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Jackson Boswell and Gordon Braden, Petrarch’s English Laurels, 1475-1700: A Compendium of Printed References and Allusions
by William J. Kennedy

Boswell, Jackson Campbell, and Gordon McMurry Braden, compilers. Petrarch’s English Laurels, 1475-1700: A Compendium of Printed References and Allusions. Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012. x + 587 pp. ISBN 978-1409401186. $139.95 cloth.


This impressively researched, attractively organized, and splendidly useful volume offers a compilation of Anglophone references and allusions to Petrarch from printed sources between Caxton’s edition of the Canterbury Tales in 1477 and a reprint of Francis Tallents’s A View of Universal History (1685) in 1700. Boswell and Braden compile hundreds of citations (many of them in reprints, with the advantage of demonstrating the flow of Petrarch’s year-by-year currency in England). They quote each in minimally modernized English and for each they provide a headnote that contextualizes the quotation, glosses obscure terms, and translates foreign-language passages embedded in it. The book will prove valuable to scholars of Spenser, of course, but also to scholars of Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and other Renaissance English authors. And it will be an indispensible addition to every serious research library for literary study.

From a personal perspective, I can report spending some pleasurable hours tracking what Petrarch’s reputation might have meant to Spenser at various stages in his career. The young translator of Petrarch’s Canzone 323 in Jan van der Noot’s Theatre for Worldlings might have encountered John Skelton in A Goodly Garlande—himself described on its title page as “poete laureat”—commending through the voice of Apollo “poetis laureate of many dyverse nacyons,” among them “Petrarke” (entry 16, p. 19). In John Bale’s A Mysterye of Inyquyte he could have uncovered a paraphrase of Francesco Filelfo’s account of the poet decrying Pope Benedict XII’s debauchery in papal Avignon (entry 33, p. 25). In Richard Tottel’s anthology of Songes and Sonnettes he no doubt read Wyatt’s and Surrey’s translations of more than two dozen poems by Petrarch (entries 52-53, pp. 34-36). And in Thomas Hoby’s translation of Castiglione’s Courtyer, he’d have followed the debate between Federigo Fregoso and Giuliano de’ Medici on the poet’s efforts to bring order to the Italian vernacular (entry 60, pp. 39-40).

A decade later E. K.’s commentary on The Shepheardes Calender included an epistle addressed to Gabriel Harvey which compares “our new Poete” to “Petrarque” (and others) along with glosses for “Aprill” and “October” which quote analogues from Canzoniere 263, 187, and 60 (entry 136, pp. 71-72). During that decade Petrarch’s fortunes in England had risen notably. Roger Ascham in The Scholemaster famously disparaged the Trionfi for spreading the barbarism of vernacular rhyme and contributing to the decline of classical meters, but Ascham intimated Chaucer’s skill in English verse and compared him with the Italian poet (entry 88, pp. 53-54). George Gascoigne prominently featured Petrarch’s name as a model on the title page of A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (entry 104, p. 59), proclaimed himself “Petrarks jorneyman” in a manuscript poem (Introduction, p. 9), and commended himself as “un’Immitatore di Petrarcha” in a factitious epistle at the beginning of his Posies (entry 112, p. 63). Thomas Churchyard invoked Petrarch as a role model (entry 111, p. 63), Gabriel Harvey deemed him a “miracle” in his Rhetor (entry 123, p. 66), and John Florio cited him in parallel Italian and English texts in Firste Fruites (entry 127, p. 68). Spenser’s gravitation toward Petrarch proved inevitable.

Just over another decade later, The Faerie Queene I-III and Complaints would affirm the importance that Petrarch held for Spenser. Gabriel Harvey’s Letters to the poet offered precepts for versification drawn from Canzoniere 263 and 323 (entry 149, p. 80). George Pettie’s and Bartholomew Young’s translation of Stefano Guazzo’s The Civile Conversation presented numerous quotations from the Canzioniere attesting to its cultural importance (entries 157 and 207, pp. 83-84 and 107-109). Thomas Watson’s Ἐκατομπαϑια provided several English and Latin translations of Petrarch’s Italian poems with glosses and commentary (entry 178, pp. 91-94). George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie described verse forms used by Petrarch and referred to Wyatt’s and Surrey’s translations and imitations of his poems as important precedents (entry 238, pp. 123-25). And, not least important, minor writers such as Thomas Howell and John Swan incorporated translations of Petrarch’s anti-papal “Babylonian” sonnets 136-38 into their work, iterating for Spenser the Italian poet’s proto-Protestant significance (entries 160 and 232, pp. 84-86 and 119-21).

By the time Spenser published his most accomplished body of Petrarchan verse in Amoretti and Epithalamion, the Italian poet’s example and counter-example proved undeniable. John Florio’s specimen translations from the Trionfi in his Second Frutes (entry 247, pp. 128-29), John Harington’s references to the Canzoniere in his self-commentary upon translating Orlando Furioso (entry 248, pp. 129-31), and explicit imitations of the Italian poet by Philip Sidney (called “our English Petrarke” by Harington) in Astrophil and Stella and Samuel Daniel in Delia (entry 252 and 256, pp. 131-31 and 133-34) furnish prominent markers. The “Petrarchan craze” that they ignited showed no signs of abating even (and especially) with Michael Drayton’s disavowal of filching from “Petrarchs pen” in Ideas Mirrour (entry 286, p. 143). Depending upon your taste, you may agree with me (perhaps not) that Amoretti and Epithalamion topped them all. Or so I’ve argued elsewhere.

This brief exercise has covered roughly one-fifth of the book. There are 1580 entries in all, filling nearly 600 pages. I’ll leave it to your imagination to conjure how you might track the Italian poet’s reputation for Shakespeare (there’s a detailed account of J.K.’s translation of Annibale Romei’s The Courtiers Academie, entry 352 on pp. 166-78, which evokes for me uncanny premonitions of Much Ado about Nothing), or for Donne, Jonson, Milton, and even Davenant, Cowley, and Dryden—the last of whom felt that Petrarch showed “What Rhyme improv’d in all its height can be, / At best a pleasing Sound, and fair barbarity” (entry 1372, p. 513). This recalls Ascham, no?


William J. Kennedy
Cornell University 



Cite as:

William J. Kennedy, "Jackson Boswell and Gordon Braden, Petrarch’s English Laurels, 1475-1700: A Compendium of Printed References and Allusions," Spenser Review 44.1.13 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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