Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry

Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry

Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry

Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry


James Biester sees the shift in late Elizabethan England toward a witty, rough, and obscure lyric style -- metaphysical wit and strong lines -- as response to the heightened cultural prestige of wonder. That same prestige was demonstrated in the search for strange artifacts and animals to display in the wonder-cabinets of the period.

By embracing the genres of satire and epigram, poets of the Elizabethan court risked their chances for political advancement, exposing themselves to the danger of being classified either as malcontents or as jesters who lacked the gravitas required of those in power. John Donne himself recognized both the risks and benefits of adopting the "admirable" style, as Biester shows in his dose readings of the First and Fourth Satyres.

Why did courtier-poets adopt such a dangerous form of self-representation? The answer, Biester maintains, lies in an extraordinary confluence of developments in both poetics and the interpenetrating spheres of the culture at large, which made the pursuit of wonder through style unusually attractive, even necessary. In a postfeudal but still aristocratic culture, he says, the ability to astound through language performed the validating function that was once supplied by the ability to fight. Combining the insights of the new historicism with traditional literary scholarship, Biester perceives the rise of metaphysical style as a social as well as aesthetic event.


Stated simply, the purpose of this series is to study rhetoric in all the varied forms it has taken in human civilizations by situating it in the social and political contexts to which it is inextricably bound. The series Rhetoric and Society rests on the assumption that rhetoric is both an important intellectual discipline and a necessary cultural practice and that it is profoundly implicated in a large array of other disciplines and practices, from politics to literature to religion. Interdisciplinary by definition and unrestricted in range either historically or geographically, the series investigates a wide variety of questions; among them, how rhetoric constitutes a response to historical developments in a given society, how it crystallizes cultural tensions and conflicts and defines key concepts, and how it affects and shapes the social order in its turn. The series includes books that approach rhetoric as a form of signification, as a discipline that makes meaning out of other cultural practices, and as a central and defining intellectual and social activity deeply rooted in its milieu. In essence, the books in the series seek to demonstrate just how important rhetoric really is to human beings in society.

James Biester Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry offers a compelling account of the rise and decline in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries of what he calls the "admirable style," a style that is traditionally referred to as "metaphysical" and whose most prestigious practitioner was the poet John Donne. The appearance of this style, Biester argues in his introduction and first chapter, is due to a confluence of social and political as well as aesthetic developments. Living . . .

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