Mortals Listening to Mortals

Review: John Williams (Ed.), ‘English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson’

Sir Thomas Vaux (left) and George Gascoigne (right)


You don’t browse the classics list of New York Review Books looking for superlative masterpieces—for the Great Books—so much as for representatives of the next class down, the Very Good Books. Now, Very Good Books are the main stuff of pleasure, and so we ought to be grateful for NYRB’s re-introduction into print of these semi-forgotten, oddball triumphs—for putting a little paint back on faded grand dames that were, many of them, belles-of-the-ball in their day, or at least got to chat from time to time with the girls who were.

At first glance, "oddball" seems a very apt word for the novelist John Williams’ anthology of Renaissance English poetry. It lingers generously on sixteenth century poets who, at the time of its original publication in 1963 and (largely) today, were considered generally second rate. When was the last time you curled up with a volume of George Gascoigne (d. 1577)? When was the last time your English professor curled up with a volume of George Gascoigne? Is there even such a volume with which to curl up?

Moreover, many of the poems Williams selects by such men, along with those by better known contemporaries like Edmund Spenser or Sir Philip Sidney—whom, judging by his tone, Williams seems to be including with about as much enthusiasm as you might approach some unwelcome yard work—were themselves widely considered to be flat, unsophisticated verses. Judgments handed down in the editorial matter are gleefully contrarian. Jonson a better lyricist than Shakespeare, whose "essential conventionality" as a poet was obscured by his achievements as a dramatist?

Was this just willful perversity? Not at all—nor was the approach original to Williams, as he advertises. His selection of this "alternative canon" (so termed by Robert Pinsky, author of a fascinating introduction to the NYRB edition) of Tudor and Elizabethan poets depended on the labors of Yvor Winters, a poet and important critic of the last century who published a three-part essay in Poetry magazine in the spring of 1939 that laid out the case for a new reading of sixteenth-century versifiers—and that took a swipe at the then-fashionable Symbolist and Modernist schools of poetry.

Winters, and later Williams, believed that the prevailing analysis of Renaissance poetry was itself perverse. In the conventional account, a rather flat and moribund native tradition, trapped under Latin and medieval forms, was invigorated by the introduction of forms popular on the continent, and especially in Italy, by ‘Petrarchan’ poets like Sidney and Spenser (so named because of their role in popularizing Italian modes of verse). Whatever excesses such a foreign style indulged in upon finding itself awkwardly beached on the damp shores of the English language, it was nevertheless the factor which—under the surer control of Shakespeare, Donne, and the seventeenth century "metaphysicals" (a school re-popularized and re-defined by T.S. Eliot)—elevated English poetry to greatness.

Nonsense, argued Winters and Williams. While there is no denying the greatness of Shakespeare and Donne, they were great not because they incorporated the Petrarchan style, but because they reined in its excesses, and re-introduced elements of the earlier, simpler verse that the Petrarchans had displaced in fashionable circles. This style, which Williams somewhat confusingly calls the "Native" school (confusing because, if you go back far enough, the Latinate forms and rhetorical strategies of the school were hardly English) was itself a period of poetic greatness; the Petrarchans were not the beginning of modern English poetry, but merely a bridge between an earlier major school and the greats of the next century.

Thus, precisely because of their lack of mannered affect, of verbal and rhetorical fireworks divorced from spiritual or intellectual depth, men like Gascoigne, Barnabe Googe, Sir Thomas Vaux, and Sir Walter Raleigh had been unjustly forgotten, or de-emphasized, or at least misunderstood. In part, this is because "lack of mannered affect" can be just a nice way of saying "boring," or at least boring to a reader who isn’t paying attention, who is expecting sonic fireworks and isn’t looking for nuanced, plain sense.

Williams makes this case rather beautifully:

Since the Native poet is a reasonable man, and since he has organized his discourse as rationally as he is able, his tone will be appropriate to himself, to what he has to say, and to his audience. The rhetoric of his poem, then, will be subdued to his subject, determined by the substance of his poem, and by its own function, which is to give the appropriate value to that substance. Thus, if we read the Native poem passively or inattentively or insensitively—that is, if we read as if we were not mortals listening to another mortal—the style may seem flat, bare, almost lifeless. But if we listen to the poem, we shall hear beneath the emphatic stresses, beneath the bare and essential speech, the human cadence of the human voice, speaking to us as if we were alive.

Such an attitude can open the reader to the sensible pleasures of poets like Gascoigne. Consider two bits from his ‘The Green Knight’s Farewell to Fancy,’ a rueful, self-pitying lament alluding to the various careers Gascoigne had attempted without success—including literature:

A fancy fed me once, to write in verse and rhyme,
To wray my grief, to crave reward, to cover still my crime:
To frame a long discourse, on stirring of a straw,
To rumble rhyme in raff and ruff, yet all not worth a haw:
To hear it said there goeth, the man that writes so well,
But since I see, what poets be, Fancy (quoth he) farewell.

And including military service:

Fancy (quoth he) farewell, which made me follow drums,
Where powdered bullets serves for sauce, to every dish that comes,
Where treason lurks in trust, where Hope all hearts beguiles,
Where mischief lieth still in wait, when fortune friendly smiles:
Where one day's prison proves, that all such heavens are hell,
And such I feel the fruits thereof, Fancy (quoth he) farewell.

Our narrator turns in "fancy" for the surer comforts of "philosophy." As Gascoigne puts it in another poem with a similar theme, he comes to see that though the calls of public life "glister outwardly like gold," they "Are inwardly but brass, as men may see."

Williams’ selection, and his channeling of Winters’ criticism, makes clear that at its best the approach of the Native school (later, and better described as the "plain" style) clears the verbal decks for emotion that, exhibited without decoration, can be both dignified and uncomfortably raw.

Consider the savage anger of Barnabe Googe’s elegy for the poet Nicholas Grimald, here blaming Death’s lack of discrimination:

And that which is the greatest grief of all,
The greedy gripe doth no estate respect,
But where he comes he makes them down to fall;
Nor stays he at the high sharp-witted sect. …
A thousand doltish geese we might have spared,
A thousand witless heads Death might have found,
And taken them for whom no man had cared,
And laid them low in deep oblivious ground:
But fortune favors fools, as old men say,
And lets them live, and takes the wise away.

Contrast this with a poem often cited as a high point of the later Petrarchan mode, a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney in which the narrator thanks a road for carrying him to his lover, Stella:

Highway, since you my chief Parnassus be,
And that my Muse, to some ears not unsweet,
Tempers her words to trampling horses' feet
More oft than to a chamber-melody,
Now, blessed you, bear onward blessed me
To her where I my heart, safeliest, shall meet:
My Muse and I must you of duty greet
With thanks and wishes, wishing thankfully.
Be you still fair, honored by public heed,
By no encroachment wronged, nor time forgot,
Nor blamed for blood, nor shamed for sinful deed,
And that you know I envy you no lot
Of highest wish, I wish you so much bliss,
Hundreds of years you Stella's feet may kiss.

Winters, in his 1939 essay, was withering about this poem in particular, arguing that despite its "vitality" and "charm," it "smoothed over" an "incoherence of thought and feeling" with "conventional technical procedure."

It was mannered, precious, decadent. In Sidney’s investment in sound and dazzle without respect to sense, clarity, or purpose, Winters detected hints of the coming "dislocation of feeling from motive" that reached a "logical conclusion" in the 19th and 20th centuries. In case, reading the essay, you wonder of whom he speaks, consider that only a few years earlier when writing of the work of T.S. Eliot, Winters threw the word "limp" around a fair bit, in reference not only to the modernist poet’s versification, but also to the spirit behind his poems.

Williams picks up the theme in his own introduction:

In many ways, the procedure of the Petrarchan poem resembles that of the late Romantic, the Symbolist, and the "modern" poet; that is, the poet is more concerned with qualities and nuances than with relationships and definitions; more concerned with texture than with plot; more concerned with effect than with understanding; more concerned with affect than with objective accuracy.

Though such a method is far from definitive, I took to checking my Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition (a brick of a volume, dating to my student days, which I later carried with me during a tour of infantry service in Afghanistan—at once one of the best, and one of the worst, decisions of my life) to evaluate the status of the "Native" poets in today's mainstream academic eye. The general situation is perhaps best summed up by that of Gascoigne, who does indeed rate two pages of his own, out of 1,998 total—though his biography fails to appear with the others at the back because, it appears, the editors forgot to include it.

So Winters and Williams did, perhaps, succeed in raising the profile of a handful of poets who otherwise might be even lesser known than they are today. However, for all the passion of their advocacy, they surely failed to entrench the notion of that earlier school as a major tradition, followed by a Petrarchan "bridge" to the greats—just as they did somewhat less than lasting damage to the reputation of "moderns" like Eliot or Pound, who today are as close to household names as poets are likely to get.

This alternative canon now reprinted by NYRB remains just that—an alternative. But experiencing its implicit, cool, steady argument, listening as these mortals talk to mortals, it’s tempting to say that this Very Good Book presents a minority report worth re-considering.

Aaron MacLean   Email Aaron | Full Bio | RSS
Aaron MacLean is a senior writer at the Washington Free Beacon. A combat Marine veteran, he was educated at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and Balliol College, Oxford. He served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan, and his final assignment in the Marine Corps was teaching English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was the 2013 recipient of the Apgar Award for excellence in teaching. Aaron was a 2016 Next Generation National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and has been a Novak Fellow, a Claremont Lincoln Fellow, a Marshall Scholar, and a Boren Scholar. He lives in Virginia, where he was born.