Comparisons Are Odorous: The Early Modern English Olfactory and Literary Imagination

My dissertation considers the importance of literary and dramatic representations of personal aromas, bodily stenches, and perfumes in early modern literature. The premise is simple enough: I claim that these most intimate odors form an integral component of many early modern texts, and therefore scholars need to pay more attention to how these odors are discussed, signified, and performed. The representation and discussion of smells can be found in all genres of Renaissance literature. Michel de Montaigne provides a beautiful and deeply personal meditation “On Smells,” with such wonderful phenomenological tidbits as his moustache retaining the odors of his favorite drinks. King James’ “Counterblast Against Tobacco” acts as a proscriptive tract against this harmful new import, but can also be read as personally prejudicial as well, both as far as his sensitive nose but also his mistrust of Sir Walter Raleigh. Religious works, such as Roger Fenton’s response to the 1603 plague, “A Perfume Against the Noisome Pestilence” make use of the metaphors of smell, as does the religious poetry of Herrick, Crashaw, and Herbert. Excremental odors become metonymically linked to larger issues of the moral hygiene of the state in scatological works as diverse as Sir John Harington’s encomium of a flushing toilet, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, Ben Jonson’s mock-epic “On the Famous Voyage,” and the anonymous “The Parliament Fart.” Fragrant perfumes are an integral component of Renaissance love-poems, and bad odors are used in many works to highlight otherness and class status in both poetry and on the stage.

Nevertheless, many scholars of early modern literature focus more on the visual and aural aspects so that the importance of the olfactory imagination is still relegated to the sensuous periphery. Danielle Nagler in her very strong overview of the philosophies and controversies concerning smell in early modern England notes “King Lear contains more references to smell, its synonyms and cognates than any other of Shakespeare’s plays,” but “whilst there has been much debate over the relative importance of sight versus hearing in Shakespeare’s work, discussion of olfaction has been almost nonexistent” (Nagler 55, 43). As Patricia Cahill notes in her overview “Take Five: Renaissance Literature and the Study of the Senses,” “Renaissance scholarship … has for decades focused on vision to the exclusion of other senses” (1019). In the early modern sensorium, vision and hearing often vie for supremacy, and unsurprisingly, the aural sense is also well represented critically. The proximate senses of taste, touch, and especially smell are understudied. Cahill concludes her study of the recent trends in Renaissance sensory scholarship by listing several newer works that study the entire sensorium, but “with that said, I do think it would be a mistake for Renaissance scholars to move too quickly away from studies of the individual senses, for literary and historical investigations of smell, taste, and touch have just begun…” (1025).

The limited work done on smell suggests the potential for further study. The co-authors of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell briefly offer several snippets of early modern poems, and announce, “these poems better than any other historical data, show the hold smell had on the contemporary imagination during this period.”

Alain Corbin’s study of Enlightenment France and the birth of deodorization The Foul and the Fragrant (1982) was the catalyst for olfactory studies and created a strong microhistory of French perceptions concerning odors. Although there have been great studies of olfactory histories generally (Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell; The Smell Culture Reader; The Smell of Books, etc.) and some wonderful resources for specific earlier time periods (Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination) and those much later (Common Scents: Comparative Encounters in High-Victorian Fiction), there is a real paucity of articles and essays in print concerning the smells of the Renaissance. Holly Dugan’s The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England is the first monograph that brings together sensory/olfactory studies, material culture, and literary studies. Her work is a cultural history of a few key scents—incense, roses, sassafras, rosemary, ambergris, and jasmine—and my own study is different from hers in that my work is much more a literary study rather than a cultural or social history, and that my focus will tend to representations of bodily odors. Even more concisely, Dugan writes of things and places; I write of bodies and texts.

I argue that studying bodily smells and their literary representations allow us to examine the past in highly subjective and ephemeral moments; it allows us to consider how early modern people experienced their own and others’ bodies, as well as how they created a spatialized and external subjectivity.

My dissertation enhances the vibrant critical conversation about early modern embodiment and affect, and sensory history, by following different whiffs of the highly subjective past. By taking a historical phenomenological approach—that is, attending to how people wrote of their own bodies, senses, and feelings within the historical moment—I argue that smells of the body seep into and affect the conventions and imaginations of early modern literature in ways not previously recognized. I claim that these most intimate odors are an integral component of many early modern texts. As I explore the complexities of aromatic discourse in early modern literature, I recover a lexicon of olfactory imagery and stereotypes, challenge modern assumptions about early modern stench and hygienic practices, and suggest new ways of gaining access to the early modern cultural imagination.

As sensory historian Mark Jenner has argued, instead of creating an overarching study of smells in the Renaissance, it is more productive to follow the trace of a particular savor and its affects over a limited period. Therefore, instead of offering a metanarrative of early modern odors, I provide what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls ‘thick descriptions’ or micro-histories of interpreted cultures, describing how and why early modern English people experienced their olfactory environments and their odoriferous bodies, and how the sense of smell was important in mediating their cultural and literary experiences. Because Sensory Studies is a multidisciplinary field, my methodologies bring together the processes of the literary scholar, the cultural historian, and the anthropologist to negotiate and navigate the early modern personal and bodily smell-scape, therefore contributing to literary studies, but also other interrelated fields as well.


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