In The Arte of English Poesie the Elizabethan critic and poetaster George Puttenham recorded that in the last years of the reign of Henry VIII
sprang up a new company of courtly makers, of whom Sir Thomas Wyat th’elder & Henry Earl of Surrey were the two chieftaines, who, hauing travailed into Italie, and there tasted the sweete and stately measures and stile of the Italian Poesie, as novices newly crept out of the schools ofDante Arioste and Petrarch, they greatly polished our rude & homely maner of vulgar Poesie from that it had bene before, and for that cause may iustly be sayed the first reformers of our English meetre and stile.
The earlier generation of More and Colet had been part of a European humanist culture and Catholic civilisation, but then the gradual process of national self-awareness after the Reformation intervened. Wyatt and Surrey were in a sense native reformers who wished to benefit and amplify the language of their country without necessarily identifying themselves with any continental dispensation. Yet their debt to Italy is clear. Another Elizabethan writer argued that “for we are (as pretely noteth the Poet) severed from the worlde, it is thought, the common knowledges came later to us, then to other our neighbours: for our farther distance from the places where artes first sprang.”
The Italians, in particular, considered the English to be lacking in “civilitie.” In Volpone Ben Jonson creates a garrulous and affected “Lady Would-Be”—“Which o’your poets? Petrarch? Or Tasso? Or Dante? Guarini? Ariosto? Aretine? Cieco di Hadria? I have read them all.” Italian poetry was not so much fashionable as indispensable for anyone pretending to literacy. Elizabethan literary criticism was established upon the models of Italian Renaissance criticism; the Italians gave to England the sonnet and the terza rima; the works of both Machiavelli and Castiglione were extraordinarily influential. Geoffrey Chaucer, himself under the spell of Italian masters, had at an earlier date experimented both with the sonnet and with terza rima; but the new forms fell rapidly out of use. The language was not yet ready for them, and so they lay dormant within its fabric until Sir Thomas Wyatt conjured them forth.
Wyatt’s first translation had been of Plutarch’s Quyete of Mynde; he had attempted a prose treatise by Petrarch himself, but grew tired of its prolixity and repetitiveness. Significantly, however, he blamed the tedium upon “lacke of such diversyte in our tong,” so that “it shulde want a great dele of the grace.” This was precisely the “grace” he wished to emulate in his poetry, specifically in his imitations of the Petrarchan sonnet, which ( pace Chaucer) was to initiate in English the sonnet tradition which spread out from Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare into the language of Milton and then wider still into Wordsworth and Keats. Wyatt translated sixteen sonnets from Petrarch; he gained from the Italian originals melodic strength and complexity, even as he added the reflections of troubled individual experience. But the important point is this: it was only by imitating the play of contrasts and opposites in Petrarch’s poetry that Wyatt was able to discover his own ambiguous and haunted voice. His famous sonnet reputed to be cast around the image of Anne Boleyn, opening “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,” is modelled upon Petrarch’sRime 190, which creates a symbolic vision of a white hind. The contraries of Wyatt’s love poems—
I find no peace, and all my war is done. I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice
—are directly based upon Petrarchan conceits. They became so much part of English vocabulary and style that it is easy to forget or ignore their European origins; but they remain there nonetheless. The image of the spring or river occurs in Wyatt’s poetry before it flowed through the melodies of subsequent poets:
From these high hills as when a spring doth fall, It trilleth down with still and subtle course
But it is hard to resist the suggestion that his metaphor is charged with a recognition of his own “high” sources. The metaphor might also be applied to Wyatt’s epistolary satire, where his colloquial style and apparent plain speaking are established upon the satires of the Italian poet Alamanni. One opens abruptly with
Mine own John Poyntz, since ye delight to know—
where the name of Alamanni’s friend Tommaso Sertini has been substituted. Wyatt imitates Horace and Chaucer also, conflating foreign and native sources.
Yet the paradox, as contrary as anything within Wyatt’s difficult and divided poetry itself, is this. Out of these voices Wyatt has created something wholly fresh and original. Critics have often adverted to the fact that he is more concrete and particular than his Italian sources, and that he imposes the constraints of individual experience and circumstance upon the more declamatory address of the Italian originals; all this is true, and all this is characteristic of English translation. But the most extraordinary transformation lies in the mingling of old forms and old voices to create something entirely new; it is akin to the process of alchemy, that obsession of the sixteenth century, when a compound is changed into a rare element. It is the English imagination itself which has worked this miracle of transmutation. Many of the greatest poems in the language are the product of it, especially since that language is composed of borrowed tongues and purloined phrases.
Wyatt’s sonnets themselves entered general circulation with the publication by Richard Tottel of Songes and Sonnettes in the summer of 1557. It was designed in large part to advertise “the honorable stile of the noble earle of Surrey, and the weightinesse of the depewitted sir Thomas Wyat the elders verse.” Publication was deemed “to the honor of the Englishe tong, and for the profit of the studious of Englishe eloquence” with a “statelinesse of stile remoued from the rude skill of common eares. . . . And I exhort the vnlearned, by reding to learne to be more skillfull, and to purge that swinelike grossenesse.” Here eloquence bears a moral as well as a stylistic burden, and the importance of English translation is nowhere more apparent than in the dismissal of “swinelike grossenesse” as unworthy of a national tradition. In fact the publication of what was also known as Tottel’s Miscellany marked one of the first stages in the creation of a vernacular tradition, and the volume was of exemplary importance in the deployment of the sonnet as a fashionable English form. The pre-eminence of the book can be judged, perhaps, in the fact that the first collection of an individual poet’s work—that of Barnaby Googe—was actually published six years later. The translation from manuscript to print, and thus the creation of a larger English public for poetry, was largely the work of Richard Tottel who after William Caxton can be described as the begetter of book culture in England.
Barnaby Googe’s Eglogs, Epytaphes and Sonnetes was followed sixteen years later by Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, which has the distinction of being the most carefully fashioned and self-conscious literary debut up to that date. It has been said that artistic genius must create the taste by which it is to be judged, but Spenser also managed to formulate a tradition. The book was published anonymously but the editorial glosses composed by a certain “E.K.” hailed the writer as “the new poet” gathering up the inheritance of Virgil and of Chaucer, of Marot and of Skelton. It is in fact a testimony to the newly acquired power of the vernacular that it could be presented in this fashion; the book itself was accompanied by woodcuts as well as textual glosses, thus enhancing its status as an art object and a permanent memorial to the importance of English verse which has, as it were, acquired a classical veneer. Spenser was more audacious, however, in his desire to reclaim the old strengths of the English language. As “E.K.” put it, “in my opinion it is one special prayse, of manye which are dew to this Poete, that he hath laboured to restore, as to theyre rightfull heritage such good and naturall English wordes, as have ben long time out of use and almost clene disinherited.” He adds that there are some who, upon hearing or reading “an olde word albeit very naturall and significant,” dismiss it as “gibbrish” but such ought to be ashamed “in their own mother tonge straungers to be ranked and alienes.” Spenser’s project here is all of a piece with the rising current of nationalism and Protestantism shaping the English sensibility of the late sixteenth century, evinced also in the bloody conquest of Ireland in which Spenser himself played no insignificant role.
Spenser was a Londoner, born in 1552, who imbibed Protestant humanism at Cambridge. He became a member of the Earl of Leicester’s household but, more importantly, he was acquainted with Philip Sidney; these young men started a literary club under the name of Areopagus which, according to John Aubrey, was established “for the purpose of naturalizing the classical metres in English verse.” In 1580 Spenser became secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland and was a witness, if not a participant, in the English terror against that country’s native inhabitants; he directly benefited from the spoliation, also, when he was awarded a castle and estates in County Cork. It was in Ireland, too, that he completed the first three books of The Faerie Queene—a strange jewel to emerge from the blood and mire. He was given a pension by the queen in 1589 but the affairs of state rarely remain beneficent for long. His castle in Ireland was burned down during Tyrone’s rebellion of 1598, and Spenser’s youngest child perished in the flames. It is said that the poet returned to England with a broken heart. He died in the following year.
In an essay of 1820, William Hazlitt first recognised the association between poetry and power. In a discussion of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus he declared that “the principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle. It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is every thing by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents a dazzling appearance. It shows its head turreted, crowned and crested. Its front is gilt and blood-stained.” Hazlitt was a wonderfully astute critic, and he has here discerned an aspect of the English imagination which is manifest in writers as diverse as John Milton and Christopher Marlowe. In this passage, too, he might have been directly describing the work of Edmund Spenser. The Shepheardes Calender is embellished and ornamented as if it were a classical text, but this is only an acknowledgement of Spenser’s debt to the Roman poetry of empire and of power. Yet there were more recent continental models. Spenser’s production imitates an edition of Arcadia , written by the Italian poet Sannazaro and published seven years before, and there is a more general obligation to the cult of Italian neo-Platonism which had arrived in England a hundred years earlier. It is the philosophy of The ShepheardesCalender. A vision of divine harmony and order can be glimpsed in all created things, through the medium of which the soul aspires to spiritual revelation; the appetite for virtue and for beauty is the same, while all things work harmoniously on earth as they do in heaven. Spenser’s interest in symbolism, and his obsession with numerology, are aspects of a doctrine which was by degrees assimilated into his native Protestantism. This is the paradox which reflects the nature of the English imagination itself. A highly charged European culture, of which England was really only the marginal recipient, was used by Spenser to promote the cause of the vernacular language and the native sensibility. The authors to whom Spenser alludes in his verse are Chaucer and Langland, with the implicit understanding that they represent a national spirit of reform and renovation. For example, one of the two characters in the eclogue for May is named “Piers,” which had become a token of English rootedness and sincerity.
The same conditions apply to Spenser’s epic of nationhood, The Faerie Queene, which is fashioned after European models. There are passages literally translated from Ariosto’s Gerusalemme Liberata, as well as more general borrowings from European epics or romance. Yet once more Spenser mingles these contemporary or near contemporary European elements with a self-conscious English antiquarianism. Thus he combines a modern vocabulary, among its words being “fierce,” “piercing” and “noblesse,” with such Middle English borrowings as “ydrad,” “troden” and “brast.” He manages to be both ancient and modern at the same time, and so becomes sufficiently representative of the national tradition.
Spenser’s century was obsessed by its past, just like every succeeding English century. The justification for Tudor governance lay in inheritance or continuity. The Tudor monarchs claimed to draw their lineage from Arthur, and to find their origins even further back in the story of Brutus and of the foundations of England itself. The great displays of heraldry and genealogy come from the Tudor period, as do the history plays of Shakespeare; the image of empire was to include America, the land which Henry VII “causyd furst for to be founde,” but its authenticity was based upon a supposed Arthurian empire which according to Dr. Dee comprised “twenty Kingdomes.” The Arthurian myth of “Britaine” and “this Brytish Monarchie” was thus linked, for example, with the sixteenth-century conquest of Ireland. In The Faerie Queene itself Spenser extols
Mightie Albion, father of the bold And warlike people, which the Britaine Islands hold
This too became part of the national myth of Protestantism or what has been called “the Spenserian idiom of Protestant chivalry.” 1 So everything came together, as the Tudor kings asserted power based on historical models and the English genius busily conflated past and present.
The same propensity is evident in the architectural vogue for the perpendicular Gothic, combined with modern experimentation, to produce the Elizabethan “prodigy houses.” The Faerie Queene itself is a kind of “prodigy house.” It is to be found in the jousts and tilts of the Tudor court, as well as in the bogus crenellation of Tudor castles. It is part of that fascination for lavish externals which characterises Tudor portraits as well as Tudor poetry. This predilection for the past even emerges in the new art of literary criticism. In A Defence of Poesy Sir Philip Sidney numbered Spenser among those “English poets who have done good work” but then remarked of Chaucer that “truly I know not, whether to merveile more, either that he, in that mistie time, could see so clearley, or that wee, in this cleare age, walk so stumblingly after him.” It is a characteristically English tone, revived in every generation. The best work was done in the past, and contemporary writers only “stumble” afterward. It represents, perhaps, a way of suppressing or concealing the powerful disturbances of the present moment. It may be a form of disguise, therefore, or embarrassment. But the truism remains. Nothing excellent or distinguished can happen again. All lies in the past. It is, in truth, an intrinsic part of the English imagination.
This native tradition has been examined by one Renaissance scholar, Richard Helgerson, who in Forms of Nationhood created his own genealogy of books deriving from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. They are, in order, Camden’s Britannia (1586), Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), Shakespeare’s history plays, Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1611), Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612), and Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England (1624). Their context may be located in a letter which Spenser wrote to Gabriel Harvey in 1580—“Why a’ God’s name, may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?” The authors named were all born between 1551 and 1564; as Helgerson remarks, “Never before or since have so many works of such magnitude and such long-lasting effect been devoted to England by members of a single generation.”2 With the exception of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations they were also all attempts to repossess or reformulate the past as an instrument of contemporary polity and understanding; they are evidence of the antiquarianism which seems endemic to the English imagination itself.
The Faerie Queene itself is a creation of great and elaborate artifice, an allegory and a romance sustained within the smooth and even line; the phrasing is perfectly attuned to the cadence, in the fullness of achieved harmony, so that Spenser seems to let the imagination speak in its own clausal melodies. This measured artifice, so well displayed in other guises by Shakespeare and Milton, is an integral part of English poetry and of the English imagination; it is the artifice of those quintessentially English spirits Puck and Ariel, but it can also acquire the more ponderous tones of Satan in Paradise Lost. The Faerie Queene has been described by a modern scholar as “dream-like” containing “well-known elements of the dream process,”3 and it has haunted English poetry like a dream. Its metre is reawakened by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and by Shelley in The Revolt of Islam, and its dream is continued by Keats in his “Imitation of Spenser.” The analogy here is with music, the music of the reed or flute, a timeless and enchanted music which like dream can roam over the centuries.
The Faerie Queene is in Spenser’s own word an epic of “Faeryland,” constructed in six books on symbolic and numerical principles. Certain books concern individual heroes and heroic adventures, such as those of the Red Cross Knight in Book One, while others are interwoven with various narratives and episodes in the manner of English embroidery. Spenser himself deemed its principal figure to be King Arthur who, in the poet’s own words, becomes “the image of a brave knight perfected in the twelve private morall vertues as Aristotle hath devised”; but in truth Arthur is only one element in the heterogeneous mixing of classicism and romance, faery and Christian lore. It is a visionary conception, and what later critics called a Gothic poem or a piece of English tapestry; it possesses its own internal laws of growth and change, so that in a sense it seems to be in the process of writing itself.
The Faerie Queene is modeled upon continental sources, so that the paradox remains of a quintessentially English production finding its provenance within a larger European culture. Yet it is still notably English in manner and inspiration. It represents a collection of incidents and episodes which emerge effortlessly from one another; it is highly decorative and scenic, eschewing intensity for the sake of variety. It proffers a European euphony and elegance, but manifests itself in the English love for surface variety and decoration. It moves from pathos to “Gothic” horror as if they were good companions, and descends easily from melodrama into allegory. It has been said of romance itself “that it embodied in English the same greatness which had found an alternative form of expression in Latin and Greek” epic4 but, amidst its stylistic variation and exaggeration, is there not a hint of fulsome self-mockery? The success of The Faerie Queene, therefore, lies in the very nature of its Englishness. This vast and elaborate system of words might even be described as the alembic of the English language in all its mixture and variety. It then becomes time to address the question of heterogeneity itself. Its name is Shakespeare.