Decorum, World-Making, and the Early Modern Political Imagination
Decorum , Poetics , Renaissance
This thesis engages major literary works by Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Milton, guided by the principle of poetic decorum and by an understanding of the politics surrounding the emergence of that aesthetic concept in early modern England. Poetic decorum is not the well-known decorum of rules involving unities of time, place, and class that became dominant in English neoclassicism. Instead, it is an allowance given by Aristotle to poets over and above rhetoricians to depart from established conventions of expression in order to accommodate the alien and strange into the public consciousness. Supported by Cicero on the flexible adaptability of the speech act to its occasion, English writers took poetic decorum to be a license to generate a particular guiding pattern out of the resources of the composition itself, provided the measures were in accord with an intuited proportionality in the cosmos and with the tolerances of a court audience. The thesis is therefore an experiment in reading early modern literature according to a principle of inherent style. During periods of conflicted politics, the authors of the representative works examined in this thesis use the relative freedom of poetic decorum to interrogate social virtues. For Spenser in Book Six of The Faerie Queene, the virtue at issue is courtesy. For Shakespeare in Cymbeline, it is civility. For Jonson in the masque, it is harmony. For Milton in Paradise Lost, poetic decorum is realized in the conversation of educated, married adults.