The Reception of Petrarch and Protestant Self-Abnegation in William Fowler’s Tarantula of Love William Fowler’s Tarantula of Love

(c. 1584-1587) gives expression to an antagonism inherent within erotic poetry that acquires new urgency in the context of Renaissance Scotland. In composing his sonnet sequence, Fowler engages with love’s capacity to function as a mode of social distinction, and questions the related conception of memory as the foundation of ethical character. Conceived as the articulation of private emotion, of an unsatisfied libidinous desire, love poetry is a practice that indicates the refined sensibility of the writer: its composition demonstrates an ability to sublimate desire, redirecting it to cultural ends. The conception of love as itself marking a cultivated response to the impulse of desire finds expression in the aristocratic culture of love and friendship within medieval and early modern Europe that C. Stephen Jaeger terms ‘ennobling love’. Privileging erotic discourse as the idiom of political and social interactions, the practice of ‘ennobling love’ enables aristocratic subjects to present themselves as being at once capable of an exceptional depth of feeling, yet also fully able to control its expression. Within this model, the erotic serves as an index of the aristocratic subject’s ability to reconcile will and reason, a capacity that distinguishes human from animal, and creates social distinctions. As Andreas Capellanus argues in his treatise on the art of love, ‘We say that it rarely happens that we find farmers serving in Love’s court, but naturally, like a horse or a mule, they give themselves up to the work of Venus, as nature’s urging teaches them to do’ (1.11). Nobility is defined by the ability to repress the urges of the appetitive will, natural impulses, contributing to social harmony. Within pre-modern culture, self-discipline is customarily linked with the cultivation of memory. Memory-training provided a means to assimilate the ethical teachings amassed by a society, and authorized by tradition,

fashioning a self that conforms to the values of the time. Memory might also play a more immediate part in sublimating the urgent impulse of desire, as the advice offered within Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano suggests: To avoide therfore the tourment of this absence, and to enjoy beawtie without passion, the Courtier by the helpe of reason muste full and wholy call backe again the coveting of the body to beawtye alone and (in what he can) beehoulde it in it self simple and pure, and frame it within in his imagination sundred from all matter (Hoby 1900: 357). In theory, then, the pain of desire for an inaccessible object can be assuaged by a process of transference, redirecting desire towards an image framed in imagination, where it is sundered from the corrupting influence of matter, and can be preserved inviolate. Memory-training cultivated this form of mental visualization, and the conception of memory as the fundamental tool of literary composition links the subjective production of such imaginative images with the creation of love poetry. Within Fowler’s Tarantula, however, the techniques traditionally employed to master longing do not have the anticipated effect. Memory does not translate desire to a mental realm where beauty can be enjoyed without passion; instead, it increases the urgency of a bodily hunger: ‘quhils that hee quhome thrist dois sore assayle, / remembring drink, recressis mair his drouthe, / so I remembring the rebreids my bayle’ (Meikle, I. 197, ll. 9-11). For Fowler, recollective thought increases subjection, as it ‘presents your absent schape more me to thrall’ (Meikle, I. 162, l. 7). Fowler’s attitude to memory is especially interesting, as his familiarity with methods of memorytraining is attested by his authorship of a lost treatise on the ‘art of memorye’. The treatment of memory within the Tarantula marks a selfconscious reflection on the value of memory-training as a means to subject the impulses of the appetitive will to the rule of reason. In its traditional role as an instrument of self-discipline, a curb for the unruly will, memory-training was conceived as a tactic that might temper the

effects of the Fall, restoring a measure of concord to the order of the soul. Fowler’s sequence seriously undermines this aspirational model, not only through the identification of memory as a spur to appetite, but also through a conclusion that identifies his own former pursuits as forms of idolatry: I have blaikned beutyes lovd and servd, and hethe adord bot outward bark and skin, and earthlie things to heunlye hes preferd: yet let thy mercie the to mercie move, and off my mortal mak immortal love. (Meikle, I. 206, ll. 10-14) Whereas the traditional conception of ethical character associated with memory-training allowed individual subjects to make a positive contribution to their own moral development, Fowler’s speaker lacks agency. Highlighting the failure of repeated efforts to alleviate his own bondage to bodily desire, the Tarantula emphasises the extent of his dependence upon divine grace. Fowler’s use of the sonnet cycle form to question the beneficial associations of mnemonic practice is especially apposite in light of Petrarch’s contemporary reputation as an authority on memory, and of the particular connotations the Canzoniere had acquired through its appropriation by scholars such as Giordano Bruno, whose De gli eroici furiori (c. 1585) reinscribes Petrarchan tropes as emblematic images of the type employed in memory work. Fowler’s treatment of memory is itself anticipated within the Canzoniere, in Petrarch’s sensitivity to the ambiguities of desire and poetic language, blurring the boundaries between conversion, idolatry, and narcissism. Yet Fowler’s scepticism about the role of memory reflects a heightened awareness of the affective character of images characteristic of his time, issuing from the tensions surrounding devotional practices employing images during the Reformation. The Tarantula, as Sarah Dunnigan has argued, writes back to the Canzoniere, with its concluding invocation to the Virgin Mary, as Fowler’s erotic poetry identifies the feminine as ‘the locus of sin and an idolatrous object of abject adoration’ (Dunnigan 2002: 150). Within the Tarantula, contemporary anxieties centring on the devotional use of images, like those of the Virgin, give rise to a keen appreciation of the

extent to which precisely those activities intended to suppress desire serve to increase it. Fowler’s observation that remembering his beloved Bellisa renews his disease finds a parallel in the Puritan divine William Perkins’ denunciation of the art of memory: ‘The animation of the image, which is the key of memory, is impious; because it requireth absurd, insolent and prodigious cogitations, and those especially, which set an edge vpon and kindle the most corrupt affections of the flesh’ (1607: 130). Rather than facilitating the sublimation of desire that is the mark of the civilised, aristocratic subject, memory kindles the affections of the flesh, and the arousal associated with meditation on Bellisa’s physical beauty gestures towards the sensory response elicited by other aspects of memory work. Contemporary advice emphasises the particular value of images that carry an emotional charge, since the affective stimulus ensures that an image will be more readily and deeply ingrained in memory. Conceived as an essential tool for the composition of poetry, memory is associated with writing as an activity that apparently marks the redirection of desire towards culturally sanctioned ends, yet which can also become a source of pleasure in itself. In the Tarantula, the composition of poetry, like the adoration of Bellisa, can be understood as a form of idolatry in its failure to serve an instrumental purpose, furthering the moral development of the writer. A narcissistic pleasure in artistic production, and a desire for poetic immortality, insidiously displace the aspiration towards spiritual immortality. In terms of the distinction developed by Augustine in On Christian Doctrine, the sin Fowler regrets at the close of his sequence is an abuse of material and verbal signs: rather than using them to achieve a knowledge of the divine, he has enjoyed them as ends in themselves. The final sonnet of Fowler’s sequence, however, casts doubt on the idea that any such use of material signs is possible, as it appeals to God for words: Lord quha redemes the deid and doth reviue,

and stumbling things preservs fra farder fall, quha mercyeis maks the sinfull saul to liue, and dothe to mynde na mair there guylt re[call], aboliss, lord, my faults baith great and smal, and my contempt and my offence efface; by thy sweit meiknes and thy mercy thral my stubborne thoughts, proud rebels to thy grace; In thy sones bloode my sins, great god, displace, and giue me words to cal vpon thy name. Lord in thy wonted kyndnes me embrace, that to this age I may these words procla[m]e: ‘as I IN ONE GOD EUER ay haith trust, so ar his promeis steadfast, trewe, and Iust.’ (Meikle I. 207) Fowler’s desire is not for the worldly self to be replaced by a religious self, capable of living virtuously and performing devotion; such a renunciation would undermine itself, carrying its own hidden narcissistic gain in the satisfaction of self-denial. Instead, Fowler aspires to be emptied of self and filled with God, as ‘stubborn thoughts’ are effaced, yielding to divine words. The sonnet envisages a form of negative mysticism, which seeks active forgetfulness, resisting the tendency to think in images as all attempts to imagine likenesses for the divine can only be misleading. Self-dissolution is necessarily an unattainable goal for an embodied subject, yet Fowler’s vision of a self-abnegating selfhood reflects a powerful longing, anticipating the models of self-construction that would later find expression in forms such as the Puritan diary. Fowler’s sequence appropriates and reimagines Petrarch’s Canzoniere, as a locus where tensions surrounding the use of images in devotional practice, and the underlying question of the nature of the relationship between God and humanity, might be negotiated. The Tarantula enacts a profound meditation on these issues that reflects the cultural and ethical values of the Scottish Reformation, ultimately envisioning a hope for salvation that lies in faith, rather than works.
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY Dunnigan, Sarah M. 2002. Eros and Poetry at the Courts of Mary Queen of Scots and James VI (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Elliott, Elizabeth. 2010. ‘‘‘A Memorie Nouriched by Images’: Reforming the Art of Memory in William Fowler’s Tarantula of Love.’ Journal of the Northern Renaissance 2 http://www.northernrenaissance.org/articles/A-memorie-nourichedby-images-Reforming-the-Art-of-Memory-in-William-Fowlers-iTarantula-ofLoveibrElizabeth-Elliott/21 Hoby, Thomas (trans.) 1900. The Book of the Courtier from the Italian of Count Baldassare Castiglione: done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, ed. by Sir Walter Raleigh (London: Nutt) Meikle, Henry W., James Craigie, and John Purves (eds.). 1914-1940. The Works of William Fowler, 3 vols (Edinburgh: STS) Perkins, William. 1607. The Arte of Prophecying. Or a Treatise concerning the Sacred and Onely True Manner and Method of Preaching. Trans. Thomas Tuke (STC 19735.4)

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