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"What if this present were the world's last night?": The Poetics of Early Modern English Apocalyptic Hispanophobia


My project on early modern Anglo-Spanish literary relations and apocalyptic thought, “‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’: The Poetics of Early Modern English Apocalyptic Hispanophobia,” posits a new model of Renaissance cultural transmission and reception. Against the pressure, then and now, to treat English and Spanish literary cultures as fundamentally incompatible outside the context of imperial rivalry, I recover a deceptively familiar discursive mode operating in both Protestant and Catholic Reformations—apocalypse—to highlight how the English apocalyptic imagination redefined its national literary canon by producing unexpected trans-national cultural formulations.

In a time when England saw its national identity and its political future tied to the outcome of its military rivalry with Spain, English authors cast their nationalist Hispanophobia in increasingly apocalyptic terms. By “apocalypse” I mean two things: the first is the theological discourse on the “last things”—death, resurrection, judgement, heaven, and hell; the second is the realignment of the temporal and spiritual order of things as they approached a cataclysmic end-point. Both of these understandings were current in the early modern period due to their intuitive accessibility and their prevalence in theological disputations on the subject. Perceived as an imminent threat, Spain became a natural prism for a plurality of English apocalyptic views. Yet far from just being the inevitably fanciful clearinghouse of Anglo-Spanish antagonism, apocalypticism in the early modern period, I argue, was the very site for negotiating and assimilating points of cultural difference into innovative literary formations. As I show in a new reception history of Spanish lyric, romance, and satire in England, the most outspoken English Hispanophobes conscripted Spanish texts and contexts, keenly attending to Spanish literary form, to launch their invective: Philip Sidney and John Donne took lyrics from Garcilaso de la Vega, Juan Boscán, and Jorge de Montemayor, while Royalists James Turner and Roger L’Estrange imitated translated Francisco de Quevedo’s apocalyptic satires. By invoking the countervailing powers of the apocalyptic moment—destruction and reconstitution—English poets fashioned themselves as nationalist prophets and doomsayers whose poetic making transformed Spanish literature into a natural vehicle for rearticulating England’s evolving literary and political identity.

My first chapter, the general introduction, begins by tracing the origins of English apocalyptic Hispanophobia to the realignment of English apocalyptic history in the mid sixteenth century spurred by military encounters with Spain. Hysteria over the Spanish siege of Antwerp and a heightened apocalyptic spirituality surrounding the Spanish Armada, I argue, franchised tropes of apocalyptic Hispanophobia in the conventional repertoire of any aspiring poet of Tudor and Stuart Britain. Inspired by the many potential Spanish Armageddons that never actually came to pass, aspiring English poets saturated the Elizabethan court with figurative depictions of doomsday. English authors grafted the mixed forms of the Spanish “tragicomedy” and the metrically heterogeneous Spanish lyrics, creating their own English versions of these “mungrell” works. But this grafting created a problem. By conscripting literary forms from Spain, English authors assumed a stance contrary to the Renaissance literary conventions of unity and decorum derived from Aristotle and Horace, eschewing a linear vector of classical inheritance and imitatio. By theorizing the extraordinary power of prophetic authorship, I argue, English authors fashioned a more polyvalent understanding of literary influence. Across the chapters of my project, I show how English literary history was transformed by its own apocalyptic conception of cultural contact with Spain.

The second chapter, “Sir Philip Sidney: The ‘Courtier Prophet’ and His Legacy,” shows how Sidney redefines prophecy against the practice of historical hermeneutics—divining the course of history from sacred texts—and Puritan millenarianism in favor of embracing poetry’s objective power to participate in creation, with the foregone conclusion that what can be brought together can be unmade and vice versa. In his quintessential treatise on English poetics, The Defence of Poesy, Sidney slyly decouples key characteristics of prophecy from religious poetry, opening up the possibility of associating certain qualities of the secular poet with prophetic creation. In doing so, Sidney’s treatise takes aim at Spain, staking the surprising claim that his native letters are uniquely equipped to avoid the deficiencies of the Spanish vernacular because English tolerates mixing especially well. Despite such bluster, however, I show how the sonnet fad and the continuations of narrative romances that Sidney respectively inspired with Astrophil and Stella and the Arcadia were sourced from Jorge de Montemayor’s La Diana, even as they helped popularize anti-Spanish references and figures in the works of countless other poets working in nearly every generic category. Sidney’s death at the hands of the Spanish in 1586 did not prevent his literary coterie from further mining the Spanish works Sidney preferred to cement his literary legacy as the preeminent Elizabethan man of letters.

In the third chapter, “‘Antes muerto que mudado’: John Donne’s Apocalyptic Hispanophobia,” I show how John Donne draws from the same Spanish authors as Sidney, inheriting a complex ideological tapestry surrounding the purchase of the Spanish literary debt. Often thought to have held an unequivocally affirmative view of Spain due to his Catholic upbringing, I trace how Donne’s Hispanophobia shadowed his evolution from a libertine to a religious poet. For Donne to ask “What if this present were the world’s last night?” at the opening of his Holy Sonnet is to resurrect the question of Spanish eschatology from his earlier erotic poetry. I examine Donne as an apocalyptic wartime poet, whose own hostile encounters as a soldier fighting in Spain propel his theological lexicon of apocalyptic equivocation in his Sermons and in the Pseudo-Martyr. I argue that the crisis of conversion long understood to be manifested in Donne’s Holy Sonnets is a crisis of collapsing an English identity with the Spanish ethno-cultural other, framed in Donne’s unique apocalyptic figurations.

The fourth chapter, “Francisco de Quevedo’s Baroque Eschatology and Seventeenth-Century English Royalist Satire,” illustrates how the apocalyptic satire of the English Revolution was not a hermetically bound product of a reactionary royalist anti-Puritanism, but that it emerged from a line of anti-Spanish satire from decades past. Remarkably, the same continuations of anti-Spanish satire are accomplished by translating and imitating the Spanish author Francisco de Quevedo’s own apocalyptic satires. English royalists channeled their affinity for apocalyptic satire through Quevedo’s “The Dream of the Last Judgement” and “The Vision of Hell,” both directed at the Spanish nobility and the declining bureaucracy that supported it. After the outbreak of the English Civil War, the enduring popularity of Quevedian satire began to reflect how England internalized the aesthetic of the Spanish other—the baroque—into its own increasingly divided aesthetic discourse. I argue that Quevedo’s satires, circulating in translation in England, France, and the Low Countries, functioned as a circular apocalyptic epistle that exiled English royalists, through their own translations and continuations, mobilized to illuminate the terrors of the Thirty Years War as a backdrop to the English Puritan millenarian vision.

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