The Poetics of Literary History in Renaissance England
Christopher Ross McKeen
This dissertation expands the familiar concept of literary history in order to argue for the historiographic function of literary form in early modern poetry and drama. I propose that the "literary history" of early modern England is not merely the history of literature, but also these writers' methods of evoking history by means of the literary. For Christopher Marlowe, George Herbert, and many of their contemporaries, the formal capacities of poetry offered methods for describing
... between events in time, interpreting those events, and mobilizing those interpretations—in short, the formal capacities of poetry become ways of doing history. In the most familiar critical sense, literary history denotes canon-formations, literary influence, and the development of genres, trends, and fashions in poetic style. I demonstrate that early modern poets themselves recognized this sense of literary history, understanding their formal decisions in light of the history of poetic form. When Tudor and Stuart writers adopted a particular style or set of conventions, I argue, they did so with an awareness of how easily these styles could become—or had become—dated. While critics have demonstrated the political valences of writers' recourse to specific genres and styles, I also insist on the specifically temporal and historical implications of poetic form as such, arguing that poets' formal decisions, irrespective of earlier uses of those forms, encode ways of looking at and interpreting the past. The temporalities of verse—the way its meter produces forward momentum, its rhyme recalls earlier lines, its lyric voice arrests time—become, for the poets and dramatists I study, tools for understanding historical events and periods. By attending to the inherent temporality of poetry, I uncover the historical arguments poets and dramatists make, even in texts not overtly concerned with historical topics. Indeed, I suggest that the very structure of poetry can become a way of thinking about the past and the passage of time.