Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature

Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature

Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature

Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature

Synopsis

Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature looks afresh at major nondramatic texts by Donne, Marvell, Browne, Milton, and Dryden, whose digressive speakers are haunted by personal and public uncertainty. To digress in seventeenth-century England carried a range of meaning associated with deviation or departure from a course, subject, or standard. This book demonstrates that early modern writers trained in verbal contest developed richly labyrinthine voices that captured the ambiguities of political occasion and aristocratic patronage while anatomizing enemies and mourning personal loss. Anne Cotterill turns current sensitivity toward the silenced voice to argue that rhetorical amplitude might suggest anxieties about speech and attack for men forced to be competitive yet circumspect as they made their voices heard.

Excerpt

Then he was more happy in his digressions than any we have nam’d.
I have always been pleas’d to see him, and his imitator, Montaign,
when they strike a little out of the common road: For we are sure to
be the better for their wand’ring.

(John Dryden, ‘The Life of Plutarch’, 1683)

Digressive Voices in Early Modern English Literature begins and ends with the intellectual and imaginative pleasures of narrative wandering. Famous for his digressions and eloquent about their pleasures, John Dryden sounds the themes of this book even more exactly, however, a decade after ‘The Life of Plutarch’ when he links ‘sweet’ digressiveness to self-defence. In his dedicatory epistle to Francis, Lord Radcliffe, prefixed to the miscellany Examen Poeticum (1693), the poet turns aside to defend himself and English drama from recent attacks and acknowledges his excursion twice before he returns reluctantly to the miscellany’s contents: ‘This, my Lord, is, I confess, a long digression, from Miscellany Poems to Modern Tragedies: But I have the ordinary Excuse of an Injur’d Man, who will be telling his Tale unseasonably to his Betters’; two pages later he announces, ‘I will not give my self the liberty of going farther; for’tis so sweet to wander in a pleasing way, that I shou’d never arrive at my Journeys end’. My subject is how writers transformed the sweet liberty of digression, the insubordinate ‘Straggler’ of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), to create a complex form of underground writing and of selfdefinition in some of the richest non-dramatic texts of seventeenthcentury England. Such a pointed use of digressiveness in the period has not been recognized.

John Dryden, The Works of John Dryden, vol. xvii, ed. Samuel Holt Monk (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), 277.

John Dryden, The Works of John Dryden, vol. iv, ed. A. B. Chambers and William Frost (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), 367, 369.

George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie: A Facsimile Reproduction (Kent State, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 1970), III. xix. 240.

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