Heather James, University of Southern California

Commonplaces, inventories, and the forms of authorship

Early modern compilers diligently searched through what Nicholas Ling called an “infinite uariety” of authorities and genres to help organize English readers’ knowledge of matters “Diuine, Historicall, Poeticall, Politike, Morall and Humane.” As various scholars have noted, the genre of the commonplace book is far more concerned with the distillation and dissemination of learning and eloquence—and the convergence of both wisdom and wit in the maxim or sentence—than it is in authors or their books. The commonplace book, and especially the English printed commonplace books that emerged under the direction of John Bodenham, simply do not have the source fetish typical of imitation studies, which are concerned with the transmission and adaptation of poetic authority. In the argument I here propose, the printed commonplace books instead carefully organize specimens of English wit, along with English translations of classical lore, to compose a text that poses as a mere lexicon of moral topoi, illuminated by various rhetorical flowers, while it simultaneously asserts itself as a model of political counsel. Authors and authorial identity, then, are casualties or willing sacrifices to the cultivation of an aphoristic style capable of issuing political counsel, grounded in the authority of the ancients but beholden to none (whether an ancient authority or a modern prince).

The second part of my paper concerns the consciousness and even ambivalence that one early modern poet, Edmund Spenser, expresses about the particular way in which sententiae conduct the business of politics. For Spenser, the gathering together of rhetorical beauties that illustrate moral and political topoi is an admirable as well as inevitable style of reading. But such habits of collection have obvious limits, imposed on them by the humanist tradition of offering up the wisdom of scholars to the service of princes. In The Faerie Queene and minor poems, then, Spenser introduces a counterweight to the moral use demanded of poetry: the purely sensual and aesthetic catalogue of beauties, culled from ancient sources and left resolutely unmoralized. Although one can say, accurately enough, that Spenser never met a moral he didn’t like, he left his poetic signature on passages of verse that entirely suspend the moral projects of his poems. My aim in this paper, then, is to suggest that a political as well as poetic concern for the liberty of speech motivates both a shift away from authorial identity and a passionate assertion of it.