Stephen Orgel, Wit’s Treasury: Renaissance England and the Classics.

Detail from cover for Wit's Treasury, featuring a portrait of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey.

Stephen Orgel, Wit’s Treasury: Renaissance England and the Classics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021, 216 Pages, $39.95 (hardcover) ISBN: 9780812253276.

If there are any preconceived notions of a poet who refrains from sassy defamation of a critic or an academic who manages not to say something controversial, Wit’s Treasury shatters such notions. At the heart of the book is the organic development of the understanding and appreciation of literary classics, many of them appearing as various translations throughout the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods and beyond. The book gives special attention to adaptations of the classics rendered as poetry, dramatic performance, and other written and visual modes of art. Not only were the classics, such as the narrative and philosophical writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, translated in ever-more-updated editions with plentiful illustrations, produced for the elite and popular culture, but the trappings, the settings, and the aesthetics of “the classics” also rubbed off on the books and plays of the whole Renaissance.

By necessity, Stephen Orgel’s scope in Wit’s Treasury: Renaissance England and the Classics expands to encompass the progress of poetical taste and the changing typography of printed material. During this period of history, the professionals measured the classicism of a work by varying criteria: its sheer archaism or its lingual genealogy or the setting of the type. The professionals, much like today, could seldom agree and often displayed marks of hypocrisy (along with an air of seriousness) in their arguments. Orgel provides the reader with a vivid landscape detailing a history of aesthetic criticism and counter-criticism caught up in the contemporaneous culture wars of the religio-political milieu of Renaissance England. The reader is introduced to influential literati, from Christopher Marlowe, whose religious views are divulged as likely being promiscuous, heretical, and anti-Protestant, to Francis William Newman, the lesser-known but no less controversial brother of John Henry Newman, who voiced many “eccentric” views and produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad that sparked a good deal of academic backlash, primarily on the grounds of taste.

When it comes to the classical tradition, Orgel laments the tendency of moderns to dismiss the value of the humanities as obsolete, to claim “that science and engineering are the core disciplines, and that ethics, philosophy, history, and the training of the imagination are irrelevant” (page 144). The author’s own poignant concerns come through infrequently, but here the criticism of our world’s cold abandonment of the significance of ethics and historical conscience is warmly welcomed. Such distaste, and academic disinterest, regarding the classical works Orgel traces back to treatises by Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne. These two Enlightenment-era thinkers suggest that the authority and “plagiarism” of the classics hinder the empiricism of a scientific progress focused wholly on the now, not the past. This is, Orgel believes, an attack on culture itself, which is built upon those dreadful, authoritative classics.

But, at last, we ought to ask what a classic even is, shouldn’t we? As Roger Scruton does not provide a hard and fast definition for that metaphysical reality that so attracts us, so too does Orgel with subtlety and grace negate a sure classification of  “the classic.” Instead, he notes that it is “the character of the works,” rather than the works themselves, that can reveal what makes a “classic” what it is. But the classification of “classics” as such is more fluid, something subject to individual cultural shifts and swings. Orgel’s Wit’s Treasury: Renaissance England and the Classics is not a work of popular academia — popular in the sense that it can be widely read, understood, and appreciated by any number of readers. It is, however, an important glimpse into the perception of the classics. And it is worthy of popularity among those circles of people who have a valid if not professional interest in the classics or even literature in general.

John Tuttle