Lyric Provinces in the English Renaissance

Harold Toliver


Literary Criticism / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
247 pp. 6x9

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Poets are by no means alone in being prepared to see new places in settled ways and to describe them in received images. Outer regions will be assimilated into dynasties, never mind the hostility of the natives. The ancient wilderness of the Mediterranean and certain biblical expectations of what burning bushes, gods, and shepherds shall exist everywhere encroach upon the deserts of Utah and California. Those who travel there see them and other new landscapes in terms of old myths of place and descriptive topoi; and their descriptions take on the structure, tonality, and nomenclature of the past, their language as much recollection as greeting.

In Professor Toliver’s view, the concern of the literary historian is with, in part, that ever renewed past as it is introduced under the new conditions that the poets confront, and is, therefore, with the parallel movement of literary and social history. Literature, he reminds us, is inseparable from the rest of discourse (as the study of signs in the past decade has made clearer), but is, nevertheless, distinct from social history in that poets look less to common discourse for their models than to specific literary predecessors. Careful observers of place, they seek to bring what is distinct and valuable in it within some sort of verbal compass and relationship with the speaker. They bring with them, however, formulas and a loyalty to a cultural heritage that both complicate and confound the lyric address to place.

The Renaissance writers who are the subjects of Professor Toliver’s fascinating study—Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughan, and Milton—saw their own localities and historical moments in the figures and kinds of Theocritus, Horace, Martial, Ovid, Virgil, and the Bible—models suggested by a given genre or decorum that provided points of departure from which their imitators were often carried away by a new insight or imaginative excursion. It was not possible for these seventeenth-century poets to know ahead of time what would be salvageable in a new terrain. They could only predict with some certainty that collisions of received topoi and new conditions would be distinctly unsettling; and there is, indeed, a restlessness, a sense of displacement in the wanderings of their lyric personae in remote sites, and in the new terms of address they employed. For they are poets “on the margin,” attempting to decide what to discard as they learn to be new regionalists. Their chapter in the chronological story is of a piece with what is, in the main, a series of abandoned centers and styles. The literary history they enact is not smoothly evolving but highly reactive.

Harold Toliver is Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine.