While among the most common of Renaissance genres, the epigram has been largely neglected by scholars and critics: James Doelman's The Epigram in England: 1590-1640 is the first major study on the Renaissance English epigram since 1947. It combines awareness of the genre's history and conventions with an historicist consideration of social, political and religious contexts. Tracing the oral, manuscript and print circulation of individual epigrams, the book demonstrates their central place in the period's poetic culture. The epigram was known for brevity, sharpness, and an urbane tone, but its subject matter ranged widely; thus, this book gives close attention to such sub-genres as the political epigram, the religious epigram and the mock epitaph. In its survey the book also considers questions of libel, censorship and patronage associated with the genre. While due attention is paid to such canonical figures as Ben Jonson and Sir John Harington, who used this humble (and sometimes scandalous) genre in poetically and socially ambitious ways, the study also draws on a wide range of neglected epigrammatists such as Thomas Bastard, Thomas Freeman and "Henry Parrot". More subject than author-oriented, epigrams often floated free, and this study gives full attention to the wealth of anonymous epigrams from the period. As epigram culture was not limited by language, the book also draws heavily upon Neo-Latin epigrams. In its breadth The Epigram in England serves as a foundational introduction to the genre for students, and through its detailed case studies it offers rich analysis for advanced scholars.
Based upon a wide reading of funeral elegies of the period 1603 to 1640, this book approaches the genre in a new way, first, by focusing on the dead individual and his or her immediate context, and secondly, by exploring how elegists move far beyond lament, commemoration, and consolation. With a daring unruliness, of both form and matter, these poems use the death as an opportunity for ethical reflection, political comment, and even satire. Under the power of grief, the poems digress into sharp criticism of individuals, the broader culture, centres of power and other institutions, and even the world itself. Each chapter focuses on the funeral elegies prompted by the death of one person or a group of similarly situated figures. The book explores a wide variety of elegies and offers roughly equal attention to print-based poems and those solely manuscript-circulated at the time. In the process, it explores the developing norms of the genre and its relationship to other commemorative forms, including the epitaph, funeral sermon, and funeral monument. It considers how the circumstances of a death challenge poets to adapt the rhetorical resources of the genre to unusual situations: the death of political prisoners or of a much-resented royal favourite, or death by suicide. In particular, the book focuses on the contentious funeral elegies that emerged during the intense political controversies of the 1620s. The study proceeds largely by using the terminology and understanding of genres/norms that were part of these texts themselves or their immediate reception.
This chapter outlines the tradition of the epigram in the Classical, Medieval and Renaissance periods, with particular focus on the influence of Martial, Catullus, and the Greek Anthology. Despite the genre’s reputation for licentiousness and cynicism, it came to be used for a wide variety of subjects. However, a commitment to brevity and sharpness of wit distinguished the genre regardless of subject and was often noted by Renaissance theorists. The chapter also explores some more limited influences, such as the medieval proverbial epigram, on the Renaissance use of the genre.
This chapter considers the epigram in the period in relation to a range of proximate and competing genres, including satire, the jest, the libel, the sonnet, and the character, and the distinction between the epitaph (a sub-genre of the epigram) and the elegy. It also examines the range of terminology that was at times applied to the epigram, and the meters and forms most often associated with the genre.
This chapter explores the contexts, both educational and convivial, in which many epigrams were composed and initially circulated. The genre's central place in the educational practices of the period was particularly significant; it helped establish an “epigram habit” that poets took with them into later life, one that solidified the genre’s place in the literary landscape of the period. Overall, the university context, as reflected in the epigrams of Degory Wheare and Charles Fitzgeffry, was particularly significant in fostering epigram composition.
This chapter considers the topical and ephemeral origins of individual epigrams, and how some came to circulate widely, both by word of mouth and as posted poems. Epigrams sometimes worked as part of the oral news culture of the time and epigrams might be scrawled or posted on well-known public sites. Such free-wheeling circulation also led to a high degree of textual stability. The chapter includes a section on the influence of the Roman figure of "Pasquil" on the epigram culture of Britain, and case studies of epigrams (by Andrew Melville and Sir John Harington) in circulation.
Chapter 5 examines the nature of different types of surviving manuscripts -- authors' working copies, collectors' miscellanies and gift manuscripts -- in which larger numbers of epigrams appear. Working copies of collections (such as those by Thomas Freeman and William Percy) were often were a stage towards publication or the presentation of a collection to a friend or patron, as in the cases of Francis Thynne and Sir John Harington. Other epigrams, after circulating independently, found a place in miscellanies, sometimes scattered amongst other types of poetry, at other times gathered in one part of the manuscript.
This chapter describes the dynamics of print publication of epigrams: their typical printed format, their place in the print market-place and the sequencing of large numbers of epigrams. Poets offered a variety of rationales for print publication (including appeals to the precedent of Martial) and often manifest anxiety about appearing in this more public medium. The ephemeral quality of so many epigrams also raised doubts about the appropriateness of publication. The licentious and at times libellous quality of epigrams sometimes led to censorship, as in their inclusion in the Bishops’ Ban of 1598. The generally ‘low’ nature of the genre complicated appeals to patronage in the dedications of printed epigram books. These concerns and challenges are explored through case studies involving Charles Fitzgeffry, Thomas Freeman and Ben Jonson.
Chapter 7 explores the continuing tension between anonymity and acknowledged or even emphatic authorship of epigrams. The epigram tradition had always more fully connected these poems with their subjects than their authors. The free-floating transmission of these poems meant that they might be either disavowed by their author and left as "bastards" or taken by another and worn as "stolen feathers". A special case was "illustrious authorship", where epigrams came to be "fathered upon" notable public figures as a way of enhancing interest in them. There were, however, English authors such as Ben Jonson and Sir John Harington who more fully asserted their claim over the epigrams they circulated or published. In this they were similar to the more prestigious Neo-Latin epigrams, which tended to be closely associated with their authors.