My research and teaching considers how questions of style converge with questions of epistemology in early modern poetry and poetics as well as literary criticism at large. I teach courses on poetry, prose, drama, possible worlds, and interdisciplinary approaches to the problem of form. I am currently completing a book entitled Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics (Fordham University Press, 2017).
Indecorous Thinking: Figures of Speech in Early Modern Poetics is a study of artifice at its most conspicuous: it argues that early modern writers turned to figures of speech like simile, antithesis, and periphrasis as the instruments of a particular kind of thinking increasingly aligned with the emergent field of vernacular poesie. The classical ideal of decorum described the absence of visible art as a crucial precondition for the rhetorical act of persuasion, the regulation of civilized communities, and the achievement of beauty. To speak well in early modern England, one spoke as if off-the-cuff. In readings of three major poets—Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and Mary Wroth—I argue that one of early modern literature’s richest contributions to the history of poetics is the idea that open art—artifice that rings out with the bells and whistles of ornamentation—celebrates the craft of poetry even as it also expands the range of activities we tend to attribute to poetry. Against the imperatives of sprezzatura and celare artem, artifice at its most conspicuous asserts the value of a poetic process that does not conceal either the time or the labor of its making.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, grammar schools throughout England taught students to read Latin by identifying figures of speech in the lines of Ovid’s poetry or across the pages of Cicero’s most celebrated orations. Drawing on a wide archive of material from the history of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, I show that rhetoric’s ornaments of elocutio came to usurp the more traditional origin for reasoned discourse in dialectic’s places of inventio. Where figures of speech drive thinking, they produce a field of possible knowledge that contemporary humanists described as sophistry and affectation. I call this thinking indecorous and I demonstrate that art that draws attention to itself as such offers a defense of eloquence that is not reducible to either the display of capital characteristic of Shakespeare’s Polonius or the histrionic performance of self that we find in Lyly’s Euphuism. In readings ranging from the figures of speech found in Spenser’s Bower of Bliss to the ostentatious epithets of Wroth’s Urania, from the dizzyingly stylized songs of Sidney’s Old Arcadia to the extended fight sequence with which his revised Arcadia breaks off mid-sentence, Indecorous Thinking reveals figures of speech to be the constitutive engines of poetry’s imaginative worlds.
I am also currently at work on a second book-length study, Form and the Counterfactual in Renaissance Literature and its Criticism, which turns from figures of speech in particular to address the concept of form more broadly. In this new project, I argue that early modern imaginative literature operates in what grammarians called the “potential mood”: with readings of the epigram, the sonnet, rhyme, the Spenserian stanza, dramatic character, and the conjunction “or,” I consider how literary texts signal the possibility that they could have been something other than what they are and I suggest that these counterfactual forms pose crucial challenges to dominant procedures for evaluating evidence and explanation in literary studies.
My work on these topics has appeared in ELH (2009; 2016), Modern Philology (2014), English Literary Renaissance (2011), and the edited collection Othello: State of Play (ed. Lena Orlin, 2014).