Blog Post

The Critical Horizon of Barbara K. Lewalski

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

The opening passage of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, when John relates his vision of "one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle," arrives at a startling figure for the power of the revealed word: "and he had in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword; and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead."

The same figure reappears several times in Revelation, in a symmetrical pattern: twice near the beginning, in the aforementioned passage and in 2:16, and twice near the end, in 19:15 and 19:21.

This curious figure is the first instance of literariness considered by Barbara K. Lewalski in her long and rich career as a literary scholar. A beloved mentor and colleague to me and many others, Lewalski passed away March 2, 2018. In the first publication of her career, she addresses the figure of the Christ with stars and sword in a brief article called "The Authorship of Ancient Bounds," which concerns the provenance of an unsigned Puritan tract and appeared in the journal Church History in 1953. (The article's author is Barbara Kiefer, who was not yet Barbara Kiefer Lewalski.) Kiefer considers several pieces of evidence for the ascription of the tract to the unorthodox divine Joshua Sprigg, but concludes with the use of the rhetorical figure from Revelation that also appears in both Ancient Bounds and another pamphlet known to be Sprigg's, an appeal to the judges of King Charles to show mercy. She discusses a figure that appears in three places, in Scripture as well as in two early modern works, and for the first time we see the outline of what will become her characteristic method of collating Biblical materials with seventeenth-century lyric, polemical, or philosophical writing to adduce a poetics they hold in common—what in the Preface to her second book, Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise (1973), she will call a Biblical poetics, or "the ways in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant theory regarding the literary elements of Scripture (genre, figurative language, symbolic mode) affected contemporary English poetry and poetics, especially religious poetry" (vii).

Courtesy of Brown University."The Authorship of Ancient Bounds" is the work of an apprentice, framing and resolving one narrow question. But I would like to suggest that Kiefer is a little too interested in what she calls the "rather unusual figure" found in Revelation, especially in the setting of Church History, among articles on topics like "The Haddon-Osorio Controversy of 1563-83" or "Molanus, Lutheran Irenicist (1633-1722)." The topic of the article may be Sprigg's authorship of the tract, but its subject, which dawns only on the final page, is how a rhetorical figure moves from the Bible—where it is already unstable, appearing in slightly different contexts—into devotional and imaginative writing, and what it does there. I might even go so far as to suggest that a rather brittle and difficult figure is a kind of stand-in for the more developed instances of literariness that will preoccupy this critic in her next phase. The scale here is small, but the method is already becoming evident.

From 1953 we go to 1966 and the publication of Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning and Art of Paradise Regained, Barbara Lewalski's first book. More than fifty years on, it is still the best thing ever written on Paradise Regained, but at this distance one is struck by how carefully Lewalski draws the horizons of her scholarship: that is, the sense of what this work is ultimately about. In a blog post called "Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies," I have written about the drawing of horizons in criticism and the perspectives that contribute to them, and how (especially now, as our common enterprise seems less and less urgent to the rest of the academy, let alone the public) we have to see the making of a horizon as a statement of values: is the horizon the real world, or intellectual history, or the Bible and its influence, with literary texts inside that horizon as perspective? Or is literature itself the horizon, with all of these things inside it as perspective? It is the latter kind of project, I argue, that has met certain parochial customs and rewards of our discipline while pulling us away from the intellectual life of other disciplines—because historians, philosophers, social scientists, and others simply do not see literature as a valuable horizon in relation to the real world.

Milton's Brief Epic belongs to an unusually fertile moment for Renaissance literary studies, and I want to tarry for a moment over the question of why the criticism of that era has maintained its power all these years later. One could distinguish among the several areas within Renaissance literature that undergo a revival in the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-seventies; I think the conditions were different for, say, Spenser than for Donne and Milton, and even between Donne and Milton, in part because of when and how formalism arrived to each of these corpuses (Greene 118-20). For the scholars of seventeenth-century literature of Lewalski's generation who flourished in this era such as Rosalie Colie, Earl Miner, and Stanley Fish, there is a Janus-faced methodological orientation: that is, they mostly begin as historicists with a facility for formalism. The historicism of that era was a category that masked such sharply delineated approaches as the history of ideas, biography, and allegorical interpretation, while the contemporaneous formalism was the New Criticism. The methodological condition of Lewalski and her peers was a legacy of the recent history of Donne and Milton studies, where many interventions by Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, and others had fashioned a New Critical Donne but Milton came into this era still largely in the hands of traditional historicists, and any younger person in the field of seventeenth-century literature had to be able to engage with both kinds of approaches.

Milton's Brief Epic is about how a variety of models are absorbed into the container that is Paradise Regained, at once a satisfactory and an unsatisfactory example of a brief epic; and in this early phase of Lewalski's career, the horizon is not Milton or even Paradise Regained but genre: "Milton's tremendous creative energy," she writes, "modifies and transforms the genres he uses, making them adequate to sustain new demands, which his profound respect for order and discipline in art as in life preserves most of the formal traditions appropriate to each kind" (5). 

What is a genre in this kind of criticism? It's important to recognize that for the early Lewalski, genres exist between literature and other kinds of writing, especially Biblical and speculative, and that instead of being closed boxes, they are open channels that shuttle between fields of discourse. The designation of genre as Lewalski's horizon here doesn't close the project to perspectives outside the work at hand or beyond literature. On the contrary: genre is how those perspectives get into the argument. This is a significantly more historical understanding of genre than the one received from the New Critics; and at the same time, it is a more dynamically literary understanding of genre than was available from the historical scholars of the preceding generations.

But while they all start from a more or less common position, these critics also wrestle openly in their work with the challenge of identifying the vivid conceptual term that enables them to move from one literary work to another, from literature to other kinds of writing, and from literature to history. What is needed is a term that draws a horizon, a term that is itself part of literature but puts literature into something larger. For the early Lewalski that term is first genre and then Biblical poetics; for Miner it is mode; for Colie it is first criticism (in her book on Andrew Marvell) and then kind; and for Fish it is reader, with consequences for the entire discipline of literary studies. The work of this generation survives because their terms get worked into the fabric of our recognition of the period; we come to feel that our understanding of the literature depends on having such terms available as perspectives to bump against a horizon. It's not that we now do criticism like that of Lewalski and her contemporaries, or even, oddly, that we obtained from them stable accounts of genres such as the religious or metaphysical lyric, rhetorical tropes such as the paradox, or symbolic processes such as allegory. If anything, these genres, tropes, and processes were left by them better defined but somehow also more open, more accessible to our investigations.

Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise—which begins what I consider Lewalski's middle or georgic phase, leading up to the epic of Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (1979)—is the pivotal point in the development I have been tracing, because here she broaches Biblical poetics as a guiding concept or a horizon. Suddenly the limitations of genre as a horizon are plain, and while that term continues to play an important role as a contributing perspective, from here on it is nearly always controlled by Lewalski's more powerful and original concepts of Biblical and Protestant poetics that permit her to chart the flow of ideas and figures into and out of seventeenth-century literature.

Lewalski's later work, notably three distinguished monographs, builds on this foundation, but the definitive moment in her scholarship is the passage through the first three books to 1979. A year later, she left Brown University, where she had taught since 1956, for Harvard, and remained there until her retirement in 2015. I had the privilege of knowing her as my teacher and adviser in my undergraduate years at Brown and then a few years later as my colleague at Harvard. For many of us, Barbara at Brown was her essential phase, in which her approach was still being formed in conversation with the aforementioned peers such as Miner, who became my Ph.D. adviser. By contrast, Barbara at Harvard in the 1980s and nineties was an eminence who embodied a settled method, a then somewhat old-fashioned historical scholarship that stood apart from the fashion for the New Historicism of the time. In the Brown years, moreover, she was younger (not yet fifty when I first knew her) and more informal, and her human existence took place in Providence, where she lived until the end of her life, as it never did in Cambridge. I can see Barbara in shabby Horace Mann House at Brown in about 1977, wearing casual clothes she would never appear in at Harvard, sitting at the head of the seminar table with one leg tucked under her and reciting in a brassy, colloquial tone: "Busy old fool, unruly sun, / Why dost thou thus / Through windows and through curtains call on us?" As I told my students a few days after Barbara's passing, I'll always hear certain poems in her voice. Maybe our voices that survive resonantly in the memories of students are as powerful as those in our criticism; or maybe these voices are somehow the same. I believe Barbara found her voice in those early books and in the Brown era.

Three years ago I spent an afternoon with Barbara in her home on University Avenue in Providence, talking a little about the past but mostly about the future, especially politics. She and her delightful husband Ken Lewalski were Stevenson Democrats and shrewd observers of national politics across many eras. (A professor of history at Rhode Island College, Ken passed away in 2006.) I saw her again in January of 2017, in the audience for a panel of Ph.D. students at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia at 8:30 in the morning, but couldn’t catch her eye across the room and had to leave early. How many scholars of Barbara's distinction in their eighties, I thought then, would trouble themselves to attend such a session and pitch constructive questions at nervous graduate students? She always paid respect to the field by investing in its future.

When I delivered a version of the foregoing as a talk at a celebration of Barbara's career in 2011, she told us how her adviser, Ernest Sirluck at the University of Chicago, had encouraged her to publish the paper on Ancient Bounds. What Sirluck (and even Barbara herself) might have seen then as merely a study of attribution contained the rudiments of a method and a voice that was to figure in a Golden Age in criticism. My students often find their way to her books, and their students will continue to do so for as long as I can imagine.


Works Cited

Photos courtesy of the Archives of Brown University.

Colie, Rosalie L. "My ecchoing song": Andrew Marvell's Poetry of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

—. The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance. Ed. Barbara K. Lewalski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin's, 1967.

Greene, Roland. "Close Reading Transformed: The New Criticism and the World." A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretration. Ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 115-24.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer [as Barbara Kiefer]. "The Authorship of Ancient Bounds." Church History 22 (1953): 192-96.

—. Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

—. Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained. Providence: Brown University Press, 1966.

—. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Miner, Earl. The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Roland Greene's picture
Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.