Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie


by David Cope


Published in 1589—just as the great Elizabethan explosion of drama and poetry was beginning— George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie is among the finest of the poetics texts in a tradition that begins with Roman works such as Cicero's Ad C. Herennium  and Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory, and includes Bede's De Arte Metrica et de Schematibus et Tropis, Geoffrey de Vinsauf's Poetria Nova, Matthew of Vendome's The Art of Versification, and Dante Alighieri's Il Convivio, among others.  Like Dante's de Vulgari Eloquentia and Joachim du Bellay's Defense et Illustration de la Langue Francaise, Puttenham promotes the idea of a vernacular poetry—the idea that one's common tongue is the proper vehicle for writing, rather than Latin.  The Arte of English Poesie is divided into "three Bookes:  The first of Poets and Poesie, the second of Proportion, the third of Ornament."  At times, Puttenham's book seems like a primer for the literary explosion that would follow within a few years, yet as a testimony on critical hindsight, the chapter on poets in the English tradition may give one pause to consider the poets named in the light of a much longer history:  his comments are often judiciously precise, humorously so in the case of John Skelton, but some of the poets he names for virtues have dropped off the literary map.  Further, adherents of Blake and Shelley may find in Puttenham's third chapter precedents for the Blakean notion that religion grew from the visionary conceptions of poets, and the Shelleyan credo that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world."

For poets and students of poetry and drama, the book's value lies in its recollection of the growth of the poetic and dramatic arts and in its lucid argument on the traditional purpose of the art—to instruct and delight or, as Chaucer once put it, to make "tales of best sentence and moost solaas" (Prologue, line 798).  This position crops up again in the various defenses of poetry against the attacks of Puritans, and becomes a veritable credo for Shakespeare's great rival,  Ben Jonson,  who insisted that his plays would "mix profit with your pleasures" (Prologue to Volpone, line 8) and that "the principal end of poesy" is "to inform men in the best reason of living," with a "special aim . . . to put the snaffle in their mouths that cry out we never punish vice in our interludes" (The Epistle preceding Volpone, lines 99-100, 105-107).  The second book is  valuable as an explanation of poetics proper, explaining measure and the effects of various meters, caesura and other pauses as techniques improving oral recitation, the uses of cadence to complement content, ending with discussions of the various metrical feet, and their uses in verse.  The third book explores figurative speech—the various techniques used to intensify and amplify poetic speech, as  well as to give it emotive and imagistic clarity.



Selected Source List of Classic Poetics Texts


Alighieri, Dante.  De Vulgari Eloquentia:  Dante's Book of Exile.  Trans. Marianne  Shapiro.  Lincoln and London:  U of Nebraska, 1990.   [Though Old English and Norse poets had preceded Dante by writing in their vernaculars, Dante's is the first discussion exploring the theory and importance of writing poetry in the common tongue.  As such, it is a revolutionary document—setting a precedent for the much later discussions as Du Bellay's and Puttenham's.


- - - -.  Il Convivio (The Banquet).  Trans. Richard H. Lansing. New York and London:  Garland, 1990.  [With the disputed "Letter to Can Grande," Il Convivio is Dante's primary statement of his poetics practice, an excellent substratum of his famous Commedia.  Derived from ecclesiastical discourse on the four levels of allegorcal exegesis, his discussions of literal and figurative levels of meaning in allegory are important contributions to the poetics of the time.]


Bede.  Libri II De Arte Metrica et De Schematibus et Tropis:  The Art of Poetry and Rhetoric.  Trans. Calvin B. Kendall.  Saarbrucken:  AQ Verlag, 1991.  [Bede's is the earliest poetics text by an Englishman; his book restates the figures and tropes discussed by Cicero and Quintilian.]


Campion, Thomas.  "Observations in the Arte of English Poesie."  The Works of Thomas Campion.  Ed. Walter R. Davis.  New York:  Norton, 1969.  [Campion's 1602 treatise argued that rime is inappropriate in English poetry and explores the uses of meter in the English line, basing the quantity of English feet on accent (stress) rather than on duration.]


Cicero.  Ad C. Herennium and De Ratione Dicendi (Rhetorica ad Herennium).  Trans. Harry Caplan.  Cambridge, Ma.:  Harvard U P, 1954.  [With Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory and Longinus's On the Sublime, this book completes a triumvirate of early poetics texts, laying the foundation for studies that follow.]


Du Bellay, Joachim.  Defense et Illustration de la Langue Francaise oeuvres poetiques diverses.  Paris:  Librairie Larousse, 1987.  [Du Bellay's 1549 essay was both a defense of the common tongue much like Dante's earlier De Vulgari Eloquentia, and the prosodic and theoretical foundation text of the French Pleiade.  Chapter four recommends sonnets as a "plaisante invention Italienne" appropriate for French authors.  The sonnet was first introduced into France in 1536 by Clement Marot, who with Mellin de Saint Gelais and Jacques Peletier popularized the form.] 


Longinus.  On Great Writing (On the Sublime).  Trans. G. M. A. Grube.  New York:  Liberal Arts, 1957.  [Longinus's text asserts that great poetry is more than the exercise of natural talent, nor the result of "mere impulse and untutored daring," for great art needs "the bridle as well as the spur" (5).  Longinus names several faults to be avoided, including "incongruous turgidity," puerility, parenthrysos—"a display of passion, hollow and untimely, where none is needed, or immoderate when moderation is required" (7).  He also discusses five characteristics necessary to great writing, with caveats and clarifications.]


Quintilian.  Institutes of Oratory or The Education of an Orator. 2 vols.  Trans. Rev. John Selby Watson.  London:  George Bell, 1905. [Quintilian's books 8 and 9 are particularly important as poetics discussions, focusing on rhetorical embellishments to verse and dangers and faults of style to be avoided, as well as the variety of figures of thought available to the poet.]


Vendome, Matthew of.  The Art of Versification.  Trans. Aubrey E. Galyon.  Ames:  Iowa State U P, 1980.  [A premier medieval rhetoric and poetcs text, Vendome's essay presents one of the clearest discussions (with definitions and examples) of figures, tropes, and the famous "rhetorical colors"—techniques of presentation available to shape one's text.]


Vinsauf, Geoffrey de.  Poetria Nova.  Trans. Margaret F. Nims.  Toronto:  Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1967.  [Most of Geoffrey's writing derives from Cicero's Ad Herennium and Horace's Ars Poetica, but his discussions of "the order of art" and "the order of nature," amplification, abbreviation, comic and serious forms of writing, and faults to avoid are all worthy of a long look.]