Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics

Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics

Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics

Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics


Indecorous Thinking is a study of artifice at its most conspicuous: it argues that early modern writers turned to figures of speech like simile, antithesis, and periphrasis as the instruments of a particular kind of thinking unique to the emergent field of vernacular poesie. The classical ideal of decorum described the absence of visible art as a precondition for rhetoric, civics, and beauty: speaking well meant speaking as if off-the-cuff. Against this ideal, Rosenfeld argues that one of early modern literature's richest contributions to poetics is the idea that indecorous art--artifice that rings out with the bells and whistles of ornamentation--celebrates the craft of poetry even as it expands poetry's range of activities.

Rosenfeld details a lost legacy of humanism that contributes to contemporary debates over literary studies' singular but deeply ambivalent commitment to form. Form, she argues, must be reexamined through the legacy of figure. Reading poetry by Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and Mary Wroth alongside pedagogical debates of the period and the emergence of empiricism, with its signature commitment to the plain style, Rosenfeld offers a robust account of the triumphs and embarrassments that attended the conspicuous display of artifice. Drawing widely across the arts of rhetoric, dialectic, and poetics, Indecorous Thinking offers a defense of the epistemological value of form: not as a sign of the aesthetic but as the source of a particular kind of knowledge we might call poetic.


A dead butterfly, impaled upon a spider’s pincer and trapped in his perilous web—this is “the spectacle of care” with which Edmund Spenser closes his poem Muiopotmos: or the Fate of the Butterflie. Envious of the artistic ease with which he associates all butterflies, Spenser’s spider lies in wait until Clarion, flitting from flower to flower, wends his way into the finely spun net. and then, the spider kills him:

Under the left wing stroke his weapon slie
Into his heart, that his deepe groning spright
In bloodie streames foorth fled into the aire,
His bodie left the spectacle of care.

Trading in the apparently carefree poetics of sprezzatura, “the spectacle of care” combines the exquisite wings of the butterfly—“Painted with thousand colours, passing farre / All Painters skill”—with the spider’s “weapon slie.” Clarion’s careless wings meet the studied labor of the arachnid’s industry. As what is “left” at the end of the poem, Clarion’s spiritless carcass is a remainder of the spider’s revenge narrative, but “the spectacle” of these wings is also an artistic production, a highly wrought display that . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.