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The Renaissance Epic and the Oral Past

The Renaissance Epic and the Oral Past

Anthony Welch
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Renaissance Epic and the Oral Past
    Book Description:

    This book offers a close survey of the changing audiences, modes of reading, and cultural expectations that shaped epic writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

    According to Anthony Welch, the theory and practice of epic poetry in this period-including little-known attempts by many epic poets to have their work orally recited or set to music-must be understood in the context of Renaissance musical humanism. Welch's approach leads to a fresh perspective on a literary culture that stood on the brink of a new relationship with antiquity and on the history of music in the early modern era.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18899-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-20)

    A singer steps forward in the third book of Petrarch’sAfrica. His king, an African ally of the Carthaginians, presides over a lavish banquet for a delegation from Scipio’s Rome. Petrarch lovingly describes a spacious palace hall, ornate tapestries, glittering vessels of crystal and gold. As the room grows quiet, the singer, arrayed in royal purple, begins to pluck the strings of his lyre. His song chronicles the legendary history of Carthage. He tells of Hercules’ defeat of the giant Antaeus in Libya, of Dido’s founding of the city, and of the late exploits of Hannibal. Answered with applause, the...

  5. ONE Tasso’s Silent Lyre
    (pp. 21-49)

    In the summer of 1582, Torquato Tasso sent to Ferrante Gonzaga, Count of Guastalla, a group of sonnets concerning an inkwell. The vessel, decoratedalla moresca, had come into the hands of Tasso’s father at Tunis when he accompanied the siege of the city, led by Gonzaga’s grandfather, in 1535. This spoil of war prompts a meditation on the act of writing:

    Fra l’altre spoglie il generoso Achille

    Ebbe ne l’Asia già sonora cetra,

    Che da famoso stil sua grazia impetra

    Tra le fiamme di Troia e le faville;

    Ma questo vaso, il qual di mille e mille

    Penne era...

  6. TWO The Oldest Song: Ronsard and Spenser
    (pp. 50-88)

    The late sixteenth-century epic was, above all, dynastic epic. It told of families and their origins. The poet’s goal was to place individual heroic achievement inside a larger story about the life of a clan or bloodline over time. Epic poetry insists on the presence of the past, and dynastic epics sustained that argument by tracing the heroic patrimony of the period’s ruling elites. They modeled themselves on Virgil’sAeneid, with its celebration of Rome’s paternity, but their concern for family history also stemmed from pragmatic questions of patronage. Poets scoured their patrons’ family trees for ancestors fit to be...

  7. INTERCHAPTER The Lutanist and the Nightingale
    (pp. 89-106)

    The epic poetry discussed so far has been martial and dynastic in character. Although other forms of writing had found their way into Europe’s epic canon—from Jacopo Sannazaro’s syncreticDe partu virginis(1526), recounting the birth of Christ, to the hexameralSemaines(1578, 1584) of Guillaume du Bartas—sixteenth-century authors modeled themselves above all on an ancient body of war epics that they believed had been pioneered by Homer and perfected by the Augustan Virgil, the poet who sang the history of his polity for an imperial patron. This paradigm was to linger for generations, with diminishing returns, in...

  8. THREE Harps in Babylon: Cowley, Davenant, Butler
    (pp. 107-139)

    The 1650s should not have been an auspicious decade for epic poetry. Throughout Western Europe, bloody social upheavals—the French Wars of Religion and the later uprisings of the Fronde, the Thirty Years’ War in the German states, the Puritan Revolution in England—had spawned an epic literature acutely conscious of its material conditions. This communal butchery was not like the patriotic warfare celebrated in heroic poems. In conflicts that divided neighbors and coreligionists, partisans on all sides were unsure whether heroic violence should be exalted or deplored. Factional interests colonized the period’s artistic production and shaped its arguments about...

  9. FOUR Milton’s Lament
    (pp. 140-171)

    And indeed why should not the heavenly bodies produce musical vibrations? … But Pythagoras alone of mortals is said to have heard this harmony—unless he was a good genius or a denizen of the sky who perhaps was sent down by some ordinance of the gods to imbue the minds of men with divine knowledge and to recall them to righteousness…. If our hearts were as pure, as chaste, as snowy as Pythagoras’ was, our ears would resound and be filled with that supremely lovely music of the wheeling stars. Then indeed all things would seem to return to...

  10. FIVE Epic Opera
    (pp. 172-194)

    It is tempting to declareParadise Lostthe last of the neoclassical epics and the end of an era. Yet would-be Homers and Virgils still toiled across Europe, and the last decades of the seventeenth century reaped a steady harvest of epic poetry. These writings shared much in common. Most were didactic in spirit, organized themselves around a central, idealized hero, strove for a tone of ritual elevation and wonder, and found their material at the intersection of history and myth. Most were also stilted, formulaic, and dull. They have largely been forgotten by literary history. When scholars refer to...

  11. CODA: The Singer Withdraws
    (pp. 195-198)

    The case ofDido and Aeneasis not an isolated one. The same ambivalence toward the inherited epic canon can be traced in other late seventeenth-century operas, from theArmideof Quinault and Lully (1686) to the Dryden-PurcellKing Arthur(1691). All of these point to the breakup of the traditional epic into an array of cultural forms that both preserved and challenged its legacy. Ancient codes of martial heroism jostled against newer models of human inwardness; in many genres, attention shifted from sovereigns to their subjects, from male to female protagonists, from feudal violence to domestic family conflicts. Characters...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 199-226)
    (pp. 227-246)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 247-260)