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As England entered the Renaissance and as humanism, with its focus on classical literature and philosophy, informed the educational system, English intellectuals engaged in a concerted effort to remake the culture, language, manners--indeed, the whole national style--through adapting the classics. But how could English literature, art, and culture, become classical, not only in imitating the ancients, but in the sense subsequently applied to music: classical as opposed to popular, as formal, serious, and therefore as good?
For several decades in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Stephen Orgel writes, the return to the classics held out the promise of refinement and civility. Poetry was to be modeled on Greek and Roman examples rather than on the great English medieval works, which though admirable, lacked correctness. More than poetry was at stake, however, and the transition would not be easy. Classical rules seemed the wave of the future, rescuing England from what was seen as the crudeness and the sheer popularity of its native traditions, but advocacy was tempered with a good deal of ambivalence: classical manners and morals were often at variance with Christian principles, and the classicism of the age would need to be deeply revisionist. Christian humanism was never untroubled, Orgel writes, always an unstable or even paradoxical amalgam.
In Wit's Treasury, one of our foremost interpreters of Renaissance literature and culture charts how this ambivalence yielded the rich creative tension out of which emerged an unprecedented flowering of drama, lyric, and the arts. Orgel has here written a book that will appeal to anyone interested in English Renaissance art and literature, and particularly in the cultural ferment that produced Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Jonson, and Milton.