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

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 8. The Arte of English Poesie

Somewhat earlier than Webbe’s little book there had, apparently, been written, and, somewhat later (1589), there was published, a much more elaborate Arte of English Poesie, which is a sort of combination of a Poetic and a Rhetoric especially copious on the subject of figures. It appeared anonymously, the printer even saying (but this was not a very uncommon trick) that it “came into his hands without any author’s name.” That of Puttenham was not attached to it for another quarter of a century. Until quite recently, it has been usual to identify the author with a certain George Puttenham. Arguments for preferring his brother Richard were put forward so long ago as 1883, by Croft, in his edition of The Governour of Sir Thomas Elyot, a relation of the Puttenhams; but little notice was taken of them for a time. Of late, Richard Puttenham has been the favourite, without, in the present writer’s judgment, much cause. The fact is that there are arguments against both the Puttenhams, and there is little more than presumption in favour of either. The authorship, however, is of little or no importance; the book is a remarkable one. It is quite evidently written by a courtier, a man of some age, who represents all but the earliest Elizabethan generation, but one who has survived to witness the advent of Spenser, and who is well acquainted with the as yet unpublished work of Sidney. He has pretty wide reading, and is something of a scholar—the extraordinary names of some of his figures are, probably, a printer’s blunder. He knows rather more about English poetry than Webbe, for he does not omit Wyatt; but he includes the chronicler Harding in a fashion which raises suspicions. Still, that “Piers Plowman’s verse is but loose metre” is a distinct improvement. Contemporaries, with the inclusion of “the Queene our Sovereign Lady,” who, of course, “easily surmounteth all the rest,” are judged not unhappily—Sidney and “that other gentleman who wrote the late Shepherds Calendar” being praised for eclogue and pastoral; Ralegh’s verse receiving the memorable phrase “most lofty, insolent and passionate,” while the attribution of “sweet solemn and high conceit” to Dyer, of “a good metre and a plentiful vein” to Gascoigne and of “learned and well corrected” verse to Phaer and Golding, is, in none of these instances, unhappy. And the distinct recognition of Surrey and Wyatt as “the two chief lanterns of light to all others that have since employed their pens in English poesy” deserves the highest praise. It is, in fact, except the traditional and parrot-like encomia on Chaucer, the first jalon—the first clear and firm staking out of English poetical history. Puttenham, however, is chiefly busy, as his title justified him in being, with the most strictly formal side of poetry—with its art. He will not allow feet, for a reason which, at any rate in his own statement of it, is far from clear, but seems to have a confused idea that individual English words are seldom complete feet of any kind, and that we have too many monosyllables. But he is exact in the enumeration of “measures” by syllables, and of “staffs” by lines, pushing his care, in this respect, so far as to give careful diagrams of the syllabic outline, and the rime-connection of these latter. In fact, Puttenham is nothing if not diagrammatic; and his leaning in this direction makes him very complacent towards the purely artificial forms—eggs, altars, lozenges, rhombi—which were to be the object of much ridicule. He is also copious (though he regards it with lukewarm approval) on classical “versifying”; and, in fact, spares no pains to make his work a manual of practical directions for manufacturers of verse. These directions occupy the whole of his second book—“of proportion” as he calls it. The third—“of ornament”—is almost wholly occupied by the elaborate list of figures above referred to. His fourth, “of Poets and Poesy,” contains the history also mentioned, and a good deal of stock matter as to the kinds of poetry, its ethical position and purport, an enquiry into the origin and history of rime (much less prejudiced and much better informed than the strictures of the “versers”) and several other things. Puttenham, it is clear, is, to some extent, hampered and led astray by the common form and commonplace of the school rhetorics which he is trying to adjust to English poetic; and he has the enormous disadvantage of writing twenty years too soon. If his Arte of Poesie could have been informed by the spirit, and enriched by the experience, of Daniel’s Defence of Ryme, or if Daniel had cared to extend and particularise this latter in the manner, though not quite on the principles, of Puttenham, we should possess a book on English prosody such as we do not yet possess and perhaps never shall. As it is, there is a great deal of “dead wood” in the Arte. But it is none the less a document of the highest value and interest historically, as showing the seriousness with which the formal and theoretical side of poetry was, at last and after almost utter neglect, being taken in England. It may owe something to Sidney—Gregory Smith has well observed that all these critical writers, long before Sidney’s tract was published, evidently knew it in MS. But by far the greater part of it is devoted to exactly the matters that Sidney did not touch.