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This review is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.

Cover of The English Lyric Tradition: Reading Poetic Masterpieces of the Middle Ages and Renaissance
Andrew Hadfield‘Whoso list to hunt’

R. James Goldstein, The English Lyric Tradition: Reading Poetic Masterpieces of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (McFarland & Co.), £42.50
It’s always useful to have a decent guide to reading poetry, especially poetry which places heavy demands on the effort and imaginative engagement of the reader. R. James Goldstein has drawn on his many years of teaching Medieval and Renaissance poetry to guide readers, probably mainly – but not exclusively – undergraduates studying English literature, through the demanding territory of the lyric poem. Professor Goldstein’s starting point is his salutary warning that poetry of the Middle Ages and Renaissance looks like modern poetry because it is articulated by a first person narrator, but it is often very different. Whereas much post-Romantic poetry is confessional, earlier poetry is based on the study of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, poems frequently resulting from adaptations of complicated schoolroom exercises which demanded a particular voice to produce a specific argument. Therefore we read over the Romantic divide with gay abandon at our peril and Professor Goldstein has some harsh words for exalted figures who do so – in particular, Helen Vendler’s analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets. As C. S. Lewis reminded us all many years ago, the biggest obstacle to understanding earlier poetry was indeed our lack of knowledge of the art of rhetoric.

The English Lyric Tradition consists of seven chapters, beginning with one on rhetoric, which guides us through the history of the subject from Aristotle onwards and explains how the rhythms and metres of English function, based on the pioneering work of Derek Attridge. Attridge abandoned more old-fashioned notions of scansion for one based on ...


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