My scholarly work focuses on the functions and limitations of mimesis in early modern poetry, the relationship between poetry and other art forms, and the distinctiveness of poetry in function, technique, and sonic and visual form from other categories of literature. I have explored these issues in relation to the histories of genre, book publication, and the reception of individual authors.
My new book, Solitude and Speechlessness: Renaissance Writing and Reading in Isolation, is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press. The book is devoted to the loneliness of writing for strangers in the English Renaissance, observing that many poets accepted the futility of their explicit or immediate purposes, resigned to a poor reception from ungenerous patrons and unmoved mistresses, but having often a longer-term secondary goal in mind: an ambition directed at posterity. I argue that the sense of alienation that comes from writing and reading outside of known literary communities implies a model of poetics relevant to both the early modern and current eras in which literary value is defined more by the relationship of a poet with earlier writers and unknown readers than by his or her immediate circumstances.
Poetic image and the limits of mimesis
My previous book, The Unimagined in the English Renaissance: Poetry and the Limits of Mimesis, was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 2013(Amazon; UT Library). The book is about description and image in Renaissance poetry, but focuses not on descriptions that present a vivid image to the reader’s mind but on those that seem to avoid doing so. Against the ancient and still active tradition that poetry is painting in words, it argues that poetry is most poetic—most distinctive from other forms—when its goals are not visual. Recent criticism has tended to address representation as a product of culture; The Unimagined argues instead that attention to description as a literary phenomenon can complicate its cultural context by recognizing the persistent problems of genre and literary history. The book focuses on Sidney, Spenser, Donne, and Milton, who had very different aims as poets but shared a degree of skepticism about imagistic representation. For these poets, description can obscure as much as it makes visible, and can create whole categories of existence that are outside of visibility altogether.
A somewhat different version of Chapter 2 of this book was previously published as “The Indescribable Landscape: Water, Shade, and Land in the Bower of Bliss” in Spenser Studies 25 (2010), 79-108.
Myths of music and poetic genre
I have written a series of articles arguing that tributes to music in Renaissance poetry, and assertions that poetry descends from or aspires to be music, are deliberately exaggerated as part of a complex and deeply ironic defense of poetry’s distinctiveness as an art form. These articles contend that current criticism is too much in the spell of the kind of thinking that resulted in Walter Pater’s statement that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” arguing to the contrary that music’s mythical effectiveness needs always to be countered by the aesthetic capabilities that are unique to literature. This work includes the following articles:
- “Literary Listening: Shakespeare, Pater, and Song in Print,” Shakespeare Quarterly 65.1 (2014).
- “Donne, Britten, and the Honesty of Song,” John Donne Journal 31 (2012).
- “Sweet Imperfection: Milton and the Troubled Metaphor of Harmony,” Modern Philology 106.4 (May 2009), 617-47.
- “‘Keep Your Measures': Herrick, Herbert, and the Resistance to Music,” Criticism 48.3 (Summer 2006), 323-46.
Adam in doubt
My first book, Milton’s Uncertain Eden: Understanding Place in “Paradise Lost” (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), argues that the act of description is so crucial to the interpretation of place in Milton and so intertwined with poetic history that the theology of Eden and Heaven cannot be separated from the problem of describing them. Unlike other recent books that treat place in Milton from an ecological or theological perspective, the book considers the poetics of place, and its impact on genre and on mimesis. The book sharply diverges from both sides of the Milton debates of recent decades, arguing against Milton’s theological orthodoxy, but simultaneously differing from most heterodox accounts of Paradise Lost by focusing on Adam’s curiosity and ambivalence about his surroundings and questioning the ultimate significance of Satan for the interpretation of the poem.
Links: Routledge/Amazon/UT Library
Chapter 2 of this book was previously published as “‘Thine Own Inventions': The Environs of Imagination in Paradise Lost 7 and 8,” Milton Quarterly 39.1 (March 2005), 23-44.