Through the glass darkly
In Act One of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, a play, so legend has it, Queen Elizabeth personally commissioned because she so enjoyed the character of Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, 1& 2, we meet Master Abraham Slender who has come to court the young and lovely Mistress Anne Page. As he hesitates at the door, he laments, “I had rather than 40 shillings I had my book of Songs and Sonnets here.” The joke here, for Shakespeare’s audience, concerns the name of the book Slender mentions – Songs and Sonnets.
In 1557, Richard Tottell (d.1594), a London publisher and printer with an office in Fleet Street, published a small volume of 280 poems under the title Songs and Sonnets by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder, Nicholas Grimald and Uncertain Authors. Reprinted nine times between 1558 and 1587, it is considered the most influential and important poetic collection of the 16th century.
In the character of Master Abraham Slender, Shakespeare was slyly poking gentle fun at the stammering, tongue-tied, would be lover, because Tottell’s Songs and Sonnets was well-known as a kind of ‘courtship manual’ for the emerging middle class, those merchants and minor gentry grown wealthy through the purchase of the broken-up monastic lands following Henry VIII’s Reformation.
Richard Tottell had made his reputation and his money following the grant of a patent to print “all duly authorised books on common law”. He was also founder member of the Stationers’ Company of London and later served as its Master. But he had also had a number of literary titles on his publishers’ list, including Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort and Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (published in 1562) containing the story to be dramatised by Shakespeare in 1597.
But it was Songs and Sonnets that became his most successful title, for Tottell’s Miscellany – the name by which it is commonly known – was a revolutionary book in a revolutionary age. The Tudor era, that began with Henry Tudor’s defeat of Richard III in 1485 and reached its climax with the death of Elizabeth in 1603, not only saw England becoming a major power in Europe, but also witnessed a social revolution of an educated middle class, eager to acquire the polish and style of the nobility. It was an upwardly-mobile society in which a butcher’s son – Thomas Wolsey – could become a Cardinal and chancellor of England.
One of the marks of a gentleman was the ability to write poetry. Folk songs and ballads, from time immemorial, have been the poetry of ordinary men and women. But the educated 16th century gentleman felt the strong winds of the Renaissance blowing from the warm south. Although it rapidly became domesticated, the chief inspiration for the new poetry – elegantly written, displaying knowledge of Classical mythology, and – most importantly – sounding with a personal, introspective, voice – was almost entirely foreign, with the predominant influence being France and Italy.
But these young gentlemen wrote their poems not for publication but for each other, and they circulated within a small circle of friends, who would read and copy and hand on. Some were included in popular song books, but most remained in manuscript. George Puttenham (1529–1590), author of The Arte of English Poesie, spoke of those “notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it, as it were a discredit for a Gentleman to seem learned.” This no doubt explains those poems in Tottell’s Miscellany attributed to “uncertain authors”.
Yet Tottell, part of that middle class (as was Shakespeare), had the wit to identify a potential readership. And so the publisher, who must have had good connections, gathered as many of these poems as he could, even assigning them names they never had in manuscript.
There are six named authors, including Thomas, Lord Vaux, John Heywood, Edward Somerset, Nicholas Grimald, but the big names are Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Thomas Wyatt. And these last two transformed the stale and stagnant poetry being written in the aftermath of Chaucer by the introduction of two things: blank verse, the metre of Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, and the English sonnet, a strict yet flexible form used by Shakespeare in the 16th and Tony Harrison in the 20th centuries.
Nicola Shulman, author of a fine biography of Sir Thomas Wyatt, notes that “It was a conscious act of populism on Tottell’s part, and its appearance marked a sea-change in lyric poetry, into something open-facing, excursive, accessible and gregarious. Print culture took lyric poetry into the provinces and small towns, where it was eagerly received,” by, among others, a young Stratford boy named Will Shakespeare.