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Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

We take it for granted today that the study of poetry belongs in school—but in sixteenth-century England, making Ovid or Virgil into pillars of the curriculum was a revolution. Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance explores how poets reacted to the new authority of humanist pedagogy, and how they transformed a genre to express their most radical doubts.

Jeff Dolven investigates what it meant for a book to teach as he traces the rivalry between poet and schoolmaster in the works of John Lyly, Philip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton. Drawing deeply on the era’s pedagogical literature, Dolven explores the links between humanist strategies of instruction and romance narrative, rethinking such concepts as experience, sententiousness, example, method, punishment, lessons, and endings. In scrutinizing this pivotal moment in the ancient, intimate contest between art and education, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance offers a new view of one of the most unconsidered—yet fundamental—problems in literary criticism: poetry’s power to please and instruct.

288 pages | 2 halftones, 13 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


“Jeff Dolven is blessed with a sensitive and original poetic ear—not just for the sounds of verse (though he has that, too) but for the sensibility behind it. To observe in the literary production of the 1580s and ’90s that the relation between poetry and school is fundamentally tangled and adversarial is to offer some powerfully revisionist thinking. Dolven begins with the contradictions between theory and practice in the early modern business of education itself. Then, through his carefully historicized readings, he demonstrates in the literary works not only that there is a parallel set of discrepancies between ideological precept and the actual experience of the fictions but also that these productions are both troubled and inspired by the poets’ lifelong relationship to their own schooling.”

Leonard Barkan, Princeton University

Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance is a compelling and beautifully written book about fiction, learning, and experience in early modern English literature. With learned and lively reference to sixteenth-century educational theory and practice, Dolven explores ways in which instruction is represented in the major verse and prose romances of Spenser, Sidney, and Lyly, not only explicitly, but in the very fabric of their narration. Exhibiting both a sensibility for poetry and an engagement with the history of thought, this study makes an important and original contribution to the understanding of Renaissance writing.”

John Hollander, Yale University

“How can a book so easy to read be so revelatory about such difficult problems and complex issues? Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance is a spectacular accomplishment. Its powerful and eloquent prose opens up a genuinely new account of relations between poetry and pedagogy in Renaissance England. Dolven’s deployment of concepts of ordinariness and narrative inattention, and his detailed study of the interplay of experience and example, produce thrilling insights into the works of John Lyly, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton. The two chapters on The Faerie Queene are extraordinary. No one has so movingly shown how unutterably sad Spenser’s vision becomes. My fifty years of work as a Spenserian melted like a snowman under the beneficent warming rays of Dolven’s brilliant reading, and I’m now forced to reconsider that poem with the new eyes and the new ideas he has given me.”

Harry Berger Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz

“Jeff Dolven provides a compelling account of the intimate but vexed relationship between romance and education. Many excellent studies of the defiant Elizabethans have arisen in the past twenty years, but none more fresh and unexpected, from moment to moment and chapter to chapter, than Dolven’s. Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance provides a worthy capstone to the new historicist readings of the erudite, driven, and playful Elizabethans and a new foundation for studies of the forms through which they tested the culture of learning.”<Heather James, University of Southern California>

Heather James, University of Southern California

"A fine study...Gracious and economic in both style and argument, this is a work of impeccable scholarship."

Katharine Clarke | Times Literary Supplement

"Grounded in wide-ranging scholarship, the book presents theories of humanist education and reading practices, providing a rich appreciation of Renaissance romances by John Lyly, Philip Sydney, and Edmund Spenser. . . . The discussion of the complex ways the methods of humanist ’schoolmasters’ inform these romance narratives is compelling, forceful, and ’instructional.’"


"Dolven’s wickedly intelligent and often surprisingly affecting study joins a body of work . . . addressing the literary fallout of the humanist classroom. . . . This beautifully written book affords a copia of local insights that both teach and delight, even as they invite one to reconsider at a very profound level the aims and methods of pedagogy."

Clare R. Kinney | Renaissance Quarterly

"Dolven’s book makes my ’must-read’ list for anyone interested in romance."

Catherine Gimelli Martin | Studies in English Literature

"Both in its scope and in its relevance to the study of Renaissance romance, Scenes of Instruction is an impressive piece of scholarship that offers both a thorough historical account of its subject and a critical scheme that, appropriately, teaches learning in object and method."

Ian Hoch | Comitatus

"Dolven investigates what it meant for a book to teach. . . . In scrutinizing this pivotal moment in the ancient, intimate contest between art and education, [his book] offers a new view of one of the most unconsidered--yet fundamental--problems in literary crtiticism: poetry’s power to please and instruct."

Cahiers Elisabethian

"A deeply engaging study that advances an important account of Renaissance romance."

David Glimp | Clio

"Dolven’s elegant and wonderfully illuminating new book is one of a number of recent studies that seek to read sixteenth-century literature in relation to the educational project of Renaissance humanism. . . . A brilliant explication of the gnawing counter-narratives that are eating away at the heart of Renaissance romance."

Alex Davis | Arthuriana

"Dolven is a very perceptive reader and a very fine writer of academic prose, a critic who has important ideas to share about canonical texts and the cultural background that produced them."

Goran Stanivukovic | Philological Quarterly

"This book should be given to every doctoral candidate in English as a model of style. Dolven is himself a poet of some distinction and this shows itself in the subtlety and intelligence of his readings. . . . In his impressive book, prolonged excursus, sensuous ilingering, and strategic, pedagogically attuned reduction all happily cohabit."

Elizabeth Hanson | Journal of British Studies

"Dolven provides Renaissance literary criticism at its best, forcing readers to reexamine beliefs and assumptions about literature’s relationship to thinking and to the ideology of thought."

Mark Rankin | Sixteenth Century Journal

Table of Contents

ONE Telling Learning
TWO Experience: Lyly’s Euphues
THREE Maxim: The Old Arcadia
FOUR Example: The 1590 Faerie Queene
FIVE Method: The New Arcadia
SIX Punishment: The 1596 Faerie Queene
Coda: The Sense of a Lesson


International Spenser Society: MacCaffrey Award

Center for Robert Penn Warren Studies: Warren-Brooks Award

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