Temporality in Early Modern Literature: An Interview with Professor J.K. Barret

David Williams | Assistant Editor of Humanities

Six hundred years ago, on October 25th, 1415, the Battle of Agincourt was fought between the English and French armies. One of the most famous speeches in English literature is the one that Henry V makes before this battle in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In it, Henry raises his army’s morale by imagining how the future will remember that day. “His promise is partially that 600 years from now people will still be celebrating it. That bigger, grander claim that you can live beyond your lifetime is articulated in so many ways in this period and probably most periods,” Professor J. K. Barret says. “But what strikes my interest is the more modest claim that you’ll be able to remember this and celebrate it yourself a little later.”

Professor J. K. Barret’s research focuses on temporality in early modern literature. She is a professor here at The University of Texas, and has published articles in English Literary History and English Literary Renaissance, with a forthcoming article in Shakespeare Quarterly. Next year, Cornell University Press will publish her first book, Untold Futures: Time and Literary Culture in Renaissance England.

Much has been written about temporality in Renaissance literature, but, as Professor Barret has written, scholars typically “privilege Renaissance England’s artistic engagement with the past” (Barret “My Promise Sent Unto Myself” 44) over its engagement with the future. Two scholars, Lucian Hölscher and Reinhart Koselleck, argue that “before the eighteenth century, a sense of the future was lacking” (Burke ix). William E. Engel describes what he calls an “overriding Aesthetic of Decline” (Engel 6) in Renaissance England, characterized by the view that everything is in a state of decline, and that the end of history was approaching. J. K. Barret, however, has focused on texts that look towards the future. “One of the things that my book is trying to explain is to point out that we haven’t really talked about the future very extensively when thinking about these texts,” she says. “One of the reasons for that is we assume either that there really wasn’t that much to say, when people thought about the future there wasn’t going to be one. They thought the apocalypse was around the corner, or else people have assumed that the seeds of modernity were always there and if we followed things like scientific progress or the valuation of empiricism, then we see the future that came to pass after the early modern period. My study is suggesting that if we approach the period without those two ends already in mind, then we can get access, or unique access, in this imaginative writing to a whole array of conceptions of the future that we haven’t talked about before.”

Professor Barret began studying temporality in early modern literature after she started noticing passages which interested her because of their sensitivity to differing views of temporality. “I think the first one that really caught my eye was in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, where there’s two brothers who are displaced, kidnapped princes, though they don’t know that, who are out in the pastoral, while being raised by their disgruntled foster father,” Professor Barret says. “They’re complaining to him that they want to do something meaningful with their time, and the way they articulate their complaint is by asking what they’ll be able to say or talk about when they reach old age, when they’re as old as he is. And I was really struck by that argument that they’re making, that the reason they want to do something now is because they want something good to remember later.” Professor Barret calls this view of time “anticipatory nostalgia.” She has used this term to describe the aforementioned speech from Henry V, calling it “[p]robably the most obvious and celebrated Shakespearean example of anticipatory nostalgia” (Barret Poetics of Futurity 121).

Professor Barret’s first published article, “‘My Promise Sent Onto Myself’: Futurity and the Language of Obligation in Sidney’s Old Arcadia,” appeared in The Uses of the Future in Early Modern Europe in 2010. In it she discusses how the first book of Old Arcadia opens with a prophecy about the future, while the final two books are about a criminal trial that passes judgment upon the past. Therefore, the text’s beginning looks to a future which will in turn look back to the past. Professor Barret further examines how characters in Old Arcadia imagine a future characterized by the act of looking back and evaluating the past. For example, she identifies how one character, Philoclea, attempts to control her future with a promise she makes to herself.

“Chained Allusions, Patterned Futures, and the Dangers of Interpretation in Titus Andronicus” is one of two articles by Professor Barret published last year, along with “Vacant Time in The Faerie Queene.” In the former, she looks at how characters in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus attempt to fashion their actions after Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and consequently limit their futures to the endings of the stories upon which they have modeled their present. The characters in Titus Andronicus fail to remember the bloody consequences in Ovid’s stories, and fall victim to similar consequences after imitating Ovid’s characters. Professor Barret explores how the play therefore exposes the dangers of reducing the present to an imitation of the past. She also pinpoints how the text reveals the danger that comes from the characters’ type of interpretation, which causes “a confusion of the literal and the metaphorical” (Barret “Chained Allusions” 472). The article ends with an analysis of a minor character, the Clown, who seems anachronistically Elizabethan rather than Roman. Contrary to the other characters in the play, the Clown is not doomed by classical allusion, of which he is wholly ignorant, as is shown during the abundant miscommunications when he speaks to other Romans. The Clown therefore offers an alternative to the dangerous imitation pervading the rest of the play, but that still isn’t enough to save him in the end.

In “Vacant Time in The Faerie Queene,” Professor Barret shows how The Faerie Queene, written by Edmund Spenser, uses “vacant time,” which isn’t already determined by obligation. While early modern writings seem to frequently condemn unassigned time as idle and dangerous, Spenser experiments with vacant time to show the possibility present within it. Spenser’s vacant time emphasizes what might happen instead of what should happen, what is possible rather than what is obligatory. This article is another product of one short part that caught Professor Barret’s eye. “I was reading book 5 of The Faerie Queene, and I came across the part where Artegall is talking to the dwarf, and the dwarf is saying what’s going on with Florimell, and it turns out Florimell is getting married, and Artegall says “if time he had, he would be there.” And I was so struck by that,” she says. “What do you mean if time he had? He’s a knight on an allegorical quest with a very clear mission. This shouldn’t be a question, of whether or not he has extra time to spend, going to weddings. So I started working on the idea for that paper, and as it turned out I don’t get to talk about that moment in the text until page 20 of the article. There was so much I needed to say and recover and set up to even be able to analyze that particular part, but it was always where that idea started.”

When asked if she has any advice for someone hoping to get started with literary research, Professor Barret said, “I think you need two core research skills to get started on any sustained project, even if it’s like a five page paper to something longer and more complex: just to be curious and to be attentive. Those are the two things needed to get any project started. I guess I wouldn’t say that you have to write about something you love, or research something you’re passionate about, but I do think you need to write about something you’re curious about.”

Works Cited

Barret, J. K., “Chained Allusions, Patterned Futures, and the Dangers of Interpretation in Titus Andronicus,English Literary Renaissance 44 (2014): 452-485.

Barret, J. K., “‘My Promise Sent Onto Myself’: Futurity and the Language of Obligation in Sidney’s Old Arcadia,” in The Uses of the Future in Early Modern Europe, edited by Andrea Brady and Emily Butterworth (New York: Routledge 2010) 54-73.

Barret, J. K., “So Written to Aftertimes”: Renaissance England’s Poetics of Futurity (PhD diss., Princeton University 2008).

Barret, J. K., “Vacant Time in The Faerie Queene,ELH 81 (2014): 1-27.

Burke, Peter, “Foreward,” in The Uses of the Future in Early Modern Europe, edited by Andrea Brady and Emily Butterworth (New York: Routledge 2010) ix-xx.

Engel, William E., Death and Drama in Renaissance England (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002).

Featured photo from The Drunken Odyssey. 

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