Books of Poetry

The printed verse miscellanies are foundational texts in the history of a vernacular lyric tradition. They were published at a time of intense concern with the creation of a national literature. Richard Tottel in his epistle ‘To the reader’ before Tottel’s Miscellany compared the poems collected in the miscellany with the verse produced by classical and European Renaissance poets, and asserted ‘That our [English] tong is able in that kinde to do as praise worthelye as the rest, the honorable stile of the noble earle of Surrey, and the weightinesse of the depewitted sir Thomas Wiat the elders verse, with several graces in sondry good Englishe writers, do show abundantly’ (sig. Aiv). George Puttenham in his The Art of English Poesie (1589) similarly praised Surrey and Wyatt, naming them ‘the first reformers & polishers of our vulgar Poesie’, who had naturalised the style and metres of Petrarch’s verse (Puttenham, 105).

Miscellanies provided readers with poetic handbooks for composing their own poems and compiling their own personal anthologies (Lerer 1997, 31-2; May 2009, 418-31). Puttenham drew on poems, particularly those by Wyatt and Surrey, printed in Tottel’s Miscellany to exemplify metres and poetic figures in The Art of English Poesy, as well as producing his own imitations. He cited lyrics by Wyatt and Surrey to exemplify poems all in trochaic or iambic feet (Puttenham, 110) and other verses collected in the section by unknown authors, including Lord Vaux’s popular ballad, ‘When Cupid scaled first the fort’, which he used to illustrate the rhetorical figure of pragmatographia (Puttenham, 200-1). Lerer argues that it ‘had been Tottel’s purpose’ ‘to provide his readers with the templates of poetic imitation’ (Lerer 1997, 201). John Hall converted two poems in Tottel’s Miscellany, Wyatt’s ‘My lute awake and perform the last’ and anonymous ‘Like as the lark within the marlin’s foot’, into religious lyrics and set them to music in his The Court of Virtue (1565). George Turberville imitated a number of poems collected in Tottel in his Epitaphs (1567). He was attracted to sonnets that were influenced by Petrarch, such as Wyatt’s loose translation of Petrarch’s Rime 224, ‘If waker care: if sudden pale colour’, which inspired his poem ‘If banished sleep, and watchful care’ (Epitaphs, fol. 39r-v), as well as poems within a vernacular tradition, like Wyatt’s Chaucerian poem, ‘Ye that in love find luck and sweet abundance’, which Turberville expanded upon in his ‘You that in May have bathed in bliss’ (Epitaphs, fol. 109v-10v). Thomas Howell similarly looked to Tottel’s Miscellany as a handbook to both a Petrarchan and vernacular tradition in his New Sonnets and Pretty Pamphlets (1570), imitating Surrey’s ‘In winter’s just return’, which had been published as a broadside ballad in 1557-58, in his own ballad ‘In uttering his plaint, he declareth the uncertainty of feigned friendship’, to be sung ‘To the tune of winter’s just return’.

An English lyric tradition was therefore shaped by poets naturalising Italian and French models and by a vernacular ballad tradition, that was both courtly and popular (Maynard, 14). Books of ballads, however, such as A Handful of Pleasant Delights and A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, as Eric Nebeker notes, are typically left out of this story of the development of a vernacular lyric tradition because of the ‘low’ style of verse they are said to collect (Nebeker, 989-91). These miscellanies also helped to shape a vernacular lyric tradition in print by disseminating a popular poetic aesthetic with its own practices of imitation. Poems in A Gorgeous Gallery, for example, are often forged, or in the words of its title-page, ‘joined together and builded up’, out of other poems, and so recrafted into ‘new’ compositions for a popular market. This practice of making poems out of other poems to create composite poems goes back to the practices of compiling books of vernacular poetry in the early print trade, where it frequently had the practical purpose of filling up blank leaves and spaces in books (Boffey 1991, 14-20). Such practices of compilation as imitation were therefore a poetic product of the material practices of making books of poetry, and describe an artisanal model of poetic composition.

The miscellanies represented in this edition produced from 1590 onwards, The Phoenix Nest, England’s Helicon, and A Poetical Rhapsody are markedly different from the earlier miscellanies. They serve to illustrate how a new English poetics emerged during the 1580s and was firmly established by the early 1590s (May 2009, 431). The number of religious and moralizing verses, which had accompanied love lyrics in many of the earlier miscellanies, declines dramatically in these later miscellanies. In terms of song, while the musicality of the miscellanies continues, there is less of a crossover between the printed miscellanies and the trade in broadside ballads (Nebeker, 1003). Instead, the musical and print crossover is with the printed song books, such as Thomas Morley’s Madrigals to Four Voices (1594) or Nicholas Yonge’s Musica Transalpina (1597). Whereas Tottel’s Miscellany miscellany had canonized Wyatt and Surrey, the post-1590s miscellanies canonize Sidney and Spenser. The memory of Sidney, in particular, looms large in The Phoenix Nest, England’s Helicon and A Poetical Rhapsody, and these miscellanies play an important role in enshrining his poetic legacy for English verse (Alexander, 32-4,67-8).

Of these later miscellanies, A Poetical Rhapsody has the longest publication history, and was reprinted in the 1620s. The organization of this collection was substantially altered with each new edition, and new poems were added to appeal to new tastes, making it one of the most diverse miscellanies in terms of poetic style. The longevity of A Poetical Rhapsody foregrounds the flexibility of the miscellany. An astute editor could capitalize on this feature by including or re-framing verse to appeal to changing literary fashions and tastes. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the poems in A Poetical Rhapsody, particularly its witty epigrams, odes, and misogynist verse, found a new life in the printed poetry anthologies of the later seventeenth century, such as Sir John Mennes’s Recreation for Ingenious Head-pieces (1641) and The Card of Courtship (1653).

Further Reading

Gavin Alexander, Writing After Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney 1586-1640. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Julia Boffey, ‘Early Printers and English Lyrics: Sources, Selections and Presentation of Texts’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 85 (1991), 11-26.

Seth Lerer, Courtly Letters in the age of Henry VIII: Literary Culture and the arts of deceit. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Steven May, ‘Popularizing Courtly Poetry: Tottel’s Miscellany and Its Progeny’, in Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank eds. The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485-1603. Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 418-31.

Winifred Maynard, Elizabethan Lyric Poetry and Its Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Eric Nebeker, ‘Broadside Ballads, Miscellanies, and the Lyric in Print’, English Literary History, 76 (2009), 989-1013.

Elizabeth W. Pomeroy, The Elizabethan Miscellanies: Their Development and Conventions. University of California English Studies 36. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1973.