book's argument proper. Despite the poet's own reputation for "manly" delivery, Bates observes, Wyatt's speakers prove singularly ineffectual. From the resigned melancholy of "The long love," where the translator interpolates vocabulary of the hunt into the Petrarchan original, to the cautious recusatio of "Whoso list to hunt," to the traumatic reversals of "They flee from me," these personae are left to make the best of situations over which they lack any kind of mastery, subject instead to the violent prerogatives of outside forces. Bates compellingly suggests that, within the ambience of Henrician tyranny, Wyatt can imagine no safe havens, as even the dead mouse--Wyatt's innovation to the old fable--of the second Poyntz satire serves to illustrate.
Bates turns next to Gascoigne and Turberville to find even more conspicuous support for her thesis. Where both The Noble Arte of Venerie and The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking offer exemplary portraits of the hunter, the poets' fictional portrayals and personae again provide different images altogether. Gascoigne's "Green Knight," for example, like the speaker of "Woodmanship," typifies the "familiar shortfall from normative models of masculine behaviour, since his sexual desires are contained neither by marriage nor by the proprieties of respectable middle age, and since, against all advice and good reason, he perversely persists in shooting at the wrong thing" (131). Likewise, Bates contends that "in Turberville's poetry, hunting (in its various aspects) is invariably used to cast the male subject as ineffective or useless" (149). In particular, the lover's misfortunes as a falconer whose bird escapes his command or alternatively as himself the pathetic victim of a mistress's falcon-like predation leave him "routed or disempowered" (163). The briefer, pointed chapters on these two much-neglected literary figures together make a convincing case for their logical place in the company of their more polished contemporaries.
As Elizabethan poetry moves into an even higher gear in the work of both Greville and Sidney, "Desire" itself, in the person of Cupid, becomes a central and somewhat nightmarish representation of a "double bind": the impossible irresolution of desiring to kill desire itself, resembling "the hunter who ensnares himself or ... the lover who sees, as if in some hideous hall of mirrors, the truest vision of himself: a Cupid shooting Cupid" (175). In Sidney's lyric sequence, we witness the poet's design, "in the person of the self-lacerating Astrophil, to draw both aspects together into a single figure whose whole complaint ... is that he is a desiring subject and thus permanently at war with himself" (186). Somewhat more innocuously if no less consequentially, Greville imagines the love god as a "naughtie boy" (perhaps modeled on his schoolmate Sidney) who effectively displaces the mistress herself. In Caelica, we encounter "no such transition from the playful to the serious, no maturing from boyhood to martial or sexual manliness. Cupid's play might be 'only' play ... but play is all he does: he never grows up" (200). This assessment turns over to a broader revaluation of Sidney's masque The Lady of May and his Arcadia, which draws interestingly on the writer's own purported disregard for hunting not as "the sport of kings" but as "a pointless and time-wasting activity beloved only of the boorish and the stupid" (212), and his "characteristic tendency to see things [sympathetically] from the animal's point of view" (224). Her reading culminates in the images of Amphialus--the romance's ill-fated antihero who finally botches even his own suicide, and the autobiographical character Philisides--"the last in a line of these lyric figures who are all born to high estate, all born to shoot and hit, all born to succeed, but who, for all that, are destined for failure, and whose perverse fate finds itself expressed nowhere more accurately than in their uncanny tendency to shoot awry" (236).
Bates's final turn to Spenser's Faerie Queen, the reading of which occupies an entire third of the book, is (suitably) the most ambitious in scope yet also the riskiest in its claims. Much of this has to do with a loosening of focus: as the hunt dilates to encompass matters of the quest, of poaching, of colonialist policy, and finally of the hermeneutic pursuit of meaning itself, the critic's own aims become too diffuse for the thesis's good. Those portions that do remain more specifically on track, however, like the deft reading of Faunus's baiting in the Mutabilitie Cantos, deliver handsomely. And even if her ultimate diagnosis of meaning in the poem as something that always eludes its pursuers--instead remaining (troublingly?) the province of naifs like the Cuddie of the Shepheardes Calender's "October" eclogue or Britomart herself, who "is easily duped or beguiled, who fails to get even the most obvious of literary allusions, who does not know how to interpret allegory, who neglects to read between the lines or to exercise much suspicion or caution, but who presses on all the same" (294)--fails to make the case in a uniformly persuasive manner, her sense that the poem's reader "is destined not to find faery land, not to arrive at any final conclusion, not to master the text, and not to grasp its meaning as a hunter triumphantly bags the prey" (268) rings true.
This breakdown of focus is not the book's sole shortcoming. Always interesting and insightful, Bates's readings at times grow ingenious, and lack the more consistent revelatory character that, say, Barbara Estrin manages in her fine book Laura (a work she respectfully acknowledges). Her periodic recourse to psychoanalytic theory in the discussions of the desiring subject can wear thin. Readers of this journal might especially have wished for a glance across generic boundaries at Shakespearean drama, whose various hunting scenes may well offer some qualification to her assertions. This last would be particularly useful in tempering what I consider the argument's central flaw: a relentlessness that ends up raising a critical eyebrow, as the overview blurs into a suspiciously totalizing portrait of masculine failure and insecurity. But for all that, Bates suitably shakes up our reception of these poets, and presents her thesis with conviction and grace. Any subsequent revaluation of the material will need to reckon with her forceful reassessment.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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