Chamberlayne's Pharonnida: The First English Verse Novel
The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
This article seeks to explain George Saintsbury’s and W. MacNeile Dixon’s enigmatic categorization of William Chamberlayne’s Pharonnida (1659) as a verse novel, by elaborating the relation of Pharonnida with the ancient Greek prose novels, especially the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. Pharonnida imitates the Aethiopica quite closely: it is comparably long and its plot follows the ancient formula in which a pair of nobly-born young lovers manage to remain faithful to each other during a scarcely credible proliferation of adventures, including imprisonment, rescue, enslavement, disguise, and kidnapping by pirates and robbers. Whereas the Aethiopica is set in its own contemporary world, Pharonnida is set in a past resembling the present of the Aethiopica. Chamberlayne compensates for non-novelistic lack of contemporaneity by including some contemporary authorial comments and autobiographical episodes. The only significant generic difference is that Pharonnida is composed in verse. If the ancient popular written narratives are indeed prose novels, then Pharonnida can surely be claimed as a verse novel since it is so close a reading of Aethiopica.
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