Robert Matz. Defending Literature in Early Modern England: Renaissance Literary Theory in Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Edward Gieskes
University of South Carolina

Gieskes, Edward. "Review of Robert Matz, Defending Literature in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 8.1-6 <URL:

  1. Robert Matz's book strives to answer the question of "why poetry was so frequently defended in the English Renaissance on the grounds of its 'profitable pleasure,' its ability, as Philip Sidney perhaps most famously puts it, to 'delight and teach...'" (1). Rather than offering an intellectual history of Renaissance Horatian poetics, Matz's book provides a social historical account that, in large measure, depends on Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture. In writing this account, Matz highlights the social and cultural contradictions that he argues this poetics "worked to efface in Renaissance England" (1). These contradictions and their maskings appear in the history of the Horatian text itself. Citing Madeleine Doran, Matz notes that Horace's definition of poetry presents a choice between pleasure and profit, delight and teaching, not a combination. The substitution of Horace's "either ... or" choice with an "and" suggests that "the relations between profitable and pleasurable activity are subject to potentially contradictory, potentially strategic interpretation" (1). The writers discussed in the book (Elyot, Sidney, and Spenser), Matz argues, deployed these categories as part a struggle between dominant and dominated fractions of the sixteenth-century elite - with profit associated with the values of an ostensibly rising new class of humanist-educated men and pleasure linked to the values of the traditional aristocracy. Horatian poetics, Matz argues, mediates between the conflicting claims of these sets of values.

  2. The first chapter describes the book's theoretical underpinning and locates his work in the broader field of early modern studies, suggestively arguing that the New Historicism's stress on the political effectivity of literary texts reproduces the Horatian poetics of the writers it refers to and that that reproduction is a response to structurally similar pressures. Bourdieu's ideas about the social functions of cultural capital, functions related to but not identical to those of economic capital, serve as Matz's beginning point for discussing the emergence and deployment of the poetics he describes. Following Bourdieu, Matz writes that the emergence of a specifically literary form of cultural capital "was part of a crucial transition of the aristocracy itself from a warrior into a civil elite" (6). [1] The effects of this fraught and uneven transition on humanist-trained writers is one of the major topics of the book. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Matz points out that attention to the operations of various forms of social capital is crucial to the understanding of literary history and of the present position of the discipline in the contemporary academy.

  3. Chapter two discusses what Matz describes as Elyot's attempt to transform the warrior elite of Henry VIII's court into an intellectual one. Elyot's Governor owed much of its success to its "Horatian mediation between conflicting imperatives of profit and pleasure, work and play" (25). These conflicting imperatives characterize the opposing fractions of the Renaissance elite - profit and work for the "new men" and pleasure and play for the traditional aristocracy - who are engaged in a struggle over social and cultural authority. Matz's discussion of Elyot's effort to reconfigure work into a species of pleasure outlines the fundamental question he sees in all three of the major texts he discusses: how to make work look like pleasure to a "warrior aristocracy". Work dilutes the authority of the "warrior aristocrat" which is signified by his engagement in unprofitable, pleasurable, activities like hunting, to cite the example from Elyot's life that Matz uses. Pleasure looks like waste to Protestant humanist intellectuals whose authority depends on their work. In Elyot's work, "'Study' mediates between humanism and chivalry (and the factions invested in each) by facilitating a crossing between kinds of work and play" (29).

  4. Chapter three turns to Sidney and opens with a discussion of Gosson's Schoole of Abuse in relation to the Defence. Rather than being a thorough rejection of Gosson's position, Matz argues that the Defence repeats Gosson's values. "For Sidney, like Gosson, poetry should be a companion of the camps. The poetics of the Defence as well as the life of its author thus accord with Gosson's exhortation that 'the word and the sword be knit togither'" (62). The chapter goes on to describe the nature of Sidney's differences from Gosson in terms of the two writers' relative social positions. Where Gosson's attack on the debilitating excesses of courtly pleasure derives from his position outside the court, Sidney's desire to link pleasure to humanist profit derives from his position within that court. "To understand Sidney's ultimate rejection of Gosson's Schoole requires placing the Defence within a courtly as well as Protestant context, for Sidney could clearly see in Gosson's position an attack on the courtier's pleasures, and thus on the courtier himself" (63). The Defence reclaims pleasure by asserting its usefulness in the "camp," but also betrays an uneasiness about the effects of "delightful teaching" on the teacher's social identity. Sidney's defence of poetry "thus mediates between courtly and Protestant forms of authority, but chiefly because the latter both attracts Sidney as a supplement to his aristocratic status and repels him as a threat to that status" (83).

  5. Chapter four takes up the "oxymoronic project" of Spenser's gentle discipline and the "ambivalence about the relative values of pleasure and profit" that structure much of book II of The Faerie Queene (89). Matz focuses on Guyon's story because "the virtue of temperance accomodates a divided and transitional aristocratic culture by accomodating Spenser's own transformation from poor scholar to courtly gentleman" (91). Matz argues that Spenser finds a useful position in the Protestant-humanist celebration of work at the same time that his work fits into an economy of courtly leisure and consumption. His poetry, in other words, is both "endlesse worke" and delightful pastime. However, as Matz goes on to demonstrate, temperance is also deeply contradictory. "Guyon's identification with the Palmer rather than with Acrasia fantasizes a victory for the Protestant-humanist poet in the battle over the cultural allegiances of the aristocrat" (98) at the same time that it puts Spenser in the untenable position of trying to occupy both sides of this battle. Matz argues that Spenser deals with the contradiction by developing an "assimilative poetics" that refigures temperance as counsel designed to help the elite defend itself against threats to its status. The destruction of the Bower, in this view, represents the avoidance of the excessive expenditure that ruined many an aristocratic family, here personified by Verdant (99). By destroying the materials of courtly leisure and making that destruction pleasurable - allegorized by Guyon's assault on the Bower - Matz argues that Spenser "puts at stake the relationship between the symbolic capital of poetry (learning's treasure) and material capital or the material world (riches and bodies)" (126) and hopes to substitute Book VI's "learning's treasure" for "worldly riches" as the dominant principle of status.

  6. Matz concludes with a discussion of the contemporary role of a Horatian poetics in New Historicist criticism that gives literature a "special power over economic, social, and political structures" (129) that echoes John Guillory's description of the canon wars in Cultural Capital. Matz' final comments suggest that the accommodation between profit and pleasure, usefulness and uselessness, that these Horatian poetics offer are as fragile today as they were in the Renaissance, and that, despite that fact, "profit and delight" remains a productive defence of both literature and its study. Implicating these Horatian poetics in a struggle over the dominant principle of social distinction, Matz provides both insightful readings and an important rethinking of the social, intellectual, and literary contexts of the Renaissance's concern with the place and function of literature.


1. Though Matz's explication of the forms of capital is clear and effective, nowhere in the book does he explicitly locate those forms of capital within the fields that contribute to their various significances. The relationship between capital and field is essential to Bourdieu's work, and is very much in the background here. Some of the relations between writers and between the Renaissance and the modern academy would be more pointed if they were more clearly located in their various fields.

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