Apostrophe as play in seventeenth-century lyric

Giulio J. Pertile*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article offers a renewed consideration of the figure of apostrophe in seventeenth-century literature by focusing on a genre in which it is especially prominent: lyric poetry on the Creation. Drawing on Jonathan Culler’s account of apostrophe’s “effects of presence,” it shows that Renaissance poets apostrophize the created world not merely to praise it as something outside and before them, but also to channel the power that created that world into the rhetorical present of the poem. In readings of Italian, French, and English poems, the article argues that poetry’s own linguistic vitality, conferred by the “event” of apostrophe, becomes in these texts a proxy for the event of Creation itself, in which God’s word breathes life into matter—Creation understood, however, not as harmony or fixed order but as a power of free play. At the same time, the article is attentive to the ways in which the powers of apostrophe shift in different cultural contexts. In English poetry in particular, the overt exuberance of apostrophe’s “effects of presence” as seen in continental poetry turns inward, reflecting the creative power of a mind cut off from external Creation rather than recapitulating it. But the article shows that despite these differences, apostrophe’s function as a fundamental medium of rhetorical power—and as a means of negotiating the divide between human and divine forms of Creation—is a constant across lyric written in several languages at a time when national literary traditions are often thought to be diverging.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)444-473
Number of pages30
JournalModern Philology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2023


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