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William Scott, The Model of Poesy, ed. Gavin Alexander
by Roger Kuin

Scott, William. The Model of Poesy. Ed. Gavin Alexander. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. lxxxiv + 264 pp. ISBN:978-0521196116. $95.00 cloth.


Definitive scholarly editions are still the ultimate standards by which scholarship is judged. Gavin Alexander’s edition of William Scott’s Model of Poesy is exemplary: it recognizes the importance of its material—a newly-discovered Elizabethan critical text that, based in many ways on Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, elaborates this and not only develops it but retroactively illuminates it—and goes on to treat this material with great skill.

His Introduction not only reflects meticulous research concerning Scott himself, his life, and his world, but also sets the Model in context of that life and, in a particularly fine summary, of that literary world. It begins, rightly, by introducing us to William Scott, of whom even most scholars will scarcely have heard before Alexander’s work on him. (Only those who remember E. K. Chambers’s biography of Sir Henry Lee may remember that he mentions the MS here edited, as dedicated to Lee.) It sets him in his Kentish context, important in part because of its proximity to the Continent and also because it links him to other families such as the Wyatts and the Sidneys. It mentions his law studies, his journey to Russia (his long and fascinating letter to Cecil on the subject is printed in an Appendix), and his closeness to Lee, and reminds us that he died fairly young, at about 46.

A following section sets “the Model in context,” first of Scott himself in the 1590s, including his relation to the Earl of Essex, and concludes with evidence for dating the work in the Long (law) Vacation of 1599. Then follows a section on “Sixteenth-century poetics and rhetoric” that gives a wider, literary context for the work. This section in particular is a tour de force for its panoramic coverage in seven pages of limpid clarity and great elegance. “Classical and Continental sources,” which follows, investigates Scott’s links with Aristotle, Cicero, Horace, Plutarch, and others on the one hand, and Scaliger, Viperano, and Lomazzo on the other. Three-and-a-half pages on “Sidney” are of the greatest interest and value, as are four-and-a-half on “Du Bartas”: part of a translation by Scott of the first Semaine survives, as Sidney’s reported translation, alas, does not. The literary context concludes with a section on “Late Elizabethan literature” that looks at Scott’s relations to such writers as Shakespeare, Southwell and (briefly) Spenser, and treats of the question whether he intended the Model to be printed. And given Scott’s insistence on poetry as a speaking picture, it is suitable that the Introduction’s first part ends with a few pages on “the visual arts,” including a look at the “Ditchley portrait” of Queen Elizabeth, a detail of which graces the dust-jacket.

“Form and method,” the third main chapter of the Introduction, begins with “Poetics, logic, rhetoric, and the meaning of ‘Model,’” reminding us that that generic term was by no means common and was usefully polysemic. We are then given “an Outline of the Model” in its three parts: Definition examined by genus, difference, and end; Origins and nature of the different kinds: heroic, pastoral, tragedy, comedy, satire, and lyric; and the Matter, style, and rules for each genre.

This very complete and informative Introduction is followed by a technically beautiful “Textual introduction” that describes the MS in useful detail, and moves on to a detailed consideration of “Scott and his scribe,” concluding that the latter “writes elegantly, but is relatively inexperienced, and also not as well educated as the author” (lxxvii). It is here that Alexander’s leading role in creating the remarkable online Cambridge handwriting course shows its effects.

The final section on “Editorial procedure” reflects the difficult choices that have to be made in such matters. The edition presents a “modern-spelling” version of the text, where the orthography is modernized but Scott’s language is not. Alexander provides readers with a closely-reasoned defense of his choices, and reminds them that an original-spelling edition is available online: this last may be important for another reason, as will be seen below.

There follows the text itself: “The Model of Poesy, or, The Art of Poesy Drawn into a Short or Summary Discourse.” Scott’s writing is not as easy or as elegant as Sidney’s in his Defence, but on the other hand it is more thorough, more systematic, and more obviously scholarly. And there are a number of pleasantly quotable bons mots, such as “The poet is to be that polypus, which in sundry shapes must transform himself to catch all humours and draw them to virtue.”(14) Like Sidney, he permits himself a mild criticism of Spenser, but not for the same reason. In a description set in, or based upon, really existing places or happenings, you must not “lay down any part otherwise than the precedent will bear” (33). “Master Spencer may justly be indicted for infringing this statute when twice in one part of his works he saith ‘the tomb Mausolus made,’ meaning that monument which his wife Artimisia, famous for the fervency of her love to her husband, after his death set Scopas and others (as Pliny reporteth) about, which being finished was held for one of the wonders of the world” (34). Such detailed comment reminds us, as Alexander points out in the Introduction, that while Sidney writes his Defence with sources cited mainly from memory, Scott gives the impression of having the books open on his desk as he writes.

Scott makes much of the virtue of “sweetness,” which in many ways is a gentler form of energeia, and corresponds mostly to what we should call vividness: “those apt conceits and fairly-shaped images taken in the mind of the poet and shadowed in the style” (38) and later “a delight … taken in the ear by the proportioned and harmonious gracefulness of words” (59).

Unfortunately, a part of the Model is lost from the MS: the part, as Alexander says, that most corresponds to the greater part of Sidney’s Defence: it may have dealt with the kind of “good” that poetry teaches, and with poetry’s task of moving the reader.

The text’s 83 pages are followed by no less than 160 pages of Commentary, usefully keyed, in the header, to the relevant pages of text. The notes are pleasantly laid out, and a compliment is due to the Cambridge Press for not having squeezed them together in a hideously dense layout as happens all too often in these penny-pinching times. They are extremely learned and thorough; they provide all the information that could be required by a scholar working with the text, and in all likelihood more than a casual reader, or even an undergraduate, will look for. This is no way a drawback, for the important thing is that the material is there, to hand if and when needed. Of course the problem is that with such extensive notes, the Commentary can really only be placed after the text, and thus forces the reader wishing to consult it to flip back and forth continually. Alexander does propose one possible solution to this, although one that many undergraduates, for example, may not have the motivation to use: the pages of the edition contain indications of the MS’s leaf numbers, which “enables ready comparison of the modern-spelling and original-spelling text, and the use of the present edition’s Commentary alongside the original-spelling edition”(lxxxii-lxxxiii; my italics). It would have been wonderful—but doubtless too much to ask of a present-day publisher—if either the Text or the Commentary could have been provided in a separate fascicle.

Three Appendices give, respectively, the dedication to Scott’s translation of Du Bartas (to his uncle George Wyatt), his letter to Cecil about Russia, and his will. The Index is lapidary but adequate, and useful.

The Model of Poesy, purchased by the British Library in 2005, is a discovery of incalculable value. It is important most of all for those studying Elizabethan literary theory and criticism, and for Sidneians. Curiously, it had no “afterlife”—something Alexander has communicated in a number of lectures and conference papers on the subject but has omitted to state specifically in the edition. Unlike Sidney’s Defence, it seems not to have influenced later writers. But for anyone working in any way with the literature, and the literary scene, of the sixteenth century’s last two or three decades, Scott’s Model is indispensable; and it is our immense good fortune that its first modern edition has been prepared by someone with the technical expertise, the learning, the capacity for thorough research, the wide grasp of detail, and the stylistic elegance of Gavin Alexander.


Roger Kuin
York University



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Cite as:

Roger Kuin, "William Scott, The Model of Poesy, ed. Gavin Alexander," Spenser Review 44.1.22 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed March 20th, 2018.
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