Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance

Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance

Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance

Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance


We take it for granted today that the study of poetry belongs in school- but in sixteenth-century England, making Ovid or Virgil into pillars of the curriculum was a revolution. Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance explores how poets reacted to the new authority of humanist pedagogy, and how they transformed a genre to express their most radical doubts.

Jeff Dolven investigates what it meant for a book to teach as he traces the rivalry between poet and schoolmaster in the works of John Lyly, Philip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton. Drawing deeply on the era's pedagogical literature, Dolven explores the links between humanist strategies of instruction and romance narrative, rethinking such concepts as experience, sententiousness, example, method, punishment, lessons, and endings. In scrutinizing this pivotal moment in the ancient, intimate contest between art and education, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance offers a new view of one of the most unconsidered- yet fundamental- problems in literary criticism: poetry's power to please and instruct.


It is the central commonplace of Renaissance literary theory that the purpose of poetry is to please and instruct. Criticism's stewardship of poetic pleasure is not my subject here, at least not directly; what I am concerned with is teaching, toward which our attitude is often confused. Modern critics are intellectual citizens of a long, post-Romantic epoch in which didactic poetry has enjoyed a diminished reputation. We have come to favor other purposes for poems, other ways of reading them, and where a didactic design is palpable we do not feel bound to its lesson—we may indeed feel more obliged to upend it. At the same time, we still speak reflexively not only of what we learn from the writing of the period, but about what this or that book “teaches” us, and versions of the phrase “the education of the reader” are in wide currency. As a matter of critical idiom it is possible to move easily and without much self-consciousness between talking about what a book means and what it has to teach, as though they were effectively the same thing. When this happens, the notion of teaching becomes as broad as meaning itself.

Among the consequences of this confusion is that we can lose sight of just how formidably complicated the relation once was between the enterprises of fiction-making and instruction. For us moderns, poetry and school are on the most familiar, if not the easiest, terms. in the English-speaking world we have had almost five hundred years to get used to the idea that what we now call literature should have a place at the center of the curriculum. in the later decades of the sixteenth century, however, that place was

A note on texts: I have made an effort to cite the most widely available editions, which means
that quotations from earlier periods are sometimes modernized, sometimes not. in the case of
unedited texts, and also of works by Edmund Spenser (whose poetry is customarily printed in
original spelling), I have tacitly modernized u to v, v to u, and i to j where appropriate.

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