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Review Essay: New Work on Tottel's Miscellany
by Stefanie Lethbridge

Stephen Hamrick, ed. Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes in Context (Material Readings in Early Modern Culture). Burlington: Ashgate, 2013. ISBN 978-1409464655. $115.00 cloth.

J. Christopher Warner. The Making and Marketing of Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557: Songs and Sonnets in the Summer of the Martyrs’ Fires. Burlington: Ashgate, 2013. ISBN: 978-1409457459. $110.00 cloth.

Matthew Zarnowiecki. Fair Copies: Reproducing the English Lyric from Tottel to Shakespeare. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2014. ISBN: 978-1442647183. $59.00 cloth.

Some 450 years after its initial publication, Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes (first published 1557), a product of early print culture often seen as inaugurating English Renaissance poetry, is itself going through quite a Renaissance. After years consigned by C. S. Lewis to the critical dungeon of “drab age poetry,” Tottel’s Miscellany (Edward Arber’s nineteenth-century title) has returned to detailed critical attention. With two recent critical editions, one edited by Paul Marquis,[1] the other by Amanda Holton and Tom MacFaul,[2] and no less than three detailed studies (four, including my own),[3] scholars have recently devoted unwonted time and energy to reassessing Tottel’s position.

The magic word seems to be “contextualization.” The collection of articles edited by Stephen Hamrick presents Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes in its publication context, but also in its ideological, economic and intertextual networks. J. Christopher Warner investigates the miscellany in the context of a detailed examination of contemporary publishing conditions in 1556 and 1557. Matthew Zarnowiecki argues for a newly emerging awareness of the impact of reproduction (in print and otherwise) on the work of Renaissance poets, which he identifies as arising first in Tottel. All three publications draw on investigations of material culture, though with different approaches and results. In many ways, it is a shame that these books were all written and published at the same time, and were thus unable to draw on each others’ enlightening discoveries. The critical reassessment of Tottel therefore remains, even after this upsurge of critical contributions, in flux—perhaps an appropriate state of affairs for a text that negotiates a moment of reorientation in both the production and distribution of the lyric.

Of the most general interest is the collection edited by Stephen Hamrick, which offers a useful and critically informed survey of the miscellany’s position in criticism so far, as does the Introduction by Hamrick. Approaching Tottel’s Miscellany from many different angles in textual, sociological, intertextual, or historical readings, the essays try to reconstitute a text that has been “disjointed, decontextualized and cannibalized” (2) by a critical practice that tended to focus on individual poems or poets, most frequently on the sections ascribed to Surrey and Wyatt, rather than treating the Miscellany as a whole. This readjustment “provides a much needed corrective” (3) in the interpretation of this particular print product.

There is no one better than Paul Marquis, the Miscellany’s first twenty-first century editor, to assess the vicissitudes and synergy effects created by the arrangement of textual elements in the Miscellany’s two different versions, published on 5 June and 31 July 1557.[4] Most importantly, Marquis stresses the dialogic quality of Tottel’s collection within the context of contemporary rhetorical practice, an aspect that becomes more pronounced from the second edition onwards, when answer poems are included immediately after the initiating poem. Rather than focusing on the apparently contradictory nature of individual contributions as other critics have done (for instance, Catherine Bates in the same volume), this dialogic reading enables Marquis to trace an overall coherent “educative potential to inspire readers to virtuous action” (31) within a context of polyphonous intellectual and poetic debate. This idea is further developed elsewhere by Warner. Marquis’s contribution also demonstrates how much can be gleaned from detailed and potentially dry-as-dust textual scholarship, such as counting variants or considering page design. Indeed, all the books under discussion here draw on aspects of material production to striking advantage.[5]

Unlike Marquis, Catherine Bates founds her argument in the contradictions she identifies between different poems in Songes and Sonettes as well as the tensions implicit in the preface “The Printer to the Reader.” Toeing a similar line to Mary Crane[6] (though not cited), Bates posits the immediate utility of Tottel’s collection as a handbook for upward class mobility, teaching the reader courtly conduct, though at the same time advocating the values of a “mean estate” in several poems. Bates does not seem to consider praise or condemnation of court life as common literary topoi. Instead, she insists on taking them literally—especially in their contradictory positions—as testifying “to the social and economic turmoil that characterized the sixteenth century’s shift toward an incipient capitalism” (46). She thus sees Tottel engaged in a project of “putting gentility up for sale” (55).

Hamrick’s volume also traces the “cultural work” (8) Tottel performs, focusing on intertextual networks such as “Tottel’s Troy” (Alex Davis), Chaucer (Amanda Holton), and Shakespeare (Tom MacFaul). The volume thus offers varied approaches that go far beyond the view of the volume as a “mere” and rather uncouth precursor of “golden age” poetry. Contributions by Seth Lerer and Hamrick himself assess the “cultural impact” of Tottel’s volume as well as its wide popular reception into the seventeenth century, which challenges the marginalized status of Tottel’s Miscellany in criticism over the last 60 years. Peter C. Herman discusses the vexed question of Tottel’s religious affiliations, coming down firmly on the side of the argument that claims Tottel as a proponent of “Catholic culture intended to answer the protestant nationalism arising in response to Mary I’s attempt to bring England back into the Catholic fold” (111). This argument further develops a position put forward on an earlier occasion by Hamrick;[7] in this collection it is seconded by Seth Lerer, who describes the poetry in the Miscellany as “rife with Catholic idiom” (149). As Herman concedes, however, “the book’s Catholic polemic seems to have been entirely passed over by Elizabethan readers” (130).

This, if nothing else, is reason enough for J. Christopher Warner in The Making and Marketing of Tottel’s Miscellany to doubt Tottel’s supposed Catholic leanings. Warner rejects Hamrick’s claim for encoded Catholicism in the poems’ imagery. Objecting that Hamrick is not “the first to take Petrarchan clichés too seriously” (and not the last, as the Bates article demonstrates), Warner emphasizes the absence of any evidence that contemporaries detected “encoded Catholic or Protestant anxieties or doctrinal positions between the lines” (192). Equally, Warner finds unconvincing Marquis’s suggestion that the rearrangement of poems in the second edition urges the reader to admire (protestant) martyrdom (190).[8] For Warner, Tottel offers precisely the kind of “one-size-fits-all piety, morality, and dutiful loyalty to the crown” (9) that enables him (and his collection) to survive the change-over from Mary to Elizabeth. While Warner concedes that Tottel exhibits a nostalgia for Marian days and poets (4), he argues that the Miscellany offers an aesthetic space where religious, moral and even political restrictions are at least momentarily suspended. In this view, the miscellany becomes  “an autonomous textual space” where young law students can wittily practice “the conducting of their own future exchanges” (149).

Warner’s monograph presents a wealth of textual and contextual detail that will have to be further explored. Initially, he focuses on the significance of the year 1557 for the timing of the Miscellany’s first editions. E. Hyder Rollins, Tottel’s editor in the twentieth century, dramatically drew attention to the martyrs’ fires that were burning in Smithfield all through the summer of 1557, but left the significance of this circumstance disappointingly unexplained (1). Going beyond the significance of the martyr’s fires, Warner meticulously recreates contemporary conditions, both in the national and international publishing world, in terms of religious controversy and in the context of Tottel’s collaborators. The main strand of Warner’s argument is that a network of students and young lawyers from the Inns of Court—Tottel’s regular customers in the law book trade, but also his friends—supplied and helped revise manuscripts for the Miscellany. Rather than pushing any particular point, these youngsters delighted in argument for its own sake (and for professional practice).

Warner also places Songes and Sonettes in an international context of European print miscellanies that are likely to have served as models for Tottel’s project. Italian, French and Spanish poetry collections are investigated in some detail and usefully complete a view of the contemporary print context beyond the oft-cited Petrarchan models and the Court of Venus, the English miscellany that predates Tottel, but which survives only in fragments. Particularly interesting is the material Warner presents on the work of Philip II’s Latin poet laureate Nikolaus Mameranus, who accompanied Philip to England and had his poetry printed in London in 1557, presumably to show the English barbarians what a “real” poet could do. The international context as much as the taunt by the Spanish poet laureate understood to be “Philip’s salaried cheerleader” (94) and presenting himself as the superior poet, stresses the aesthetic dimension of Tottel’s patriotic undertaking to show that the English tongue “is able in that kynde to do as praiseworthely as the rest” (Printer to the Reader). Warner even speculates that the haste with which Tottel’s first edition was compiled suggests an urge for a quick response to Mameranus (94).

Warner’s reconstruction of the contemporary English publishing context in poetry focuses extensively on formal matters and reveals the dazzling variety of poetic forms that Tottel presents, “roughly twice as many verse forms as are found in all other poems printed in this two-year period [1556-57] combined” (112). And while Tottel seems to favor the newer syllabic meters, he also, quite deliberately, presents the more traditional accentual verse (95). This delight in formal experiment, as well as the elements of dialogic and playful translations, retranslations, parallel translations, and cheeky responses to morally charged critiques by the likes of John Hall (who produced The Court of Virtue in protest against lewd versifying), leads Warner to suggest that a coterie of young lawyers and law students was behind the collection, “a tight circle of young wits, full of piss and vinegar and drawn to mischief, but earnest enough about the artistry of their ‘dialogic exchanges’” (180-81).

Warner’s argument is compelling and detailed, though it remains to some extent speculative, forced to rely on circumstantial evidence and Warner’s gut feeling as to what “young wits, full of piss and vinegar” are likely to do. With all the contextual detail Warner presents, to me the book is both fascinating and frustrating, because he expends vast effort to collect the material and then seems to lose interest when drawing out the full significance of the material thus collected. A case in point is the discussion of the poem “Of the troubled comon welth” in the “Uncertain Authors” section, which recounts the Troy story and connects it with the Exodus out of Egypt (Rollins No. 279, Marquis No. 229). Warner quotes the poem at length, then traces minutely different renderings of the Troy story, trying to establish a source for the poem’s claim that Aeneas was in fact a traitor (“Treason in Anthenor and Eneas,” line 18), contrary to Virgil’s version translated by Surrey and published by Tottel in the same year. The poem thus queries the credibility of an authoritative source with “ironic innocence” as it predicates its conclusion on the proviso “if our stories certein be and iust” (line 27), which it has just shown is not the case. Warner explicitly rejects the “tempting construal, insofar as it is one that appeals to our partiality for subversive subtexts […] that the poem’s aim is to undermine its own argument-by-analogy in order to imply something other than its dutifully obedient, ‘God save the Queen’ surface message” (176-177).

Coincidentally, this is roughly the argument put forward by Alex Davis in Hamrick’s collection, though as noted at the outset, Warner was unable to consult the collection before his own book was published. Davis reads “Of the troubled comon welth” as “not only a political poem, but also an intensely literary one,” characterized by layers of “self-referential complexity” and “marked by a kind of fractional indeterminacy, perhaps even by a certain slipperiness, such as might actually echo the elusive, unreliable natures of the traitors it condemns, and the literary predecessors it revises” (Davis in Hamrick 84-85). Having anticipated and rejected this reading, Warner seems to simply shrug his shoulders and after the immense learning launched on the recounting of textual and historical context, he claims that the poem is simply another example of “a composition exercise written to particular textual prompts” by law students. This may well be the case—and in fact I second his resistance to readings that assume instabilities of meaning and indeterminacy of language. But the question remains, what effect do such juxtapositions of different textual authorities produce, even if the poems themselves are mere exercises? Again and again Warner evades answering the interpretative questions raised by his factual account.

Zarnowiecki, on the other hand, enthusiastically develops a complex critical argument, moving from Tottel to a consideration of Gascoigne, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare, and arguing that the “works that come out of this period of English literature […] mediate on, poeticize, and enact a new, reproductively centered poetry” (5). Zarnowiecki draws on genetic criticism as well as a critical procedure he describes as “medium-close reading” as foundation for his critical approach that combines the close reading techniques of New Criticism with a consideration of historical material context, reading “the poems and their media as mutually constitutive” (8). In contrast to the positions of the New Bibliography, he argues that a “fair copy” is not the one closest to an idealized authorial intention, but that  “the fairer copy is the more mutated one” (6) as it moves through phases of textual/sexual copying and re-creation. The poets under discussion—as Zarnowiecki claims—merge procedures of sexual and textual reproduction and thus emphasize the importance of the survival of substance in various re-creations (biological or poetic), rather than identical copies of an original. From a modern perspective, this is similar to the notion of the survival of the gene as opposed to the survival of the individual.

This starts out as a good idea. Zarnowiecki outlines a typical pattern of the relations between past and present in the law books which constitute Tottel’s main source of income: these law book repeat old laws at the same time they explain that these old laws have been superseded. The same pattern is then traced in the Miscellany, which draws on “old” poetry of the Henrician era (Wyatt and Surrey), often written for a specific occasion, and relocates it in a more generalized form in the present—the old and the new are simultaneously present. Thus, for example, Zarnowiecki claims that Surrey and Wyatt as authors/speakers of the poems are effaced (though still present) and superseded by the more general “lover” that Tottel so persistently places in the titles he gives to the poems. The argument that Tottel’s editing procedures create lyrics that seem more generally applicable has been made, of course, (by Arthur Marotti, among others), and Zarnowiecki draws on this. What Zarnowiecki adds to the argument is the claim that, as in his law books, Tottel employs a “new kind of textual reproduction, which pursues both textual conservation and textual mutation” (28). Zarnowiecki partly rests his argument on the circumstance that Tottel derives his own copy from the Egerton and Arundel Harington manuscripts, though both manuscripts are now thought to post-date Tottel (see Warner 12). As a general observation on the policies of anthology-making, I find Zarnowiecki’s suggestions compelling. This is precisely what anthologists, anthologies, and their readers do: they transmute poems by placing them in new contexts, roping in the texts for personal purposes, frequently modifying the originals to make them fit new occasions. Less convincing is the extended and much more general claim that in their own poetic practice Renaissance poets advocated such transmuted repetition as enabling for their own work.

Pursuing his argument, Zarnowiecki presents George Gascoigne’s A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573) as “a watershed moment in the printing and reproduction of English lyric verse,” playing with the role of poets, copiers and printers in the transmission of lyrics. More emphatically than Tottel, Gascoigne conflates concerns of textual and sexual reproduction, and both forms of reproduction derive “delight” from “reproduction in multiple copies” (50). In an enlightening comparison of iconographic traditions, for instance in Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (1494) or The Kalendayr of Shyppars (1503), Zarnowiecki reads the woodcuts in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar as emblems for “Spenser’s awareness of the necessity of poetic community” (83). Counter to a critical tradition which reads Colin’s withdrawal in Colin Clouts Come home againe as an expression “of the bitter, disillusioned Spenser” (95), Zarnowiecki claims that this text, as published in combination with Astrophel, stresses the value of collaboration for poetic

Similarly, Sidney’s Arcadia dwells on the moment of “textual reproduction that does not simply copy, but instead adopts the text, producing a new and different poem” (109), a process that Zarnowiecki terms “lyric surrogacy” and that he sees exemplified in Sidney’s text but also in the production and re-production of that text after Sidney’s death. In particular, the empty frame left in the 1590 edition after the announcement of Basilius’s epitaph for Argalus and Parthenia encourages not only the characters of the Arcadia but the reader to participate in the appropriation and creation of poetry. Zarnowiecki does not consider the possibility of a printer’s error to explain the empty space. But the specific examples of readers’ responses to that empty space that he traces in various library copies are certainly fascinating. Finally, Shakespeare pushes the merger between textual and sexual reproduction to new limits in his sonnets, exploring the insight that “there are no exact copies; there is always error, change, descent with modification, offspring with bastardy. Poetics is reproduction with a difference” (130).

The wide range of sources, especially the examination of different copies and reader traces Zarnowiecki offers create exciting connections, but his argument suffers because he frequently shifts levels and with that, critical approaches. Tottel’s insistent presentation of a speaker, “the lover,” does not, to my mind, necessarily efface the different authors, as Zarnowiecki claims—even Renaissance readers would have been able to distinguish between Wyatt speaking as lover and Surrey speaking as lover. Having stressed the importance of historical and material context for his “medium-close reading,” Zarnowiecki sidesteps historical conditions when they do not provide the answers he wants. When the OED fails to record the meaning of “recreation” as re-creation until the late eighteenth century (90), Zarnowiecki draws on modern critical usage of the word (by Berger and Montrose) and follows out “postmodern instabilit[ies]” (134) to establish his point that “new creation” is indeed the point the Elizabethan texts pursue. As the discussion segues from textual to biological original and back (though drawing on recent critical work on the ubiquity of the parallel) it fudges the issue. Perhaps language does fail to reproduce the original human being—though it is unlikely that that is really what the poets are aiming for—but it simply does not follow that therefore no authentic textual copy can be reproduced and that survival (as in the case of human reproduction) necessitates mutation.

It also remains rather a puzzle what exactly constitutes the “new set of thematic preoccupations, centered around both textual and sexual reproduction” (5) in the moments of repetition and reproduction presented in the poets’ works. What exactly is the difference, for instance, between the enactment of reproduction in the Shepheardes Calendar (which Zarnowiecki discusses) and, say, Virgil’s Eclogues (which are not discussed)? In the “August” eclogue, Cuddie repeats the song Colin has composed in solitude, modeling “a positive form of lyric re-creation” (97) in a communal setting, which counteracts Colin’s apparent bitterness. In Virgil’s Eclogues Meliboeus re-performs the match between Corydon and Thyrsis (Ecl. 7), and Lycidas repeats the song he has heard Moeris sing when sitting “solum sub nocte” (Ecl. 9.44). Zarnowiecki ascribes the innovation to Spenser, yet it may be seen as trope familiar from both Virgil and Theocritus.

Similarly, one could ask why Tottel is presented as the man who “begins to enshrine reproduction with a difference as one of the primary modes of poetic production” (32, my emphasis), since transmuted reproduction was typical of manuscript transmission, especially the copying of texts for personal use in commonplace books, quotation books and rhetorical instruction-books throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as both Ann Moss or Mary Carruthers have shown.[9] Is this simply because Tottel’s is the first example that we have in print? How then does the often-voiced concern of Renaissance poets that their works are distributed in unauthorized and inaccurate editions relate to this celebration of transmuted copying? Finally, how do the frequent deconstructive slippages from text to person or from historical to contemporary critical context on the one hand, and a protest against New Critical decontextualizations on the other hand, mesh with the claim that there is a “constancy” of meaning to be found in a poem as it survives in contemporary solemn recitations of “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” at heterosexual weddings? I was unable to follow where this author tried to take me.

While all these studies offer a wealth of material, they seem to me closer to a beginning than an end of the investigation of one of the most popular and long-term influential early modern print products and its contexts. It is tempting simply to repeat Hamrick’s concluding assessment of the fecundity still lying in wait for further critical exploration of the Miscellany: “Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes thus provides a useful and complex site at which multiple cultural conflicts and discourses meet, surely offering readers a wealth of texts and contexts for further study” (199).


Stefanie Lethbridge
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

[1] (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in conjunction with Renaissance English Text Society, 2007).

[2] (London, New York: Penguin, 2011).

[3] Stefanie Lethbridge, Lyrik in Gebrauch: Gedichtanthologien in der englischen Druckkultur 1557‒2007 (Heidelberg: Winter, 2014), Chapter 2.

[4] According to Marquis, the third edition was printed after 31 July despite a colophon which gives that date. It may even be Elizabethan (33).

[5] However, Marquis’s claim that the 39 new poems of the second edition (Q2) “added to the existing 94 poems from Q1 […] proved a total of 134” (28) agrees with conventional rules of mathematics only if one knows that in addition to the 39 new poems, one of the poems was moved from the Wyatt section to the “Uncertain Authors” part (compare lxvii in Marquis’s edition), thus in fact providing 40 additions to the anonymous section (39 + 1 + 94 = 134).

[6] Mary Crane, Framing Authority: Sayings, Self, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993).

[7] First put forward in Stephen Hamrick, “Tottel’s Miscellany and the English Reformation,” Criticism 44.4 (2002): 329-361. Hamrick modifies the claim slightly in The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558‒1582 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

[8] Though Marquis does not push this argument in his contribution to Hamrick’s volume, where he also discusses the impact of these rearrangements.

[9] Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), and Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: CUP, 1990).


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Cite as:

Stefanie Lethbridge, "Review Essay: New Work on Tottel's Miscellany," Spenser Review 45.1.15 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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