Wit’s Treasury: Renaissance England and the Classics 
By Stephen Orgel.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.
Hardcover,  216 pages, $39.95.

Reviewed by John Tuttle.

What is a classic? It’s a provocative question for the literary-bent mind. Just what constitutes a classical work? Style, setting, language, acclaim…what are the criteria?

The cultural giants and literati of the past few centuries have likewise grappled with this line of thought. Those preserved and popularized writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the books that helped build Western civilization, were already revered as “classics” by the 16th century. Already there was a long-standing tradition of studying and translating these works, those of Homer and Virgil in particular. The ancient wisdom contained in philosophy, poetry, and history was made available to those cultured members of Elizabethan era society.

Early on, Greco-Roman translation and related scholarship specialized in Scripture studies, honing in on theological interpretations of the texts. Pagan mythologies, for instance, were frequently examined through a lens of suspicion since the subject matter dealt with what the average Englishman felt was a deviation from the right understanding of the divine. Sir Francis Bacon stepped out of this norm when he examined the mythologies as “allegories of science.”

Latin was the widely used literary vehicle in the middle of the second millennium. (Some of its biggest proponents were revered Church men like Sir Thomas More, whose most influential works, including Utopia, were first published in Latin.) And Greek was the cornerstone of academia. Throughout Europe, these two languages also often carried with them a connotation of classicism, since most of what were considered classics originated from one of these two tongues.

Language itself was a sign of a work’s supposed classicism, or else it was a method used by the author or publisher to make a book appear to be in the same qualitative vein as the classics. (Not every literate common person could read Latin as it was, for, like Greek, it was considered an attribute of an elite or higher culture.) Perhaps this was the Renaissance marketing community’s answer to popularizing literature, comparable to our New York Times bestseller list.

Language is not the only attribute of the ancient classics that impacted the literary milieu of the Renaissance era. Dr. Stephen Orgel’s book, Wit’s Treasury, takes the reader through the multifaceted culture of arts and letters in that period as well as its devotion to and dependence on the embers and ashes of the bygone Greco-Roman civilization.

The poets, playwrights, and many other writers of that period turned to mimesis—near the point of what moderns would call plagiarism—of the ancients. According to Orgel, humanist poetry was a major perpetrator of this mimesis. The author briefly looks at Thomas More’s indebtedness to the Greek works while also standing on the fence about suggesting More himself might have criticized the mimicry witnessed in his peers’ writing.

As Enlightenment ideals crept in among the literati, figures like Sir Thomas Browne expressed distaste for the plagiarism of (or more so the dependency on) the classics. “I wish men were not still content to plume themselves with others’ Fathers,” Browne writes rather poetically. But, as Orgel shows, this is not really an attack on the plagiarism but on any and all adherence to the tradition or pride of place which those classics enjoy.

Not only were the ancients being peddled as something original or inventive, but translations took on a life of their own that often looked quite different from the source texts. Poetics, generally speaking, were a prominent battle ground for the inquiry, “What is most like the classics?” Every poet, true to his breed, had a different take. As Orgel observes:

A return to the classics held out the promise of culture and civility—not only in poetry, of course, but poetry seemed a particularly clear example. Nobody thought the transformation would be easy; a hectoring and bullying tone is common throughout the discussion. But for a brief moment the classical rules, with their formality and dignity, seemed the wave of the future for English verse, rescuing it from the crudeness, and the sheer popularity, of the native tradition.

This unanimous goal (on which methodologies differed) was further frustrated due to the quickly evolving landscape of English poetry. What prosody strikes the right chord? Is rhyme really the heart of poetry? Plus, the metric system for English verse was not the same as that of much of the classics. Thus, guidelines specific to quantitative English verse developed. This is just a small glimpse into the varied discourse surrounding the merits of Renaissance poetry.

Poets were the obvious contributors to the conversation, but the motive was usually self-defense, trying to argue the virtues of their own particular style. It was clear poetry required order, a system to provide basic structure, but what that order looked like everyone was opposed to. Tastes were constantly changing. And, eventually, if a work became so popular as to become classy, it might be considered a new classic—a new standard by which to gauge the appeal of other works in the genre.

The passion for the classical permeated other arts, like those set in stone. Architecture and sculpture took on archaic tones, and royal portraits over-accentuated the subject’s muscles, the figures striking a pose not unlike the Roman emperor statues of old. Plays of the era often made classical-historical characters or settings the mainstay of their drama, being influenced by the likes of Ovid and Seneca.

Looking back at the printed word, beyond what we might readily perceive as “art,” the Renaissance bookmakers made title pages, binding, and typesetting true art forms. While English poetry was coming into its own, so was the practice of book printing. Typography functioned in tandem with language and subject matter.

For instance, in the 1500s, many scientific texts were written in Latin. These were often printed in Roman type, making for a smooth continuity between the written word and the medium in which it appeared. In England, works in Latin and the Romance languages (e.g.: Italian, Spanish, French) usually were printed in roman or italic type. Roman type, as Arthur Marotti states in a quoted section, was seen as “a classicizing mode” in which many classics appeared.

Wit’s Treasury covers many of the Renaissance artists and how they interacted with the classics and made them their own. Along the way, Orgel explores, even if only briefly, the effects of censorship, the use of anachronisms, and the beauty of otherness. He also rightly bemoans the hold that Bacon’s and Browne’s criticisms have taken upon modern education. The result: the popular “assumption that the sciences have nothing to learn from the humanities, that science and engineering are the core disciplines, and that ethics, philosophy, history, and the training of the imagination are irrelevant to the world served by science and engineering.”

Surely Albert Einstein would not hold the above assumption, but many nowadays do seem to take it for granted. The imagination and morality—these things are only stifling progress.

Last of all, how to define classicus. Here, in his “Coda,” Orgel resorts to checking off the proverbial box with the option “Undecided.” It is not a cowardly move. It is similar to how Roger Scruton summarizes his discourse on beauty or how C. S. Lewis might finalize one of his metaphysical musings: It might be this way, or it might not be. In Orgel’s book, just what makes a classic is hinted at but remains always elusive. 

John Tuttle is a Catholic man with a passion for truth and beauty. An elementary teacher at a Chesterton Network school, he is also a writer in his spare time. His articles have appeared in The Wanderer, Catholic World Report, The Tablet, Grotto Network, Starting Points Journal, The Archive, Movieguide, the Voyage Comics Blog, and elsewhere. He has contributed to several books.

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