English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (Oxford History of English Literature) by C. S. Lewis (1954-12-01)
In response to Amazon software's failure to carry over reviews to other offerings of the same book, I'm reposting one of my older reviews with some changes. (I wrote it in 2003, and then expanded it in 2005). It may wind up elsewhere, thanks to the same software -- in which case I can only accept the dictates of Heaven....
C.S. Lewis's "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama)," was first published in 1954, as an installment in the Clark Lectures series (for 1944), which contributes an additional subtitle in some listings, but primarily as part of a multi-volume "Oxford History of English Literature." It is perhaps the most most distinguished contribution to latter (but see below). It certainly seems to have been its top seller, and was at one time available in paperback (see picture of cover). Instead of the usual solemn catalogue of dates, names, and received critical opinions, Lewis had delivered a witty, sometimes impassioned, re-assessment of the Golden Age of English literature -- a conventional phrase which he turned into a technical term for later Elizabethan "Golden Style."
Oh yes; he did include all those dates and names, and a lot of comments on what he thought was wrong with the received opinions of the past and present (that being roughly the 1930s).
Inevitably, the response from fellow academics was not a chorus of approval. But it is obvious that many of them read it with care, even if some of them did tend to take the little jokes and apparent paradoxes too seriously. For example a critic claimed to be puzzled that Lewis argued that a writer who claimed a retelling of a very old story as entirely his own invention, in the hope of increased sales for the publisher, would for the same reason misrepresent an original story as a translation. Lewis wasn't discussing plagiarism as a moral or a psychological issue, but illustrating responses to the new economics of publishing (instead of patronage) in a particular case (that of Thomas Lodge).
For reasons not immediately apparent, Oxford University Press reissued this book at the beginning of the 1990s in a "New Version" with the title "Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century." As the same fate has overtaken E. K. Chambers on "English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages," probably the other outstanding book in the series, which is now called "Malory and Fifteenth-Century Drama, Lyrics, and Ballads," there seems to have been a policy of titular refurbishing of at least some of the volumes in the series (once known, in an unfortunate acronym, as the O.H.E.L.).
The new titles are accurate, although "Poetry and Prose" should have included the old warning that Elizabethan drama was covered in a different volume. (Due to the facts of human biology, Lewis' book not unexpectedly covers a slightly longer period than either title indicates.) Still, the changes can cause confusion for anyone not aware of them; given the current prices, this may be more than a little annoying to some people. If you have one version, you probably don't need the other!
Lewis on the "Sixteenth Century" was the product of enormous labor, including actually reading a huge body of writing generally ignored in literary histories, or customarily treated without much firsthand knowledge. Acquaintances -- not all of them friends, or even especially sympathetic -- described Lewis spending his days doggedly reading sermons and polemics, minor poets and bad poets, over the course of years. (He came to refer to the effort by the "infernal" acronym for the series noted above.) The result is a treasury of first-hand information, and with it Lewis' often-idiosyncratic summations. It is engaging reading, even for those who frequently disagree with Lewis - and, as noted, he seemingly set out to overturn most critical orthodoxies established between about 1900 and 1940, as well as older ones.
For example, he treats Elizabethan literature as an extension of medieval culture. Humanism, in its period sense of concern for a classicizing Latin style, and the disparaging of the immediate past, is treated as an often-harmful interruption. This reverses a judgment that actually goes back to the period -- but a judgment originally made by self-styled Humanists themselves, of course. And he very much includes the literature of Lowland Scotland, often ignored, or treated as something apart.
When "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century" appeared as an Oxford paperback, under the original title, in 1973), it lacked the bibliographic supplement in which Lewis discussed textual histories and modern editions, if any, of both the well-known and the more obscure English and Scots literature of the late fifteenth through early seventeenth centuries. This portion is, of course, now over half a century out of date, but Lewis' observations are still of value. Even without this section, the paperback is worthwhile, and may be a good, reasonably-priced, alternative, but anyone familiar with the original form may be disappointed.
Those interested in Lewis as a Christian apologist will find here his considered reflections on many of his predecessors, not all of them flattering, but his comments on doctrine are pretty strictly limited to explaining the issues debated. It may seem odd to see the Reformation through the lenses of literary history, but Lewis avoids open advocacy, unlike his "Preface to 'Paradise Lost,'" in which (it seems to me) his concern that readers take Milton seriously tends to blend with a concern that they take seriously their own salvation.
Lewis was also a poet, novelist, and occasional short-story writer. Here he occasionally briefly retells a story, with his usual skill, but, except for some overlapping topics, connections to his own fiction are less obvious than in some of his writings on the Middle Ages. There is a section on the Scots poet Sir David Lyndsay (d. 1555), who provided the epigraph to Lewis' novel "That Hideous Strength" (1946). And it includes, as others have noted also, a quotation with the words "Stygian puddle glum." This undoubtedly lurks somewhere behind both the Marshwiggle named Puddleglum and the visit to the Narnian Underlands in "The Silver Chair" (1953, written 1950), although Dante, Virgil (of course), and a host of others, are under contribution there as well.
I was under the impression, from my first reading of the book decades ago, that it was given as a quotation from Gavin Douglas' Scots translation of "The Aeneid" (1513; Lewis describes it with enthusiasm); but I had never been able to locate it in the appropriate section. A search of my old copy of the shorter paperback eventually revealed that it was indeed quoted from a translation, but as an example of bad one, and English, not Scots; of the dramas of Seneca, not Virgil. (Oh well, at least it was Latin....) On page 256 (where I had marked it in pencil thirty years earlier), there it was: "Tacitae Stygis" in "Hippolytus" (line 625), rather weakly rendered by the utterly obscure John Studley ("which cannot now be read without a smile").
Perhaps establishing just how much Lewis read, and with what close attention, no matter how dreary.