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The issue of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry remains a significant issue in the literary-historical understanding of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poetry. 

In recent years, scholars of Renaissance and medieval poetry have fought shy of making aesthetic judgements on our objects of study – as David Scott Wilson Okamura puts it in relation to the reluctance of contemporary Spenserians to engage with questions of style, ‘we say “It’s all good” and offer up the odorless incense of empty devotion’ (Spenser’s International Style, 13). Reactions to and from New Historicism have arguably avoided the aesthetic problems of early modern poetry, and critics are reluctant to make value judgements about literature. This failure has led to significant issues both in the scholarly understanding of this key period, and indeed why and how we teach this literature. To put the question polemically: have we become (as Wilson-Okamura’s imagery suggests) formalist prelates who tend shrines out of habit, when our ‘real’ interests are elsewhere, and have we lost as teachers the ability to distinguish the good from the bad?

Though C. S. Lewis’s ‘drab’ and ‘golden’ age poetry are by now venerable terms (see English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama (Clarendon, 1954)), they remain useful as contentious frames for a body of literary work which scholarship has still not adequately analysed and understood. In this colloquium, we propose to explore the relationship between what is valued and what is ignored and dismissed.

To what extent are canonical figures like Spenser and Donne guilty of ‘bad’ writing – why are such evaluative questions seldom asked directly? And is Thomas Bastard really that bad? We would like to explore the relationship between fifteenth-century poets like Lydgate and Hoccleve and their sixteenth-century successors. Are these poets simply inferior imitators of Chaucer – as older scholarship assumed – or do we still lack appropriate tools for understanding this verse? Similarly, the poets of Lewis’s ‘drab’ age – comprising writers as diverse as Gascoigne, Turberville, Stanyhurst and outliers like Hawes, Barclay, and Ralegh – are still lumped together despite the very different trajectories of their writing. What are the best ways of understanding these purveyors of the Drab?

The aim of this colloquium is to engage a range of specialists in late medieval and Renaissance poetry to debate the value of the poetry we study, and whether or not a return to explicitly evaluative frameworks may revive how we read such work.

Speakers include: Tamsin Badcoe (Bristol), Elisabeth Chaghafi (Tübingen), Jonathan Gibson (Open), Andrew McRae (Exeter), Cathy Shrank (Sheffield), Andrew Zurcher (Cambridge), and the organizers, Richard Danson Brown (Open) and Andrew Hadfield (Sussex). 

Papers will range from neglected writers like Thomas Lodge and Thomas Churchyard, paradoxical encomia in Skelton and Spenser, manuscript corrections of Spenser’s Mother Hubberd, the aesthetics of Tudor long lines, bad versions of the Venus and Adonis sixain, Ralegh and Gorges in the light of Lewis’s ‘drab’ vocabulary, to the value of Fowre Hymnes.

Provisional conference programme.

Registration for this event will close on the 28 March 2023.