|On "Renaissance" (Part 2)|
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  7 Aug 2007
Moreover, the poem seems to suggest a certain individualism, even a sort of agnostic sense of the individual's difficulty in determining truth in this world. Even Arthur's vision of the Faerie Queene is brought into doubt: "whether dreames delude, or true it were, / Was neuer hart so rauisht with delight" (I.ix.14). Moreover, the false dream that Archimago sends the Red Cross Knight (I.i) serves to remind readers of the problems in morally interpreting dreams. Arthur simply has faith -- what seems a Medieval attribute. But other passages carry this questioning of truth further. Spenser's knights wander and do not have access to truth: they may try, in Medieval fashion, to do right, but they are inhabiting a Renaissance world -- one with one foot in the modern.
Moreover, Spenser's poetry runs away with itself: he seems to enjoy the image, dwelling on it to the point of undermining his project. Consider the epic's fifth book -- itself an odd concoction that seems to have as its agenda the teaching of the reader not to pity evil, or perhaps merely one's enemies. It is an odd combination of Medieval Christian romance with a virtue that seems to expose not any virtue but the tensions within chivalry and the Christian ethos. But even within this problematic formulation, Spenser's focus on the image over the message seems to get the better of him. Artegall (beginning at V.ii.26) executes Talus, a woman guilty of nothing more than theft. Spenser lavishly describes Talus's beauty even as he has Artegal chop off her hands and feet, then nail them up for all to see.
The Faerie Queene remains an unclassifiable combination of the classical, the Medieval, the Renaissance, and the modern. It invokes the classics and seems an Arthurian romance, but the very structure of this supposed series of moral lessons collapses in a Renaissance -- or even modern -- world of doubt. Moreover, the poem is defined less by adherence to any classical or Medieval forms than Spenser's own indulgence: passages seem out of place and the plot consistently undermining of its supposed goals. Perhaps Spenser simply cannot get it to work, but his failure demonstrates the odd mélange that is the Renaissance.
Although I have already touched on Shakespeare, he is worth mentioning in somewhat more depth. He is most celebrated, perhaps, for his characters: with a few exceptions, he grants even villains interiority, making us understand if not sympathize with them. From Hamlet to Shylock, Othello to Romeo and Juliet, he has left us with a staple of figures that seem shockingly modern. Certainly, this sort of interiority is preferred in the modern period and was not characteristic of the Medieval or even the classical.
Shakespeare has even appealed to the postmodern, as his film adaptations repeatedly show. But this may be seen as a product of his ambiguity, given that his plays were produced for a particularly diverse theatrical audience and that theatre seems to flourish, more so than other media, with such ambiguity -- allowing the audience to sympathize with whomever one wants. But other playwrights of the time were not as ambiguous, and there remains something revealing about the bard -- as well as about our own times -- to the postmodern appreciation of Shakespeare.
At the same time, Shakespeare found great source material in the ancient world. In Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra, he borrowed from histories of Rome. So too, in Troilus and Cressida, does Shakespeare borrow from the Greek. Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus are more fantastical, but still ostensibly classical in subject. And we should not forget plays like Timon of Athens or Pericles, nor poems like Venus and Adonis or The Rape of Lucrece. Particular references to classical authors in Shakespeare are too numerous to mention: scholars have written whole books on the matter. Certainly even this is enough to get a sense for the Renaissance fetish for the classics, even as interpreted or borrowed by a writer whose Greek and Latin was famously lacking.
But Shakespeare was also a product of his time. If The Taming of the Shrew is decidedly non-modern in its view of women, and The Merchant of Venice decidedly not postmodern in its view of Jews, Othello and Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus seem decidedly problematic in terms of race. Shakespeare's king plays do seem to respond to Elizabethan kingship theory. Even his fetishization of Venice, where he sat a number of his plays, was also typical.
Shakespeare, then, was also a mélange of elements which we associate with various eras -- albeit a less odd mélange than Spenser seems to be.
Finally, we may turn briefly to John Donne. Donne's poetry repeatedly juxtaposes different or bizarre elements -- a classic part of what was later dubbed the metaphysical tradition. Consider Donne's "The Flea," in which the narrator -- trying to seduce a woman -- equivocates between their mingled blood in the flea and marriage. From this, the narrator argues that the woman's chastity means nothing. Moreover, he entertainingly argues that for her to kill the flea would be not only homicide but suicide, since she would be killing a part of each of them. It is a rhetorical masterpiece, one that delights and can cause the mind to spin. But it is also one that seems modern -- or so the moderns thought, given their praise of Donne and the metaphysicals.
But, in a move as Medieval as Renaissance, Donne also became a popular preacher and repented his earlier poetry. Moreover, many have traced the sort of bizarre juxtapositions in which Donne specialized to the kind of argumentation practiced in schools of the time -- one that was criticized as focusing on oratory or rhetorical maneuvers over truth. What seems remarkably modern may only have been the outgrowth of a Renaissance curriculum rooted in the classical world. And, of course, Donne makes his fair share of classical references.
Donne's application of these metaphysical conceits to God may seem particular modern in that they seem to place poetry -- even the sort of poetic equivocation typical of metaphysical poetry -- over the divine. But one should remember that the point is generally submission to God on authoritarian terms -- a point Donne made, using some of the same rhetorical maneuvers associated with metaphysical poetry, as a preacher. Moreover, the sexualization of such a divine relationship was hardly new to Donne: the entire Medieval period had seen a lot of ink spilled as it sought to find poetic works, from Ovid to the Old Testament Song of Songs, as allegorical of the relationship between the human sinner and God.
Donne may seem less Medieval and classical than most, but even he illustrates the same mélange of elements associated with various eras. As in his religious poetry, Donne can seem modern, a man of his time, and even Medieval all at once.
Ultimately, however, "Renaissance" need signify -- at least in English, in which its entomology is relatively hidden -- nothing more than an arbitrary designation for a period, some of the ideas of which are expressed in the term itself. This is hardly, after all, unique. The Restoration might seem a uniquely suited name, but it is worth noting that it was certainly more regressive or backward-looking than the Renaissance: not only did the monarchy return, having been executed in full regalia, but literary forms became more codified in reaction against the excesses of the Renaissance. People still use the term "The Enlightenment," yet everyone understands that the neoclassical and pro-reason strain the term advocates was balanced with Romanticism. We frequently employ the term "Victorian" beyond the bounds of the queen's reign, extending it even into America. But perhaps the term "modern" is the most problematic: it implies the end of the road, the today, and as the distance between us and the modern mentality -- from imagism to cubism -- grows, we are forced into ever more ridiculous configurations like "postmodern" or "post-postmodern." If we can balance those formulations, perhaps we are capable of understanding the tensions implicit in the term "Renaissance."
But perhaps the best argument against "Early Modern" is that it is bland: "Renaissance" has more poetic spice, a certain unique sound to it into which we can write any conglomeration of tensions, be they modern, classical, or something else entirely.
Perhaps, after all, a name is just a name.
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