Monday, July 05, 2010

Frank Whigham, The Rhetoric of Elizabethan Suitors' Letters

Frank Whigham, The Rhetoric of Elizabethan Suitors’ Letters, PMLA, October 1981, Volume 96, Number 5, pp. 864-882.

The curious history of Renaissance epistolary theory, rooted in the plain informal style of Cicero’s letters and the plain philosophical style of Seneca’s, continues through the elaborate ars dictaminis of the twelfth century (based on the Ciceronian oratorical heritage) on to Petrarch and Erasmus, who returned in their influential practices to the plain patterns of Ciceronian correspondence. Erasmus also, however, left of ornate epistolary theory, Libellus de Conscribendis Epistolis (Robertson, p. 10), which served as a model for English theoretical writings in the period of the Hatton correspondence. The Libellus and its school-text descendants kept alive the medieval mode of elaborate rhetoric in letters long after a plain bourgeois style appeared. Through some of these manuals, such as Fulwell’s The Enimie of Idlenesse (1568), Fleming’s A Panoplie of Epistles (1576), and The Marchants Avizo (1589), have a rhetorical slant, they reveal a growing affiliation with bourgeois readers, who lter disavowed the mode. But Angel Day’s popular The English Secretorie (1586; eight edition by 1626), not only retains the Erasmian rhetorical mode but carries a dedication to the earl of Oxford and addresses those producing letters at court. Its injunctions directly govern the letter of supplication. (865)

And his categories anatomize the facets of court conduct: horatory, suasory, conciliatory, petitory, commendatory, and amatory modes are all necessary. (866)

The prospect of advancement marks another practical significance of Renaissance letter writing, present only implicitly in Day. Epistolary skills that enable one to perform well as a secretary may also bring new employment within reach. That is, one may speak well of a subject and of one’s own expressive skills at the same time. In the rhetorical theory this reflexive attention to style is called “epideictic”—that mode of rhetoric concerned with “the ceremonial oratory of display.” For Aristotle this mode served mainly for ceremonial occasions, when a certain ornateness was appropriate. Here the term denotes a mode of writing that calls attention to the virtuosity of the writer. (866)

The basic task of a letter, overcoming physical separation, distinguishes the letter as a genre from the drama, which properly depends on physical community; from the epic or romance, which always has the physical relation that counts (between reader and text); and from the sonnet, which extends in a sequence because the lover fails in his appeal for union with the lady. (866)

National centralization amplified the sense of separation. London, where life was more intense, had gained a new force. The boredom of country life became obtrusive to may people as the leisure industry arose in London; … The new potency of a national center made the rest of England seem relatively distant and begot a new interest in long-distance communication. /
As these dialectically related conditions reveal, physical separation soon became conceptual, since it provoked a feeling of relational hiatus. Under Tudor absolutism, royal “presence” had become an ultimate reality. Attendance began to seem an end in itself; absence required fulsome excuse. Even illness was nearly a form of disloyalty. (867)

Many old, static devices for registering status were being replaced by a more dynamic system of conspicuous expenditure, itself inherently anxiety-producing. Its means were finite, its expectations infinite, … (867)

Moreover, personality played a more important structural role at that time. Because opportunity was always “in someone’s gift,” it had to be sought in personal terms. There was no rationalized structure governing competition for office or privilege—little in the way of application form, elections, test, or other impersonal conduits. So the suitor who was unable conveniently to apply the nondiscursive pressures of conversation relied either on the letter or on an intercessor, … (869)

Puttenham implies that referring to one’s deserts and merits was in bad taste. In “negotiating” with princess, at least, he says we are not/
‘to recite the good services which they have received at our hands, for that is but a kind of exprobation [extraction of proof?], but in craving their bountie or largesse to remember unto them all their former beneficences, making no mention of our owne merits… (pp. 299-300) … In any case, Matthew says almost nothing about his ability to perform the dean’s duties. (871)

These strategies shed a new light on the relation of flattery to sprezzatura. Flattery should be invisible, we usually say. Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo (1558; trans. 1576) asserts that “empty, pretentious, and extravagant compliments are undisguised flattery, and in fact they are so obvious and easy to recognize that people who use them to gain some advantage for themselves, besides being dishonest as I have already told you, are also odious and tiresome.” Gabriel Harey says that “visible flattery is abject and unworthy of a gentleman; invisible flattery a matter of skill and suited for men of affairs” (Marginalia, p. 56). Analysis of Mathew’s compliments, however, suggests that flattery must be visible if it is to manipulate the patron by imputing a virtue that restricts choice. The effect depends on the patron’s acknowledging the flattery, which must, therefore, be visible, however disguised. When Harvey condemns visible flattery, his motives may be not so much moral as envious and punitive; he was certainly a notorious have-not. (875)


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