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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 329-361

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Tottel's Miscellany and the English Reformation

Stephen Hamrick


HYDER ROLLINS BEGINS the introduction to his indispensable critical edition of Songs and Sonnets (1557), now known as Tottel's Miscellany, by ostensibly situating that text within early modern religious history. In startling terms, Rollins writes "in the spring and summer of 1557 martyrs' fires were sending a lurid glare throughout England," and adds, "to the accompaniment of fire and martyrs' shrieks the epoch-making book correctly known as Songs and Sonnets . . . made its appearance on June 5." In contrast to the martyrs' fires that died down, "the poetic fire started by the Songs burned more bright than ever in Elizabeth's reign." 1 Rollins's prose recaptures some of the "lurid glare" of those fires some 450 years ago, but his introduction merely serves as an arresting rhetorical device, and this tantalizing glimpse into early modern religious history and Tottel's Miscellany's relationship to it is left unexamined.

Tottel's Miscellany remains the most important poetic collection published in the mid-sixteenth century and provides a representative sampling of the period's verse. This first surviving collection of Petrarchan poetry proved enormously popular and went through nine editions by 1587, dramatically influencing generations of poets, courtiers, and other readers. 2 Although many of the poems were first written in the 1530s, the collection was not published until 1557. This long period of writing, circulation and publication corresponds to the long period of the English Reformation, which initially took shape in the late 1530s but only came to "settlement" in the second decade of Elizabeth's reign. The writing and reading life of the poetry in Tottel's Miscellany, then, was congruent with the English Reformation, yet scholars have not recognized this correspondence. 3 Nor have scholars recognized that the Reformation and Petrarchanism came to England at the same time. As the premier conduit of Petrarchan poetry, Tottel's Miscellany provides a key site at which to read the cultural impact of the Reformation.

Scholars have placed Tottel's poetic collection within both continental [End Page 329] and domestic literary discourses and have provided detailed stylistic, bibliographical, and editorial analysis of the work. They have also defined how the collection provides readers with didactic models of courtly performance, self-advertisement, and place seeking. 4 Critics have not, however, set the anthology within contemporary religious history. For most critics, in fact, the "shorter poetry" of the English Reformation "is largely untouched by the religious controversies fissuring sixteenth-century culture." 5 Making a similar claim, Rollins asserts that the early modern editors of the text worked as conservative censors of religion "removing objectionable references and phrases," yet resituating Tottel's Miscellany within early modern religious history suggests that we reconsider Rollins's further assertion that "all comments on Roman Catholicism were ruthlessly struck out." 6 Reading this poetry through the lens of early modern ritual practice and Reformation polemic, we find that Tottel's Miscellany incorporated poetry that did "comment" upon Catholicism, Protestantism, and the English Reformation.

The following argument supplements traditional scholarship on Reformation literature, which stems from Barbara Lewalski's Protestant Poetics and John King's English Reformation Literature. 7 Lewalski and scholars influenced by her work have consistently read Reformation poetry as developing a poetics that favors iconoclastic, Protestant biblical forms and the biblical simplicity praised by the Reformers. Following King, most scholars have also seen a distinct separation between Petrarchan and religious verse, arguing that poets wrote Petrarchan evocations of love at the same time that they rejected amorous pursuits in their religious verse. 8 We have learned a great deal from this scholarship, yet in exploring Protestant poetics, scholars have almost entirely ignored the survival of what I shall call a "Catholic poetics" in Petrarchan poetry.

When we examine Tottel's representative collection through the contemporary lens of religious practice, the critical dichotomy between Petrarchan poetry and poetry inflected by religious concerns comes undone. It is not the case that sixteenth-century poets simply wrote Petrarchan verse in addition to religious...


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