Academic journal article Studies in Philology

The Contemplative Cosmos: John Lyly's Endymion and the Shape of Early Modern Space

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

The Contemplative Cosmos: John Lyly's Endymion and the Shape of Early Modern Space

Article excerpt

Written at a time when the nature of place was reimagined, John Lyly's Endymion draws upon Neoplatonic theories of desire to present space as a domain continually reshaped by contemplative thought. In his commentary on Plato's Symposium, Marsilio Ficino argues that desire can traverse the cosmos in an ecstatic flight toward the Beautiful and the Good, bringing the contemplative soul closer to its object of devotion. Lyly's play represents this negotiation of earthly and heavenly beauty in Endymion's simultaneous attraction to Tellus and Cynthia, an attraction that locates Endymion somewhere between the earth and the moon. Lyly, in turn, maps the structure of contemplative desire--namely, its uneven distribution across lover and beloved--onto the early modern court, transforming political space into a sphere shaped by devotion. Together, Ficino and Lyly reveal the way that contemplative thought extends itself across bodies and spaces in early modern culture.

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EARLY in John Lyly's Endymion, The Man in the Moon, the eponymous shepherd laments his "mangled and disordered mind," claiming that the distortion of his thoughts lies in his love for the moon. (1) As Endymion explains to his friend Eumenides, he is "settled either to die or possess the moon herself," and his ardor for the celestial body proves tortuous for the way that it stretches Endymion's mind across space: "My thoughts, Eumenides, are stitched to the stars, which, being as high as I can see, thou mayest imagine how much higher they are than I can reach" (1.14-7). The paradox of Endymion's desire, then, is that distance enables and exacerbates his longing. (2) To love the moon is to desire something far beyond one's self, to enter into a kind of affection that blends contemplative ambition with erotic fixation.

Endymion's fascination with the moon posits a complex relationship between contemplative desire and the contours of space, wherein the ebb and flow of amorous thoughts gives the cosmos its shape and solidity. Chiding Eumenides for his skepticism, Endymion implies that the virtue of contemplative desire lies in its ability to map the heavens: "Vain Eumenides, whose thoughts never grow higher than the crown of thy head!" he retorts, "Follow thou thine own fortunes, which creep on the earth, and suffer me to fly to mine" (1.1.78-79 and 81-82). Endymion figures his desire as a form of thinking that extends beyond the body to grasp the limits of the firmament. In ascribing this power to contemplative thought, Endymion draws upon a strand of Neoplatonic philosophy most readily associated with Marsilio Ficino, the Italian philosopher whose influential commentary on Plato's Symposium--known simply as the De amore--theorized the place of desire within the cosmos. As Sears Jayne has noted, Ficino transformed Plato into "a philosopher of love and beauty," articulating a form of contemplative desire that exerted a profound influence upon early modern European culture. (3) Ficino's treatise was translated into several languages, after Ficino composed the work in Latin and then translated it into Italian, and the commentary's figuration of Neoplatonic love was later adapted and disseminated in Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano and other works. (4) For Ficino, as for Lyly, contemplative desire maintains a paradoxical relationship to embodiment and emplacement; it stems from a body that it repudiates, reaching toward a space that it does not fully inhabit.

Through the shepherd's fixation upon the moon, Endymion refashions the discourse of contemplative desire in two ways. First, the play maps Ficino's theorization of earthly and heavenly beauty onto the cosmologically specific forms of the earth and the moon. In this way, Lyly crafts an allegory around the shepherd's desire, suggested through Endymion's simultaneous infatuation with the moon, called Cynthia within the play, and with Tellus, whose name is the Latin word for Earth. …

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