Songes and sonnettes

In The Merry Wives of Windsor the uninspiring suitor Slender is planning his courtship of Anne Page. He calls for a particular book: “I had rather than forty shillings I had my book of Songs and Sonnets here”. He refers to the book most often known now as “Tottel’s Miscellany”. While its invocation here allows mockery of both Slender’s ineptitude and the collection as an old-fashioned courtship textbook, this scene (quoted by Michelle O’Callaghan and Megan Heffernan) also suggests the enduring importance of poetic compilations, not only to highly educated readers, but to a wide social spectrum of people. As O’Callaghan argues, however, poetic miscellanies can “shift the focus off-centre” and help us “to look at traditions aslant”. Shakespeare, for one, has only a minor part in these two lucid and richly researched books.

O’Callaghan places the miscellany at the heart of an alternative history of poetry: one that is artisanal, domestic, feminine and multimedia. These sixteenth-century collections of poems by multiple authors, often not attributed, include the Gorgious Gallery, of Gallant Inventions (1578), produced by the influential printer Richard Jones; Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonnettes; and, in the seventeenth century, Englands Helicon and A Poetical Rapsody. Instead of focusing on authorship, anthologies draw attention to the literary and technical skills of their production (selection, ordering, typesetting) and, in O’Callaghan’s words, “the multimodal uses of the poetry they collect”. The poems here are not just poems: they are also songs, histories, dances and dialogues.

O’Callaghan writes beautifully about the locations of these collections, from the printing house and bookseller to the places of writing and reading. She looks beyond “the Inns of Court, universities and other homosocial milieux”, in which sixteenth-century poetic culture is often located, to the urban, artisanal and domestic alternatives. These are also often mixed-gender settings, and the company of women is an important element of early anthologies, from the genre of “mother’s song” to addresses to “happy dames” and “good ladies”. What O’Callaghan calls a “domestic Renaissance” changes the styles and genres we focus on. Ballads, commonplace or aphoristic poems, are not “the ‘drab’ cousin to the Petrarchan sonnet” here, but present a different kind of poetic aesthetic, and one “accessible to a wider social range of participants”.

The innovative printer Richard Jones is a key figure in both books: Heffernan focuses on his interview experiments with “strategic anonymity” and O’Callaghan on his collaboration with Isabella Whitney. (Jones printed A Sweet Nosgay (for Whitney in 1573, as well as his own anthologies.) They were a powerful partnership, unsurprisingly given that, arguably, he was the most influential poetry publisher of sixteenth-century England and she was the first professional woman writer in English. Together they create an alternative to masculine, courtly or university-based poetry. Whitney’s version of humanism is pragmatic, creating a “store” of moral lessons, “grounded in a feminised realm of civic behaviour”. This may also be seen in Jones’s ballads in A Handefull of Pleasant Delites, in which “womens honestie” encompasses chastity, but also socio-economic and legal honesty, keeping promises within a contract. This is a “domestic poetics” that is also urban and artisanal.

O’Callaghan chooses to call these books anthologies or compilations, while Heffernan focuses on the “miscellany”. Neither term was widely used in the period, when these books were often described metaphorically as galleries, posies, forests. Heffernan embraces miscellaneity, disorder and dynamism. These are not (only) poetic features that appeal to the postmodern reader, she argues – nor are they accidental evidence of printing house chaos. Instead, they are sought out by early modern readers, and to be found in Herrick’s sensuous “Delight in Disorder” or Puttenham’s identification of “tolerable disorder” in the parenthesis.

Heffernan’s claim for the miscellany is also that “the design of printed compilations contains a largely unstudied and undertheorized archive of poetic”. As compilers experimented, reordered, retitled and generically categorized poems, they were making judgments about genre, style, voice and form. As with O’Callaghan’s desire to look at traditions “aslant”, the poetic theory implicit in these collections might give us a different insight into poetic culture than Sidney’s Defense of Poesie or Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie.

The book Slender requests in Merry WivesTottel’s Songes and Sonnettes, has long been acclaimed by literary historians as preserving for posterity a canon of Tudor poetry. Heffernan focuses instead on the importance of Tottel’s titles. He added lengthy scene-setting titles to each of the nearly 300 poems in the collection, such as “The lover having enjoyed his love, humbly thanketh the god of love: and avowing his hart onely to her faithfully promiseth utterly to forsake all other” . Moreover, he connected poems that had had no previous connections (for example, two poems on a similar topic, the latter simply called “On the same”, or “The answer”), and removed specific occasions from the poem. (An elegy for a particular person, for instance, becomes a general one about death.) Cumulatively, these interventions had a powerful effect. They encourage the reader to take these poems as excerpts from fictional scenes and clusters, for instance. Tottel, the book’s compiler, becomes the most important reader and critic of the poems, displacing their respective authors.

The second half of Heffernan’s book moves to look at how these prints were adapted to promote individual authors, as collections experiment gradually moved from non-authorial miscellanies to “Poems” defined by their single author. Drawing on the artful disorder of miscellany culture, George Gascoigne makes a feature of the “unwieldy, barely tamed abundance” of A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, as Heffernan shows, from his poem “Despysed things may live” (a “jangling string of aphorisms”) to far more traditionally revered forms such as his corona of sonnets (“likely the first published corona in English”). It was indeed the sonnet boom of the 1590s that triggered the most wholesale move to single-author poetry collections. Instead of showingcasing the multiple hands at work on a book (printer, compositor) or the descriptive titles of Tottel, these collections often used simple numerical titles and stressed the single author’s virtuoso performance within and across lyric genres. The printed format was no less telling in this new mode; Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stellafor instance, had the running head “Sir PS his Astrophel and Stella” appearing on every page, asserting the singular author as the unifying principle of the book in a way that would have seemed anathema to Tottel or Jones.

O’Callaghan focuses on a different aspect of Sidney’s legacy, stressing its social as well as visual aspects. Fascinatingly, she sees the domestic and feminized poetics of miscellanies influencing his reputation, arguing that anthologies present a rather different version of Sidney than his posthumous single-author publications: “not so much the active masculine Protestant poet-soldier as the idle feminine courtier poet -lover.” In Brittons Power and The Arbor of Amorous Devices, we see acrostic poems to women alongside elegies for Sidney: these are material, occasional, gifts, heraldic, blazing forth these individuals’ virtues. While Sidney’s posthumous reception may have retained some sense of female audience, it was socially narrowing in other ways. O’Callaghan’s book ends with A Poetical Rapsody (1602), a collection that reanimates the Sidney circle to present poetry “in an elite, gentlemanly, courtly environment”. This is a long way from the familial, domestic, “middling sort” network in which Isabella Whitney and Richard Jones had located poetry in the 1570s.

Heffernan’s book has a different, though equally canonical, endpoint: John Donne. She sees Donne’s publication history as changing the model of poetic authorship, with his posthumous Poems, By JD (1633) setting a new precedent. Its stunning simplicity provided the model for the author as the central organizing principle of poetry collections. Single-author collections of “Poems”, unusual before 1630, then came thick and fast. Among them was Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare, Gent (1640) – a crucial moment in the development of Shakespeare’s reputation as a poet as well as a playwright.

The design of early modern miscellanies, Heffernan suggests, can tell us much about early modern poetic taste, and their design helped cultivate those tastes. O’Callaghan is more focused on gender, location and reading as recreation, showing that supposedly “minor” genres and non-elite environments were central to the history of poetry as pastime. Both books challenge the idea that printed compilations simply transferred the culture of gentlemen’s manuscript culture into print. Instead, they show that print anthologies were both non-elite and mixed-gender (O’Callaghan), and that they represent their own modes of poetic analysis (Heffernan). Taken together, they offer a new vision of the poetic miscellanies of this period – of these books as repositories of literary theory and avant-garde page design, as canon-making and canon-breaking, as crafted, technical exercises and as dancing, singing performance pieces.

Elizabeth Scott-Baumann is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London and writes about women poets, early literary criticism and Shakespeare’s poetry

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