The Emergence of the English Author: Scripting the Life of the Poet in Early Modern England.
Working with questions Foucault raised in his essay "What Is an Author," Kevin Pask addresses the development in England of a genre: the "life of the poet." He traces the role of literary biography in the construction of the concept of the "name author," exploring the process through which vernacular poets acquired their cultural prestige, the negotiations over the grounds of that prestige, and the social implications of the "cultural capital" accorded these poets by writers of their life-narratives. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, Benedict Anderson, and John Guillory in addition to Foucault, Pask argues that the emergence of the "life of the poet" in early modern discourse signified the new authority accorded vernacular literature, an authority concomitant with the rise of a self-consciously national culture.
Pask devotes chapters to Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, Donne, and Milton, uncovering transformations in the narratives associated with each writer from his lifetime through the eighteenth century. The discussion of Chaucer sketches a transition from medieval to early modern constructions of authorship, then explores the negotiation of Chaucer's cultural authority in the more or less fictional biographies affixed to printed editions of his works. The debate, Pask argues, was between a school-based humanist classicism and a court-based preference for a vernacular Hochsprache, the spoken language of the educated classes; the vernacular wins, with Chaucer's rise to the position of national poet resting on claims for his innate Englishness. With Sidney, Spenser, and Donne, early life-narratives subordinated their subjects' status as poets to more normative social roles: Sidney was portrayed as the exemplary aristocratic hero, Spenser as a literary client of Sidney's, and Donne as a religious divine. As Pask points out, the transitions from one form of authority to another reveal interesting social changes: the rewriting of Sidney and Donne as poets, for example, "occurred along with the derogation of their earlier cultural authority" (5) as hero and clergyman respectively. Spenser received no significant life-narrative in the period, likely because (as Pask argues) he lacked a source of cultural capital other than poetry. Pask consequently focuses on patronage relationships, in particular on efforts to authorize Spenser by linking him with Sidney; the discussion effectively questions claims that this client/patron relationship also involved a close friendship.
The final chapter begins with Milton's conception of his life as a narratable "life-work," but soon moves to the story that Milton had his daughters read him books in languages they did not understand. Pask uses the story as an entry into eighteenth-century debates over the public sphere, domestic economy, and female education - interesting reading, but subjects somewhat distant from the central focus of the book. The quick abandonment of Milton's scripting of his own "life of the poet" points to a central difficulty with this study: with a few exceptions (such as an extended discussion of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender), Pask pays little attention to what these poets themselves wrote, largely excluding their own self-representations. In addition, for a work that markets itself as literary history, Pask omits the breadth of reference needed to make his book truly historical; after all, these five were not the only poets to receive life-narratives of some kind in the period. Why no mention of Herbert and virtually none of Shakespeare or Jonson? Are there non-canonical poets to whom reference could be made for purposes of comparison? Are there really no potentially relevant documents in manuscript or in Latin? Were "lives of the poets" being written on the continent, a major source of literary models for English writers throughout the period? Pask's discussions of individual writers are intelligent and well grounded, but his decision not to contextualize his case studies undermines his announced aim of creating a historicized sociology of early modern authorship and poetic authority.
JOSEPH BLACK University of Tennessee
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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