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

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 13. Thomas Tusser

Tusser, who was born in Essex about 1525, became a singing boy at St. Paul’s, was at Eton under Nicholas Udall, who, he records, flogged him, and went on to King’s College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Leaving the university for reasons of ill-health, he entered, as a musician, the service of William lord Paget, who, later, was privy seal to Mary. Of lord Paget and his two sons, Henry and Thomas, in succession, he considered himself ever afterwards the retainer. In 1553, or thereabouts, he left London for a farm near Brantham, in Suffolk, where he introduced into England the culture of barley. In 1557, he published his Hundreth good pointes of husbandrie, which was enlarged in 1570, or earlier, by A hundreth good poynts huswifery, again, in 1573, to Five hundreth pointes of good husbandry, and again in 1577 and 1580—to run through five more editions before the end of the century. His life was restless. At one time we find him a lay-clerk in Norwich cathedral, thanks to Sir Robert Southwell, of the family of Southwell the poet; later, he is quarrelling over tithes near Witham, in Essex, then in London, and again in Cambridge, possibly as a choirman at Trinity Hall. In 1580, he died in the parish of St. Mildred, Poultry, where he is buried.

The Hundreth and Five Hundreth points are an extraordinary, but most entertaining, collection of maxims on farming, weather-lore, forestry, agriculture, thrift, virtue, religion and life in general. The title-pages given in the bibliography of this chapter are in the spirit of the work itself, which is full of a shrewd and kindly humour, and a ripe, if pedestrian, wisdom. The book gives a complete picture of the farmer’s life of the day; and, for two centuries at least, it was read far and wide as a practical manual of farming. The year is divided into months; and the duties of each month in farm, garden and house, together with many of its customs, superstitions and observances, not without their value for the antiquary and the student of manners, are set forth in rimed four-foot anapaestic couplets (the metre of Bonnie Dundee), that carry the modern reader along at a hand-gallop till he is ready to drop, but must have proved very easy reading to the country gentlemen and farmers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And, the better to fix the precepts in the mind, each month has its epitome in verse which could be learned by heart. The greater part of Tusser’s work is in the metre mentioned above; but the prefatory poems, of which there are many, offer a more interesting variety of metrical experiment than any work of the same date. In the “Epistle to Lord William Paget” he uses a stanza of six lines of eight, rimed ababcc; the “Epistle to Lord Thomas Paget” is an example of metre which Swinburne was afterwards to use with wonderful effect in combination with another: it is the 7776, riming aaab, with double-rimes at a, which forms the last part of the stanza of Proserpine, only Tusser doubles it into aaabcccb. “To the Reader” is written in “Skeltonics,” a long (and, in Tusser’s case, regular) &sgrave;tanza of four-syllabled iambic lines riming aabbccdeeffggd. The other metres need not be mentioned in detail, but two must be singled out. The Conditions of Husbandrie consists of stanzas, of which the last two lines are Tusser’s favourite four-foot anapaests; while the first two are either among the rare examples of the use of the amphibrach ([char]), or, more probably, are two-foot anapaests with a double rime. The “Preface to the Buyer” is interesting as the first example of the three-foot anapaestic line which was used, later, by Shenstone and Prior, and which is familiar to all as the metre of Cowper’s “I am monarch of all I survey.” Tusser’singenuity leads him into many faults; he affects acrostics and alliteration (in his Things Thriftie there are twelve couplets in which every word begins with a T; every line but the last two of his Ladder to Thrift ends in ie or y); but these things are easily pardoned to a man who was writing, not to please the literary circles of the town, but to fix his maxims in the heads of the country; and the same ingenuity stood him in good stead in the matter of metre. He was too good a scholar, with too good an ear, to leave things as irregular as they had been in the hands of Skelton. Taking measures and feet that were English and familiar, he polished and combined them with no contemptible skill, uniting an ease in movement with a terseness and exactness of expression that were new in this field; though he lies outside the main stream of development and has, on that account, been too much neglected, his achievement and influence were valuable. He has been accused of carelessness and wilfulness in rime, perhaps unfairly. Many of the cases that have been cited might, if studied patiently and systematically, prove to be documents for the provincial or common pronunciation of the day. Certain of Tusser’s compressions and elisions (e.g. his frequent use of an ablative absolute) found no imitator till Browning.