Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jack Heller: “Quoting Death”

Jack Heller
Huntington University

Book Review

Scott L. Newstok, Quoting Death in Early Modern England: The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb, Palgrave Macmillan (Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York, 2009), xvi + 228 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0230203259. $75.00 (USD).

1> Scott Newstok has the strong affection for epitaphs which John Pietro Pugliano has for horsemanship. The epilogue of Quoting Death in Early Modern England discloses the author’s brief narration of tracking down the burial site of a deceased New Orleans resident two years after Hurricane Katrina. Yet Newstok does not simply rely upon the weak arguments for epitaphs which Philip Sidney says Pugliano gives for his enthusiasm. In chapter six, Newstok offers the disclaimer one may expect to find in the introduction: “Most non-‘poetic’ epitaphs do not merit the close reading normally associated with great lyric poetry—indeed, there might be nothing more to read beyond the word ‘epitaph.’ But,”—and this is the essential argument of Newstok’s monograph—“the placement of these epitaphs matters and is almost invariably significant” (169).

2> Quoting Death is a volume in the Early Modern Literature in History series, which aims to discuss “many kinds of writing, both within and outside the established canon” to see “their texts in lively negotiation with their own and successive cultures.” Most of Newstok’s non-canonical texts are recorded epitaphs themselves, but they bring him to discussions of Donne’s “Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day,”
Jonson’s poems on his children following their deaths, Holinshed’s Chronicles and Stow’s Survey of London, Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, plays by Kyd, Cary, Middleton, Tourneur, and Shakespeare, and elegies by Skelton and Gray. Newstok identifies his methodology as assembling a mosaic of texts presenting or discussing epitaphs, so that, for example, chapter four’s discussion of Holinshed does not obviously lead to chapter five’s examination of Sidney’s Apologie. All of the chapters together, however, give a picture of the place of epitaphs in early modern discourses. In both the introduction and chapter one, Newstok examines the generic conventions of epitaphs; he follows these with chapters on epitaphs in the different versions of Elizabeth’s first speech to Parliament, in histories, in poetics, in plays, and in elegies.

3> To focus on the poetics of epitaphs beyond the tomb, the introduction and chapter one examine the movement of the epitaph from an engraved inscription to recited and resituated elements within early modern texts. This transfer raises questions of about where and what is “here.” On tombstones, “here lies” calls for the reader’s attention, locates the putative speaker (who is also always absent), and points to some message which is to appeal to the reader’s memory. Usually raised as part of these epitaphic discourses are issues of religion, provoked by Catholic and Protestant disputes about the propriety and forms of memorialization, and of property, the space taken by the speaker. Newstok distinguishes the focus of his study as “textual epitaphs,” often only purportedly engraved. Reading textual epitaphs, then, requires attention to their resituation: “What invigorates the epitaph is that it partakes in a mutual interplay between discourses more traditionally historical (a materially-bound response to death) and discourses more traditionally literary (a textually-bound response to death). Locating the epitaph in this manner marks ground where the literal (the body right “here”) and the figurative (“here” involving representation) overlap” (45).

4> Chapter two focuses on what Newstok labels as Queen Elizabeth’s “preliminary auto-epitaph.” In some records of her first speech to Parliament, Elizabeth concludes with the suggestion that her future tomb may be inscribed, “Here lyes interr’d ELIZABETH/ A virgin pure until her Death.” The actual inscriptions on Elizabeth’s tomb make no mention of her virginity. Newstok reads her imagined epitaph as a “rhetorical move with perception-shaping potential” (71). His emphasis is on the textual epitaph’s “promissory quality,” with “a forward-looking rehearsal of a role that, through iteration, came to be accepted as factual” (72). Newstok presents his discussion as forging a middle way between critics who celebrate and other critics who denigrate Elizabeth’s commitment to virginity. The more interesting insight in this chapter is that the epitaph treats her character as if it were inscribed in stone. The “here,” then, is Elizabeth’s political body into which her mortal body is interred. Newstok points out that by presenting her epitaph, Elizabeth steps outside of the legal constraints against imagining the death of an English monarch. He then argues briefly that Elizabeth’s fictional epitaph is a precursor for the creation in the 1640s of satirical epitaphs which anticipate the deaths of various fictional characters. Elizabeth also “contributed, howsoever incrementally, to the conditions that allowed the possibility of imagining the death of a still-living subject,” anticipating, “however intangibly,” the death of Charles (79, 81).

5> Chapter three opens with connections of epitaphs to the development of printed books: first, that tombstone inscriptions anticipate the development of printed title-pages; and second, that epitaphs—such as the one Caxton appended to his manuscript of Chaucer’s translation of Boethius—may have improved a text’s marketability by making it into a printed memorial. From these suggestions, Newstok examines the use of epitaphs in the writing of histories. The problem that epitaphs present for histories is that they represent two often conflicting views of truth—the first of verifiable facts, the second of the panegyric intentions of the survivors of the dead. These are also represented as a difference between factual and moral truth. Whatever type of truth an epitaph presents, it “produces a sheen of facticity” (93). Raphael Holinshed reconstructs other texts “which maie serue in good stead of an epitaph or funerall inscription” when he is unable to find a pre-existing epitaph. On the other hand, when John Stow extends Holinshed’s chronicles to contemporary persons, he distinguishes verses that may be used as memorials from transcriptions of epitaphs from tombstones. Stow’s impulse is more antiquarian than Holinshed’s, so his Survey of London accordingly collects his transcriptions of numerous tombstone inscriptions. Sometimes, Stow uses other sources to restore to his texts the passages lost from defaced tombstones. But while Stow might seem more committed to factual rather than moral truth (in contrast to Holinshed), he exercises his own moral judgment by omitting from his collection any epitaphs on those who defaced others’ tombstones. Newstok ends this chapter on Izaak Walton’s epitaph on John Donne, asserting that for purportedly historical narratives, a “fictional” epitaph could still serve as the “truthful” conclusion to a life.

6> Newstok begins chapter four with the quotation of several epitaphs to address a standard formula—that as the dead person’s past life is like the reader’s present life, so also the dead person’s present state will be the reader’s future state. The intention of this formula is that as the reader stays here to contemplate the epitaph, it should emotionally and behaviorally move the reader. Whenever a distinction would be made, the power to move is what contrasts poetry to rhetoric, which is largely concerned with persuasion. Amphion, who moved the stones of Thebes with his music, serves as an allegory for poetry in both George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie and Philip Sidney’s Apologie. Newstok asserts that “Amphion’s physical animation of stones already resonates with the verbal animation of stones . . . namely the enlivening of tombs through epitaphic speech” (120). Sidney curses the reader who fails to be moved by poetry: “and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an Epitaph” (cited on 128). Puttenham examines his own epitaph for his brother-in-law to explain the meaning and power of metaphor.

7> Generally, epitaphs are thought to be the sincere expressions of their writers. In chapter five, Newstok considers the use of epitaphs in plays, which were often condemned by the Puritans for their insincerity. With citations from over twenty-five plays from at least ten playwrights, the focus is on the variable degree of sincerity in epitaphic expressions: Hieronimo strives for sincerity in The Spanish Tragedy; D’Amville cynically fakes sincerity in The Atheist’s Tragedy; and Timon of Athens achieves sincerity while inverting the usual generic expectations of an epitaph (“Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass/ And stay not here thy gait” 5.5.77-78).

8> Newstok closes his study on the use of epitaphs for the closing passages of elegies. He identifies this method of conclusion as an innovation of the early modern elegists which develops into a convention. This contrasts to the generally recursive endings of medieval lyrics. Newstok finds that “closural anxiety in the reader and writer grew during the English Renaissance as confidence waned in more liturgical modes of conclusion” (187-188).

9> Quoting Death in Early Modern England is convincing about the significance of epitaphs in early modern texts. Furthermore, its insights may be extended to texts that are not strictly epitaphic: a reader may think of George Herbert’s “The Altar,” when Newstok writes about the monumental configuration of some printed epitaphs; or of King Lear, when he writes of Elizabeth anticipating her death. The problem the book may have with finding its readership is that a study of epitaphs does not seem an obvious text for a reader interested in The Apologie for Poesie or The Spanish Tragedy. Yet the strength of the book is in its thorough and clear treatment of a subject less tangential than a reader may first suspect.

10> (A word about library purchases: Because many libraries discard the dust jackets before shelving hardcover books, librarians should be aware that Newstok refers, on several occasions, to the image on Quoting Death’s dust jacket. If the jacket is to be discarded, the image should be kept as an insert in the volume.)

Jack Heller is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana. His book on Thomas Middleton, Penitent Brothellers, was published in 2000 by the University of Delaware. He has a forthcoming article on the sacraments and Julius Caesar, and he is currently researching grace in Shakespeare.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges

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