English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Week One

Of the three books I mentioned last week I was thinking of reading next (C.S. Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Greer Gilman’s Moonwise and Cloud and Ashes, and Stephanie Burt’s The Poem Is You), I’ve selected English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, and I’m more than a third of the way through (I think I’ll try to be done by next week, so I’ll have to step it up a bit).

So far, I’ve learned many things about the book’s topic, I’ve been reminded of some things about Lewis, and I’ve learned more about myself as a reader.

About the subject matter (I’m reading about Drab Age verse at the moment):

  1. I like CSL’s classifications of late medieval, Drab, and Golden. It’s a simple and seemingly effective scheme (to know whether it’s actually effective would require more knowledge of the period than I have). Late medieval verse is verse from the early fifteen hundreds, usually in typical medieval genres on typical medieval themes in typical medieval language, and it tends (in English verse; in Scottish, Lewis argues, there is a great deal of sophistication and skill) to be extremely irregular in meter, to the point that Lewis suspects that scansion was a lost art during this period and poets aimed for rhyme alone. Drab Age verse contains regular meter (indeed, perhaps excessively regular meter), little extravagance of image and metaphor, and too many proverbs worked into the verse; Lewis argues that there’s a lot of bad Drab Age verse, but that the best is the best because of, not despite, its restraint. Golden Age verse, meanwhile, is beautiful and rich in metaphor (he assigns Spenser and Shakespeare to this period). He assures the reader that “drab” is not meant in itself to be a disparagement, since there is excellent Drab Age poetry (in limited quantities), and that “golden” is not meant in itself to be a term of praise but rather to describe something like innocence in the writing of the time: he writes that poets, having at last mastered the mechanics of verse, turn first to the most beautiful, “poetic” subject matter before such subject matter becomes cliche. He adds that it is natural that the Golden Age will fade: in his words (Lewis’s metaphors are one of the things I appreciate most about his thought and writing), “honey cloys and men seek for drier and more piquant flavours” (65).
  2. Of all the works Lewis has discussed so far, and there are many, I most want to read Gavin Douglas’s Palis of Honour. I like the plot as Lewis describes it, and I love CSL’s description of Douglas as doing the poetic equivalent of exuberantly riding a bicycle with no hands. Whee!
  3. Skelton, whom I singled out for a bit of mockery in a previous entry, really did write very near the nadir of English verse in the century. Lewis says he is “the only poet of that age [the late medieval period in England] who is still read for pleasure” (133). It says something about both the period in which Lewis wrote and the company he kept that he thought any early sixteenth century English poets were read for pleasure by people other than specialists. However, leaving this aside, he views Skelton as a bit of an anomaly; Skelton’s characteristic form (irregular two- or three-beat lines that take up one rhyme for as long as it will last, then another, then another, known as Skeltonics), in Lewis’s opinion (and I think I may agree) is well suited to light or satirical topics and topics “treating immature or disorganized states of consciousness” but fails at more serious matter (142).

About CSL:

  1. CSL is a very, very good, clear, funny, witty, accessible, evocative writer.
  2. There is also an earnestness in him that is….unpretentious? Childlike? Humble? Embarrassingly delightful or delightfully embarrassing? He freely and without apparent shame enters into disputes with writers and movements from earlier centuries; he is actually moved by what he reads and willing to admit it. He cares and doesn’t care whether it’s “cool” to care. In college I wrote that Lewis was cute because That Hideous Strength is so nearly fanfiction, including as it does elements of Middle Earth and a main character who is extraordinarily difficult not to see as Charles Williams; I found his fannish enthusiasm highly sympathetic but “more fitted to a little nineteen yr old girl [i.e., me] than a renowned, serious middle-aged scholar.” Whatever this ingenuousness of Lewis’s is, and I expect it is a deliberate effort on his part at humility and sincerity, I value it enormously and hope to emulate it—even if its results occasionally make me laugh.
  3. Lewis is refreshingly and delightfully skeptical about all proposed historical explanations of the changes in literature and the “metanarratives” (to use a term that came along after him) about the Reformation, humanism, the Renaissance, “progress,” and growing scientific knowledge. He is at pains to point out in his introduction the complexity of the period and the fact that tendencies we see as contradictory often coexisted within the same figures. Even after complicating preconceptions about the sixteenth century, he points out that although “the picture which I have tried to draw in this introduction is no model of neatness [….] we may be sure that, along with all its other faults, it is too neat, too diagrammatic, for the facts” (63). This strikes me as extremely astute and rather postmodern of him (suspicion of overarching historical narratives is one thing called “postmodern” that I like a great deal—possibly in large part because of him)

And about myself:

  1. I so like reading writers who have opinions and state them openly.
  2. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is in large part (though far from exclusively) like a travel guide that offers descriptions and reviews of the sights to be seen, rather than an analysis or broader description of the territory, and, given that I’m not in the process of reading most of the literature he’s describing, even his incisive and witty reviews grow a bit monotonous. I greatly appreciate that his taste, his gut, and his common sense guide him in his appreciation of literature, but I think I may wish there were more complex abstraction in his writing as well.
  3. I have a terrible memory for names of and information about the minor (or occasionally even major) poets CSL discusses.  This is a shame, because I was hoping to get a slightly more detailed mental map of the period than I seem to be getting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.