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Poetry in a World of Things

Aesthetics and Empiricism in Renaissance Ekphrasis

We have become used to looking at art from a stance of detachment. In order to be objective, we create a “mental space” between ourselves and the objects of our investigation, separating internal and external worlds. This detachment dates back to the early modern period, when researchers in a wide variety of fields tried to describe material objects as “things in themselves”—things, that is, without the admixture of imagination. Generations of scholars have heralded this shift as the Renaissance “discovery” of the observable world.

In Poetry in a World of Things, Rachel Eisendrath explores how poetry responded to this new detachment by becoming a repository for a more complex experience of the world. The book focuses on ekphrasis, the elaborate literary description of a thing, as a mode of resistance to this new empirical objectivity. Poets like Petrarch, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare crafted highly artful descriptions that recovered the threatened subjective experience of the material world. In so doing, these poets reflected on the emergence of objectivity itself as a process that was often darker and more painful than otherwise acknowledged. This highly original book reclaims subjectivity as a decidedly poetic and human way of experiencing the material world and, at the same time, makes a case for understanding art objects as fundamentally unlike any other kind of objects.

Author Information

Rachel Eisendrath is assistant professor of English and chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University.


“In this terrific and wide-ranging book, Rachel Eisendrath provides a nuanced account of Renaissance defenses of aesthetic pleasure that challenges the traditional association of the early modern period with new scientific notions of objectivity. At the same time, she makes a powerful contribution to contemporary debates in the humanities about 'distant reading,''surface reading,''the new materialism,'and 'thing theory,'in the process reasserting the traditional virtues of humanistic education. Poetry in a World of Things is an exceptionally well-informed, theoretically sophisticated, and beautifully written work.” –Victoria Kahn, University of California, Berkeley
— Victoria Kahn, University of California, Berkeley

"Why do we value critical objectivity? This is the basic question of Eisendrath’s book, a study of some early encounters between art and empiricism, and of the literary strategies by which a poem or a painting might save itself from mere objecthood. Petrarch, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare are its heroes, but it is just as much a book for our times, a beautifully written tutorial in how to tell the difference between a work and a thing, and why that difference matters."
— Jeff Dolven, Princeton University

Audience: Professional and scholarly;