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  • Broadside Ballads, Miscellanies, and the Lyric in Print
  • Eric Nebeker

The story of the English lyric in early modern England is well established. It goes something like this: by the close of the middle-ages, English poetry was in disarray; then Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey took trips to Italy and brought back a new kind of poetry. Their influence, though somewhat belatedly, initiated the innovations of Sidney and Spenser and the reformation of English literature in general. Though this account of English poetry's development contains much that is useful and important, recent developments in literary scholarship provide tools through which we can reevaluate this long-standing story. This essay seeks to do just that, demonstrating that the development of English poetry in this period depended on more than the influence of the continent. It also depended on the innovations and decisions of printers and the reading public.

The traditional story has a long history that begins in the early modern period. In The Art of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham gives the following account of the development of English poetry:

In the latter end of [Henry VII's] reign sprung up a new company of courtly makers, of whom sir Thomas Wyatt the elder and Henry Earl of Surrey were the two chieftains, who having traveled into Italy, and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and stile of the Italian Poesie as novices newly crept out of the schools of Dante Arioste and Petrarch, they greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar Poesie, from that it had been before, and for that cause may justly be said the first reformers of our English meter and stile.1

The core of Puttenham's explanation of English literary history has endured for over four hundred years. David Daiches quotes Puttenham to argue that it is with Wyatt, Surrey, and the "courtly makers" that "modern English poetry begins." They "exercised the language by translating from foreign models and experimenting with a great variety of lyric measures, to restore to English metrics the combination of flexibility and regularity which they had lost in the century following Chaucer."2 Even C. S. Lewis, with a more critical view [End Page 989] of the contribution of Wyatt and Surrey, begins English Literature in the Sixteenth Century by listing influences that had an effect on English poetry: "changes in our knowledge of antiquity, new poetry from Italy and France, new theology, new movements in philosophy or science."3 Having given this outline, Lewis minimizes the direct connection between the new ideas of the Renaissance and humanism and the development of English poetry, and he admits that he does not have an adequate explanation for the movement of what he calls "drab poetry" to "golden poetry."4 But clear in all of these accounts is a sense of improvement, development, refinement.

While the traditional view comes from looking at literary history primarily in terms of a tradition handed down from author to author, more contemporary accounts tend to drop the narrative of improvement and look to the social contexts, the history, the ideologies, even the practices of everyday life as a means to understand literary history. These are the accounts we tend to see in our anthology introductions today. Though current accounts ask different questions and emphasize different influences on literature, the traditional narrative persists. This traditional story has been persistent because there is much truth to it: Wyatt and Surrey really did go to Italy, they really did write sonnets and bring Petrarchan conceits to England; in the following generation, Philip Sidney wrote an important sonnet sequence; as did Edmund Spenser who also translated Joachim Du Bellay. The list could go on.

However, new directions in scholarship provide the opportunity to investigate and understand other dynamics of literary history. Increasingly scholars have begun to step back from the microscopic examination of literary history in an attempt to take in a larger view of the literary landscape—at the systems of literary production and distribution. Studies in book history and print culture have nudged literary scholarship in this direction for several decades. Even more recently, scholars have begun to apply...