Peter C. Herman, ed. Reading Monarchs Writing: the Poetry of Henry VIII, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and James VI/I.
This is a very unusual book, two collections in one: the first, a group of scholarly essays that discuss the poetry of the four most noteworthy monarchs from the English Renaissance; the second, an anthology of their poetry. The purpose of the book is obvious: as poets, these kings and queens have been overlooked by scholars, and as monarchs, the fact that they wrote poetry is noteworthy and important. The editor, Peter C. Herman, is undoubtedly right in pursuing this project. The articles are all well-written and provocative. Each article also includes helpful footnotes. It is especially convenient to have the poetry included in the volume itself.
The common argument to the essays is that each of the monarchs used poetry as a means to promote, or at least clarify, his/her royal position. But these are not ordinary poets. Renaissance poetry is self-consciously rhetorical, and the monarchs, even though they exercised positions of power and control, had to be persuasive in enhancing their positions as heads of state. For the literary critic, these multiple implications of the rhetorical stance are extremely important because, first and foremost, we must consider author intention: what did the monarch mean and why did he or she say it? Of course, some critics may argue that all speech is rhetorical, but not to the degree that we see in this poetry. By considering the poetry through its historical context, we catch a glimpse--not just at the text of a particular poem--but also at the thought processes that went into creating that text, giving us an intimate (even psychological) insight into the character of the monarch. For example, Peter C. Herman and Ray G. Siemans coauthor an essay entitled "Henry VIII and the Poetry of Politics." They challenge the notion that Henry's early court was marked by "festivity and chivalry," but instead argue that the lyrics Henry wrote for these so-called festivities were inscribed within demonstrations of power and politics, and that Henry used his courtly lyrics to further his own public needs. These questions are frequently missed by critics because none of the poems can be associated with specific events, but from the early period in Henry's rule we can see that he was concerned with questions of masculinity, power, and even court surveillance. Based on our knowledge of Henry and his ongoing matrimonial problems, we should not be surprised to learn that his poems also reflect a distrust of women. For example, in the lyric "Whereto Should I Express," the courtly lover, upon his pending departure, tells the woman that through his speech she will be true to him: "You are not variable--/ I love you and no more. / I make you fast and sure." Even through the artificiality of this courtly lyric, we gain access to Henry's thinking about women. Thus it is not just poetry; it is monarchal statement.
Of the four monarchs discussed, Mary, Queen of Scots' poetry is the least well-known, probably because all her verse was written in French. Lisa Hopkins' article, "Writing to Control," describes the influence of Ronsard and the Pleiade on Mary's poetry and explains her sense of intricate wordplay and control of time and space, qualities and motifs that Mary expressed throughout her lifetime commitment to writing poetry. Mary, of course, is the most problematic of the four poet/monarchs presented here, both for her Catholicism and her ambiguous positions of power. From the article, we sense that her place in the world was tenuous, and that she found little space for herself in her several political and religious crises. Her conceptual freedom came from her ability to control poetic language and her direct communication with God, an intimate relationship made important because--as a Catholic--it would have seemed more appropriate to communicate with God through an intermediary, but Mary, as a monarch, was able to communicate directly with Him. A second essay about Mary concerns the nature of her subjectivity. In it, Peter C. Herman describes her sonnet sequence in which she transforms the Petrarchan lover into a female, thus stressing her own subjectivity as well as making herself into an object of desire and power. Unfortunately, monarchs cannot be subjects, so we are left with the sense that Mary's position was ambiguous, and that the ambiguity witnessed in her poetry reflects her uneasy political position.
It is, of course, not possible in this short review to discuss each essay, but hopefully the above discussion will suffice to give a general sense of this book. There are also very interesting essays about the poetry of Elizabeth I and James VI/I, both of whom are discussed within the manuscript and print traditions, so much a part of Renaissance poetry. As to the poetry itself, no one could say that this is the best possible collection of English verse, but it is lively, passionate, and articulate. It also dramatizes the central place of poetry in English culture. Read together, these poems signal their own quality, one that speaks with greater authority than the average poem.
Bronx Community College, City University of New York
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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