Will Rossiter. Early Modern Imitation as Creative-Critical Pedagogy

The Premise

The use of creative-critical assessments in my third-year undergraduate module, The Italian Renaissance: Translating Love, Death and Adventure.

The Problem

I had been setting essays on Renaissance sonnets for a number of years. Students were producing solid, competent analyses (mainly low to mid-2:1) but the majority of the essays were dealing primarily with the matter or narrative of the sonnet, insofar as a sonnet has a narrative, rather than attending to matters of form – the thing which makes a sonnet a sonnet. I was interested in hearing their response to the sonnet as a space in which a particular thought, image, or discourse could be examined in a way that was critical and scholarly (which they did), but also playful, engaging in the modes of thought and expression that the sonnet itself was practising. In brief, students were not really engaging the mechanics of the sonnet, its methods and means of interconnection, but attending to it in a way that made the sonnet qua sonnet slightly irrelevant. This was not due to any limitation on their part, but because I had not constructed a means of assessment that aligned adequately with the material.[i]

The Solution

It became quickly apparent that the students had to start writing sonnets themselves, within the parameters of early modern sonneteering and rhetorical poetics, in order to understand how the form works. There is a relative paucity of early modern writing about sonnets, yet there were around 200,000 sonnets written during this period.[ii] There was far more written about the epic, for example.[iii] One possible reason for this is that the sonnets themselves served as commentaries upon sonnet and lyric traditions (on commentaries per se see below). The sonnet is a carefully self-reflexive form, and the tradition of sonnet writing overall is critically autotelic. To write a sonnet one must first consider the tradition, the rules, the discursive parameters, the rhetorical strategies, and the kind of voice one is going to construct.

However, in order to prevent this from being a kind of early GCSE-level exercise, the students had to immerse themselves in diverse sonnets. The first five weeks proper of the module are taken up by different aspects of the sonnet: form (eg Petrarch, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Spenser); sequence (Samuel Daniel’s Delia, as representing something like English Petrarchan orthodoxy); discourse and dramatization (Shakespeare); gender and imitatio (eg Gaspara Stampa, Vittoria Colonna; Veronica Franco; Veronica Gambara).[iv] These sonnets provided the students with a diverse range of approaches to the fixed form, and through the sonneteers’ use of critical imitatio (see below), they were able to understand the ways in which sonnets reflected both themselves, upon other sonneteers, and upon the poetics of their shared tradition.


Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, VI & XV

Some louers speake, when they their Muses entertaine,
Of hopes begot by feare, of wot not what desires,
Of force of heau’nly beames infusing hellish paine,
Of liuing deaths, dere wounds, faire storms, and freesing fires:
Some one his song in Ioue and Ioues strange tales attires,
Bordred with buls and swans, powdred with golden raine:
Another, humbler wit, to shepherds pipe retires,
Yet hiding royall bloud full oft in rurall vaine.
To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest stile affords:
While teares poure out his inke, and sighes breathe out his words,
His paper pale despaire, and pain his pen doth moue.
I can speake what I feele, and feele as much as they,
But thinke that all the map of my state I display
When trembling voyce brings forth, that I do Stella loue.

You that do search for euery purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flowes,
And euery flower, not sweet perhaps, which growes
Neere thereabouts, into your poesie wring;
Ye that do dictionaries methode bring
Into your rimes, running in rattling rowes;
You that poore Petrarchs long deceased woes
With new-borne sighes and denisen’d wit do sing;
You take wrong wayes; those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward tuch,
And sure, at length stol’n goods doe come to light:
But if, both for your loue and skill, your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to indite.

Petrarch Rvf 1 & Gaspara Stampa, Rime 1

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ‘l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono,
del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.
Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;
et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto,
e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

Voi, ch’ascoltate in queste meste rime,
in questi mesti, in questi oscuri accenti
il suon degli amorosi miei lamenti
e de le pene mie tra l’altre prime,
ove fia chi valor apprezzi e stime,
gloria, non che perdon, de’ miei lamenti
spero trovar fra le ben nate genti,
poi che la lor cagione è sì sublime.
E spero ancor che debba dir qualcuna:
– Felicissima lei, da che sostenne
per sì chiara cagion danno sì chiaro!
Deh, perché tant’amor, tanta fortuna
per sì nobil signor a me non venne,
ch’anch’io n’andrei con tanta donna a paro?

Samuel Daniel, Delia 34, and Shakespeare, Sonnets 2 & 18

VVhen Winter snowes vpon thy golden heares,
And frost of age hath nipt thy flowers neere:
When darke shall seeme thy day that neuer cleares,
And all lyes withred that was held so deere.
Then take this picture which I heere present thee,
Limned with a Pensill not all vnworthy:
Heere see the giftes that God and nature lent thee;
Heere read thy selfe, and what I suffred for thee,
This may remaine thy lasting monument,
Which happily posteritie may cherish:
These collours with thy fading are not spent;
These may remaine, when thou and I shall perish.
If they remaine, then thou shalt liue thereby;
They will remaine, and so thou canst not dye.

WHen fortie Winters ſhall beſeige thy brow,
And digge deep trenches in thy beauties field,
Thy youthes proud liuery ſo gaz’d on now,
Wil be a totter’d weed of ſmal worth held:
Then being askt,where all thy beautie lies,
Where all the treaſure of thy luſty daies;
To ſay within thine owne deepe ſunken eyes,
Were an all-eating ſhame,and thriftleſſe praiſe.
How much more praiſe deſeru’d thy beauties uſe,
If thou couldſt anſwere this faire child of mine
Shall ſum my count,and make my old excuſe
Proouing his beautie by ſucceſſion thine.
This were to be new made when thou art ould,
And ſee thy blood warme when thou feel’ſt it could.

SHall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more louely and more temperate:
Rough windes do ſhake the darling buds of Maie,
And Sommers leaſe hath all too ſhorte a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heauen ſhines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And euery faire from faire ſome-time declines,
By chance,or natures changing courſe vntrim’d:
But thy eternall Sommer ſhall not fade,
Nor looſe poſſeſſion of that faire thou ow’ſt,
Nor ſhall death brag thou wandr’ſt in his ſhade,
When in eternall lines to time thou grow’ſt,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can ſee,
So long liues this,and this giues life to thee.

The Models

The principles of imitation upon which students founded their sonnets were shaped by those laid down by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) in the fourteenth century and Roger Ascham in the sixteenth, to provide consistency. To this we added (in the epic romance section of the module) the theories of imitation put forth by Giraldi Cinthio, Antonio Minturno and Torquato Tasso. In his  letter to Boccaccio, Petrarch writes that

An imitator must take care to write something similar yet not identical to the original, and that similarity must not be like the image to its original in painting where the greater the similarity the greater the praise for the artist, but rather like that of a son to his father. While often very different in their individual features, they have a certain something our painters call an ‘air’, especially noticeable about the face and eyes, that produces a resemblance; seeing the son’s face, we are reminded of the father’s, although if it came to measurement, the features would be all different, but there is something subtle that creates this effect. We must thus see to it that if there is something similar, there is also a great deal that is dissimilar, and that the similar be elusive and unable to be extricated except in silent meditation, for the resemblance is to be felt rather than expressed. Thus we may appropriate another’s ideas as well as his coloring but we must abstain from his actual words; for, with the former, resemblance remains hidden, and with the latter it is glaring, the former creates poets, the second apes […] we must write as the bees make honey [mellificant], not gathering flowers but turning them into honeycombs, thereby blending them into a oneness that is unlike them all, and better [melius]. (Familiares XXIII.19)

This rhetoric of imitatio was set against Ascham’s more pedagogical principles, with a view to speaking both to creative and non-CW writers, which he reduced to six basic rules:

1.     Tully retaineth thus much of the matter, these sentences, these words.
2.     This and that he leaveth out; which he doth wittily, to this end and purpose.
3.     This he addeth here.
4.     This he diminisheth there.
5.     This he ordereth thus, with placing that here, not there.
6.     This he altereth and changeth, either in property of words, in form of sentence, in substance of the matter, or in or other convenient circumstance of the author’s present purpose.

In these few rude English words are wrapped up all the necessary tools and instruments wherewith true imitation is rightly wrought withal in any tongue.[v]

The CWers,  I hypothesized, might respond better to Petrarch, the non-CWers, unaccustomed to writing poetry, to the clear rules put forth by Ascham. This was in part borne out this year when one CW student wrote:

While I do find myself unable to disagree with Ascham’s accurate and precise advice for those exploring the art of imitation, I find his close examination of the process to be lacking heart. Although he may criticize my opinion, condemning me in his own words as “some ignorant, and idle student, or some busy looker upon this little poor book, that hath neither will to do good himself nor skill to judge of others”, I will not deny that attempting to follow his instruction in good nature led me only to frustration and sadness. Ascham’s guidance surgically removed my enjoyment. I find that Petrarch’s looser and more poetic approaches better communicate the role of inspiration and its transcendent and elusive qualities which could arguably be the very soul of the Italian Renaissance. In keeping his approach to its description vague and cloaked in decorative metaphor, I was paradoxically more confident in building an intuitive understanding of imitation. His words “the resemblance is to be felt rather than expressed” became more helpful, even encouraging, to me than Ascham’s ‘to do’ list. His descriptions carry more feeling than Ascham’s which, while not completely unhelpful, are cold and clinical in comparison. It is in closely examining the use of imitation in others works that Ascham becomes indispensable. (Aisla McKenzie, 2021/22)

With these principles in situ the students could begin to conceptualise their poems by drawing on the poetry we had read together. Two elements remained, however.

Firstly there was the tenor and vehicle. The students did not have a completely free rein when it came to the matter of their sonnet. They had to base the poem on one of the works of Renaissance art we had examined in our weekly art history sessions, which run alongside the seminars and lectures throughout the semester. This stipulation had various functions. It provided a shorthand for knowledge of classical myth (we cannot assume widespread knowledge of the classics).[vi] It allowed for ekphrastic self-reflexivity, as in Petrarch’s Rvf 77-78, Stampa’s response in Rime 55-56, or Sidney’s sonnet on chiaroscuro in Astrophil and Stella. It provided a means of transposing narrative into lyric, in imitation of Petrarch’s Ovidianism (eg Rvf 23, the canzone delle metamorfosi). Ultimately the artwork allowed for deeper and more sustained imitatio. For example, this sonnet upon Titian’s Mars, Venus and Amor:

At last, the harvest draws its long-held breath,
Suspended in this sap and amber glow,
These trees once bare, bear fruit among their breasts,
These seeds once small, composed begin to grow.
At last, two lovers’ season blooms in date,
This hunger filled with honied flesh and skin,
A dripping nectar these lips satiate,
A gala of their love fulfilled within.
Defences down they didn’t see the rot,
The watchful eye that makes their love a cast,
A poisoned hand to tie this tightened knot,
These cravings filled on impulse never last.
To trade a taste forever now be bound,
And who can say where truer love is found. (Cat Faux)

[Figure 1:  Titian, Mars, Venus and Amor]

The sonnet is both within and without the painting, using ekphrasis to offset lyric immediacy – the image is both observed and inhabited.  Here the form is careful to frame the painting in its set parameters. At other times students chafed against those parameters, as in this response to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus:

When the sea lies hidden beneath the purling
Fog that drowns the land in prickling salt
Changing boughs with buds just green unfurling
To gnarled hands reaching for a fault,
Then the shining scallop doth alight
And golden rays burneth off the mist
Blossoms reach towards the beauteous sight
And gently by her feet the land is kisst.
With the masking fog now seared and gone,
Sea and land will clear-eyed day reveal
With gazes now inexorably drawn
To illustration that which was concealed.
And bright Love’s eye will lay all truth to bare
Revealing both the monstrous and the fair.

The fluid enjambment of the lines here remind one that Botticelli’s painting, though it appears static, is full of representations of movement. Crucially, the sonnet draws on poetic representations of Spring that precede and inform the painting, and which follow it: such as Petrarch’s ‘Zefiro torna’ (Rvf 287), its analogue in the opening lines to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and its translation as ‘The soote season’, by the Earl of Surrey, who conflates Petrarch’s poem with Chaucer’s opening.

The second missing element is the critical commentary, explaining the models, concealed references, formal challenges (metre, rhyme, structure, ratio), and rhetorical strategies of the poem they had composed. For this we needed a model to imitate too. For the framing commentary per se a model was found in Dante’s Vita Nuova, in which the poem’s are framed by a narrative and followed by formal exposition of parts.

[Figure 2: Vita Nuova. Delle opere di Dante Alighieri tomo 1. [-2.], con le annotazioni del dottore Anton Maria Biscioni fiorentino (Venice: presso Giambatista Pasquali, 1741), cc. 9-10. Trans. Theodore Martin (London: Parker, 1862), pp. 4-5.]

However, Dante’s accounts of the sonnet’s mechanics were too cursory. We needed more detail. As noted earlier, there was less writing about sonnets than other forms, despite more sonnets being composed than other forms. However, there was a lot of writing on sonnets in the form of expository commentary. A useful model here was Alessandro Vellutello’s 1525 commentary edition of Petrarch’s sonnets.

[Figure 3: Le volgari opere del Petrarca con la esposizione di Alessandro Vellutello da Lucca (Venice: Da Sabbio, 1525), sig. A1v.]

The students didn’t need to read Vellutello (there is no prerequisite Italian, though students are welcome to learn the rudiments), as part of the point of using his commentary was that it is immediately visible, through its layout, how important the commentary is relative to the poem as a means of framing its meaning – literally, in terms of ordinatio.

With these models, parameters and principles in situ, we could proceed.

Beyond Sonnets

Of course, after this taster of early modern creative-criticism, and especially sonneteering, the students wanted to pursue more. For the final assessment we have, over the years, seen a variety of poetic imitations. Some were mini-sonnet sequences, such as Dante’s Inferno rewritten as Shakespearean sonnets:

[Figure 4: Leonie Rowland, Dante and Shakespeare essay]

Or a series of love sonnets from Patroclus to Achilles based on the Shakespearean fair youth and the Petrarchan beloved, to versions of the Metamorphoses told from the perspective of Ovid’s Heroides in the style of Gaspara Stampa, to imitations of Veronica Franco’s anti-Petrarchan poems in terza rima. Indeed the imitation of Italian women poets such as Stampa, Colonna, Franco, Gambara and  Terracina whereby the silent Lauras of the male Petrarchan tradition are given voice, have proven enormously popular as a means of giving agency and movement to the often static, iconographical beloveds of the lyric tradition.

Beyond Petrarchism we have had imitations of Benivieni’s densely Neoplatonic Canzone dell’Amore accompanied by a commentary in the firebrand style of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, and – a personal favourite — a fictional correspondence between Pietro Aretino and Gaspara Stampa, who were celebrated contemporaries in Venice, but never actually corresponded.

[Figure 5: Brett Mottram essay]

This exercise in prose and poetic  stylistic imitation involved the most detailed and careful analysis of Aretino’s letters and Stampa’s poems, reaching an understanding of them far beyond what would have been possible with a standard essay.

The Implications

This was the beginning and end of the creative-critical exercises in the Italian Renaissance module: I wanted students to understand the principles of early modern imitatio by practising them, and in practising them to understand how creative imitation was a fundamental critical practice in the early modem period, and to move beyond the limitations of a traditional essay question, which would allow them to fall back on critical reflexes that were not demanding enough of their intellectual engagement. Indeed, the ‘straight’ critical essays became more creative in their approach – having engaged with creative-critical imitation in the first assessment, the second assessment enabled some students to break away from certain normative structures which they had perhaps slipped into over the course of their degree programmes. Not all students, I hasten to add – I am not claiming creative-critical exercises as a panacea. However, certain students who had learned how to ‘do’ university essays to a fixed degree of proficiency now were able to see again the possibilities of the essay form, which I found very heartening as by referring to the ‘straight’ critical essay there is a danger that this becomes a pejorative or conservative term, when a really good essay can be the most exciting high-risk form of writing. If the experience of creative-critical encouraged strong students to take such risks then it has proven itself worthwhile. As one of the students on the module put it:

My third year modules have all included creative-critical assessment, and it has been wonderful. I have written fictionalised diary entries about my favourite cities, composed a sonnet sequence and included my own photographs and illustrations where words don’t quite cut it. My friends have written children’s books, fashioned letters between dead authors, tried their hand at painting. The results are bold, colourful, raw pieces of writing that do not fit into small boxes, and it is so exciting.

It is an age-old cliché that rules must be learnt before they are broken, and creative-critical champions this. We want graduates who will lead their fields into new, exciting, experimental territory, and allowing them to bridge the gap between creative and critical in their own work – should they so wish – is a means of reframing critical writing as the creative thing it is, and vice versa. This freedom of expression allows students to face Lit in important, intelligent ways that represent LDC with far more panache than a board reading ‘I heart arts and humanities’. Many of us love what we do, of course – but we want to love it in our own words. We are taught to show, not tell, after all. (Leonie Rowland, 2017)


Coda: Afterlives

The transformation of The Italian Renaissance into a creative-critical module – it is not just a change in assessment, but as noted an alignment of content, delivery, and assessment – ensures that I am informed by my students as much as I (hope to) inform them. Research-informed teaching can become a one-way street that reinscribes the tutor (giver) / student (receiver) hierarchy. Our students’ creative-critical responses to the module’s texts, paintings and ideas certainly shape my thinking about them; informing my research as much as my research informs the modular content, creating a virtuous circle. I had not imagined, for example, that the exercise I set for the opening seminar – six different settings of the same bleeding tree, to showcase imitation, style and genre – would be anything more than that: something fun, engaging, illustrative. Yet our discussions always sent me away thinking about what was really at stake in this recursive episode, and what key connections were being established. In late 2020 a chapter I wrote, entitled ‘Allusion and Horror: The Afterlives of Polydorus’, was published in a volume on Imitative Clusters and Series. [vii] I  set these episodes in week 1 not because I had written on the topic, but the inverse; the teaching led to the chapter. I am thus endlessly grateful to all the students who took and continue to take the module for helping me to see things anew, year on year. The creative-critical module is a salutary reminder that the seminar room is a site where meaning and understanding are co-produced. It can, and should be, as Leonie wrote, ‘so exciting’.

[i] This is Biggs’ model of constructive alignment in university curriculum design. See John Biggs and Catherine Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 4th ed. (Buckingham: Open University Press/McGraw Hill, 2011).
[ii] See Michael R. G. Spiller, The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 81: ‘In Italy, France, Germany and Britain, it is estimated, between 1530 and 1650, some 3,000 writers produced about 200,000 sonnets’.
[iii] Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia runs to two books only, instead of the planned four, and so does not reach the sonnet, as the canzone was deemed the more noble form, hence was treated first. As the sonnet was a medieval creation (formulated around c.1230) it did not feature in early modern treatises on classical imitatio.
[iv] By dramatization I am referring to Helen Vendler’s explanation of lyric drama: ‘The true “actors” in lyric are words, not “dramatic persons”; and the drama of any lyric is constituted by the successive  entrances of new sets of words, or new stylistic arrangements (grammatic, syntactical or phonetic) which are visibly in conflict with previous arrangements used with reference to the “same” situation.’ See The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1997), p. 3.
[v] Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster (1570), in Brian Vickers (ed.), English Renaissance Literary Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), p. 145.
[vi] Through no fault whatsoever of the students. I am always mindful of Biggs and Tang’s ‘blame-the-student theory of [poor] teaching’ (Biggs and Tang, 18).
[vii] William T. Rossiter, ‘Allusion and Horror: The Afterlives of Polydorus’, in Colin Burrow, Stephen Harrison, Martin McLaughlin, and Elisabetta Tarantino (eds), Imitative Series and Clusters from Classical to Early Modern Literature (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), pp. 257-76.