This book draws together three areas from which sense is made: rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics. Coming to terms with rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics is essential for understanding not only early modern writing but also a certain influential narrative of modernity. This notion of modernity is not a purely literary one, and the author's discussion has nothing to say about artistic ideas of modernism. The book demonstrates the necessity of reading, but of a reading that is always local, located, limited - always aware, that is, of its limitations. To claim to have read a few texts is not as small a claim as it might at first appear. In the current historicist climate, reading has, like rhetoric, become somehow unfashionable except as a topic for excavation. The first part of the book elaborates the connections between rhetoric, aesthetics and literature. Frequent recourse is made to rhetorical treatises, but equally frequently there are discussions of material that comes from periods other than the early modern, both earlier and later. The second part of the book focuses on either an aspect of the body related to the sense of reading or on the deliberate disavowal of the body and its senses.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book is concerned with rhetoric, poetics and aesthetics as they are to be found in early modern texts, and equally with the thought that allows us to make sense of the early modern as a conceptual category. For Immanuel Kant, aesthetics is a way into the perception, knowledge and judgement of objects. Much of Kant's Third Critique is concerned with nature. As several critics have noted, the increased attention given to apparently undervalued documents does tend to legitimate that attention through an appeal to what such documents can tell us about commonly discussed material, most obviously Shakespeare. The book focuses on either an aspect of the body related to the sense of reading or on the deliberate disavowal of the body and its senses.
The notion of 'showing' implies that there is something to be shown, that there is already something that lies behind the linguistic utterance. Ben Jonson's struggle to control the effects of language, which may be seen for example in his comments on the proper use of metaphor in the Discoveries, is indicative of a wider debate about the nature of language and its relation to meaning or sense. Rhetoric, in both the early modern period and the classical texts from which it took its most powerful ideas, tended to be seen as either neutral or double, that is, as suspect as well as to be lauded. In Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, as Rodolphe Gasché has pointed out, there is a distinct division in his handling of the question of rhetoric.
Aesthetics has been expanded as a term within new historicist discourse to encompass any form of symbolic interaction that is susceptible to critical analysis. Tellingly, in Practicing New Historicism, one of the main impulses behind the authors' approach comes not from within early modern culture, but instead from the German Idealist thinker Johann Gottfried Herder. Thus it locates itself within the ambit of German romanticism or Idealism and its inheritances, seeking to read the early modern in terms of an aesthetic that is post-Kantian rather than being itself early modern. The emergence of aesthetics marks an attempt to make a decisive shift away from discourses of art that focus upon rules and prescriptions, in other words, aesthetics emerges as that which is not poetics or rhetoric.
This chapter focuses on conceptualisations of the relation between literature, aesthetics, history and philosophy as a way of tying together both modern theoretical explorations in Sir Philip Sidney's A Defence of Poetry. Early in her book on early modern defences of poetry, Margaret Ferguson notes that 'the defense as a form calls attention to the existence of rhetorical motives'. Following Kenneth Burke, however, Ferguson also notes that it is very easy to misread such motives unless one pays attention to the particular rhetorical form employed by a writer, whatever the title of a text may lead the reader to believe. Both the modern sense of literature's hollowing out of aesthetic categories, and Sidney's concession of the ground of poetry's truth to its competing disciplines of philosophy and history, lead to the same conclusion.
In their 1980 article 'Wit, Wisdom, and Theatricality in The Book of Sir Thomas More', Charles Forker and Joseph Candido lament the relative neglect of the play by literary critics, and the consequent paucity of readings of the play 'from an aesthetic point of view'. As David Kastan proposes, Sir Thomas More offers one of the most intriguing examples of collaboration that has survived from the early modern period. Not printed in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, modern editions of the play rely upon a manuscript for a source-text, comprising a fair copy in a single hand together with fragmentary additions or revisions in several other hands of making. In Sir Thomas More, More's name is related to a series of significant acts of naming which recur throughout the play, and the connectedness of name and authority is made explicit.
This chapter focuses on an unknown voice, that of the seventeenth-century royalist woman poet Hester Pulter. The female voice has become a common concept in early modern and feminist studies, and is central to many discussions of the relationships between writing and subjectivity. The manuscript that constitutes the only extant version of Pulter's work contains almost one hundred and twenty poems. The compilation of a manuscript such as Pulter's implies a potential readership, even if that readership cannot be identified with any certainty. In a very different poem to be found in the Pulter manuscript, it is possible to read a far less secure operation of voice. While the Essex poem can be read as an attempt to avoid monumentalising its subject, 'On the same' is an elegiac lament for the death of one of Pulter's daughters, Jane.
In William Shakespeare's works, the ear is treated with an ambivalence that cannot be simply idiomatic. The link between a form of self-awareness and the voice makes hearing an intimate sense. Jacques Derrida suggested that: 'Hearing oneself speak is not the inwardness of an inside that is closed in upon itself; it is the irreducible openness in the inside; it is the eye and the world within speech.' Derrida was attempting to account for the familiar association of speech with a sense of intimacy and interiority, and for the privilege of this sense over others within a philosophical tradition which culminates in phenomenology. Poetic invention is linked to notions of organic and sexual productivity but also to incision or penetration, marking a conventional notion of the paternal, disseminatory writer.
Partisan polemic only leads to a blindness to the truth. This chapter discusses Thomas More's representation and focuses on the ways in which truth may be perceived. It examines truth's emergence through a deliberate testimonial blindness. Throughout his book on the posthumous pictorial representations of More, Stanley Morison has frequent recourse to concepts of authenticity. For Morison the origin of the work of art may be located in the known and remembered world, a world in which memory functions unproblematically as a transparent and stable faculty which records in a literal manner. Behind Morison's denial of the Godran picture lies an identification of the artwork as dependent upon its concordance with a notion of mimesis which can be characterised as a reflection of a known and remembered reality.
The author establishes the significance of a concern for rhetoric, aesthetics and the senses in reading early modern texts. Aesthetic as a critical category becomes a crucial area of interest, and the stakes of thinking through the aesthetic seem to author to be of the greatest significance for any attempt, formalist or historicist, to think about writing. As Sir Philip Sidney notes in his peroration to A Defence of Poetry, 'there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused'. This is not a darkness that can be dissolved by a more enlightened criticism, although some forms of reading seem to author to be more illuminating than others. Early modern writing is not closed, completed or finished, it cannot be consigned safely to the past, and no account of it will circumscribe it to anyone's lasting satisfaction.