Occasions for writing
Essays on medieval and renaissance literature, politics and society
In 1974, in an introduction to Ben Jonson’s poetry, Thom Gunn wrote: ‘all poetry is occasional: whether the occasion is an external event like a birthday or a declaration of war, whether it is an occasion of the imagination, or whether it is in some sort a combination of the two.’ Most of the texts which make up the subject matter for the essays in this book are ‘occasional’ less in the sense that they are generated by ‘occasions of the imagination; and more in the sense that they are responses to ‘external’ factors. Sometimes these are feelings about nationalism and are inflected through a concern for language, or geographical space, or foreign or domestic policies. Sometimes the occasions for writing are related to broad social factors like class, or the impact of mechanical timekeeping, or the expensiveness of living in London. Sometimes religious issues generate the writing. Sometimes several of these factors are involved at the same time. But whatever the starting point, the writers – who include Langland, Chaucer, Hoccleve, Lydgate, Skelton, Wyatt and Leland – usually respond in a personalized and engaged way. They seek to have an impact, to influence the course of events and the climate of opinion, or, at the very least, to register approval or disapproval at something which impinges on their world.
John Scattergood is a Pro-Chancellor, Trinity College, Dublin.