Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 11. “Uncertain” authors in Tottel’s Miscellany

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 11. “Uncertain” authors in Tottel’s Miscellany

That the remainder of the authors in Tottel’s Miscellany are declared “uncertain” does not, necessarily, mean that they were unknown. Men, and sometimes women, wrote for the amusement of themselves and their friends, not for publication. Their verses were handed round, copied out into the manuscript books, of which many survive in public and private libraries, and admired in a small circle. Puttenham (The Arte of English Poesie, 1589) speaks of

  • notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably and suppressed it agayne, or els suffred it to be publisht without their owne names to it: as if it were a discredit for a Gentleman to seeme learned, and to shew him selfe amourous of any good Art.
  • Tottel’s Miscellany is the first symptom of the breaking down of this bashful exclusiveness, under the desire for poetry felt by lovers and by those outside the court circle who had begun to share in the spread of knowledge and taste due to the renascence. It was the “book of songs and sonnets” the absence of which Master Slender lamented in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1, l). Reading had gone some way towards taking the place of listening to the bard or jongleur, and Tottel was enterprising enough to attempt to satisfy the new demand. But the authors—living and dead—remained, in many cases, anonymous. One of the poets of the Miscellany was, probably, Wyatt’s friend, Sir Francis Bryan, though his pieces have not been identified. The range of subjects among these “uncertain” authors is limited. Of the love-poems, some continue the Petrarchian style of Wyatt and Surrey; others complain in more native fashion of the fickleness and frailty of woman. Praises of the mean estate and warnings of the uncertainty of life and the vanity of human wishes are very numerous. We find here the ideas introduced by Wyatt and Surrey repeated a hundred times; and certain conceits and ideas (e.g. that of nature losing, or breaking, the mould, the uncertain state of a lover, “That all things sometime finde ease of their paine, save onely the lover,” and so forth) are common to all. One or two poems raise an impression of something more than fashion. In particular, the author of a set of “poulter’s” called Of the wretchednes of this world seems to speak from his heart. In complaining of the lapse of good laws and the increase of evil customs and wicked men, he expresses, perhaps only more forcibly, and not more sincerely, than his fellows, the feelings roused in all by the decay of the old feudal order before the new England of Elizabeth came to restore security and an ideal. The reigns of Edward VI and Mary, and, to a great extent, the latter part of that of Henry VIII, were not favourable to the growth of poetry; and we find the fellows and successors of Wyatt and Surrey content to carry on their tradition without improving on the versification of the latter (one of them is guilty of the line: “Of Henry, sonne to sir John Williams knight”) or adding to the stock of subjects and ideas. Some of the authors, clearly, were familiar with the work of Boccaccio—the story of Troilus and Cressida is a favourite reference—and one poem contains the earliest English translation of a passage of Ovid, the letter of Penelope to Ulysses. As regards the metres, “poulter’s measure” is the most prominent; decasyllables and eights are common, and the rimes are often on the scheme of the rime royal stanza. Alliteration, which Grimald favoured to some extent, is more common among the “uncertain” authors than in Wyatt and Surrey.