Ecphrasis and reading practices in Elizabethan narrative verse

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr, 2004 by Kelly A. Quinn

When Britomart penetrates the house of Busyrane in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, she sees written everywhere the command "Be bold." Spenser tells us that "she oft and oft it ouer-red, / Yet could not find what sence it figured." (1) Characters in other narrative poems of the period are by contrast much more certain about how to interpret the signs they confront, but their certainty may be unfounded. In Samuel Daniel's 1592 Complaint of Rosamond, Shakespeare's 1594 Lucrece, and Michael Drayton's 1596 Mortimeriados, characters encounter works of visual art and proceed to describe them. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the description of art in literature has been categorized as "ecphrasis," but Renaissance writers would not have understood the term in its modern sense. Not only do modern uses of the term tend to ignore or dismiss classical ekphrasis, which referred to description generally, but also even in its classical sense, the term had not yet been revived. (2) Nevertheless, this kind of ecphrasis, the ecphrasis of works of visual art, was conventional to epic poetry both classical and medieval, and the practice, if not the name, would have been familiar to Daniel, Shakespeare, and Drayton. The ecphrases of art in their poems are notable not for their adherence to tradition, however, but for their idiosyncrasies. The works of art depict familiar figures from classical mythology. The descriptions of them given by the characters, however, are heavily informed by the characters' own circumstances, and their interpretations of the myths differ from what the reader might expect. These characters have none of Britomart's caution, but it is not clear that they are any more adept at telling what sense the art figures.

The commonalities among these poems are neither a matter of imitation nor of coincidence, but instead indicate a deeper correspondence. Daniel, Shakespeare, and Drayton allow the works of art they describe to stand for art generally, but more particularly for works of literary art. Their characters are models of the reader, and their ecphrases are a means of presenting, examining, and critiquing the reader at work. That reader is not just any reader, but the Elizabethan reader in particular, and in this paper, I seek to understand the depictions of interpretation in these poems by studying Renaissance habits of reading. What begins then as a discussion of three poems opens up to a much broader discussion of sixteenth-century attitudes toward reading. Both humanist pedagogical theory and the practices of actual readers foster the kinds of interpretations characters make here. The questionable hermeneutical tactics of readers cause anxiety for writers in the period, who fear their works will be "doubtfully construed." (3) Daniel, Shakespeare, and Drayton use their characters' responses to art to anticipate and challenge prevailing reading habits, defending the text against inevitably subjective, and thus doubtful, interpretations.

In the first of these poems, Daniel places his ecphrasis on the lips of Rosamond Clifford, whose ghost narrates most of his poem. Rosamond's downfall begins when she arrives at Henry II's court. By her own account possessed of "rarest proofe of beautie euer seene," (4) she catches the eye of the middle-aged king. She successfully resists Henry's flattering attentions until persuaded by a "seeming Matrone" (line 26) to take advantage of her youth and beauty. Convinced of the rewards of adultery, she agrees to be "traind from Court / To a solitarie Grange" to await the king (lines 365-6). There, she accepts Henry's daily gifts of "costly iewels" (line 370), and her acceptance of these gifts signals consent, according to sixteenth-century courtship rituals and legal cases. (5) The consummation of the affair is unsatisfactory, however, for love "yeeldes no mutuall pleasure when tis hired" (line 438). Rosamond turns to repenting, and punishment comes at the hands of Henry's jealous queen, who makes Rosamond poison herself. Her ghost presents her tale in the hopes that "louers sighes" will release her from purgatory, and offers her story as a monitory example that might "teach to others, what [she] learnt too late" (line 67).

Among the gifts Henry sends to Rosamond is a casket engraved with the mythological figures of Amymone and Io. Rosamond readily draws analogies between their stories and hers, calling the images "presidents presented to [her] view, / Wherein the presage of [her] fall was showne" (lines 407-8). Rosamond's description of Io is brief, and as both are royal mistresses and victims of jealous wives, the connection begs no explanation. Her description of Amymone is both longer and more revealing of her reading process. In most accounts. Amymone is one of the Danaids, sent by her father to look for water, Neptune having dried up the water in anger. She accidentally awakens a satyr who, true to type, tries to rape her. She cries out to Neptune for help; he rescues her, sleeps with her, and reveals to her the springs at Lerna. (6) Rosamond's account of Amymone differs from the standard version, however, and so the analogy she sees between herself and Amymone is different than her own readers might expect. For Rosamond, Amymone is a beautiful innocent savagely raped by an intransigent Neptune:


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