In response to:

The High Cost of New History from the June 25, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Having often heard myself called “the sensible New Historicist” I read Frank Kermode’s review of my Forms of Nationhood [NYR, June 25] with a giddy sense of arrival. Finally I’d entered the charmed circle of the radically unsound. But I can’t accept this new identity without at least a word of protest. Many of the arguments I make in Forms of Nationhood are speculative. But far-fetched and willful? Hardly.

Since I’ve space here to address only one of the points Kermode finds most obstinately wrongheaded, I’ll take the first: my reading of the Spenser-Harvey correspondence on quantitative verse. Kermode thinks the reading full of “inflated interpretive fantasies” (it’s his main example of my “habitual far-fetchedness”) with the clear implication that the attention I give this now largely forgotten episode is both excessive and misleading. Let’s see.

I suggest that Spenser’s exclamation, “Why, a God’s name, may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language,” expressed an uncertainty about English as a medium for verse; that the solution Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, and some of their friends were then pushing—that is, the adoption of Greek and Roman measures—bore a striking likeness to the absolutist politics of monarchic consolidation; and that Gabriel Harvey’s response revealed the outlines of an oppositional politics based on common law and the ancient constitution. Just how absurd are these suggestions?

Many years ago in The Triumph of the English Language, Richard Foster Jones documented at length the anxiety sixteenth-century Englishmen felt about the barbarous inadequacy of their language. Similar feelings were expressed concerning the new national vernaculars of most western European countries. Is it really implausible that Spenser’s worry may have been genuine? And is it unlikely that a discussion of the proper form of English verse should have drawn on discussions of the proper order of the English state?

The metaphors writers choose are, after all, significant, even when the tone is familiar and bantering. Spenser talks of having “the kingdom” of his own language, and mentions that his friends are busy issuing “proclamations” and “prescribing” rules. The model for such action is royal or imperial lawgiving, the kind of thing the Renaissance associated with the names of Lycurgus and Justinian. This is precisely what Sidney and Spenser thought Virgil had done to Latin and Homer to Greek. Those great founding poets had imposed on their languages the laws of verse.

Kermode may not get the point, but Harvey clearly did. He accuses Spenser of “usurpation” and “tyranny.” In the place of dictatorial imposition, he asserts the value of ancient “law” and “custom,” of “liberties and privileges” that have been enjoyed “far beyond the memory of man”—terms that have a pretty distinct political ring to them.

Still, this would not mean much in itself. As Kermode implies, the Spenser-Harvey correspondence, though published, was a minor event, and not even Spenser and Harvey stuck to the positions they adopted in it. But, all the same, their terms continued to echo through the culture (my chapter on the law provides an extended example) and through the debate over quantitative verse. A quarter of a century later, Samuel Daniel was still defending English riming verse—a form that “Confirmed by no edict of power doth rest / But only underneath the regency / Of use and fashion”—as cognate with the ancient English constitution. And Daniel had a quite obvious political purpose. His Defense of Rime was coupled with a warning to the new king, James, against just the sort of absolutist innovation that had long been associated with quantitative verse.

So why dismiss as trivial or irrelevant a movement that excited so much interest in its own time and that became a testing ground for such far-reaching (not far-fetched) issues?

I suspect that what really bothers Kermode is my inclination (as he says) to “de-aestheticize” art. He isn’t much annoyed by my chapters on law, cartography, overseas expansion, and religion. He can even find their arguments plausible. But when I treat poems and plays in a similar way—that is, when I regard them as participating in particular social and political struggles—all his warning lights start flashing.

To the general charge, I can only plead guilty. I do think literary works are deeply implicated in the values and desires of the cultures that produce and consume them. But exploring such implications—even when it means revealing Spenser’s anxiety regarding the English language or Shakespeare’s concern with his own social status and the status of the public theater—does not “disparage” literature, as Kermode seems to suppose. On the contrary, it makes literature more humanly important. makes its very production, as well as the stories it tells, speak of our inevitable placement in time and in culture.

Whether my claims will stand up to rigorous scrutiny remains to be seen. But those claims are not, so far as I can tell, far-fetched—not unless you think any insistence on the historicity of literature is far-fetched. In work he did on Spenser more than thirty years ago, Kermode gave evidence of his own commitment to historical reading. Either he’s given it up or he’s developed an unusually constricted idea of what can count as history, one that excludes metaphor along with much else.

Richard Helgerson
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California

Frank Kermode replies:

The length of Professor Helgerson’s comment suggests that it was he himself and not the editors who reduced him to dealing with only one point in my review; his self-denial is no doubt meant to imply that given his head he could have been even more devastating. This is by no means a new rhetorical device.

I protested, doubtless with dull sobriety, against his thrilling claim that Spenser in his youth planned to take over “the whole cultural system of England.” Nothing he now adds makes this claim less absurd. It is true that in England as elsewhere in Europe the vernaculars had to be defended, and it has always been accepted that nascent nationalisms had a part in inspiring the defense. Yet it still seemed obvious to almost everybody that vernacular literature could benefit from classical example. The ancients, said Jonson, should be guides but not commanders; so he inventively imitated classical comedy and tragedy, and borrowed the epigrams of Martial, the lyrics of Catullus, the odes of Pindar, and so on. And before we dismiss Jonson as an imperialist court poet, we should reflect that Samuel Daniel, one of Helgerson’s heroes because he defended rhyme, was only a little less “classical” than Jonson, for he wrote Horatian epistles and Senecan tragedy (as well as providing masques for the court of the “absolutist” James I). In much the same way of free imitation one might seek a substitute, on a classical model, for “native” rhyming; Milton, hardly to be accused of political reaction or imperialism, did so in his epics, though without recourse to quantitative verse.

The efforts of the “Areopagus” should be thought of in this context. That there should be such proposals as theirs, and also defenses of rhyme—and ridicule for rules that require you to say “carpénter”—is politically significant only in the way some believe everything must be in the end; no doubt Helgerson could explain that Projective Verse was an attempt to take over the American Constitution.

Since it is, or was until recently, familiar ground to students of English literature, I do not understand why Helgerson speaks of the Harvey-Spenser correspondence as a “largely forgotten episode,” unless it is to emphasize his own acumen in discovering it to be of vast and hitherto unsuspected importance. The large numbers of people who have not forgotten it will not so easily dismiss the joking tone of the correspondence as he does, nor will they ignore the larger historical context. I agree that it is important to get one’s history right, but to achieve that calls for a just evaluation of such matters as tone and context. I’m happy to assure Professor Helgerson that after all these years I remain committed to historical reading, and am for that very reason obliged to question inflated interpretive fantasies.

This Issue

September 24, 1992