Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature (Literature in History)

Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature (Literature in History)

Joshua Scodel

Language: English

Pages: 376

ISBN: 0691090289

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


This book examines how English writers from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration transformed and contested the ancient ideal of the virtuous mean. As early modern authors learned at grammar school and university, Aristotle and other classical thinkers praised "golden means" balanced between extremes: courage, for example, as opposed to cowardice or recklessness. By uncovering the enormous variety of English responses to this ethical doctrine, Joshua Scodel revises our understanding of the vital interaction between classical thought and early modern literary culture.

Scodel argues that English authors used the ancient schema of means and extremes in innovative and contentious ways hitherto ignored by scholars. Through close readings of diverse writers and genres, he shows that conflicting representations of means and extremes figured prominently in the emergence of a self-consciously modern English culture. Donne, for example, reshaped the classical mean to promote individual freedom, while Bacon held extremism necessary for human empowerment. Imagining a modern rival to ancient Rome, georgics from Spenser to Cowley exhorted England to embody the mean or lauded extreme paths to national greatness. Drinking poetry from Jonson to Rochester expressed opposing visions of convivial moderation and drunken excess, while erotic writing from Sidney to Dryden and Behn pitted extreme passion against the traditional mean of conjugal moderation. Challenging his predecessors in various genres, Milton celebrated golden means of restrained pleasure and self-respect. Throughout this groundbreaking study, Scodel suggests how early modern treatments of means and extremes resonate in present-day cultural debates.

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distinguish their noble erotic passions from base interest. In The Conquest of Granada (written 1670–1671 and published 1672), the hero Almanzor’s passion for Almahide, first the betrothed and then the wife of the Moorish king of Granada, reveals both his dangerous unruliness and his aristocratic merit. His sexual desire is superior to but intermittently associ- EROTIC EXCESS VERSUS INTEREST 175 ated with contaminating interest. Yet Almanzor also displays a heroic selfsacrifice as lover that is

the speaker loses all sense of particular identity by being overwhelmed by passion: “Who can the kindling fire controul, / The tender force withstand?” By presenting herself as erotic victim, Behn takes on a role familiar from female complaints such as those in Ovid’s Heroides, one of which Behn translated (1:12–19). Yet even leaving aside the male-authored, ventriloquized nature of Ovid’s laments, Behn’s imitation of Horace’s poem concerning a male victim of female seduction forcefully reminds us

itself Nietzsche’s self-consciously extreme radicalization of Enlightenment notions of moral autonomy.91 Subsequent chapters of this book will trace the growing embrace of passionate extremes in early modern England that presage contemporary espousals of “excess.” With his transformations of the mean, however, the young Donne provides a less extreme—and potentially more livable— vision of an early modern self’s relation to his culture. Donne’s deployment of the mean is revealing not only in its

by definition a vice, even though one must sometimes pursue it to reach the mean. Bacon’s cavalier treatment of Aristotelian moral categories betrays his priorities: he is less interested in upholding traditional ethical norms than in promoting the individual’s ability to conquer, by whatever means necessary, his own inclinations and habits. He consequently treats behavioral extremes as far more acceptable devices for self-mastery than does Aristotle himself, let alone later moralists in the

is unworthy of him: For the one is Unbeleefe, the other is Contumely: And certainly Superstition is the Reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather, a great deale, Men should say, there was no such Man, at all, as Plutarch; then that they should say, there was one Plutarch, that would eat his Children, as soone as they were borne, as the Poets speak of Saturne. . . . Atheisme leaves a Man to Sense; to Philosophy; to Naturall Piety; to Lawes; to

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