The Englishness of English Poetry in the Early Modern Period (Strasbourg - Paris, May 2016 - May 2017)

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University of Strasbourg - Paris Ouest Nanterre - Paris 13
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The Englishness of English Poetry in the Early Modern Period

Université de Strasbourg, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, Université Paris 13

May 2016 – May 2017

This two-part international conference taking place first in Strasbourg (May 19th-21st 2016) and then in Paris (May 2017), will focus on the evolution of English poetry over the early modern period. It will deal with aspects related to form and genre, but also with the material dimension of poems as commodities and the different modes of their circulation, across national borders through embassies and translations. As Nikolaus Pevsner defined the "Englishness" of English art (and more specifically architecture) from its mixed quality, we will try to determine if a specifically English way of thinking of and practicing poetry emerges in the Tudor-Stuart era.

Part One: The Triumph of the Sonnet?

The first part (Strasbourg, May 19th-21st 2016) will bear on 16th– and 17th-century lyric poetry, and ask whether the period can be said to mark the triumph of the sonnet among other poetic modes of expression. Contributions well bear on English poetry and its Classical and early modern Continental sources as they were received in 16th– and 17th-century Europe.

The sonnet was brought into England and adapted to the English language in the 1530s by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. First and foremost a courtly form, the sonnet found a wider audience with the anthologies of lyric poetry published in the second half of the century until its popularity reached its apex in the "sonnet craze" of the 1590s. Though this fashion quickly waned, the quatorzain subsisted well into the 17th century and inspired such major poets as George Herbert or John Milton. The teleological notion that the poetry produced from the 1530s to the 1570s only paved the way for the Golden Age of the 1590s has been challenged in recent studies; likewise, the idea that English poetry underwent a radical change at the turn of the century needs to be qualified so that more complex issues of identity and legacy, filiation and affiliation can be raised.

Taking as its starting point the enduring popularity of the sonnet form, the Strasbourg conference will address the generic indeterminacy of "sonnet", a term that was seldom precisely defined in English in the 16th century. As George Gascoigne reminded his reader, the etymology of the word links it to song and music, thereby making the sonnet almost coextensive with another loosely defined category, that of the lyric: "Some think that all poems (being short) may be called sonnets, as indeed it is a diminutive word derived of 'suonare'". But Gascoigne seems to prefer a more narrow definition, one based on form: "yet I can best allow to call those Sonnets which are of fourteen lines, every line containing ten syllables. The first twelve do rhyme in staves of four lines by cross metre, and the last two, rhyming together, do conclude the whole" (George Gascoigne, Certain Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English, 1575). The question of what it is that makes a sonnet echoes broader debates in early modern England over what makes a poem, whether its rhythm, its syllable count, or its rhyme scheme.

Such indeterminacy was mirrored in actual poetic practice, which tended to belie attempts at codification. This in turn raises the question of the development of poetic theory in England. Was the adoption of new poetic forms such as the sonnet determined by an explicit or implicit theory? Were English attempts at codification inspired from Continental treatises, or only from poetry? Claims for Englishness—phrased within Italianate forms such as the sonnet—paradoxically point to the prominent role of imitation. As Michael Drayton wrote in the final version of his sonnet sequence Idea (1619), "My Muse is rightly of the English straine, / that cannot long one Fashion entertaine". The shifting use of competing poetic models drawn from antiquity or from more recent European literature, the change from one "fashion" to another, might shed light on conditions of the birth and development of the English sonnet.

The understanding and codification of the sonnet form in 16th– and early 17th-century Italy, and its adaptation to the French language in the same period are central to our interrogations. The Italian and French poets from whom the English sonneteers drew their inspiration (e.g. Petrarch, but also Serafino Aquilano, and later Tebaldeo and Tasso; Scève, Ronsard, Du Bellay, but also, most importantly, Desportes), were received in varying ways in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. The reception of the quatorzain in mainland Europe at a key moment in the history of the English sonnet (from the 1530s to the "craze" of the 1590s, not forgetting the relative decline of the form in the 17th century), may (if only contrastively) give indications as to the ways in which the English constructed their own sonneteering tradition.

The circulation of poems, in manuscript or in print, of metapoetic discourse (as major poetic treatises were published), and more generally of poetic models is therefore an essential part of the question. Lyric poetry in the early modern period registered the growing importance of print in the circulation of literary texts, thus giving publicity to what is nowadays considered the privileged form of expression for inwardness and subjectivity. Intimate feelings such as love were made public through poems collected in increasingly popular sonnet sequences, anthologies or miscellanies. Thus made virtually ubiquitous, the lyric came to play a key part in the construction of a national canon.

Topics of interests include, but are not limited, to the following

The evolution of the lyric, of its themes and forms from the 16th to the 17th century (including the relation of erotic to spiritual poetry)
The links between theoretical developments and practice
Poetic anthologies, miscellanies and sequences (construction, composition, literary and historical significance)
The material production, circulation, performance and/or reading of lyric poems, book history
The reception of the Classical and Continental vernacular poetic models of the English sonneteers in mainland Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries
The respective degrees of canonicity that have been ascribed to lyric forms in the critical tradition
The respective degrees of canonicity that have been ascribed to the Italian, French and English sonnets of the 16th and 17th centuries in the critical tradition
Questions related to the editing and publishing of early modern poetic collections in the 21st century

We welcome proposals for 25-minute papers (in English or in French) on the above-mentioned topics for the Strasbourg conference. Please send abstracts of about 250-300 words, together with a short (100-word) bio, to Anne-Valérie Dulac, Laetitia Sansonetti, Rémi Vuillemin and Enrica Zanin at the following address:, by September 25th 2015.

Part Two: Poetry in Circulation

A later call for paper will be issued separately for the second conference (Paris Ouest and Paris 13, May 2017), which will encompass exchanges between England and its closest neighbours, Scotland and Ireland, but also other European or non-European countries, including American colonies and the Eastern world, from the early 1500s to the late 18th century. We already welcome expressions of interest for the themes that will be tackled, such as the transmission of poems as detachable objects (in the system of patronage, as ambassadorial gifts) and their role as transnational vectors of ideology through translation.