Claire McEachern. The Poetics of English Nationhood 1590-1612. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 239pp. ISBN 0 521 57031X Cloth.
Steve Longstaffe
University College of St Martin’s, Lancaster

Longstaffe, Steve. "Review of The Poetics of English Nationhood 1590-1612." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 24.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_long.html>.

  1. The central thesis of this book is that when Henry VIII declared that the realm of England was an empire, he founded a nation whose "foundational poetics" was developed by John Bale, and which was "written down by a handful of middling-status authors in the 1590s" (2). Paradoxically, this nation could only be "reflexively apprehended in its ideal character" analeptically or proleptically, "always about to be, or on the wane, nascent or ancient" (33). But by the time of the Union debates, England was forced to define itself against a Scottish "Other," more of an economic and military underdog, more Protestant, linked linguistically and geographically, and "the last time that an English nation could be imagined with the ideality it requires" had passed (197). To show this, the book reads three texts, dealing with church, crown and land, in which imagining aspects of the state as a person or persons "cultivates the intimate affect constitutive of corporate feeling" (12).

  2. McEachern reads the first book of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene as dealing with questions of interiority and faith that are essential for the definition of a national church, and hence a nation. She considers the implications of "the search for right religion expressed as the search for the right girl" (35). The Book of Holiness’s "sartorial, sexual, semiotic and sumptuary" confusions are also those of English Reformation culture (44). Redcrosse is never really part of Faerieland; ploughman and knight, he is a synecdochic Englishman, a type interpellated by the Elizabethan church in its own image as unitary and resembling no foreign model.

  3. The chapter on Shakespeare’s Henry V is something of a miscellany, seeking to relate critical problems with the "personability" of king and nation to, amongst other things, debates about the eucharistic body, common access to scripture, the education of governors, the place of theatre in a polity, the tower of Babel, and Elizabeth’s place in the imagination of the nation. The central point is that "the ambiguity which attends a common space, be it of the theater or of the body politic, is rife in the unions which Henry V imagines" (107). The most original contribution of the chapter is its investigation of the ways Babel (the fall of which is the origin of both linguistic and national difference) can be used to read Henry V’s suspicion of a language in common.

  4. Poly-Olbion is read as "an aggressively local poem, with respect to both time and place," engaging "again and again" with the issues raised by proposed union of England and Scotland (139). When read alongside the Union debates’ concerns with the relative priorities of the local and the universal, the poem’s commitment to mutability is seen to be a refusal of simple political polarities, eroding "the grounds that bolster ideological contest" (181). The poem’s combination of domestic subject matter and cosmopolitan form, its sceptical annotation by John Selden, its "bemused toleration of difference and its acknowledgement of time’s incursions upon insular sovereignty" place it in a complex relationship with national feeling, "for and against . . . within and without it" (187).

  5. The book’s strength is its bringing together a range of unfamiliar texts through which literary texts’ constructions of nation can be read, and its skill in persuading the reader of the relevance of this. This strength, however, weakens aspects of the book’s overall case. McEachern’s concern with placing this kind of literary England-imagining within a span of twenty years is mitigated by her showing many of the discourses of which they were a part covering fifty years or more. For example, the "discourse of Babel" includes texts ranging from the 1560 Geneva Bible to a sermon by Edward Chaloner published in 1623, with the implication that this discourse did not change significantly over time. In such a context, to claim that there was a specific discourse of Englishness between 1590 and 1612 requires some explanation of why this particular discourse can be so historically confined. McEachern claims that the discourse of "this England" is marked by the "association of the crown, church, and land," and that it is replaced by one based on the law, whose appeal lies "not in its fragility, but in its endurance and its sagacity" (196). Neither the England preceding nor succeeding are presented for inspection, however.

  6. Indeed, the very range of discourses the book pulls in to its discussions of crown, church, and land mitigates against the three ever being as imaginatively united as McEachern claims, as does her dismissal of any significant differences between embodying the church, the monarch, or the land (at one point, the land is referred to as "a governing institution of Tudor-Stuart government," and "the state" is persistently reified). Whilst the component parts of a national sentiment are persuasively and illuminatingly discussed, the whole is only ever assumed to be there. This weakness could perhaps have been avoided had McEachern addressed Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood, a book covering similar literary historical territory (albeit providing less sustained readings of individual texts). As it is, McEachern’s book confines itself to briefly criticising Helgerson’s views on Henry V and Poly-Olbion (arguably misreading his position on the latter) and simply ignores his readings of Hakluyt’s and Foxe’s contributions to "the Elizabethan writing of England." The omission is even odder given that Helgerson and McEachern cover many of the same discursive fields -- chorography, constitutional law, the church -- and cannot but undermine the book’s claim to delineate through analysing its chosen texts "the very conditions of [representing] ... some larger whole." Finally, McEachern should be congratulated for her skill in employing that underused theoretical strategy, wit, in arguing her cases.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(SL, LH, RGS, 8 September 1998)