Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
George Puttenham (15291590)
[The Art of English Poesie is ascribed by Edmund Bolton, in the reign of James I., to Puttenham, one of Queen Elizabeths gentlemen pensioners. It is probable that George Puttenham was the author. Of the authors life and other works (most of them lost) there are many particulars in the book itself, which have been brought together by Mr. Arber in his edition (1869). The Partheniades, poems presented by the author as a New Years gift to the Queen in 1579, are printed in Mr. Haslewoods edition (Ancient Critical Essays, 1811).]
THE ELEGANT, witty, and artificial book of The Art of English Poetry, as it is called by the first and chief witness who ascribes it to Puttenham, appeared anonymously in 1589, addressed to the Queen, with a publishers dedication to Lord Burghley. It is a systematic work, different in scale from Webbes Discourse, and still more from Gascoignes informal Notes. The author was himself a poet of some experience, having at the age of eighteen written an Eclogue to King Edward VI., and followed that with a variety of other workscomedies and interludes, a Romance or historical ditty of the Isle of Great Britain, an Hympne to the Queenes Maiestie, besides the Partheniades. His essay is brisk and confident, as becomes the work of a man who has lived in Courts, and bestowed some of his time upon the tongues. The author, whoever he may have been, is certainly convinced that there never was a time that he has positively said, Tis so, when it proved otherwise. He talks of all poetry as if it belonged to him, and deals out condescendingly your iambus, your trocheus, your polysyllable. His purpose is to instruct our courtly maker, as well as to delight all who have any interest in courtly ditties. That ladies in Court will read him is not beyond his hopes. The first chapter and the first book, alike, end with a decided opinion that the Queen is the best poet of the time: Be it in Ode, Elegie, Epigram, or any other kind of poeme, Heroick or Lyricke, wherein it shall please her Majestie to employ her penne.
There are three books: the first dealing with poetry in general, and discussing the different kinds, mainly in a pleasant easy way, which professes to be historical, and to show how the different kinds arose, but without any distressful anxiety about names and dates. The last chapter gives an account of the English poets, and acknowledges Sir Thomas Wyat the elder, and Henry, Earl of Surrey, as the first reformers of our English metre and style. It naturally covers much the same ground as Webbes historical summary; it is much less free in its praises, and less tolerant.
The second book is Of Proportion Poetical, that is, of prosody. It may be gauged by two remarks: one, that the meeter of ten sillables must have his Cesure fall upon the fourth sillable, and leave sixe behind him; the other, that while the verse
Solomon, Davids sonne, King of Jerusalem,
is a very good Alexandrine, it would have been better if it had not begun with a dactyl, which oddness is nothing pleasant to the ear. This book contains full receipts for poetical lozenges and eggs, the Fuzie or Spindle, and other devices.
The third book, Of Ornament, deals with figures of speech, and is as long as the other two, with elaborate illustrations, chiefly from the authors own poems. Not the worst part of it is the careful rendering of all the Greek rhetorical terms into English. Ironia, or the dry mock, Sarcasmus, or the bitter taunt, followed by the fleering frump, the broad flout, and the privy nip. The concluding chapters on Decorum, with their anecdotes of witty speeches and repartees, give evidence of much the same standard of wit as is observed by the company in Swifts Polite Conversation.