Reading sensations

Reading Sensations - front cover

Embodied books on the cover

“Glosing wordes tickle and stirre vp the affections to be conceited of some fond passion” [1]

Henry Crosse, Vertues Commonwealth (1603)

It took me a while after this first post, but this summer I did finally buy Katherine Craik‘s Reading Sensations in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). This is a book I wish I had written. Its subject matter is utterly fascinating and Craik writes in a beautifully crisp style. 

The book posits that reading in early modern England was a bodily, material experience. In its pages, readers can be found licking the sweet juice of stinking books, being tickled with sugared rhetoric, softened or sharpened by words, pricked or pierced by sermons, or stirred and inflamed by poetry. Indeed, words themselves are material; they have weight and texture, while books have humoral properties that interact with the physiology of their reader, conveying the humoral state of its author to the reader’s body.

The topic resonates with recent interest in the body and embodiment in early modern culture (see also this bibliography). It picks up on Gail Kern Paster’s exploration of the porousness of the body and its exchanges with its environment. Craik studies the exchanges between the word and the flesh – “the relationship between literary texts and the bodies of English gentlemen.”

What makes the book even more attractive is Craik’s exploration of divergent opinions about these bodily processes of reading, for there was no consensus about this issue in early modern culture. Henry Crosse in his Vertues Common-Wealth, for example, disapproved of reading poetry because of the physical changes that metaphors and other rhetorical figures could work in its readers. However, Craik finds that he writes about the effects of the sacred word in remarkably similar terms: “Both poetry and scripture impress themselves painfully upon the material fabric of the body, burning, marking and scoring the skin, penetrating beneath it, piercing hearts and breaking bones” (33). Yet, Crosse views the passions evoked by poetry as deplorable and the sensations of reading scripture as ensuring integration in the Church. 

In the second chapter Craik shows that if Crosse (and Thomas Wright) distrusted the passionate effects of reading, George Puttenham and Sir Philip Sidney saw ways to harness the stirring power of words to strengthen the masculinity of English gentlemen. She argues that both Puttenham in The Arte of English Poetry (1589) and Sidney in An Apology for Poetry (1595) view poetry’s effect on the body as the very reason for literature’s exceptional value, because it is able to stir men’s passions and teach them virtue and vice by delighting them.

The chapter that I found most fascinating was the third: “Arming the Reader: Sir Philip Sidney and the Literature of Choler.” There, Craik looks at Sidney’s theory in The Apology that the reading of fiction could move a men’s blood to virtuous anger and soldierly vigour. Whereas “most military theorists insisted that delightful experiences of reading fostered only tenderness and peevishness” (64) – love poems were thought especially effeminising – Sidney thinks that fiction can indeed stir manly courage in its readers. Craik then turns to Sidney’s prose romance Arcadia, which in the eyes of his contemporaries could serve as a manual for anyone who would ‘skillfully, and brauely manage his weapon with a cunning Fury’ and was seen as a monument to Sidney’s own noble courage (Gabriel Harvey, qtd. on p. 69). The question of the text’s perspective on chivalry, especially that of the revised edition that Sidney worked on between c. 1582 and his death in Zutphen in 1586, has been much debated by critics. Craik looks at this question from the perspective of the bodily effects of reading and concludes that:

at the most passionately involving moment in Amphialus’s story, Sidney takes care to point out that he has been deceiving his readers. Sweet poetry may arouse overwhelming feelings of fury among servicemen, stirring up the ardour necessary for military engagement, but it does so by beguiling them. (72)

The fourth chapter explores whether Donne thought that his elegies could cure despair, whereas the final two chapters turn to the more pleasurable sensations stirred by books, in an analysis of Thomas Coryat’s Coryat’s Crudities – a travelogue that shows the effects of the positive experience of reading on the integrity of aristocratic men – and in a discussion of early English pornography in the context of literature’s ability to arouse bodily sensations. 

Reading Sensations stirred only pleasurable sensations in my flesh – it gave me a thoroughly delightful and thought-provoking reading experience.


  • Collin Burrow’s review of Reading Sensations in Review of English Studies (needs password)
  • A serendipitous association: I just read Jürgen Pieters’ Tranen van de herinnering. Een gesprek met de doden, also published in English as Speaking with the Dead: Explorations in Literature and History (Edinburgh UP, 2005). One of the topics Pieters explores is the ability of literary fiction to evoke the past and make the reader sense its presence. Sir Philip Sidney’s argument that poetry can present a “speaking picture” figures prominently in one of the chapters, but the book approaches the subject from many more thought-provoking literary, art historical and philosophical angles. 
  • Sean Kielen’s review of Speaking with the Dead in Renaissance Quarterly. A more extensive and appreciative review in Dutch was published by Arne de Winde in Nieuwzuid 28 (2007).
  • I also came across The Reading Experience Database 1450-1945, which aims to accumulate as much data as possible about the reading experiences of readers of all nationalities in Britain and those of British subjects abroad from 1450 to 1945. For the seventeenth century alone, they have already collected 426 experiences. A conspicuous percentage of this reading was done by Samuel Pepys and his wife, so if you come across other references to reading in early modern documents the database invites us all to contribute historical reading experiences via an online form. 

[1] Glosing or glozing: flattering, coaxing, cajoling. See also the note on line 606 on this page on The Lady of the Lake.


One thought on “Reading sensations

  1. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » Carnivalesque 42

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