Hermogenes’ On Ideas of Style and Early Modern English Poetry
: Reception, Rhetoric, and Experimentation

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines the reception of Hermogenes of Tarsus’ On Ideas of Style (Περὶ ἰδεῶν) in Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry. Hermogenes’ rhetorical treatise, written in the second century AD, outlined seven ‘ideas’ (ἰδέαι) or forms of style, which had sub-styles and could also be mixed, resulting in a rich range of more than twenty stylistic forms. These included the ‘ideas’ of ‘Clarity’ (σαφήνεια), ‘Grandeur’ (μέγεθος), ‘Beauty’ (κάλλος), ‘Rapidity’ (γοργότης), ‘Character’ (ἦθος), ‘Verity’ (ἀλήθεια), and ‘Force’ (δεινότης), and sub-‘ideas’ such as ‘Asperity’ (τραχύτης) or ‘Ingenuity’ (δριμύτης), which could be combined to a diversity of effects. In this, Hermogenes’ complex stylistic theory differed considerably from the Roman tripartite outline of genres of style or genera dicendi, the high, middle, and low styles that predominantly shaped Renaissance conceptions of poetic decorum. The English afterlife of Hermogenes’ treatise has not been conclusively demonstrated, despite studies on the extensive circulation of his work in European countries such as Italy, Spain, or Portugal (John Monfasani 1983, Grosser 1992, López Grigera 1994, Olivieira Pinto 2015), and Annabel Patterson’s pioneering book on its English reception (1970). Due to a poor understanding of the multilingual sources that fostered Hermogenes’ English dissemination, and of the ground- breaking implications of his work’s understanding of form, On Ideas has remained largely unknown to scholars interested on the period’s literature and intellectual history. There is, in sum, no agreement regarding the extent to which Hermogenes’ influence was exerted, or on how or why to apply On Ideas to vernacular poetry of the period.

This thesis demonstrates Hermogenes’ pervasive influence in Elizabethan and Jacobean rhetorical and literary culture. Its main contention is that Hermogenes was a fundamental source of the experimental styles that we have called ‘metaphysical’ or ‘baroque’, and that his influence was exerted in a range of direct and indirect ways which transformed conceptions of form in the period’s vernacular writing. Hermogenes’ dissemination, I argue, was only comparable to that of the most admired rhetoricians of the classical world, such as Aristotle and Quintilian, yet his work encouraged an alternative understanding of decorum that explains some of the most ground-breaking literary developments of the period. To support this argument, this thesis combines methods from book history, classical receptions, and comparative literature, focusing on two main areas of analysis. Chapters 1 and 2 investigate Hermogenes’ dissemination, availability, and readership in Europe and England up to the mid-seventeenth century. They demonstrate On Ideas’ core status in Elizabethan and Jacobean rhetorical education, and its widespread ownership and readership among English educators, scholars, and poets. This first part of the thesis is strongly archival-focused and addresses the reception of a wide network of sources that shaped the dissemination of the ‘ideas’: not only printed editions of Hermogenes’ rhetoric, but also a cluster of textbooks by influential continental scholars, most of them written in Latin, which transtlated, explained, and discussed Hermogenes’ in detail. Thereafter, the second part of the thesis explores Hermogenes’ influence in specific genres in the vernacular and their European roots. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 show the incorporation of Hermogenean styles into English verse satire, religious lyric, and epyllion, written by authors such as Cristopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, William Shakespeare, George Chapman, George Herbert, or John Donne. These chapters examine how On Ideas was used in conversation with a range of classical and vernacular sources, and applied in light of the period’s political and religious imperatives. Through this bipartite structure, this thesis offers a methodology to identify, and analyse, early modern usages of Hermogenes’ theory, amending a long-standing neglect of On Ideas’ fundamental contributions to Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry.

KEYWORDS: Classical reception, Greek rhetoric, Hermogenes, early modern English poetry, experimentation, mixture, Mary Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, William Shakespeare, George Herbert.
Date of Award1 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorElizabeth Scott-Baumann (Supervisor) & Victoria Moul (Supervisor)

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