- The Art of English Poesy: A Critical Edition
George Puttenham's The Art of English Poetry (1589) has inspired affection among few readers. Whereas Sir Philip Sidney's playful Apology for Poetry argues attractively that poetry's "medicine of cherries" instructs readers by delighting them, Puttenham's The Art has tended to appear technical and obscure, its tone remarkably difficult to gauge. And whereas Sidney's exemplary life and heroic death have been eulogized in his own time and in ours, Puttenham's biography remains shadowy and obscure. This exemplary modernized edition of The Art, by Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn, makes Puttenham's extraordinary work newly accessible to a modern readership. Much more than a manual of early modern poetics, The Art is revealed here to be a book about interchange, even porousness, in the institutions that bound Elizabethan society together and bound individuals to one another.
If Sidney's readers know that the poet delights by deceiving them, they know also that he "nothing affirmeth" and so never lies. Puttenham on the other hand makes "the highly un-Sidneyan" (56) assumption that poetry is deeply invested in deceit. His account of figures of speech in book 3, "Of Ornament," characterizes them all as dissemblers that "make our talk more guileful and abusing" (55). A "figure" refers not only to an ornament of language but also to the appearance of a person, and in Puttenham's account rhetorical figures become flesh-and-blood characters who stand for particular social types: Prozeugma the Ringleader, Meiosis the Disabler, Insultatio the Disdainful. Drawing as clearly from Machiavelli and Castiglione as he does from Susenbrotus and Scaliger, Puttenham suggests that the appeal of poetry derives from its deliberate abuse of readers' imaginations. His insistence at the same time on the moral and cultural authority of poets and poetry makes his treatise all the more strange and compelling.
In an excellent introductory essay, Whigham and Rebhorn reveal The Art to be the work of an exceptionally disturbed and disturbing man. Using materials relating to Puttenham's biography, recently discovered at the Hampshire Record Office, Whigham and Rebhorn give a vivid account of his character. "His evil life is well known" (9) wrote the Bishop of Winchester to William Cecil, and Puttenham's character indeed appears to have been wild, unpredictable, and violent. He was imprisoned at least six times, and records survive relating to charges he faced for assault, murder, and treason, many of these stemming from his [End Page 1030] embittered relationship with his elder brother. It seems darkly fitting that one of the many neologisms Puttenham coined in The Art was "predatory" (58) since evidence has surfaced also of his abusive treatment of poor women, of servants, and of his wife Elizabeth, Lady Windsor. Whigham and Rebhorn's even-handed treatment of this difficult material shows that the emotional intensity of The Art stems partly from the aggrieved state of its author. Puttenham, as a fugitive who had been excommunicated and who may even have been branded, had more compelling reason than most Renaissance men to fashion a new identity. But beneath his breathtaking social and political ambition lies his profound helplessness as a supplicant.
The previous edition of The Art (Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker, 1936) was a hard act to follow, but Whigham and Rebhorn have succeeded in bringing the work newly and brightly alive for a later generation of readers. They forge a clear path through the debate surrounding authorship, annotate Puttenham's demanding language with clarity and sensitivity, and provide a useful set of supplementary materials including glossaries of words and names. Theirs is an example of editing at its best: it reinstates The Art as a hauntingly modern text that speaks to us directly. [End Page 1031]