Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Jane M. Kinney: “Epic, Epitome & Imagination”

Jane M. Kinney
Valdosta State University

Book Review

Chloe Wheatley, Epic, Epitome & the Early Modern Imagination.  Ashgate Publishing (Surrey, UK & Burlington, VT, USA, 2011), 148 pp.  ISBN: 978-0-7546-6976-0.  $99.95 (USD).

1> In this slender volume, Chloe Wheatley examines the historical epitome as a popular printed form in the Early Modern period, arguing that the epitomes “were of pivotal importance in the transformation of early modern history writing, and thus in the redefinition of how early modern epic poems addressed the interpretive issues facing early modern readers” (2).  Beginning with a look at the role of the epitome in humanist education as a study tool, Wheatley shows its increasing popularity with the early modern reading public, focusing in two of her five chapters on the use of epitome in the early modern epic.  While the work offers an interesting look at a little studied form and a fresh look at episodes within The Faerie Queene, the Davideis, and Paradise Lost, the author’s focus is divided among the development of the epitome itself, its role in changing the early modern understanding of historiography, and its use by early modern epic writers.

2> Chapter 1, “Early Modern Epitome Culture: Habits of Study, Printed Objects, History’s Quintessence,” as its title suggests, is a broad survey of the epitome over the period, seeking to cover many topics and, for the most part, only briefly mentioning individual authors and works.  After a look at how epitomes were defined and thought of by humanist scholars, Wheatley discusses how authors created epitomes of the secular and sacred histories that made up “a great proportion of the popular texts of the early modern period” (14).  Wheatley’s discussion of the ways and means of epitomizing secular chronicles is very brief, noting that the “most predictable” type of epitome was a list of kings, reflecting their focus on the dynastic aspect of secular history.  Her discussion of epitomes of sacred texts is a bit more satisfying, providing more examples of the various approaches writers took.  She also touches on the importance of “synecdochical” thought in the period, as well as the use of the epitome to debate “key issues” during the English Civil Wars.  The last section focuses in some depth on John Hall’s Advancement of Learning, in which Wheatley sees Hall, a writer and historian “for whom the cultural centrality of printed epitomes is a given” (37), arguing for the need for the public to avoid relying on the limited and partial perspectives offered by epitomes.

3> Wheatley does much better in the remaining chapters, focusing as each does on individual writers or—in chapter 4—on epitomes of the work of a single writer.  Chapter 2, “Stow’s Civil Summaries,” is a close examination of two epitomes by John Stow: Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles and Summarie of the Chronicles of Englande . . . Abridged.  Wheatley follows the development of Stow’s views of the epitome “as a work to be valued for its capacity to be qualitatively great, even in—and perhaps because of—its material limitations” (42) and examines how, in the Summarie, Stow moved from the emphasis on dynasty and geographic conquest typical of the chronicle tradition to a new emphasis on civic edification and charitable giving, as well as worked out an “intrinsic link between London and English history” (53).

4> In Chapter 3, “Abridging the Infinite Chronicle: Spenser and the Role of the Poet Historical,” Wheatley examines Spenser’s use of both chronicle and epitome in The Faerie Queene.  She focuses on the passage from Book 2 in the House of Alma in which Guyon reads the Elfin history Antiquitee of Faery lond while Arthur reads Briton moniments.  Wheatley notes that Spenser’s poetic rendering of Briton moniments  “evokes with a high degree of specificity the formal properties of the dynastic chronicle” (61), in which royal lineage and conquest are the focus, while “explicitly defining his version of Elfin history as an abridged text” or epitome, emphasizing—like Stow—not dynasty but the building of cities.  She sees these two different foci carried out elsewhere in the epic, specifically in the characters of Artegall and Britomart: while Artegall is clearly a conqueror, tearing down cities instead of building them, Britomart is both warrior and the embodiment of “just the shift from martial to civil rule that the Elfin epitome so values” (69).  In fact, Wheatley concludes that it is possible that Spenser, sensitive to the needs of an early modern readership that had come to rely upon epitomes to give them a focused entry to a larger work, creates the Elfin epitome as “the historical core that enables readers to cut through the compendious matter of The Faerie Queene itself” (70).

5> Chapter 4, “Du Bartas in Epitome,” focuses on how Du Bartas’s highly popular and influential Première and Seconde Sepmaine were repeatedly and variously epitomized.  Here Wheatley examines the various epitomes written by Josuah Sylvester, particularly the Automachia and Little Bartas, which both “stretch the very definition of what could be cast as an epitome” (75), as well as briefly examining epitomes by Edward Cooke and Edward Browne.  Through her analysis, Wheatley demonstrates how far from the original text an epitomist could stray, producing study guides or meditations on a larger work’s essential message, or even “creating a title that pays tribute to a poem but also dramatically refocalizes it” (92).

6> In Chapter 5, “Cowley, Milton, and the Histories of Epic,” Wheatley examines how Abraham Cowley and John Milton “dramatize their heroes’ constant reassessment of the many historical summaries that confront them” (93).  According to Wheatley, both Cowley’s David and Milton’s Adam are shown learning that “all representations of the past are mere epitomes whose partial nature must be acknowledged before true historical insight can be attained” (113).  Wheatley begins by taking a thorough look at Cowley’s unfinished Davideis in terms of how its hero David learns, from his encounters with visual (tapestries and paintings) and oral (sacred poetry) epitomes of biblical history in the first three books, that one must “read” several versions of an event to gain a judicious understanding of the whole.  Thus, in Book 4, when David is asked to tell Moab the story of Jonathan and Saul, David has learned “to narrate his own history in new ways because of his encounters, through the course of exile, with a variety of artful retellings,” and through David’s learning process Cowley can teach his readers in a time of political turmoil “the skills they need to navigate a complex and fragmented field of human history” (111).  In Paradise Lost, Wheatley argues, Adam tends to think in epitome and thus misinterprets what he is told by Raphael (in Book 5) and later by Michael (in books 11 and 12).  Thus, Michael has to revise his teaching methods, covering the story of Exodus in “three increasingly detailed narrations” (118), but each time with a different emphasis, in order to teach Adam “to accept [the] constant effort of interpretation and reinterpretation as a precondition of historical understanding” (123).  Wheatley concludes: “Both Milton and Cowley require that their heroes and their readers reorient themselves in history not simply by turning from mourning the past to forging an imperial future, but rather by navigating a more fractured set of partial histories in order to achieve a wisdom that is greater than the sum of those parts” (123).

7> Wheatley at times seems to be straining to make connections between her individual chapters and themes, and the book’s title is a bit misleading, as only two of the chapters in Wheatley’s book are really focused on the epic.  Overall, however, Wheatley presents an interesting overview of the epitome, a written form that in the early modern period was clearly widely practiced by writers and avidly consumed by readers, as well as insights into the works of Stow, Spenser, Cowley, and Milton.

Jane M. Kinney (PhD, Duke University) is Professor of English and Editor of University Catalogs at Valdosta State University.  Her teaching and research interests include Early Modern literature, drama, and world literature.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, VOLUME FIVE (2012): ARTEFACTS

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