Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature

Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature

Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature

Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

While the preceding chapter examined English georgic poems' celebrations of and exhortations to national temperance, this chapter will examine the growing tensions in English georgic poetry between the praise of moderation as the source of sociopolitical concord and celebrations of diverse sorts of extremism. Virgil's Georgics closely associates the temperate farmer and the imperial soldier as the twin foundations of Roman regeneration, thus leaving a complex legacy promoting both restraint and aggrandizement. Many Elizabethan and Jacobean authors—including Spenser, Bacon, and Drayton—celebrate a composite ideal of the farmer-soldier in accents indebted to Virgil and other classical writers. However, English georgic poets increasingly substitute members of the sociopolilitical elite for humble farmer-soldiers as the agents of both national tranquility and power. They exploit the tensions within georgic to suggest that the elite must not only embody and promote the mean for the sake of domestic harmony but must also sometimes practice or promote what was, by traditional standards, immoderation—whether ruthless Machiavellian policy, glorious foreign conquest, or trade in luxuries.

John Davies of Hereford's relatively unknown Microcosmos: the Discovery of the Little World, with the Government Thereof (1603) pointedly replaces the georgic farmer and soldier with the king and his counselor as directors of a national policy that combines virtuous moderation with extreme measures justified by reasons of state. While promoting the ruthless subjugation of Ireland as a georgic imperial mission, Davies also envisions trade as a pacific substitute for the foreign wars celebrated by Virgil. First published in 1642 in response to the tensions immediately preceding the civil war, John Denham's Coopers Hill, which decisively shaped all subsequent English georgic poetry, uses contrasting imagery to advocate both moderation as the source of political concord at home and “boundless” foreign trade and consumption of luxuries. With sublime imagery exceeding the “middle” style often associated with georgic, Denham (like Davies but far more influentially) represents trade as a more beneficent way of increasing national power and plenty than was Roman imperialism. Differentiating between habits essential to domestic politics and to global commerce, Denham celebrates both moderation and self-indulgence.

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