Despite the Devil’s temptations and the critics’ damnations, by the mid-1560s a few tiny cracks had begun to appear in the walls of repression. Seeds of the Renaissance, planted in Henry’s time by the Earl of Surrey (Oxford’s uncle) and Sir Thomas Wyatt and watered by the Erasmian curriculum, were getting ready to sprout. The classical works that were the backbone of the Reformation curriculum were having a very different effect on young minds than their tutors intended. It was simply not possible to have these boys (and some girls) translate the great works of the Greek and Latin poets into English without a few attempting to put their own thoughts and feelings into verse. Silently, alone or with a friend or two, these young poets begin to experiment. Inspired by the contemporary French and Italians they were reading in private, they begin feeling their way toward a genuine English literature of their own.
But what form should it take?
Some like the Latinist Gabriel Harvey thought it should consist solely of Latin-style hexameters. A friend of Harvey’s who called himself “Immerito” experimented by imitating the Middle English of Chaucer. One who signed himself “E.K.” or “E.O.” experimented with a wide variety of verse forms, expressing unusual and more personal themes in traditional forms. And all of them contributed, whether in print or privately, to the flood of translation that was sweeping the bookstalls.
Several revolutions were contributing to the abrupt and rapid changes that were about to follow. From an almost totally illiterate public, the Reformation push to educate was having an effect on English society as a whole. With the Church having lost power, the second sons who had always had it available as a profession found themselves in need of alternatives. Pious protestants wanted their sons educated, and even their daughters so they could read the Bible to their children. And just at the time that these young writers were feeling the urge to publish and young readers were being given the tools to read, the print industry was also beginning to expand with younger printers and booksellers eager to test the waters with more varied choices.
The breakthrough began with the publication of works like Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562), Barnabe Googe’s Eglogues (1563), and (perhaps) the publication of Norton and Sackville’s verse drama Gorboduc (1565). Freer English translations of Latin classics like Googe’s version of Palengenius’s Zodiacus Vitae (1560), Arthur Golding’s version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1565-7), and the translations of Italian tales by Boccaccio, Cinthio, and Bandello published as Painter’s Pallace of Pleasure (1567) took the new reading public by storm.
The popularity of these was encouraging, but it also roused the sleeping dogs of opposition. Those with ambitions for Court appointments, perceiving the way the wind blew from that quarter, felt it not worth their while to continue to write poetry, or at least to publish it, and so backed away. One such was the best poet of that early period, Thomas Sackville, author of the better parts of Gorboduc, who in 1566 declared somewhat sententiously (in a lugubrious ode titled “Sackville’s Old Age”) that having arrived at the age of reason, he was giving up juvenile pleasures.
“The hazard of my name”
Surely this wall of opposition is the reason for the seemingly silly convention, repeated over and over in the prefaces to published works of imagination, whereby the author claims to be angry at a friend who, instead of honoring his wish to keep his poetry or story collection private, takes it to a printer where––horrors!––it’s shamefully exposed to public view. Now, it simply cannot be that every work of the imagination published during the decades that this convention was in force got published by a friend in defiance of the author’s wishes, perhaps not even one; but the reason for the pretense should be clear. Some similar disclaimer was the only means by which a poet or storyteller could publish while not being held accountable (By Society? By his enemies? By the Church? by the Queen?) for having dared to publish!
It’s also the reason why these writers so often diminish their poems and stories by calling them “childish toys.” It’s also the reason why so many collections of stories are dedicated to women, for what harm could there be in giving “silly” women something besides gossip with which to fill their empty heads? It’s also the reason why works of the imagination are so often advertised as “profitable” and “in no way harmful to the reader.” It also explains why in their prefaces writers pretend to be furious with attempts to identify their fictional characters with real persons and their general remarks with current situations when later in the text they may openly admit “figuring them forth darkly.” It may even have been the printers who, anxious not to have their licenses revoked or their handiwork called in, required these disclaimers.
In 1563, in his introductory letter to the Reader, Barnabe Googe explains how his “very friend,” L. Bundeston, surrepticiously arranged with a printer to publish Googe’s Eclogues, Epitaphs and Sonnets while he was out of the country and so helpless to stop him:
I both considered and weighed with myself the grossness of my style, which thus committed to the gazing show of every eye should forthwith disclose the manifest folly of the writer; and also I feared and mistrusted the disdainful minds of a number of both scornful and carping correctors whose heads are ever busied in taunting judgements, lest they should otherwise interpret my doing than indeed I meant them. . . .
Having shared his work with his friends, Googe returns from abroad only to find that
Notwithstanding, all the diligence that I could use in the suppression thereof . . . I myself being at that time out of the realm, little fearing any such thing to happen, a very [true] friend of mine, bearing as it seemed better will to my doings than respecting the hazard of my name, committed them all together unpolished to the hands of the printer, in whose hands during his absence from the city till his return of late they remained. At which time, he declared the matter wholly unto me; showing me, that being so far past, and paper provided for the impression thereof, it could not without great hindrance of the poor printer be now revoked. His sudden tale made me at the first utterly amazed, and doubting a great while, what was best to be done, at the length agreeing both with necessity and his counsel, I said with Martial: iam sed poteras tutior esse domi. (Kennedy 38)
This last sentence was a well-known quote from the ancient Latin poet Martial, whose prefatory poem to his epigrams ended with: “Off you go, then (my book) though you’ve be safer at home.” So this publishing dilemma was nothing new.
In 1576, the ubiquitous “R.B.,” publisher of the anthology of tales titled Pettie’s Petite Pallace, claimed to have pulled a similar trick on his “very friend” George Pettie, which he explains in his prefatory letter to the Gentlewomen Readers:
May it please you to understand that the great desire I have to procure your delight, hath caused me somewhet to transgress the bounds of faithful friendship, for having with great earnestness obtained of my very friend Master George Pettie the copy of certain Histories by himself. Upon his own and certain of his friends private occasions drawn into discourses, I saw such witty and pithy pleasantness contained in them, that I thought I could not anyway do greater pleasure or better service to your noble sex than to publish them in print, to your common profit & pleasure. And though I am sure hereby to incur his displeasure, for that he willed me in any wise (no matter what) to keep them secret, yet if it please you thankfully to accept my goodwill, I force the less of his ill will.
Yours readily to command, R.B.
In 1581, in the preface to His Farewell to the Militarie, Barnabe Riche has this to say:
I assure thee, gentle reader, which I first took in hand to write these discourses, I meant nothing less than to put [I had no intention of putting] them in print, but wrote them at the request of some of my dearest friends, sometimes for their disport, to serve their private use. And now again, by great importunity, I am forced to send them all to the printer. The histories, altogether, are eight in number, whereof [several] are tales that are but forged only for delight, neither credible to be believed nor hurtful to be perused. [Others] are Italian histories [by Cinthio] written [translated] likewise for pleasure by master L.B. [Lodowyck Bryskett]. And here, gentle reader, I must instantly entreat thee that if thou findest any words or terms seeming more indecent than peradventure thou wilt like of, think that I have set them down as more appropriate to express the matter they entreat of than either for want of judgement or good manners. Trusting that as I have written them in jest, so thou wilt read them but to make thyself merry, I wish they might as well please thee in the reading as they displease me in putting them forth.
I bid thee heartily farewell. Barnabe Riche.
Historians smile at the “pretty” convention without ever considering what might have been its cause. Why should these writers be so concerned that their readers not think they had any intentions of publishing, that it was some third party, some “backfriend,” who took the book to the printers, ignoring their pleas to keep it private? What could be the harm in a collection of stories about romantic adventures, none of them licentious, at least, not by today’s standards?
Things had obviously not improved by 1593 as can be seen in the printer’s preface to Parphenophil and Parphenophe by Barnabe Barnes:
Gentlemen! These labours following, being come of late into my hands barely, without title or subscription; partly moved by certain of my dear friends, but especially by the worth and excellency of the work, I thought it well deserving my labour, to participate them to your judicial views: where, both for variety of conceits, and sweet poesy, you shall doubtless find that which shall be most commendable, and worth your reading. / The author, though at the first unknown (yet has been enforced to accord to certain of his friends’ importunancy herein, to publish them, by their means, and for their sakes) is unwilling, as it seemeth, to acknowledge them, for their levity, till he have redeemed them, with some more excellent work hereafter. Till when, he requesteth your favourable and indifferent [objective] censures [opinions] of these his ever-youthful poems; submitting them to your friendly patronages.
As early as 1573, Oxford made fun of this convention in the letter to his friend Thomas Bedingfield that prefaces his publication of Cardanus Comforte, Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan’s de Consolatione. Bedingfield in turn reports that “unawares to me,” Oxford “found some part of this work and willed me in any wise to proceed therein.” He continues:
My meaning was not to have imparted my travail [work] to any, . . . Yet I most humbly beseech you either not to make any partakers thereof, or at the leastwise those who for reverence to your Lordship or love to me, will willingly bear with mine errors . . . . And if any either through skill or curiosity do find fault with me, I trust notwithstanding for the respects aforesaid to be holden excused.
In other words, “Don’t blame me, blame Oxford.” Taking off on his friend’s suggestion that he might have been better honored through some demonstration of Bedingfield’s military skill than through this pathetic attempt at literature, Oxford responds with a satiric imitation of a pompous military officer refusing a subaltern’s request:
After I had perused your letters,. . . finding in them your request far differing from the desert of your labour, I could not choose but greatly doubt whether it were better . . . to yield to your desire, or execute mine own intention towards the publishing of your book. . . . But when I had thoroughly considered . . . whether it were best to obey mine affections, or the merits of your studies . . . I determined it were better to deny your unlawful request [not to publish], than to grant or condescend to the concealment of so worthy a work. . . . And because next to the sacred letters of divinity, nothing doth persuade the same more than philosophy, of which your book is plentifully stored, I thought myself to commit an unpardonable error to have murdered the same in the waste bottoms of my chests; and . . . herein I am forced, like a good and politic captain, . . . to spoil and burn the corn of his own country lest his enemies thereof do take advantage. For rather than so many of your countrymen should be deluded through my sinister means of your industry in studies . . . I am content to make spoil and havoc of your request . . . .
The disclaimer that the author had no intention of printing his own works was one way to handle the problem. Like Sackville, choosing never to publish again, or even to write, was another. A third was to publish under a pseudonym, a choice, however, that would send a clear signal that the author was hiding his name. This was all right where the genre lent itself to such holiday disguisings as in the pastoral mode where knights and princesses disguised as shepherds spent their days discussing love matters. But Spenser’s use of pseudonyms like Immerito, Hobbinol, Cuddie, and Colin Cloute in his Shepherd’s Calender was more than just the innocent holiday disguising it’s made out to be, it was a necessary means of protecting those involved, when the Court they called home was so judgmental, not just of style, but of the very act of writing.
No glory from Gloriana
Nowhere is this damning attitude more obvious than with the Queen. As monarch she was, of course, the ultimate patron. So many works were dedicated to her, or praise of her made part of the introduction to so many works, that it would seem that there must have been some value in it for the writers. In fact there was none––it was simply convention. There isn’t a pennyworth of evidence that she gave a damn for anything ever dedicated to her. There’s no evidence that any popular fiction writer who was not already a member of the Court community was ever invited to Court. A miserly £50 annuity was (supposedly) squeezed out of her for Spenser, but there’s no record that he, or any other writer, ever saw a real shilling.
Not only did Elizabeth not support the other arts in any other way, she never appointed any of the men at her Court who were known to write imaginative literature to positions of any importance. No matter how sterling their other qualities may have been, to be known as a poet was to be forever condemned as a lightweight. Sir Philip Sidney may have been adored posthumously as a warrior hero and the model of a courtier, but despite his obvious qualities and talents, not to mention his great need and the fact that he never published anything while he was alive, Elizabeth never gave him anything. Even his knighthood came late, and not from her, but from Essex, who then suffered her rage for his impertinence.
Even more obvious in this regard is Francis Bacon, who was born to serve his monarch if every a man was, but despite his need and the constant pressure by her councillors to appoint him to an office worthy of his talents, Elizabeth kept him waiting until she was in so much trouble over Essex that she was forced to ask his help. Even so, Bacon never got a significant, or paying, post at Court until after she was gone.
There’s John Harington, who challenged her in 1591 by distributing his manuscript translation of part of Orlando Furioso among her ladies. She responded by banishing him from Court! This has been taken as a joke by historians, since she relented, but she did it again in 1596 when he published the work that brought him lasting fame as an inventor (a treatise on the need to replace the unhygienic close-stool with his design for the modern toilet). Nor, to his extreme frustration and despite her personal fondness for him, did Elizabeth ever give her “beloved godson” a paid Court position.
Without a doubt, Walter Raleigh was one of the best poets of his time, though he published only his journalistic tracts, all but a few of his minor poems having been written privately for the Queen. Raleigh made out better than most of the other Court poets, partly because he had so many other talents that his writing paled in comparison, but mostly because the Queen so adored his person that she must have forgiven him the nasty habit of writing verse. Her passion was considerably lessened when she discovered that he had married one of her ladies, her feelings for him revealed, as always, in the ferocity of her punishment. In the late nineties, returned to favor, when it seemed that his intelligence and experience would surely grant him a place on the Privy Council, somehow the posts were given to men who had never dared to pen a poem in her praise, at least, nothing that could be considered really fine. And then, of course, there was also Oxford, who may have hidden some of his literary shenannigans from her, though certainly not all.
And all this while Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, the gifted poet who had so publicly and ceremoniously gave up writing poetry, ended up one of the wealthiest and most important men at Court, due to the favors and offices she conferred upon him over the years.
Why was she so dismissive of poets? Was it some danger that they threatened? Could it be because they shared something she did not understand, or, more likely, could not control? Was she afraid of them? Did poets have powers then they don’t have today? Or was it that they seemed too childish, too light-hearted? With their heads full of rhymes there was no room for serious matters? Or was it perhaps because she feared that by supporting them she’d lose the support of the more conservative members of her regime, whose contributions of time and money were so necessary to its maintenance? In any case, it would have been obvious to everyone at Elizabeth’s Court that to allow oneself to become known as a poet was to run the risk of never getting a paid Court post.
What was a poet to do? For the handful of Court “makers” who felt themselves compulsively driven to write, there was always the ancient merry-making ritual known as disguising.