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In 1557 Richard Tottel published the first anthology of English verse, the forerunner of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and the Penguin Book of English verse. Tottel’s book, which came to be known as Tottel’s Miscellany, though its original title was Songes and Sonnettes, was as popular with the Elizabethans as Palgrave’s was with the Victorians and Penguin’s was with my generation. It was re-printed in its day many times.
There is however an important difference. Richard Tottel had less to choose from. Francis Palgrave had the advantage of another three hundred years’ worth of English poetry. John Hayward, editor of the Penguin collection, had four hundred. It would be more accurate to call Tottel’s book an anthology of contemporary English verse.
Only two of Tottel’s poets are named and they are names we still remember. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, has nearly fifty poems, Sir Thomas Wyatt has nearly a hundred. The other hundred and fifty are anonymous. But they all matter, because they were all out to prove that British poets could do whatever French and Italian poets could do and do it better. Tottel’s book, to an amateur student of English poetry, is like a farmer’s field to an amateur archaeologist. Instead of metal detectors, we use Tottel detectors. We are metrical detectorists. We go backwards and forwards listening for signs of English poetic mettle.
What we hear, mostly, is the kind of thing Shakespeare made fun of in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the rude mechanicals put on their play about Pyramus and Thisbe.
Anon comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,
And finds his trusty Thisbe’s mantle slain:
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broacht his boiling bloody breast…
Tottel has lines like this on almost every page.
Eche thing I see hath time, which time must try my truth,
Which truth deserves a special trust, on trust gret frendship groweth.
And frendship may not faile where faithfulnesse is sound,
And faithfulnesse is full of fruit, and frutefull thinges be sound.
You hear it, not only in the anonymous poems, but in poems by Wyatt and Surrey too.
The piller perisht is wherto I lent,
The strongest stay of mine unquiet minde:
The like of it no man again can finde:
From East to West still seking though he went.
Here though, the alliteration is not so blunt an instrument. Wyatt tempers it with a voice that speaks, not in metre, but in rhythm. Wyatt’s voice, at its best, is heard in the handful of poems that made it from Tottel to Palgrave to the Penguin Book of English Verse, where I first heard it. At its very best, it is heard in the poem that Hayward put right at the start of his anthology.
They flee from me, that sometime did me seke
With naked foot stalking within my chamber.
Once have I seen them gentle, tame, and meke,
That now are wild, and do not once remember
That sometime they have put them selves in danger,
To take bread at my hand, and now they range,
Busily seking in continuall change.
Rhymes, half-rhymes, assonance (alliteration’s quiet cousin), alliteration too but more subtly placed (sibilants scattered through the stanza – sometime, seke, stalking, seen, sometime, selves, seking) and rhythm that both fits and disrupts the metre. Surrey could do it too, as he shows in a sonnet which also made it across four hundred years from Tottel to Penguin.
Alas so all things now do hold their peace:
Heaven and earth disturbed in nothing:
The beasts, the ayre, the birdes their song do cease:
The nightes chare the starres about doth bring:
Calme is the Sea, the waves worke lesse and lesse:
So am not I, whom love alas doth wring,
Bringing before my face the great encrease
Of my desires, whereat I wepe and sing,
In joy and wo, as in a doutfull ease.
For my swete thoughtes sometimes do pleasure bring:
But by and by the cause of my disease
Geves me a pang, that inwardly doth sting.
When that I thinke what griefe it is againe,
To live and lacke the thing should ridde my paine.
Conventional though the form and sentiments are, it is with Surrey, as with Wyatt, the rhythm that makes the poem, of its time, wholly unconventional. What we hear in both poets, in forms borrowed from other languages, and what makes these poems so important (so exciting to the metrical detectorist) is the English language finding its own, distinctive, individual, authentic poetic voice.
Matthew Arnold could not have written Dover Beach if Surrey had not written his sonnet. Apart from phrases in one that awaken echoes of the other – ‘The sea is calm tonight… sweet is the night air… begin and cease and then again begin…’ – there is the voice.
“Well,” says Peter Quince when they are planning their play, “we will have such a prologue; and it shall be written in eight and six.”
“No,” says Bottom, “make it two more: let it be written in eight and eight.”
There would be nothing funny about this if it had not been a subject the audience was familiar with. They had their own metrical detectors in those days. Everybody had one. It was the sense of rhythm that evolves in all communities and gives them their own parlance, their own idiomatic way of speaking. That is what was happening in England when Tottel published his anthology. In the space of one generation, from Surrey to Shakespeare, modern English was born.
All we have to go on is what was written down. But the spoken language always comes before the written language and the written language is only effective if it responds to the spoken language. The language we speak in is also the language we think in. The great achievement of the Elizabethan poets and dramatists was to create a poetic language capable of reflecting the way English people thought and spoke.
The poet’s task, as T.S.Eliot put it in Little Gidding, is ‘to purify the language of the tribe’. In the literature of Elizabethan England, between Tottel and the First Folio, we can hear that process taking place. The end result, as we hear it in the First Folio, was all the better for the impurities – for there is nothing pure about thinking and speaking – that the poetic language still contained.