Nicholas Oldisworth and the Complex, Multilayered Cultures of Seventeenth-Century Gloucestershire
The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
Nicholas Oldisworth’s career serves as a reminder that the literary culture of seventeenth-century England was not monolithically metropolitan, nor solely subjected to the centripetal forces of the Court, the city of London, the Inns of Court or the two Universities. Many poets worked outside the confines of the centralising institutions (Herbert, Marvell and Herrick, for example), but because their works necessarily entered the wider public domain via the printing houses of London, and occasionally Oxford and Cambridge, and because we, their belated readership, encounter them only in print, there is a tendency to regard them as participants in a single, homogeneous literary culture. We have to remind ourselves, first, that there was a thriving literary culture sustained by manuscript transmission, in the form of poetic miscellanies. John Donne, that quintessentially urban poet, for example, circulated his poems in manuscript and allowed them to be dispersed through involuntarily complex networks of commonplace-book compilers. In consequence he was read in ways very different from the apparent homogeneity established by the posthumously printed collections, which largely erase the immediate context of social engagement in the interest of a general readership—print stifles, if not kills, the author, so that it might not be Barthes or Foucault who are responsible for the death of the author. Second, we need to remember that reading and thought must have taken place beyond the confines of London. After all, what happened to all those University-trained clergy dispersed through the parishes of the Kingdom, all those younger sons trained in serious litigation and frivolous enjoyment at the Inns of Court and theatres of the Capital? One has only to recall the circle gathered round Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, at Great Tew, to be reminded of the numerous great houses which functioned as foci of literary activity in one way or another (see David L. Smith). But all these diverse and scattered activities are nullified by the cultural dominance of London, which requires that an alternative narrative focus hold it in abeyance. A ‘mute, inglorious Milton’, such as Oldisworth, whose poetic career was in many ways marginal to the dominant culture, helps us refresh and recreate our understanding of literary cultures of seventeenth century England.
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