The Arte of English Poesie

by George Puttenham

Book 1, Chapter 31

Who in Any Age Have Been the Most Commended Writers in Our English Poesie, and the Author's Censure Given upon Them

It appeareth by sundry records of books both printed and written, that many of our countrymen have painfully traveled in this part: of whose works some appear to be but bare translations, other some matters of their own invention and very commendable, whereof some recital shall be made in this place, to the intent chiefly that their names should not be defrauded of such honor as seemeth due to them for having by their thankful studies so much beautified our English tongue (as at this day it will be found our nation is in nothing inferior to the French or Italian for copie of language, subtlety of device, good method and proportion in any form of poem, but that they may compare with the most, and perchance pass a great many of them.

And I will not reach above the time of king Edward the third, and Richard the second for any that wrote in English meter: because before their times by reason of the late Norman conquest, which had brought into this Realm much alteration both of our language and laws, and there withal a certain martial barbarousness, whereby the study of all good learning was so much decayed, as long time after no man or very few intended to write in any laudable science: so as beyond that time there is little or nothing worth commendation to be found written in this art. And those of the first age were Chaucer and Gower both of them as I suppose Knights. After whom followed John Lydgate the monk of Bury, and that nameless, who wrote the Satire called Piers Plowman, next him followed Harding the Chronicler, then in king Henry the eight times Skelton, (I wot not for what great worthiness) surnamed the Poet Laureate.

In the latter end of the same king's reign sprung up a new company of courtly makers, of whom Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder and Henry Earl of Surrey were the two chieftains, who having traveled into Italy, and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian Poesie as novices newly crept out of the schools of Dante Ariosto and Petrarch, they greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar Poesie, from that it had been before, and for that cause may justly be said the first reformers of our English meter and style. In the same time or not long after was the Lord Nicholas Vaux, a man of much facility in vulgar makings. Afterward in king Edward the sixth's time came to be in reputation for the same faculty Thomas Sternhold, who first translated into English certain Psalms of David, and John Heywood the Epigramatist who for the mirth and quickness of his conceits more then for any good learning was in him came to be well benefited by the king.

But the principal man in this profession at the same time was Master Edward Ferris a man of no less mirth and felicity that way, but of much more skill, and magnificence in this meter, and therefore wrate for the most part to the stage, in Tragedy and sometimes in Comedy or Interlude, wherein he gave the king so much good recreation, as he had thereby many good rewards.

In Queen Mary's time flourished above any other Doctor Phaer one that was well learned and excellently well translated into English verse Heroical certain books of Virgil's Aeneids. Since him followed Master Arthur Golding, who with no less commendation turned into English meter the Metamorphosis of Ovid, and that other Doctor, who made the supplement to those books of Virgil's Aeneids, which Maister Phaer left undone.

And in her Majesties time that now is are sprung up an other crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesty's own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford. Thomas Lord of Buckhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Edward Dyer Master Fulke Greville, Gascoigne, Breton, Turberville and a great many other learned Gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envy, but to avoid tediousness, and who have deserved no little commendation.

But of them all particularly this is mine opinion, that Chaucer, with Gower, Lydgate and Harding for their antiquity ought to have the first place, and Chaucer as the most renowned of them all, for the much learning appeareth to be in him above any of the rest. And though many of his books be but bare translations out of the Latin and French, yet are they well handled, as his books of Troilus and Cresseid, and the Romant of the Rose, whereof he translated but one half, the device was John de Mahune's a French Poet, the Canterbury tales were Chaucer's own invention as I suppose, and where he sheweth more the natural of his pleasant wit, than in any other of his works, his similitudes comparisons and all other descriptions are such as cannot be amended. His meter Heroical of Troilus and Cresseid is very grave and stately, keeping the staff of seven, and the verse of ten, his other verses of the Canterbury tales be but riding rhyme, nevertheless very well becoming the matter of that pleasant pilgrimage in which every man's part is played with much decency.

Gower saving for his good and grave moralities, had nothing in him highly to be commended, for his verse was homely and without good measure, his words strained much deal out of the French writers, his rhyme wrested, and in his inventions small subtility: the applications of his moralities are the best in him, and yet those many times very grossly bestowed, neither doth the substance of his works sufficiently answer the subtlety of his titles. Lydgate a translator onely and no deviser of that which he wrate, but one that wrate in good verse. Harding a Poet Epic or Historical, handled himself well according to the time and manner of his subject.

He that wrote the Satire of Piers Plowman, seemed to have been a malcontent of that time, and therefore bent himself wholy to tax the disorders of that age, and specially the pride of the Roman Clergy, of whose fall he seemeth to be a very true Prophet, his verse is but loose meter, and his terms hard and obscure, so as in them is little pleasure to be taken. Skelton a sharp Satirist, but with more railing and scoffery then became a Poet Laureate, such among the Greeks were called "Pantomimi," with us "Buffoons," altogether applying their wits to Scurrilities and other ridiculous matters.

Henry Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt, between whom I find very little difference, I repute them (as before) for the two chief lanterns of light to all others that have since employed their pens upon English Poesie, their conceits were lofty, their stiles stately, their conveyance cleanly, their terms proper, their meter sweet and well proportioned, in all imitating very naturally and studiously their Master Francis Petrarch. The Lord Vaux his commendation lieth chiefly in the facility of his meter, and the aptness of his descriptions such as he taketh upon him to make, namely in sundry of his Songs, wherein he sheweth the counterfeit action very lively and pleasantly.

Of the later sort I think thus. That for Tragedy, the Lord of Buckhurst, and Master Edward Ferris for such doings as I have seen of theirs do deserve the highest price: The Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of her Majesty's Chapel for comedy and Interlude. For Eclogue and pastoral Poesie, Sir Philip Sydney and Maister Challenner, and that other Gentleman who wrate the late shepheardes Calendar. For ditty and amorous Ode I find Sir Walter Raleigh's vein most lofty, insolent, and passionate. Maister Edward Dyar, for Elegy most sweet, solemn and of high conceit. Gascoigne for a good meeter and for a plentiful vein. Phaer and Golding for a learned and well corrected verse, specially in translation clear and very faithfully answering their author's intent. Others have also written with much facility, but more commendably perchance if they had not written so much nor so popularly.

But last in recital and first in degree is the Queen our sovereign Lady, whose learned, delicate, noble Muse, easily surmounteth all the rest that have written before her time or since, for sense, sweetness and subtility, be it in Ode, Elegy, Epigram, or any other kind of poem Heroic or Lyric, wherein it shall please her Majesty to employ her pen, even by as much odds as her own excellent estate and degree exceedeth all the rest of her most humble vassals.

To Puttenham Excerpts
To Terry Ross's essay on Puttenham and Oxford
To FRONTLINE's Response--and A Reply
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