The title is a bit of a misnomer, it should read “How not to apply Bourdieu’s work on taste to any element of 16th century creative expression but especially not to the very many sonnet sequences that were churned out after the publication of Astrophel and Stella”.
My interest in said explosion stems from Spenser’s ‘Amoretti’ which is one of the better known sequences and recounts his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle who became his second wife. I also have more than a passing interest in Michael Drayton who was also one of the sonneteers.
My interest in Bourdieu may require a degree of qualification. I really, really want Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ to be wrong because I’d like to hang on to the notion of culture as having a degree of autonomy. My problem is that I don’t think that he is wrong- he’s done the work, he’s got the figures and the stats and the charts and he was the most technically gifted sociologist of the last century and I can’t argue with him (except on the auto-didact). The Bourdieu thesis is that all cultural activity is determined the economic and class structure of society and it is both naive and foolish to pretend otherwise.
So, when I came across something called “Sonnet Sequences and Social Distinction in Renaissance England” by Christopher Warley I became interested enough to read most of it. My expectations were reasonably high, the last two decades of the 16th century saw a number of rising trends particularly with regard to overseas trade and new forms of raising finance. Standards of education had also improved since about 1550 and I was hopeful that Warley might have something useful about how these changes influenced the literary culture of the 1590s. This was a mistake. The introduction makes reference to most of the usual suspects together with a lengthy quotation from Zizek but the clincher was “Bourdieu’s work, with its emphasis on structures of difference, seems to me in many respects quite close to Derrida (though it is a comparison that both, to the best of my knowledge, tend to resist). This should have caused me to walk away but instead I bought a hard copy, a proper book, from Amazon. To make matters worse he goes on with “Bourdieu’s conception of distinction is thus for me a sort of differance, “the difference written into the very structure of the social space,” that has real, objective, social effects.” This is either a fundamental failure to understand or a deliberate attempt disguise the weakness of the work beneath a cloak of what might pass for continental pretension. It never ceases to amaze me how many English speaking academics fail to grasp what the French have been on about since 1960 and I continue to watch in awe as this huge edifice of nonsense continues to grow. Anybody who has actually bothered to read Derrida and Bourdieu would know that they could never hold similar views because they don’t actually agree on baseline terms of engagement and to foist ‘differance’ on to Bourdieu is simply stupid.
I am grateful to Warley for introducing me to Anne Locke who was a close friend of John Knox and wrote the first sonnet sequence in English. Even here, Warley doesn’t give sufficient space to Locke’s background and fails to mention that her father managed Henry VII’s financial dealings on the Antwerp exchange. If we’re going to do this kind of analysis properly then surely we need to start with some idea of what exactly the economic order was about and why precisely so many of the rich merchants of the time were ardent Calvinists other than some bland platitudes about the end of feudalism and the growth of property for rent.
I’d also like to know more about why so many authorities do not attribute ‘A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner’ to Locke at all. The sequence is a fascinating verse commentary on Psalm 51 and there are many avenues that could have been explored in greater detail, in particular the issue of the nature of the ‘market’ for this kind of material in England.
There’s also the fairly obvious point that Derrida and Bourdieu don’t mix together, primarily because their interests are different but also because they are trying to do quite different things. In trying to mix ‘distinction’ with ‘difference’ Warley succeeds only in producing a confused and incoherent analysis. I have this lingering suspicion in the field of lit crit that the more convoluted the sentences become so they indicate an increasing attempt to hide the fact that not very much is being said.
There is the inevitable chapter on Philip Sidney before we move on to the Amoretti sequence. I need to say at this point that I’m not that keen on this sequence and consider it one of Spenser’s least successful efforts. At about Sonnet 20 it begins to feel like an exercise in sonnet writing, a rather mundane demonstration of technique rather than anything keenly felt. The warning beels began to sound as Warley’s chapter is called “Ireland and capitalism in Amoretti and Epithalamion”. I’ll skip gently over the fact that Epthalamion isn’t actually written in sonnet form and concentrate instead on the Irish element. There are many many interesting things to consider about the Amoretti but the Irish connection isn’t one of them, the section entitled ‘Lyric and narrative in the Amoretti’ begins with “Spenser’s ability to control his own Irish domain becomes thematized as content in Amoretti and Epithalamion in the speaker’s attempts to control his lady like a piece of Irish land.” The only sensible respose to this is the inward groan, I’ve complained in the past about the recent trend to see everything that Spenser wrote through an Irish lens and this is one of the most flagrant examples of selective history and criticism combined to make a factually incorrect thesis for the sake of current fashion.
I have to come back to the fact that there is an interesting book to be written on this subject but it needs to start from the nature and structure of the intended audience and not on some desperate ‘close’ reading of the material. The chapter on Drayton is better only because insufficient attention is paid to him and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the ‘Afterword’ on Drayton, Wroth and Milton.
What we call the Tudor period as a whole is fascinating in the development of English verse and this does need to be seen in the light of religious and economic trends. Unfortunately Warley’s tome is another example of a wasted opportunity for the sake of critical trendiness.
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