Aristotle’s Poetics has been thought to be inaccessible or misunderstood in sixteenth-century England, but this inherited assumption has drifted far from the primary evidence and lagged behind advances in contiguous fields. As a member of the corpus Aristotelicum, the shared foundation of Western education until the late seventeenth century, the Poetics enjoyed wide circulation, ownership, and interest in Latin and Italian as well as the original Greek. Placing the Poetics in its intellectual context suggests a very different narrative for its reception in English criticism, one that accounts for a multiplicity of readings and uses on both sides of the academic divide. Some of those readings—in Cheke, Ascham, Rainolds, Sidney, and others—are considered in this article, and directions are proposed for future research in what remains a rich and mostly unworked vein of literary history.
This article considers whether the activity that we recognize as criticism existed in the literary culture of early Tudor England. Before the appearance of formal poetic defenses and literary treatises in English (an Elizabethan phenomenon associated with Sir Philip Sidney and George Puttenham), English vernacular culture of the early sixteenth century seems to have been devoid of a fully fledged poetics or literary theory. Yet the composite evidence of printed prefaces, various endeavors to translate classical rhetorical terminology, and poetic practice itself in these early decades reveals a series of literary-critical interests that recur in the writing and intellectual history of this period. Literary theory in early Tudor England evolves as it addresses a set of preoccupations that cluster around questions of authorial inventiveness, models of style and vernacular eloquence, the domestication of imported critical terminology, and the agency of readers.
The rich and expanding rhetorical universe of the English Renaissance annexed the expressive possibilities of painting and the plastic arts using a variety of figures and tropes. These—ekphrasis (intense description), blason (anatomizing description), paragone (the contest between the arts), and emblems and imprese (formal verbal-visual symbols)—allowed English writers to press the visual into the service of the verbal, creating powerful rhetorical tools and distinctive literary expression. This article describes the development of these verbal-visual tools from the late medieval period through the early seventeenth century by Italian art theorists and in the exemplary works of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare.