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date: 28 February 2021

Early Tudor Literary Criticism?

Abstract and Keywords

This article considers whether the activity that we recognize as criticism existed in the literary culture of early Tudor England. Before the appearance of formal poetic defenses and literary treatises in English (an Elizabethan phenomenon associated with Sir Philip Sidney and George Puttenham), English vernacular culture of the early sixteenth century seems to have been devoid of a fully fledged poetics or literary theory. Yet the composite evidence of printed prefaces, various endeavors to translate classical rhetorical terminology, and poetic practice itself in these early decades reveals a series of literary-critical interests that recur in the writing and intellectual history of this period. Literary theory in early Tudor England evolves as it addresses a set of preoccupations that cluster around questions of authorial inventiveness, models of style and vernacular eloquence, the domestication of imported critical terminology, and the agency of readers.

Keywords: early Tudor, criticism, poetics, inventio, elocutio, ingenium, domestication, style, vernacular, eloquence, reading, literary theory

“We be verbal / or ful of wordes”

Early Tudor literary culture is obsessed with acts of reading.1 This insistent self-reflexivity is suggested by the many moments in early sixteenth-century poetry that openly parade the challenges faced by readers in interpreting texts. In Stephen Hawes’s The Pastime of pleasure (1509), Graunde Amoure, the dreamer-hero who is to be instructed in the seven Liberal Arts in the Tower of Doctrine, is deposited in a bewildering allegorical landscape of signs, engaged in a studious quest that anticipates Arthur’s and Guyon’s encounter with Eumnestes’s capacious library in the second book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. For Hawes, “The Worde is gramer / well and ordynatly / By worde the worlde / was made orygynally” (sig. C2v, ll. 602–603), a blunt formulation by which, in a precursor of sorts to Derrida’s provocatively vague “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” everything becomes text and cannot but demand and engage readerly participation in its decipherment. No less emblematically, the speaker of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Who so list to hounte” is left to confront, in the final lines of the poem, the cryptic injunction “Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame” that has been “graven with Diamond[es]” (in what Wyatt mischievously calls “letters plain”) on the collar of the hind that has eluded speaker and reader throughout the poem.2 Even the anonymous lyrics in the Henrician verse miscellany known as the Devonshire Manuscript repeatedly reflect on the role required of readers when presented with such disarmingly “plain” material: one speaker speculates that “p[er]chaunce some readers list to muse / what menith me so playnlye for to wright,” before bluntly apostrophizing the implied recipient with startling immediacy, “o Rerdre I the praye / take in good parte this wo[ur]ke as yt ys m[en]te.”3 That such strangely disembodied texts-within-texts should invite, perhaps require, some kind of interpretative machinery or critical gloss is no less repeatedly asserted or implied. Another poem in the Devonshire Manuscript enjoins its reader to “marke well … this text” as if inviting annotative commentary, and yet another declares its speaker’s intention to “note […] thys texte,” a forerunner to the kind of knowing self-referentiality underlying John Donne’s early seventeenth-century pronouncement, “Darke texts need notes.”4

Yet for all this self-reflexiveness about the arts of reading, there remains a notable lacuna in the roster of early Tudor genres. Literary criticism, as a type of writing and a cultural activity, seems notably absent. A paradoxical mismatch appears. To be sure, Henrician literary culture amply shows the steady impress of humanist learning on English letters in the early decades of the sixteenth century, fostered in no small measure by increasing access to the printed fruits of continental scholarship; indeed, Warren Boutcher has located the very roots of the English participation in “humanistic polyglot culture” in the “European court of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, where Latin-and-vernacular humanism […] was first promoted in England.”5 And no less well attested is the burgeoning of Henrician poetic culture, which witnessed, with precipitate haste, the introduction of new lyric forms and meters (sonnets, strambotti, Horatian verse epistles, blank verse), especially in the long 1530s, at the hands of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Despite such experimentation in new modes of writing, the literary output of the period reveals a surprising absence of formal treatises of literary theory. Moreover, there seem to be few signs of the activity of what we might call literary criticism, a term encompassing “both literary theory and practical criticism.”6 In this respect, despite the blossoming of new genres, one crucial Horatian genre—the versified art of poetry—does not initially seem to have been selected for imitation by writers of this period. On this evidence, early Tudor poetic practice is ostensibly unchaperoned by anything resembling poetics, or literary theory, or criticism.

The general assumption that there is no such thing as vernacular literary criticism in England in the first part of the sixteenth century has been well rehearsed. When Wyatt traveled to Italy in 1527, presumably with the newly published fruits of Italian humanism at his disposal, not least the densely annotated, critically glossed editions of Petrarch, there were by comparison “no treatises on love quoting vernacular poets” in England, “no lectures […] delivered at Oxford or Cambridge on English love lyric; no elaborate editions of English erotic verse […] published with commentary or annotation.”7 Of course, it is a general truism that, as John Roe concisely puts it, “literary performance in the Renaissance tends to outrun the theories constructed for and around it,” yet there seems to be an especially pronounced disjunction in the early Tudor period, since literary writings appear to be produced without any tradition (incipient or otherwise) of English literary criticism at all. Early Tudor poetic practice unfolds, it seems, without any theoretical scaffolding in the vernacular to prop it up.8 Not only does the term “theory” postdate the period, first appearing in the 1580s and 1590s, such as when Gabriel Harvey uses it as a synonym for abstract speculation, or a system of principles, and as an antonym for action and practical experience; it seems that, in addition, the very idea of critical theory and the practice of theoretical enquiry have no footing in the first half of the sixteenth century either and come into being only well into the Elizabethan era.9

This parlous state of early Tudor poetics is heightened through comparison with, first, rival movements on the Continent and, second, the later flowering of critical activity in formal defenses of literature in the last decades of the sixteenth century. Assumptions of the cultural backwardness, the belatedness, of Henrician criticism dominate much of the literary historiography on this period; a “critical tradition” began in Italy and France “half a century earlier than in England,” Italy boasting, at the time Wyatt was writing, a flourishing body of vernacular criticism and literary theory, as in Gian Giorgio Trissino’s Poetica (1529) or Daniello’s equivalent tome from 1536, and midcentury France too had already issued poetically oriented rhetorics in the vernacular.10 This standard narrative of critical tardiness holds that incipient theoretical leanings come to fruition, and reach their apotheosis, in the figure of Sir Philip Sidney, chosen as the starting point for Margaret Ferguson’s and Peter Herman’s studies of early modern defenses of poetry in English.11 Literary criticism as a genre is, by these accounts, an Elizabethan invention. Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood starts its critical narrative in Elizabethan England, and Arthur F. Kinney singles out the treatises of George Gascoigne, William Webbe, and George Puttenham as pivotal interventions in “the institution and criticism of a Renaissance poetics.”12 As a label, the very designation “early Tudor”—an infelicitous byproduct of C. S. Lewis’s infamous division of the sixteenth century into “drab” and “golden” ages—is inherently codified in such a way as to suggest immaturity, incipience, even inferiority, compared to the literary achievements of late Elizabethan culture. In these treacherous waters of periodization, the tag “early” implies the failure of the precursor.13

Literary Eloquence

Yet rather than being hostile to the emergence of literary-critical activity, early Tudor literary culture enjoys, on closer inspection, many of the conditions that would seem necessary for its genesis. Not least among these, aided perhaps by the endeavors of Reformist luminaries in enforcing a separation from Rome over the 1530s and spurring the construction of a cultural identity undergirded by a “rhetoric of English nationhood,” is the conception of a native literary tradition.14 More importantly, it is a tradition founded on a critical appreciation of style, of eloquence. Older scholarly narratives that located the early Tudor burgeoning of literary activity and literary self-reflexiveness comfortably after a late medieval vacuum have more recently been called into question for overstating the discontinuities between Henrician literary culture and that of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Those preceding centuries reveal a vibrant prehistory of critical thinking, written in English, on vernacular literature. A native tradition of literary theorizing can be traced back to a set of embedded moments in the writings of, among others, Lydgate and Hoccleve, who self-consciously construct just such a vernacular genealogy, founded (unsurprisingly) on the robust figure of Chaucer. The opening prologue of Lydgate’s Troy Book (ca. 1412–1420) not only ventures a pre-Sidneian discourse about the distinctions between poets and historians, but also outlines a critical map of laureate poets whose “dilygent laboure” has “enlumined” the vernacular “with many curious floure / Of Rethorike” (ll. 217–219).15 In The lyf of our lady (ca. 1416), Lydgate spells out more explicitly the foundational role of Chaucer, who, continuing a tradition from Cicero to Petrarch, “made first to dystylle and rayne / The gold dewe dropys of speche & eloquence / In to our tunge” (Book II, ll. 1632–1634).16 At the very least, the activity of delineating a tradition of what Robert Meyer-Lee has termed a “laureate poetics”—a Chaucerian-inflected vernacular canon stretching from Lydgate to Skelton—presupposes some kind of critical reflection during this period whereby writers and commentators, standing at one remove from the works under analysis, establish connections (often stylistic) between authors.17 Chaucer continues, Helen Cooper remarks, to be invoked “as a model of eloquence” by early sixteenth-century writers, who eagerly conscript him as a “validation for English poetry” in the same way: he becomes a laureated poet whose fame and canonicity are critically assured, and whose “vernacular authority” is sufficiently defined that he can be appropriated, imitated, and emulated by early Tudor poets seeking to inscribe themselves in the same literary genealogy.18 This urge toward canonization in the first half of the sixteenth century perhaps reaches its zenith in John Bale’s Illustrium Maioris Britanniae scriptorium (1548)—an enormous catalog, somewhere between antiquarian tome preserving the nation’s textual past and literary-critical account of exemplary writers. In the literary pantheon that Bale constructs, Wyatt is promptly hailed as Chaucer’s equal in illuminating, and making illustrious, the vernacular.19

These rudimentary indications of a critically established tradition of native eloquence and vernacular authorship are further attested, and further enforced, through the editorial canonizing of Chaucer qua poet. The monumental folio editions of his complete works (the first of these published in 1532 by William Thynne)—volumes accordingly “large and expensive, and assuming sufficient eager readers”—testify to a literary-critical momentum confident enough in Chaucer’s aesthetic merits (if not ethical propriety) to accord his collected writings the prestigious title “Workes,” a term usually reserved for Latin and Greek classics. A critical consensus, however loosely defined or ambiently perceived, implicitly lies behind the immense redactive labor required to establish a correct, authoritative edition of his writings: the preface to Thynne’s edition, probably written by the Henrician bureaucrat Sir Brian Tuke, contains the first recorded instance of the word “collation” in its editorial sense—an early domestication, and enactment, of the philological method associated with the Florentine humanist Angelo Poliziano.20 A little over a decade after the appearance of Thynne’s weighty edition of Chaucer, Roger Ascham passed critical judgment on what he termed “the eloquence of oure Englyshe Homer,” a classicizing comparison that accords Chaucer a foundational role in the inauguration of native poesy.21 As Helen Cooper observes, to dismiss such remarks as merely conventional, uncritical, or eulogistic is too easy: Ascham’s comment, even in passing, offers a critical evaluation rooted squarely in the criterion of Chaucer’s eloquence and, more particularly, in the imitability of that eloquence and its role in what Tuke’s 1532 preface calls the “beautifyeng and bettryng of thenglysh tonge.”22

Appreciation of eloquent style and of the tools available to writers in beautifying the vernacular is the donnée of much Tudor pedagogy. The method of rhetorical training and stylistic appreciation embodied in Erasmus’s epoch-making De duplici copia verborum et rerum (1512) was formulated, in part, at the instigation of John Colet, to whom Erasmus’s work is dedicated, to assist with a revised curriculum at St. Paul’s School, where Colet was headmaster. Erasmus’s celebration of copia—the fertility of the word—gave no less weighting to elocutio (“copia verborum,” abundance of words) than to inventio (“copia rerum,” abundance of subject matter), the first (and traditionally the most important) of the five canons of rhetoric. Within a handful of years of the appearance of Erasmus’s work, competing theories about the best mode of inculcating this stylistic appreciation in Tudor schoolboys were pitted against each other in the so-called Grammarians’ War, a skirmish ostensibly about the merits of teaching through grammatical precept versus teaching by imitation, though in reality a feud partially motivated by the commercial interest of book sales. Robert Whittinton, supported in his stance by John Skelton in Speke Parrot (1521), defends the grammarians’ privileging of precept against William Horman’s and William Lily’s preference for imitation of classical models. Where, for Whittinton’s Vulgaria, “Imitacyon of autours without preceptes & rules/is but a longe betynge about the busshe & losse of tyme,” Horman’s Vulgaria favored a humanist appreciation of style and expression by arranging exemplary sentences for translation under commonplace-friendly headings.23 At the heart of this imitative enterprise is eloquence, a stylistic virtue often subsumed under the umbrella of its etymological cognate elocutio.24

Beyond such local quibbles about best pedagogic practice, the educative handbooks of the period proffer further evidence of a kind of practical criticism in action. Sir Thomas Elyot’s The boke named the governour (1531) offers a comparative analysis of two canonical figures from classical antiquity:

Nat withstandinge for as moche as the saide warkes be very longe/and do require therfore a great time to be all lerned and kanned: some latine autour wolde be therwith myxte/and specially Virgile: whiche in his warke called Eneidos/is most lyke to Homere/and all moste the same Homere in latine. Also by the ioynynge to gether of those autours/the one shall be the better vnderstande by the other. And verily (as I before saide) none one autour serueth to so diuers witt[es] as doth Virgile. For there is nat that affect or desire/wherto any childes fantasy is disposed/but in some of Virgils warkes may be founden matter therto apt and propise.25 (sig. D8v)

Elyot’s discussion here ventures a model for English literary criticism: his comparative analysis identifies both distinctive and shared qualities of the writers in question and touches directly on the place of readerly taste in appreciating an author’s work. Not the least interesting feature of Elyot’s comparative reading of Virgil and Homer is the emphasis placed, in the last sentence, on the reader’s “fantasy”—something privileged as a creative, inventive faculty that takes effect on the “matter” found in a writer’s oeuvre. Indeed, Elyot seems to be giving formal critical articulation to a commonplace idea that finds expression in the poetry of the period itself. Gavin Douglas’s Middle Scots translation of The Aeneid (Eneados, dated approximately 1513) celebrates Virgil’s exemplary stylistic variatio (“He altyrris hys style sa mony way”), not least since this range affords something for each reader’s taste and generates varied subject matter for the operation of each reader’s “fantasy” (“To satyfy ilk wightis fantasy”).26 Elyot’s critical blueprint for how to approach literary works and how to appreciate their distinctive features offers a model by which the reader’s agency in some measure parallels that of the originating author. Even in outline, Elyot’s method suggests something resembling literary criticism that theorizes the activities of composition and reception: author, text, and reader are triangulated in a shared, collaborative enterprise.

More fundamentally still, a type of literary criticism was fostered by the favorable proximity between rhetoric and poetics in the early sixteenth century. Underlying literary-critical reflection in the early Tudor period, both in the classroom and in pedagogic handbooks like Elyot’s, is a rhetorical vocabulary increasingly applicable to written works of literature (rather than simply spoken orations). In a period of predisciplinary unity, in which poetics was not fully partitioned from rhetoric, critical theories about the nature and purpose of poetry happily appropriated the Ciceronian triad of rhetorical functions: docere, delectare, movere (teach, delight, move). Early Tudor theories of poetry derive their principal terminology and methods from rhetorical culture, and they take shape in the first instance along the lines of what Brian Vickers calls “Horace’s rhetoricized poetics.”27 Elyot himself unapologetically collocates “oratours and poetes” as equal partners in his self-professed defense of their professions.28 Sixteenth-century rhetoric, as Gavin Alexander contends, is a “contingent art, ready to adapt its resources to changing discourses,” and that contingency brings Tudor rhetorical theory productively into dialogue with Tudor poetics.29

Crucially, the rhetorically inflected poetics that can be traced through the Henrician period placed much of its emphasis on the imperatives of moving audiences (“movere”)—directing readers, rousing feelings, and stimulating the affect. This ability of literary works to animate and prompt their readers is described potently by John Skelton, in his translation (complete by 1488) of Poggio Bracciolini’s Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus, as “the motyf of litterature”—a play on the Old French etymology of “motif” (motive, motivation) adverting to the affective capabilities of imaginative literature in moving readers.30 This “affective power” of persuasive language informs much of Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), the “first large-scale treatment of rhetoric in English” and in many ways the apotheosis of an early Tudor rhetoricized poetics. Wilson’s volume was published in the years between the death of the Earl of Surrey (1547) and the appearance of the first edition of Richard Tottel’s miscellany of Songes and sonettes (1557), an epochal collection gathering together for a print audience much of the poetry composed and circulated in the Henrician court.31 At its heart, Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique celebrates English eloquence (“elocution”) and embodies many of the incipient currents of literary-critical activity that can be traced in early Tudor vernacular culture.

Forms of Criticism

At first sight, the critical landscape of early Tudor England looks like one of haphazard, disjointed aperçus, serendipitous remarks, and casual asides, rather than a coherent theory of literature. If there is a practice of literary criticism, it is one organically shaped in real time, evolving, contradicting earlier instantiations of itself, and shifting its focus from one rhetorical or stylistic virtue to another. Rather than looking for vernacular treatises that embody an already-formed theory of literary practice, we should be alert instead to an evolving discourse fashioned in the acts of its articulation, across a range of sites—from prefaces and marginalia, to more formal pronouncements in rhetorical handbooks, to an indirect version of literary-critical comment in the period’s poetry itself. The remainder of this article argues for the existence of vernacular literary criticism, and moreover for what might be considered a twin poetics in the early Tudor period—a theory of literature that attends to both the genesis of texts and their reception by readers. Early Tudor literary criticism actively reflects on and continually looks to theorize the processes by which eloquence is engendered by the inventiveness of the poet and responded to by readers in turn. Repeatedly, special attention is paid to a writer’s elocutio (style, word choice) and the pleasures that can be derived from an appreciation of it by readers possessed of sufficient literary competence. Despite its shifting contours, and for all the transformation that it undergoes, vernacular literary criticism of this period is typically marked by an awareness of the tussle between the competing virtues of familiarity and strangeness, the difficulties attendant on domesticating imported poetic theories and rhetorical terminology, and the rival merits of stylistic plainness and expressive complexity. Early Tudor critical activities can be located in three principal sites, whose boundaries are rewardingly porous: first, paratextual material, such as prefaces to printed works; second, in the translating and domesticating of rhetorical terminology and theory derived from classical antiquity, often via continental humanist intermediaries; and third, in the lyric verse of this period itself.

Forms of Criticism 1: Paratextual Criticism

Many of the incidental remarks in early Tudor printed prefaces are concerned with elocutio, a preoccupation not out of keeping with later, Elizabethan commentary on literary forms, which tends to prioritize “eloquence and style […] over other concerns” and which scours literary texts “almost exclusively for examples of speaking well and eloquently.”32 Prefatory comments constitute a kind of critical excursus—paratextually separate from the main body of a text—and are typically concerned with the native resources for, and the translatability of, eloquence. Anxieties about the inadequacy of English undergird the preface to the translation of Petrarch’s Trionfi made by Henry Parker, Lord Morley. Morley recognizes Petrarch’s work as a moral authority worthy to be rendered into “our maternall toungue” and lauds its “manye devyne sentences” (sigs. A2v–A3r), the polysemous “sentences” here connoting both morally improving sententiae and Petrarch’s pleasurable choice of words or syntax.33 This twofold appreciation of didactic worth and verbal beauty colors his self-flagellating disclaimer about his inability to convey the stylistic elegance and fecundity of Petrarch’s Italian:

I dyd it in suche hast, that doubtles in many places (yf it were agayne in my handes) I thynke I coulde well amende it, albeit that I professe, I haue not erred moche from the letter, but in the ryme, whiche is not possible for me to folow in the translation, nor touche the least poynt of the elegancy that this elegant Poete hath set forth in his owne maternall tongue.34 (sig. A3v)

Acknowledging a distinction between the letter (the conceptual materia) of the source-text and its elegant articulation (its elocutio), Morley explains his inability to “folow” (in a standard English proxy for “imitate”) the form, the original “ryme,” in his English rendition, bemoaning the loss of the prosodic charms associated with Petrarch’s turn of phrase in the original terza rima. In this critical theory of imitation, what is lost in translation is elegance, a shortcoming lamented elsewhere by the preface to Thomas Wyatt’s translation of Plutarch’s De tranquilitate animi. Remarking on the first text that he had tried to convert into English, at the instigation of Queen Katherine of Aragon, Wyatt laments the lexical paucity of English compared to Petrach’s Latin (De remediis utriusque fortunae):

The boke of Fra[un]ces Petrarch / of the remedy of yll fortune / at the c[om]maundement of your highnesse / I assayd / as my power wolde serue me / to make into our englyssh. And after I had made a profe of nyne or ten Dialogues / the labour began to seme tedious / by superfluous often rehersyng of one thyng. which tho perauenture in the latyn shalbe laudable / by plentuous diuersite of the spekyng of it […] yet for lacke of suche diuersyte in our tong / it shulde want a great dele of the grace. Altho / as me semeth / and as sayth this Plutarch / the plentuousnesse and faire diuersyte of l[an]gage / shulde nat so moch be desyred in suche thynges / as the frutes of the aduertysmentes of th[em] / whiche in my opinyon / this sayde Plutarch hath handsomly gadred togyder / without tedyousnesse of length.35 (sig. A2r)

A self-critical commentary, or better a literary-critical self-commentary, on his failed “assay” at Englishing Petrarch’s Latin prose, Wyatt’s preface counterpoints the copia-laden variety of Latin (“plenteous diuersite”) with the phrasal tedium that comes when rendering the same in English, a literary vernacular portrayed as suffering from a paucity that results not in pleasurable varietas but in narrow repetition (“superfluous often rehersyng”). Wyatt’s realization that an English translation of Petrarch’s Latin would be denuded of “a greate deale of the grace” of the source-text advances a tacit critical theory that elevates the stylistic gracefulness of elocutio to prime importance. Even here, though speaking of its absence, Wyatt acknowledges the centrality of pleasure in the reading experience—the satisfaction that comes not simply from the intellective, moral “frutes” of a text but also from its stylistic contours (“faire” diversity).

A rather more confident assertion of the adequacy and eloquence of English as a literary vernacular can be found in paratextual remarks from works of the 1550s. The prefatory address to Thomas Brooke in Richard Sherry’s Treatise of Schemes and Tropes (1550), defending the plenitude of the vernacular, disputes assumptions that English is burdened by “barbarousnes and lacke of eloquence,” pinning the blame not on “anye defaut in the toungue it selfe” but on the “slackenes of our co[un]trimen” who failed in the “searchyng out” of the vernacular’s “elegance and proper speaches that be ful many in it” (sigs. A2v–A3r). This richness, he claims, is plainly visible in the vernacular roster of native exemplars:

[N]ot only by the most excellent monumentes of our a[un]ci[en]t forewriters, Gower, Chawcer and Lydgate, but also by the famous workes of many other later: inespeciall of [th]e ryght worshipful knyght syr Thomas Eliot, which first in hys dictionarye as it were generallye searchinge oute the copye of oure language in all kynde of wordes and phrases […] hathe herebi declared the plentyfulnes of our mother to[un]ge, loue toward hys country, hys tyme not spent in vanitye and tryfles. What shuld I speake of that ornamente Syr Thomas Wyat? which […] so flouryshed in the eloquence of hys natiue tongue, that as he passed therin those wyth whome he lyued, so was he lykelye to haue bene equal wyth anye other before hym, had not enuious death to hastely beriued vs of thys iewel.36 (sigs. A3rv)

Sherry’s preface eulogizes the linguistic plenty of the vernacular and also the native exemplars—Gower, Chaucer, Lydgate, Elyot, Wyatt, and the “Manye other there be yet lyuynge”—who deserve canonization, critical praise, citation, and imitation for uncovering it. Sherry’s enterprise preempts Abraham Fraunce’s The Arcadian rhetorike, an Elizabethan counterpart that excerpts imitable passages from Philip Sidney’s works and considers them alongside illustrations lifted from classical antiquity. The literary-critical commentary that laces Sherry’s preface above is rooted in the same twin projects of canonizing native authors and identifying texts worthy of imitation.

The same linguistic self-confidence and will to canonization underpin the prefatory address to the reader in Richard Tottel’s miscellany of Songes and sonettes:

That to haue wel written in verse, yea & in small parcelles, deserueth great praise, the workes of diuers Latines, Italians, and other, doe proue sufficiently. That our tong is able in that kynde to do as praiseworthely as the rest, the honorable stile of the noble earle of Surrey, and the weightinesse of the depewitted sir Thomas Wyat the elders verse, with seuerall graces in sondry good Englishe writers, doe show abundantly. It resteth nowe (gentle reder) that thou thinke it not euill doon, to publish, to the honor of the Englishe tong, and for profit of the studious of Englishe eloquence, those workes which the vngentle horders vp of such treasure haue heretofore enuied thee. And for this point (good reder) thine own profit and pleasure, in these presently, and in moe hereafter, shal answere for my defence. If parhappes some mislike the statelinesse of stile remoued from the rude skill of common eares: I aske help of the learned to defend their learned frendes the authors of this work: And I exhort the vnlearned, by reding to learne to be more skilfull, and to purge that swinelike grossenesse, that maketh the swete maierome not to smell to their delight.37 (sig. A1v)

The now staple distinction between the conceptual matter of a work or an author (“weightinesse”) and stylistic criteria (“honourable stile,” the “seuerall graces in sondry good Englishe writers”) recurs here. More belligerently, while conceding that such a publishing enterprise as his is still sufficiently novel to require an apologia (“my defence,” “to defend their learnes frendes”), Tottel’s prefatory segue into the main text voices a critical theory of poetry’s dual (Horatian) goals of “profit and pleasure,” with the express intention of schooling readers in a decidedly native poetics: “Englishe eloquence” is now made available for public imitatio, in the material form of a print volume, displacing the hoarded-up manuscripts of elite coterie culture. Intriguingly, the virtue of this vernacular eloquence lies in its stylistic strangeness. Tottel’s preface becomes its own defense of poetry: it sanctions the stylistic license of the anthologized poets whose poetic idiom is “remoued from” the “common” features of daily converse. English as a literary vernacular achieves refinement in part by embracing the unfamiliar.

Forms of Criticism 2: Nativizing Invention

This tension between the strange and the familiar is inflected elsewhere as English writers seek to domesticate literary-critical terminology imported from classical or continental sources. The practice of devising vivid native equivalents for abstruse classical terms continues well into the sixteenth century, as in Puttenham’s at times endearingly bizarre system of Anglo-Saxon kennings for Greek figures (“Metalepsis, or the far-fet,” “Epizeuxis orthe Cuckowspell”).38 Literary-critical activity in the early Tudor period seems conscious of a need to confront and accommodate a foreign rhetorical vocabulary. Not least among these imported terms are copia and inventio. Thomas Elyot supplies a pleasingly copious run of native equivalents in his 1538 Latin-English Dictionary: “plentie, eloquence, power, leaue, or licence, multitude,” a sequence that theorises copia not just as abundance and articulacy but also as a potent, liberating force associated with the process of making licit the apparently irregular or transgressive (“licence”).39 Stephen Hawes, too, ventures a series of poeticized remarks that constitute a critical theory about the fecundity of language and about the resources available to after-coming poets who follow in a literary genealogy. In the prologue of his earliest recorded poem, The example of vertu (1504), Hawes declares:

  • O prudent Gower in langage pure
  • Without corrupcyon moost facundyous
  • O noble Chauser euer moost sure
  • Of frutfull sentence ryght delycyous
  • O vertuous Lydgat moche sentencyous

(sig. aa3v, ll. 22–26)40

Hawes not only constructs a canon of vernacular authorities as sources of allusive indebtedness, principally the native triumvirate of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, a conventional formulation recalling the tre corone of Italian letters (Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio); he also offers a critical evaluation of the vernacular’s lexical density, its opportunities for ornamentation, and (implicitly) the pleasures this linguistic plenty affords readers. His organic, horticultural terms bestow a kind of self-cultivating energy on the vernacular’s copiousness (its “facundyous” richness) that can be measured sensuously by the reader’s taste (“right delycyous”). The term “facundious,” gesturing both to its Latin etymology (facundus, “eloquent”) and its phonetic sibling “fecund,” reappears in Hawes’s Pastime of pleasure: “Yet elocucyon … The mater exorneth / ryght well facundyously” (ll. 909–910, sig. C8v), where it nudges its emphasis toward copiousness of words more than copiousness of things.41 The description of Chaucer’s “frutfull sentence” in the passage above, in another pun that refuses to disambiguate between “sentence” as sententia or sententiousness, and “sentence” as the author’s characteristic syntax and turn of phrase, once again sets the rhetorical criteria of inventio and elocutio on an even critical footing.

The interplay of inventio and elocutio as literary criteria in early sixteenth-century poetics points to a shift in the changing emphasis of rhetorical handbooks printed in the early Tudor period. The first vernacular text on rhetoric to be printed is Leonard Cox’s Art or crafte of Rhetoryke (ca. 1524–1532), following Melanchthon’s De rhetorica in dealing almost exclusively with inventio, and paying, by its author’s own admission, virtually no attention to elocution and pronunciation, as if to talk about English elocution in the late 1520s were an impossibility. A marked transformation in vernacular rhetoric is apparent by the time of Richard Sherry’s Treatise of Schemes and Tropes (1550), dealing more directly with stylistic matters. The intervening decades witness a shift in the “domestication of a theoretical discourse” of rhetoric and a growing confidence in the possibility of English eloquence, now reconceived “as a refinement rather than a repudiation or transcendence of Englishness.”42

The fluid relationship between inventio and elocutio in the early Tudor period is attested by the efforts of Stephen Hawes and John Skelton to handle and domesticate the terms of rhetorical invention. Skelton, a victim of periodization who is often unfavorably dismissed as “half medieval ape and half Renaissance man,” advances a literary theory in his late poem A replycacion (1528) which addresses, simultaneously, the ability of imaginative literature to make things vivid and real in an appeal to the mind’s eye, and also the sources of the poet’s inventiveness.43 Skelton’s thinking here constitutes a poetics about the process of authorial agency, divided between external (divine) inspiration and the poet’s own internal, originary powers of invention:

  •         there is a spyrituall
  • And amysteriall
  • And amysticall
  • Effecte Energiall
  • As Grekes do it call
  • Of suche an industry
  • And suche a pregnacy
  • Of heuenly inspyracion
  • In laureate creacyon
  • Of poetes c[om]mendacion
  • That of diuyne myseracion
  • God maketh his habytacion
  • In Poetes whiche excelles
  • And soiourns with them and dwelles

(ll. 365–378)44

Poetic invention is defined as both “a pregnacy / Of heuenly inspyracion,” just as Elyot offers a parallel conceit that “[i]n poetes was supposed to be science misticall and inspired,” and also as an “industry,” in a definition placing agency in large part on the poet’s craft.45 The striking, classically inflected phrase “Effecte Energiall” points to an evolving theory about the compositional process and the sources of poetic productivity. Skleton’s poetics are elaborated in the printed marginal gloss, in which “Effecte Energiall” is explained in more detail with nods to Aristotle’s De Anima and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria:

Energia grece latine efficax operatio. Int[er]noque quodam spiritus impulsu inopinabiliter originata.

[“In Greek, energeia, in Latin effective operation, and without doubt originating in the internal impulse of a certain spirit.”]46

Skelton’s gloss invokes two Aristotelian uses of energeia: first, as a rhetorical figure of efficacy and liveliness (the energeia of Aristotle’s Rhetoric or Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria), the vividness that compels readers to see things as if before their eyes; and second, as a process of thought (the energeia of Aristotle’s De Anima), the fantasy or perception that takes place in the originating mind of the poet.47 Skelton’s privileging of the action that takes place within the poet’s own mind not only attests an ongoing current in his writings that debates the rival sites of poetic authority, but also, in a salutary revision to recent literary historiography of the sixteenth century, suggests a “consonance between early sixteenth-century poetic practice and late sixteenth-century poetic theory,” as witnessed in Sidney’s or Puttenham’s comparable claims for poetic inspiration.48 In this version of Skelton’s poetics, the poet finds subject matter not only “in previous poets’ books or historical material” but also “in nature, aided by his own ‘wit’ [ingenium] or by his ‘fantasy’,”49 as if by way of an early Tudor precursor to Sidney’s portrait of the poet “lifted vp with the vigor of his own inuention” and “freely raunging within the Zodiack of his owne wit.”50

A similar celebration of the poet’s own powers of inventiveness and fantasy laces Stephen Hawes’s Pastime of pleasure. Hawes’s philosophically inflected romance doubles as a manifesto of sorts for the arts of language and an encomium to the homo loquens. The poem reveals itself to be “particularly sensitive to the power of elocutio, the art of choosing appropriate words.”51 Dame Rhetoric instructs Graunde Amoure in the five mental faculties that foster invention:

  • The fyrste of them / is called inuencyon
  • Whiche fourdeth / of the most noble werke
  • Of .v. inwarde wyttes / with hole affeccyon
  • As wryteth ryght many a noble clerke
  • With mysty colour / of cloudes derke
  • How comyn wytte / dooth full well electe
  • What it sholde take / and what it shall abiecte
  • And secondly / by ymagynacyon
  • To drawe a mater / full facundyous
  • Full meruaylous / is the operacyon
  • To make of nought / reason sentencyous
  • Clokynge a trouthe / with colour tenebrous
  • […]
  • And thyrdly they hadde suche a fantasy
  • In this hygh arte / to be intellygyble
  • […]
  • For fantasye / must nedes exemplyfy
  • His newe inuencyon / […]

(ll. 701–712, 722–723, 733–734)52

In this involved system of correspondences, by which rhetorical procedures are yoked to mental faculties, inventio comes under the auspices of “comyn [common] wytte,” dispositio the province of the “ymagynacyon,” and elocutio the domain of the fantasy (or fancy) charged with “exemplyfy[ing]” the poet’s “newe inuencyon.” The lines between inventio and elocutio are blurred, and the two procedures seem now to work in cooperation with each other. Indeed, later in the poem elocutio is raised to the same status as inventio, since “fruitfulness” (l. 1160) is said to be found in words (verba) rather than just subject matter (res or materia). Just as for Skelton, the strict “classical separation” of inventio from elocutio is weakened since his “subject matter is constituted rather than clothed by his thinking through and about words,” so Hawes pares away at the division between these two staple ingredients of classical oration making.53 In domesticating the terms of classical and continental rhetoric, poets of the early sixteenth century inevitably engage in their own critical, theoretical ventures as they unpack the semantically dense baggage of their rhetorical inheritance and nudge imported terms and concepts in new directions.

Forms of Criticism 3: Poetry as Poetics

A third site of early Tudor literary theory is found, as with Skelton and Hawes above, in the poetry of the period itself. An early sixteenth-century poetics is articulated in, and can be reconstructed from, the practice of its poets. The period’s poetry becomes (implicitly) an ars poetica in its own way, as if thereby negating the need for a separate genre of formal literary treatise or poetic defense. Much of Thomas Wyatt’s poetic oeuvre actively reflects on the merits of the plain style and the copious, involuted style, and theorizes elocutio as a procedure not merely for assessing the choice of words but also for evaluating their relation to the speaker’s underlying intention, or invention. Wyatt’s first epistolary satire, “Myne owne Jhon poyntz,” modeled on a satiric verse epistle of Luigi Alamanni, has been likened to a “defence of poetry.”54 Not only does it venture an act of comparative practical criticism in its analysis of two of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as it contemplates the inversion of literary hierarchy and perversion of generic decorum involved in “prayes[ing] S[ir] thopas for a noble tale / and scorn[ing] the storye that the knight told.” In addition, it is a poem standing at a critical remove from itself, as it ponders the determinant characteristics of figurative, colored rhetoric in the context of expressive styles:

  • but howe may I this honour now attayne
  • that cannot dye the colour blak a lyer
  • My Poyntz I cannot frame my tonge to fayne
  • to cloke the trewthe for prayse w[ith]out desert
  • Of them that lust all vices to retayne
  • […]
  • my witt is nought I cannot lerne the waye
  • And moche the lesse off thinges that greater be
  • that asken helpe off colours off devise
  • to ioyne the meane w[ith] eche extremitie
  • w[ith] the nearest Vertu to cloke alwey the vice

(ll. 17–21, 57–61)55

For all the professed anxiety over cloaked expression in this verse epistle, Wyatt elsewhere gives the distinct impression that such expressive indirection is actively to be striven for and, implicitly, defended. Indeed, even his verse epistle above contains a buried echo, in “to cloke the trewthe,” of Stephen Hawes’s celebration, in The Pastime of pleasure, of Lydgate’s writings as texts “Grounded on reason / with clowdy fygures” through which Lydgate “cloked the trouthe / of all his scryptures” (sigs. A3rv, ll. 34–35). The theoretical defense of a cloaked poetic idiom is more fully articulated elsewhere by Wyatt, in his sonnet “Cesar when that the traytour of Egipt,” the first sonnet entered in his personal manuscript collection of poems (Egerton Manuscript) and serving, in some part, as a manifesto for or critical gloss on the ensuing contents of the volume:

  • so chaunceth it oft that every passion
  • the mynde hideth by colour contrary
  • with fayned visage now sad now mery
  • Whereby if I laught any tyme or season
  • it is for bicause I have not her way
  • to cloke my care but vnder sport & play

       (ll. 9–14)56

The line between poetic utterance and poetics comes under duress. The sestet of Wyatt’s sonnet advances a poetic theory, and defense, of indirection and indeterminacy; it also intimates, in its conceit of the poet’s “fayned visage,” an emergent theory of the act of “feigning”—playing on the Latin root (“fingere,” “fictio”) to encompass both “counterfeiting, disguising” and, in a sense associated with Quintilian, poetic “making,” the writing of “fiction.”57 Wyatt may once again be giving further articulation to a theory of poetry already voiced in the Pastime of pleasure, as Hawes’s speaker declares:

  •      as I maye / I shall blowe out a fume
  • To hyde my mynde / vnderneth a fable
  • By couert colour / well and probable

           (ll. 40–42)

To be sure, Hawes is commenting in the first instance on the strategies available to the allegorical poet, whereas Wyatt’s version of hiding the mind by a contrary color most immediately invokes courtierly intrigue and a social ethics idealized by Castiglione as sprezzatura, or studied detachment. But both writers are countenancing the uses of, even arguing for, a concealment of meaning, and venturing a critical theory of the poetic text as something layered, figured, its rhetorically colored surfaces hiding semantically dense depths. As critical defenses of the disjunction between word and intention, these poems suggest that the plain style is beginning to cede ground to a more consciously indirect mode of articulation, a mode now denuded of its earlier pejorative, ethical associations of deceit and dissimulation. Colored rhetoric is theorized as a legitimate practice in poetic expression.

That Wyatt cultivates a “version of honesty—plain, transparent, and, crucially, at odds with the environment at court” is well-established by recent scholarship. Yet on closer inspection, as Jason Powell astutely remarks, Wyatt’s honesty is shown to be “consistently contingent, relative, and various” in his poems, especially in his verse epistles. These poems perhaps more than any other in his oeuvre hinge on “the self-consciousness that … constantly threatens to reveal plainness and all kinds of honesty as a farce.”58 In Wyatt’s handling, the rhetorical ideal of plainness seems increasingly at odds with a poetic validation of craft and indirection. “I must goo worke I se by craft & art,” declares the speaker of Wyatt’s rondeau “Goo burning sighes” (l. 10), perhaps recalling Cox’s yoking of these terms in the title of his rhetorical treatise, Art or crafte of Rhetoryke.59 As an implicit poetics, Wyatt’s verse steers “craft” away from its procedural bearings in Melanchthonian rhetoric and more firmly in the direction of the poetic arts as a literary, aesthetic virtue combining artisanal skill and expressive cunning.

Wyatt’s inscrutability as a poet underwrites the longest of Henry Howard’s four elegies for him, beginning “Wyat resteth here.” As a genre, the elegy—and Howard’s may offer an early example of what has been termed the genre of “critical elegy”—affords another site of literary-critical activity: the deceased poet’s oeuvre becomes available for critical perusal, and the poet’s fame is made ready for inscription in a canon of worthy native exemplars.60 To dismiss verse elegies as merely conventional expressions of grief for the death of the author—mere formulaic laments or lieux de mémoire, “hardly offering a critical estimate”—is tempting.61 But Surrey’s elegy is more than a private indulgence or personal reminiscence; the poem appeared in print almost immediately, in the pamphlet An excellent Epitaffe of syr Thomas wyat, the only poem of Surrey’s to be printed (albeit anonymously) during his lifetime:

  • Wyat resteth here, that quicke coulde neuer rest.
  • Whose heuenly gyftes, encreased by desdayne
  • And vertue sanke, the deper in his brest
  • Suche profyte he, of enuy could optayne
  • A Head, where wysdom mysteries dyd frame
  • Whose hammers beat styll in that lyuely brayne
  • As on a styth, where some worke of fame
  • Was dayly wrought, to turn to Brytayns ga[in]e
  • A Uysage sterne and mylde, where both dyd groo
  • Uyce to contempne, in vertues to reioyce
  • Amyd great stormes, whome grace assured soo
  • To lyue vprighte and smyle at fortunes choyse.
  • A Hand that taught what might be saide in rime
  • That refte Chaucer, the glorye of his wytte
  • A marke, the whiche (vnperfited for tyme)
  • Some may approche but neuer none shall hyt:
  • A Tonge, that serued in foraine realmes his king
  • Whose curtoise talke, to vertu dyd enflame.
  • Eche noble harte a worthy guyde to brynge
  • Our Englyishe youth, by trauayle vnto fame.
  • […]

(ll. 1–20)62

Surrey’s lament publicly canonizes a literary figure recognized in his own time as a poetic luminary. Celebrating Wyatt’s role in the formation of a native tradition of vernacular eloquence, the elegy both promotes the “worke of fame,” which might advance the nation’s cultural prestige, and also bestows critical appreciation on a poet whose literary productions testified to the expressive possibilities of English verse, to “what myght be said in ryme.” Surrey hints in the opening stanzas at a type of divine inspiration, following the Skeltonic model above (“heavenly gyftes,” “A heade wheare wysdome mysteries dyd frame”), but, as with Skelton’s or Hawes’s configuration, Surrey also gives critical priority to Wyatt’s own inventive agency: the emphasis falls on the poet’s “wit” (“A hand … / That reft Chaucer the glorie of his wytte”), relocating inventio from an external, intertextual source to the creative faculty of Wyatt’s own mind. Not least of interest in this posthumous critical estimate is Surrey’s reintroduction of the reader into the phenomenological equation: Wyatt’s verse “inflame[s]” its audiences, perhaps even moving them to become acolytes in a Tribe of Wyatt, to “travayle” through their own inventive labours towards a place in the same lineage of “fame.”

The poetry of Hawes, Skelton, Wyatt, and Surrey gestures, then, to something equivalent to the “relatively seamless” synthesis of theory (poesis) and application (praxis) that Arthur Kinney locates in Sidney’s writings later in the century. In their poems we detect that “closeness between criticism and creation” that Brian Vickers outlines in his discussion of the literary theories articulated by practicing poets of the early modern period.63 On this evidence, literary criticism is not simply a marginal genre in this period, but rather quietly, resiliently, can lay claim to a place at the center of early Tudor poetic culture.

Coda: Readerly Wit

In their poeticizing of rhetoric, early Tudor writers do not limit their critical inquiry to the inventiveness of poets or the eloquent stylistic traits of their texts. Early Tudor literary culture is ever mindful of the reader and of literature’s effects on readers. Its accommodation, in both rhetorical handbooks and poetic practice itself, of classical and continental rhetorical culture conforms to a wider phenomenon in the early modern period, whereby “rhetoric becomes as much a set of tools for reading as an art of composition.”64 The title page of Richard Sherry’s Treatise of Schemes & Tropes announces the work’s practicality as a manual for the reading and “better vnderstanding of good authors, gathered out of the best Grammarians & Oratours” (sig. A1r). Sherry’s contribution to the early Tudor art of reading can be aligned with a broader literary theory that accords considerable importance to the agency of the reader and foregrounds the reader’s inventive obligations when confronting a text.

Indeed, in early Tudor poetics, inventio and ingenium are not the preserve of poets alone. Early sixteenth-century poetic practice and its attendant literary theories show an increasing willingness to accord these activities to readers, too. To be sure, “ingenium” (inventive wit) is principally encountered as a compositional virtue of the best, most canonical authors. In the prologue to Book V of his Middle Scots Eneados, Gavin Douglas recounts his difficulties in comprehending

  • The hie wysdomme and maist profund engyne
  • Of mynne author Virgile, poete dyvyne (ll. 28–29)65

Here, “engyne” connotes Virgil’s poetic talent, its copious (“profund”) inventive resources, but it also marks an attempt at domesticating the term ingenium—the poet’s inspired wit, the creative imagination animated during the invention of subject matter. The association between inventio and the poet’s wit (classical Latin ingenium, “ingenuity,” “clever device,” “artfulness,” via Italian ingegno) is further reified in Latin handbooks of the period. The nomadic continental scholar Juan Luis Vives (1492/1493–1540), a central presence in humanist circles in England from 1523 and briefly appointed reader in humanity at Oxford by Wolsey, outlined in his De conscribendis epistolis (1534) a theory of invention deriving from the ingenium (wit) of the speaker, coupled with memory, judgment, and experience. Wyatt opts for “wit” in his domestication of the Italian form “ingegno” when, in his lengthy stanzaic poem “Myne olde dere enmy,” modeled closely on Petrarch’s Rime 360 (“Quel antique mio dolce empio signore”), he searches out the limits of poetic expression, asking provocatively:

  • What wit haue wordes so prest, and forceable,
  • That may conteyn my great mishappinesse (ll. 19–20)66

Wyatt’s reflection on the reach of words and their representative adequacy translates Petrarch’s

  • Et qual ingegno ì parole preste
  • che stringer possa ’l mio infelice stato[.] (ll. 20–21)
  • [“And what wit has such ready words that it can express my unhappy state.”]67

Wyatt nativizes “ingenium” as a faculty or process associated with the inventive capacity of the “wit.” It resides in the eloquent poet and is defined as something that is notionally unconstrained, perhaps best appreciated in contexts in which it seems to be lacking or unreplicable.

Yet early Tudor literary culture also increasingly accommodates the reader’s burden of invention. Texts invite or demand the reader’s ingenious participation. The addressee of Wyatt’s love lyric “Madame w[ith]outen,” a plea for the beloved to clarify amatory intentions, is urged to produce an answer—to “vse yo[ur] wit and shew it so” (l. 4).68 The invitation is duly acceded to in the space below this poem in the Egerton Manuscript, in which one reader, George Blage, Wyatt’s Kentish kinsman, has penned a poem by way of a self-professed “Aunswer”—an expression of Blage’s readerly and poetic wit not least since this rejoinder is voiced in the persona of the implied female addressee of the first poem. Readerly wit here borders on material intervention in the text, as is also implied by a very early work of Princess Elizabeth. In her Mirror of the Sinful Soul, a 1544 translation of Marguerite de Navarre’s Le Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, the young Elizabeth addresses her dedicatee, Queen Katherine Parr, with these prefatory remarks:

[O]ubeit it is like a worke wich is but newe begonne and shapen, that the fyle of youre excellent witte and godly lerninge in the reding of it … shall rubbe out, polishe, and mende […] the words[.]69

The artisanal activity of crafting or filing—a metaphor deployed with playfully grim relish in Wyatt’s polyptotonic sonnet “There Was never ffile half so well filed”—which is more usually associated with literary production, is now rehabilitated as a procedure in the art of reading that activates the reader’s wit.70 Early Tudor readers are expected or required to exercise ingenium in their encounters with the text.

The reader’s inventio is all the more urgently engaged in cases of stylistic difficulty. Where Quintilian had expressed strictures against the rhetorician’s use of ambiguity and obscurity because they placed the “burden of interpretation on the ingenium of the recipient,” early modern commentators were often more tolerant of stylistic difficulty and figures of indirection “for the very reason that [they] exercised the intelligence.”71 Increasing sanction is given in the early Tudor period to stylistic obscurity, to an eloquence that resides in difficulty rather than one that conforms to rhetorical ideals of clarity, familiarity, plainness, and accessibility. Where for Leonard Cox, writing in the late 1520s or early 1530s, “the more comon it is: the more better it is” (sig. A3r), by the time of Thomas Wilson’s commentary on admirable styles, in 1553, elocution is located not only in plain diction (“plainnesse”) but also in ornamentation (“exornacion”):

When wee haue learned apte woordes and vsuall Phrases to sette forthe oure meanynge, and can orderlye place them without offence to the eare, we maye boldelye commende and beautifie oure talke wyth diuers goodlye coloures, and delitefull translations, that oure speache maye seme as bryghte and precious, as a ryche stone is fayre and orient. Exornation is a gorgiousse beautifiynge of the tongue with borowed wordes, and chaung of sentence or speache, with muche varietie. (sigs. z1v–z2r)

Vernacular eloquence, the age-old desire to “beautifie” the mother tongue, is now reconceptualized as part of a compositional obligation to engage the intelligence of the reader and instil pleasure through an idiom that is “delitefull.” The application of “coloures”—recalling the “mysty” and “couert colour” of Hawes’s Pastime of pleasure, in which the truth might be cloaked with “colour tenebrous,” or equally the “colours off devise” and “colour contrary” of Wyatt’s epistolary and sonnetic verse—is newly accommodated within a poetics that legitimizes figured language and stylistic ornament. Wilson’s term “translation” itself artfully encompasses both interlingual borrowings and poetic metaphoricity.72 Wyatt’s sonnet beginning “Each man me telleth” offers both poetic articulation and poetic enactment of Wilson’s liberating tension between expressive plainness and playful figuration:73

  • Eche man me telleth I chaunge moost my devise
  •        and on my faith me thinck it goode reason
  •        to chaunge propose like after the season
  •        ffor in every cas to kepe still oon gyse
  • ys mytt for theim that would be taken wyse
  •        and I ame not of suche maner condition
  •        but treted after a dyvers fasshion
  •        and therupon my dyvernes doeth rise
  • but you that blame this dyvernes moost
  •        chaunge you no more but still after oon rate
  •        trete ye me well & kepe ye in the same state
  •        And while with me doeth dwell this weried goost
  •        my word nor I shall not be variable
  •        but alwaies oon your owne boeth ferme & stable

In a celebration of indirection and changefulness (“dyvernes”), Wyatt’s sonnet anticipates Wilson’s literary-critical formulation of the rhetorical virtue that lies in “diuers goodlye coloures” (above) or a “varietie of figures” (sig. y2r). Changing one’s “devise,” changing one’s “propose” (purpose), and cultivating “dyvernes” (diverseness, difference, diversity), all under the disingenuous guise of resisting variability (“not … variable”), test readers’ literary competence and engender a kind of hermeneutic delight. The virtue of elocutio here lies not in its transparent plainness but in its figured obscurity and defamiliarizing strangeness.

Poetic practice and attendant rhetorical theorizing show, in the early decades of the sixteenth century, a willingness to sanction figuration, complexity, even obscurity. “That boldness and beauty may require such violations” of familiarity and plainness becomes more apparent in the final section of Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique and marks an important contrast to his “earlier prohibitions on strange words.”74 It is considered, Wilson informs his readers, a “poynte of witte” to forego “suche woordes as are at hande, and to vse suche as are farre fetcht and translated” (sig. z3r). The seemingly illicit (on ethical or even rhetorical grounds) now receives theoretical justification as licit (on stylistic and affective grounds). Comparably, for Richard Sherry, in one of the printed marginal notes to his Treatise of Schemes and Tropes, domestication and accommodation of what is strange take place as part of a process of letting wonder seem familiar: “vse maketh stra[un]ge thinges familier” (sig. A2r).

In the final analysis, early Tudor literary theory as outlined in the aforementioned arenas centers on the pleasure that readers can derive from literary difficulty. Readerly agency is tied, time and again, to pleasure. Stephen Hawes’s defense of allegory in The Pastime of pleasure relies in part on the opportunities that textual complexity affords readers:

  • Theyr sentence is connynge / as appereth well
  • For by connynge / theyr arte dooth engendre
  • And without connynge / we knowe neuer a dele
  • Of theyr sentence / but maye soone surrendre
  • A true tale / that myght to vs rendre
  • Grete pleasure / yf we were intellygyble
  • Of theyr connynge / nothynge impossible

(ll. 967–973)

In these formulations, “the occluded truth … needs decoding, and decoding it brings pleasure.”75 These incipient currents perhaps reach their clearest formal articulation in English in Thomas Hoby’s translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (first published 1528), an Elizabethan, ex post facto theorizing of early sixteenth-century reading practices. In Hoby’s rendering of Castiglione’s foundational handbook, Federico Fregoso lauds a type of “darkenesse” and “couered subtilty”:

[I]f the woordes that the writer vseth bring with them a little (I will not saie diffycultie) but couered subtilty, and not so open, as suche as be ordinarily spoken, they […] make the reader more hedefull to pause at it, and to ponder it better, and he taketh a delyte in the wittinesse and learning of him that writeth, and with a good iudgement, after some paines taking, he tasteth the pleaser that consisteth in harde thinges.76

Verbal subtlety demands some degree of “paines taking” from the reader, a shared appreciation of “wittinesse,” and the cooperation of “iudgement” before the very sensuous, affective satisfaction of readerly pleasure (“pleaser”) can be guaranteed. “Sometimes literary history loses track of pleasure.”77 Early Tudor literary theory, born of an early Tudor poetic practice that routinely locates the reader at its heart, merits a central place in that unfolding history.


I would like to express thanks to Colin Burrow, Gavin Alexander, Mary Wellesley, and Rebecca Fitzgerald for advice and assistance in preparing this article.


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(1) The quotation in the preceding heading is from William Caxton, translation of Alain Chartier, The Curiall (Here foloweth the copye of a letter whyche maistre Alayn Charetier wrote (Westminster: William Caxton, 1483), sig. 4r.

(2) Thomas Wyatt, “Who so list to hounte,” British Library, MS Egerton 2711, fol. 7v.

(3) Anon., “lament my losse my labo[ur] and my payne,” British Library, MS Additional 17492, fol. 76v (ll. 9–10, 25–26).

(4) Anon., “Me list no more to sing,” British Library, MS Additional 17492, fol. 74v (l. 29); Anon, “Who wold haue euer thowght,” fol. 21r (l. 17); John Donne, “To the Countesse of Bedford,” Poems, by J.D. (London: John Marriot, 1633), sig. L4r.

(5) Warren Boutcher, “Vernacular Humanism in the Sixteenth Century,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, ed. Jill Kraye (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 191.

(6) Following the definition offered by Brian Vickers, ed., in English Renaissance Literary Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 1.

(7) Ramie Targoff, “Passion,” in Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History, edited by Brian Cummings and James Simpson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 612.

(8) John Roe, “Theories of Literary Kinds,” In A New Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. Michael Hattaway (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), 3.

(9) See “theory, n.” (especially senses 2, and 3), in OED Online (Oxford University Press, September 2015).

(10) Brian Vickers, English Renaissance Literary Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 2, 20.

(11) Margaret Ferguson, Trials of Desire: Renaissance Defenses of Poetry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983); Peter C. Herman, “Tudor and Stuart Defenses of Poetry,” in Early Modern English Poetry: A Critical Companion, ed. Patrick Cheney, Andrew Hadfield, and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 28.

(12) Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Arthur F. Kinney, “The Position of Poetry: Making and Defending Renaissance Poetics,” in A New Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. Michael Hattaway (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), 18.

(13) Peter C. Herman, “Introduction: Rethinking the Henrician Era,” in Rethinking the Henrician Era: Essays on Early Tudor Texts and Contexts, ed. Peter C. Herman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 1.

(14) Cathy Shrank, Writing the Nation in Reformation England, 1530–1580 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2.

(15) John Lydgate, The auncient historie and onely trewe and syncere cronicle of the warres betwixte the Grecians and the Troyans (London: Thomas Marshe, 1555), sig. B2r.

(16) John Lydgate, The lyf of our lady (Westminster, UK: William Caxton, 1484), sig. e8r.

(17) Robert Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 15.

(18) Helen Cooper, “Poetic Fame,” in Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History, ed. Brian Cummings and James Simpson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 361.

(19) John Bale, Illustrium Maioris Britanniae scriptorum (Wesel, 1548), sig. Nnn1v: “in illustratione patrij sermonis, Chaucerum plane adæquabat.”

(21) Roger Ascham, Toxophilus the schole of shootinge (London: Edward Whitechurch, 1545), sig. E2v.

(22) Cooper, “Poetic Fame”, 364; William Thynne, The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London: Thomas Godfray, 1532), sig. A2v.

(23) Robert Whittinton, Vulgaria, in The Vulgaria of John Stanbridge and the Vulgaria of Robert Whittinton, ed. Beatrice White (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1932), 35–36.

(24) See “elocution, n.” (especially senses 2, “Eloquence, oratory,” and 1.a, “Oratorical or literary expression of thought; literary ‘style’ as distinguished from ‘matter’”), in OED Online (Oxford University Press, September 2015).

(25) Thomas Elyot, The boke named the governour (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1531), sig. D8v.

(26) Gavin Douglas, Eneados, Prologue, Book V, (ll. 33–36); text from Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.3,12, fols. 78rv, a copy made by Douglas’s secretary, Matthew Geddes.

(28) Thomas Elyot, The boke named the governour (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1531), sig. G4v.

(29) Gavin Alexander, Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy” and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (London: Penguin, 2004), xxxix.

(30) Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280–1520 (Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press, 1999), 273. Skelton’s text was never printed, but survives in manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 357, fols. 3r–5r).

(31) Wolfgang G. Müller, “Directions for English: Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric, George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesy, and the Search for Vernacular Eloquence,” in The Oxford Handbook to Tudor Literature, 1585–1603, ed Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 309, 313.

(33) Henry Morley, The tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke, translated out of Italian into English by Henrye Parker knyght, Lorde Morley (London: John Cawood, 1555), sigs. A2v–A3r. See respectively “sentence, n.,” senses 4.a and 6.a, in OED Online (Oxford University Press, September 2015).

(34) Henry Morley, The tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke, translated out of Italian into English by Henrye Parker knyght, Lorde Morley (London: John Cawood, 1555), sig. A3v.

(35) Thomas Wyatt, Tho. Wyatis translatyon of Plutarckes boke, of the quyete of mynde (London: Richard Pynson, 1528), sig. A2r.

(36) Richard Sherry, Treatise of Schemes and Tropes (London: John Day, 1550), sigs. A3rv.

(37) Richard Tottel, ed., Songes and sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other (London: Richard Tottel, 1557), sig. A1v.

(38) George Puttenham, The arte of English poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589), sig. Mm1r.

(39) Elyot, Boke named the governour, sig. D7r; Elyot, The dictionary of syr Thomas Elyot knyght (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1538), sig. E2r.

(40) Stephen Hawes, The example of vertu (London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1504), sig. aa3v.

(41) See OED, “facundious, adj.”: “Of persons: Gifted with fluent speech; eloquent, glib. Of speech: Copious, fluent,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press, September 2015).

(42) Catherine Nicholson, “Englishing Eloquence: Sixteenth-Century Arts of Rhetoric and Poetics,” in The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1500–1640, ed Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10.

(43) Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 24.

(44) John Skelton, A replycacion agaynst certayne yong scolers (London: Richard Pynson, 1528), sigs. B3rv.

(46) Jane Griffiths, John Skelton and Poetic Authority: Defining the Liberty to Speak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 132.

(48) Jane Griffiths, “A Contradiction in Terms: Skelton’s ‘effecte energiall’ in A Replycacion,Renaissance Studies 17, no. 1 (2003): 68.

(49) Ullrich Langer, “Invention,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, ed, Glyn P. Norton (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3:138.

(50) Philip Sidney, The defence of poesie (London: William Ponsonby, 1595), sigs. B4v–C1r.

(51) Colin Burrow, “The experience of exclusion: Literature and Politics in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 796.

(52) Stephen Hawes, The Pastime of pleasure (London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1509), sigs. C5rv.

(53) Jane Griffiths, “Parrot’s Poetics: Fragmentation, Theory, and Practice in Skelton’s Writing,” in Oxford Handbooks Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(54) Seth Lerer, Courtly Letters in the Age of Henry VIII: Literary Culture and the Arts of Deceit (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 167.

(55) Text from Cambridge, Corpus Christ College, MS 168, fols. 200v–201v.

(56) Wyatt, “Cesar when that,” British Library, MS Egerton 2711, fols. 4v–5r.

(57) See, respectively, “fictĭo, ōnis, f. fingo,” senses II.A and I, in C. T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).

(58) Jason Powell, “Thomas Wyatt and Francis Bryan: Plainness and Dissimulation,” in The Oxford Handbook to Tudor Literature, 1585–1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 189, 200–201.

(59) Wyatt, “Goo burning sighes,” British Library, MS Egerton 2711, fol. 16v.

(60) On the subgenre of “critical elegy,” see Avon Murphy, “The Critical Elegy of Earlier Seventeenth-Century England,” Genre 5, no. 1 (1972): 76.

(61) Patricia Thomson, Wyatt: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 2.

(62) Henry Howard, An excellent Epitaffe of syr Thomas wyat (London: John Herford, 1542?), sigs. A1rv.

(64) Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Karen Ettenhuber, “Introduction: The Figures in Renaissance Theory and Practice,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Karen Ettenhuber (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1. On rhetoric as a practical discipline for “teaching students to understand” the stylistic techniques of exemplary writers, see Brian Vickers, “Some Reflections on the Rhetoric Textbook,” in Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. Peter Mack (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1994), 84.

(65) Text from Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.3,12, fols. 78rv.

(66) In Richard Tottel, ed., Songes and sonettes, written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other (London: Richard Tottel, 1557), sig. F3r.

(67) R. M. Durling, ed., Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 560–561.

(68) Wyatt, “Madame w[ith]outen,” British Library, MS Egerton 2711, fol. 24v.

(69) Elizabeth I, “The Mirror of the Sinful Soul,” Bodleian Library, MS Cherry 36, fols. 3rv.

(70) Wyatt, “There Was never ffile,” British Library, MS Egerton 2711, fol. 14v.

(71) William Poole, “The vices of style,” in Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Karen Ettenhuber (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 249.

(72) “translation, n.,” sense. II.4 (“Transference of meaning metaphor”), in OED Online (Oxford University Press, September 2015).

(73) Wyatt, “Eche man me telleth,” British Library, MS Egerton 2711, fol. 11v.

(75) Daniel Wakelin, “Stephen Hawes and courtly education,” in The Oxford Handbook to Tudor Literature, 1585–1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 63–64.

(76) Thomas Hoby, The courtyer of Count Baldessar Castilio (London: William Seres, 1561), sigs. F1rv.

(77) Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank, “Prologue: The Travails of Tudor Literature,” in The Oxford Handbook to Tudor Literature, 1585–1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8.