Discourse Analysis and Literary Study: Aemilia Lanyer's "Epistle" as Sample Text

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The humanistic scholarly tradition in the West has reflected what might be called a forensic probabilism: that is, individual scholars have tended to argue through undefined modes of judgment and from unspecified kinds of evidence, with truth claims being validated through their long-term success with subject-matter initiates. While postmodern literary and cultural scholars profess to have left this model behind to become discursively and ideologically self-aware, most do not study discursive functioning, and often continue the long-standing humanist paradigm, only in new terms. The current "cultural materialism" approach, for example, tends to derive analytical categories from physical things: properties of staging become keys for interpreting drama, production aspects of books or manuscripts are seen as the origin of cultural meanings, or the human body becomes a master code-form for interpretation. While such work is profitable, it needs to be supplemented by more diversely heuristic approaches, as Terry Eagleton notes:

There is a third way, between thinking of ideology as disembodied ideas...and as certain behaviour patterns. This is to regard ideology as a discursive or semiotic phenomenon. And this at once emphasizes its materiality (since signs are material entities), and preserves the sense that it is essentially concerned with meanings....[revealing] ideology less as a particular set of discourses, than as a particular set of effects within discourses. (194)

Other critics who have revised the concept of discourse formation include: Frederic Jameson with his study of ideologemes; Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe with their analyses of how ideological groups form through discursive processes; and Gunther Kress and Robert Hodge, who study social phenomena as discursive. None of these is resurrecting Foucault's discourse formation in its early structuralist sense of something with systemic rules that "assume control...of their institutional basis," as Jurgen Habermas paraphrases it (Discourses 267-68). Instead, such critics see discourse domains as sites of ideological contestation, where regimes of communication constantly change in the flux of material and social forces (Hodge 17).

Early modern texts are especially useful for trying out such study, both because their values and ideologies are distant enough from us to make textual marking of them easy to note (though not to interpret), and because early modern studies include a long tradition of analyzing language features. In the present essay I will illustrate one mode of discourse analysis, studying an instance of the defense-of-woman treatise, situated in a domain of patronage practices in the first Jacobean decade (1603-12), wherein the specific field is speech and writing about the "nature of woman." My text is the prose epistle "To the Vertuous Reader" from Aemilia Lanyer's 1611 Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum ("Hail, God, King of the Jews"), a book of poems including a dream vision of female masquing, a gender-revisionist biblical narrative, and a country-estate poem of female companionship. While partly addressing merchants, gentry, and their wives, the book was mainly directed toward high court ladies, primarily Margaret Russell Clifford, Dowager Countess of Cumberland, who had briefly employed Lanyer (and she obviously hoped might again).

The discursive surroundings of the Salve Deus were certain political and religious lingos, written genres, and oral practices. The Elizabethan predecessor version of this domain had included sonnets, epistolary forms, conduct and marriage manuals, Ovidian epyllia and other verse narratives, attack/defense-of-woman treatises, and paratextual genres such as dedications and prefaces (for a taxonomy of paratexts and their functioning see Genette). The early Jacobean version of Lanyer's time dropped some genres but added others: among client-enunciated ones were attack/defense treatises, panegyrics, epigrams, erotic lyrics in intimate speech modes, elegies, verse and prose epistles, and "inventions" spoken in parlor games; patron-enunciated genres included song lyrics, masques and pastorals for family events, and occasional verse for family, friends, or clients. …


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