Modernity, Cultural Change, and Poets as "First Responders" to Change
As we restart the semester after the exam, we're taking a few steps backward to rethink the enormous changes about to take place in the early C17 from the point of view of two writers at the end of the C16. Elizabeth was still alive, and one of the authors (Marlowe, 1564-1595) was at the top of his game, writing smash hit plays for the English stage and, in his spare time, playing secret agent for Elizabeth's spy agency. Some of his colleagues later would kill him in a quarrel over a tavern bill in the port city of Deptford (or, perhaps, assassinated him?). The other (Ralegh, (1552-1618) was an older man who outlived the young playwright. He was a New World explorer (Virginia and Maryland), a promoter of ambitious colonial schemes of world empire, a courtly politician and amateur poet, who was imprisoned by James I for most of the last fifteen years of his life. Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Love" represents a kind of attitude toward love and the promise of material beauty that many poets answered with witty "reply" poems of their own, among them Ralegh ("The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd"). In that exchange, we can see the onset of Modernity as it seemed to those who were going through it, the beginning of a social system characterized by what Wyatt earlier called "continual change" ("The Flee from Me").
Poets are often our earliest "sensors" for cultural change, detecting shifts in belief systems rooted in language that will others will become aware of only decades or centuries later (e.g., Chaucer's satires on Church corruption, 150 years before the Reformation). What does it mean to be "modern," as in "Modern English"? This, in turn, will prepare us to read Ben Jonson's mordant satire on Modernity, the fashionable trends and ceaseless pursuit of wealth for its own sake, in Volpone. That play was written about the same time as Shakespeare's King Lear, which also might be said to be about Modernity. But Shakespeare was looking backward into the pagan English past, even as Jonson looked forward to trendy turn-of-the-century Venice, a notoriously corrupt city from which the Renaissance, itself, had arisen.