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Richard A. McCabe, “Ungainefull Arte”: Poetry, Patronage, and Print in the Early Modern Era
by Rachel E. Hile

McCabe, Richard A. “Ungainefull Arte”: Poetry, Patronage, and Print in the Early Modern Era. Oxford UP, 2016. xiii + 376 pp. ISBN: 978-0198716525. $110.00 cloth.

In the “Acknowledgements” section of “Ungainefull Arte”: Poetry, Patronage, and Print in the Early Modern Era, Richard A. McCabe expresses his gratitude to the Leverhulme Foundation, which awarded him a three-year grant that “left me free to write as I wished and asked only for acknowledgement in return” (xiii). McCabe’s explicit reference to the generosity of his own patron in this study of patronage stayed in my mind as I read this extraordinarily detailed, well-researched, and ambitious study. Several key ideas inform McCabe’s analysis of the impact of patronal relationships on the literary culture of Early Modern England: (1) Literary patronage must be understood as a species of the broader patronage that underpinned all Tudor and Stuart society. (2) Studies of Early Modern English patronage of poetry can benefit from the attention to networks and relationships that have informed influential studies of Early Modern English drama. (3) English literary culture must be considered as part of the wider Continental context, which implies as well a historical context stretching back to the classical era. Thus, the first half of the book develops and explicates ideas about patronage, print, laureate status, and the connections between literary and political influence with reference to classical and Italian Renaissance writers. When he moves to Tudor and Stuart literature, McCabe extends the method already developed in the first half of the book by focusing on relationships and by frequently using multiple brief case studies to highlight instructive contrasts between poets and their work within the patronage system. McCabe refers extensively to Spenser (eighteen of Spenser’s works appear in the index, and the references appear throughout the book, not just in the section on Spenser) and frequently uses Spenser’s better-known life, career, and patronage relationships to explain or contextualize information about lesser-known authors. For this reason and because of the excellent work McCabe does to create a sense of interconnectedness both across time and within Early Modern English literary culture, the whole book is well worth reading for Spenser scholars.

Part I, Theory and Practice, highlights the conceptual and rhetorical backgrounds relevant to understanding literary patronage in Early Modern Europe in six concise chapters. The complexity of, for example, the meaning of the word “friend” in the patronage context, or of the way that people thought about the significance of whether a work appeared in manuscript or in print, mean that McCabe needs to spend some time not so much defining terms and concepts as demonstrating the multiple and conflicting ways that contemporaries used these terms and concepts, specifically within the patronage context. So chapter 1, “Of Followers and Friends: Problems of Definition,” reminds the reader that poets’ claims of “friendship” with dedicatees should be understood with reference to the Roman amicitia, a capacious understanding of friendship that allowed for both “emotional” and “instrumental” aspects of friend relationships (19). McCabe’s emphasis on the relevance of the Roman literary patronage system to an understanding of Early Modern patronage continues in the second chapter, on “Visions of Laurel,” where brief discussions of Virgil, Martial, and Ovid are balanced by a more in-depth treatment of Horace’s relationships with Maecenas and Augustus. Chapter 3, “The Arts of Magnificence,” pays close attention to the patronage relationships of the Medici, specifically Cosimo and Lorenzo, and how their cultivation of such writers and thinkers as Angelo Decembrio, Leon Battista Alberti, Marsilio Ficino, and Politian (Angelo Ambrogini), no less than their public building projects in Florence, contributed to their “magnificence,” understood as a virtue.

With chapter 4, “Economies of Script and Print,” we move from the previous chapters’ Roman and Italian background more firmly to Early Modern England. McCabe exemplifies his ideas about the pressure that the new print economy placed on the patronal “gift” economy with the story of writer Richard Robinson, whose lack of success McCabe contrasts instructively with Edmund Spenser’s greater success within both print and patronal economies. Here and in the section of chapter 14 that focuses on Spenser, some details would benefit from more up-to-date references—for example, McCabe, citing Edwin Greenlaw, writes in chapter 4 that the price of the called-in Complaints volume rose to half a crown, whereas Thomas Tresham’s 1591 letter, edited by Richard Peterson (and cited elsewhere by McCabe), indicates that the price went up to a crown (5 shillings) as the work became scarcer and more notorious. Building on the previous chapter’s analysis of how the advent of print affected the patronage system, chapter 5, “The Rhetoric of Paratexts,” considers the rhetorical impact of printed books’ bringing together of dedicatory epistles with addresses to the reader. Chapter 6, “The Protocols of Presentation,” is a delight, largely because of the numerous full-color plates McCabe uses to illustrate the considerations of quality, expense, and uniqueness that motivated authors who presented gift copies of their works to patrons. This first section of the book, surveying as it does a millennium and a half of patronage culture and practice, prepares the reader well for the rest of the book.

Part II focuses on Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso “as the three most important influences on the way in which patronage was conceived in England” (9). Chapter 7, on Petrarch, argues that not only in his laureate crowning but also in the way that he created patronage relationships, Petrarch consciously attempts to “recall” and “restore” the Classical era (112). The chapter on Ariosto reads the Orlando Furioso against the Satires to find the ways that Ariosto ironizes his depiction of his patron Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. Chapter 9, “Tasso: Patronage and Imprisonment,” contrasts Tasso’s failures—failures to secure the patronage he needed, to protect his intellectual property from piracy and his person from imprisonment, and to find the way to praise a patron without losing the appearance of literary independence—with Ariosto’s successes. For scholars of English literature, these three short chapters provide a “just right” amount of depth to enable connections between Italian literary patronage and its influence on Early Modern England.

Chapters 10 through 16 make up “Part III: English Literary Patronage, 1500-1625,” the section of the book of most interest to readers of The Spenser Review. Chapter 10, “Print and Patronage in the Early Tudor Age,” considers how the political upheaval of the early Tudor period affected literary patronage, with extended attention to William Caxton and John Skelton. For Spenser scholars, the chapter’s section on Skelton’s contradictory responses to Cardinal Wolsey will be of particular interest; McCabe comments on the difficulty of speaking truth to power while also serving as a court poet, noting that “This was a dilemma that Skelton would bequeath to Spenser, the next great poet to aspire to the status of laureate while simultaneously adopting the persona of Colin Clout” (158).

McCabe divides Chapter 11, “Elizabeth I and Court Patronage,” into two parts. The first half of the chapter considers Elizabeth within the patronage system. Concepts introduced earlier in the book are deployed effectively here to demonstrate how Elizabeth’s roles changed over the course of her life with respect to patronage: she was in the client role in her petitions as a child to her stepmother Katherine Parr (174), appeared to be a “‘threshold’ patron” in works dedicated to her during the reign of her brother, Edward VI (175), and understood the politics of patronage masterfully by the time she became queen. The contentious Elizabethan court is explored in terms of patronage in the second half of the chapter. In Elizabeth’s court, men became threshold patrons to other men in their efforts to secure benefits for their clients. The most thorough discussion in this part of the chapter interprets the rise and fall of the Earl of Essex in patronal terms. For example, McCabe sees Elizabeth’s 1600 nonrenewal of Essex’s lease on the sweet wine customs as her “giving notice that he had always flourished in her ‘shadow’, that her patronage enabled his” (193). Viewing Essex’s battles with the Cecils and his addresses to the Queen as motivated by his desire to have “a monopoly on the Queen’s favours” (190) creates a coherent narrative of how patronal humiliations led to his downfall.

McCabe focuses chapter 12, “Courts and Coteries,” on “literary depictions of the patronal coterie, generally imagined as centring on one figure or family and, very often, as operating from some particular place, such as a great house or estate” (199), with special attention to the Sidney circle, Emilia Lanyer’s exclusively female imagined audience, and the poets connected with the Countess of Bedford. McCabe describes the literary coteries featured in works such as Lodowick Bryskett’s Discourse of Civill Life as “imagined communities or, at best, highly idealized versions of reality” (199), and the emphasis on real benefits conferred by connections with fictionalized or imaginary social groups (such as the benefits Spenser hoped for from his connections to the possibly non-existent “Areopagus” [200]) continues throughout the chapter. Given the interest throughout the book on the connections between patronage and politics (including this chapter’s analysis of how Michael Drayton’s “literary coterie … maps seamlessly onto a powerful political faction” [207]), I found myself wishing that McCabe had pushed further to connect literary coteries to political factions to Benedict Anderson’s ideas about nationhood.

Chapter 13, “The Elizabethan Marketplace,” seemed to me the weakest chapter because of the disjointedness of the examples. McCabe offers interesting analyses connecting print and patronage—sometimes interpreting printers as a sort of patrons in their own right—for figures as diverse as John Day, Barnaby Googe, George Turbervile, John Weever, and George Whetstone, with a chronologically confusing short section on civic pageantry of the 1610s through 1630s. But until the end of the chapter, where he provides a summary statement, it was not clear to me what argumentative thread McCabe meant to emphasize during the chapter. The summary statement notes that “The incorporation of the Stationers’ Company conferred respectability on the profession, but lent urgency to the need for professional writers … to distinguish themselves from the Stationers at the very point when their commercial interests were converging. The closer authors and publishers worked in conjunction, the more important it seemed to distinguish their roles” (225). This does help retroactively to connect the many interesting discussions in the chapter, but clearer signposts in the text of the chapter would have benefitted the reader.

In chapter 14, the longest chapter of the book, McCabe provides case-study examples of some different types of career trajectories—George Gascoigne as “soldier poet,” Edmund Spenser as “colonial poet,” and Samuel Daniel as “court poet.” In each case, McCabe pays attention to the impact of the poet’s particular position—as soldier, as courtier, etc.—on his efforts to gain patronage. With Spenser, McCabe explores the role of place, arguing that Spenser himself was keenly interested in “the ecology of patronage” and analyzing the specifically Irish ecology in which Spenser worked. McCabe succeeds admirably in conveying a sense of Ireland as a system in which Spenser lived and worked, instead of focusing on a “great man” view of Spenser in Ireland. So, for example, McCabe discusses how Ireland fit in the careers of writers including Lodowick Bryskett, Geoffrey Fenton, Barnaby Googe, and Barnaby Rich, analyzing the reasons why writers such as Fenton and Rich were more successful than Spenser in negotiating the possibilities for patronage in Ireland. Part of the greater success of others derives from more skillfully managing relationships with Lord Burghley—McCabe offers a balanced picture of Burghley’s solid reputation as a patron, noting his popularity as a dedicatee of literary works; his preferment of graduates of Cambridge, of which he was Chancellor; and his work to provide Irish employment for those he favored (244). In McCabe’s view, Spenser’s alienation from Burghley derives from his own failings as much as those of the Lord Treasurer.

Following the analysis of the Irish patronage ecology, McCabe analyzes Spenser’s major works through the lens of patronage. He finds in the 1590 Faerie Queene “a patronal fantasy” in which the “fairy godmother … stands patron to all the questing knights, each of whom acts as a conduit for dispensing royal ‘grace’ from the centre to the margins” (246). McCabe’s primary interest in this section is to demonstrate how Spenser’s changing status over his career affected his role in the patronage system. This analysis—similar to the delineation of the same sort of role progress for Queen Elizabeth in chapter 11—serves as a reminder that McCabe is deeply interested in subtle changes over time: there is no single “Spenser in Ireland,” but many over the course of two decades in the country. Spenser’s increasing status over the course of his career means that in the 1596 installment of The Faerie Queene, for example, he becomes the advocate for his patron Sir Walter Ralegh; further, in William Smith’s dedication of Chloris (1596) to Spenser, McCabe sees the beginning of “the emergence of a ‘Spenserian’ school of verse,” which offers “the possibility of an alternative to aristocratic patronage,” at least in fantasy (252). The chapter’s final section, on Samuel Daniel as “court poet,” reads well directly following the section that focused on the patronal disappointments of Edmund Spenser, given that Daniel, whose success as a “court poet” would presumably have appealed to Spenser, inhabited the role with a great deal of ambivalence, insecurity, and class-consciousness, as McCabe carefully demonstrates. By this point in the book, having seen examples spanning fifteen hundred years of poets’ pervasive sense of pique at not receiving the full respect due to them, there does seem to be a pattern, and McCabe chose wisely by crowning this chapter on career trajectories with Daniel’s disappointments—“Like many Italian court poets, Daniel found his official duties incompatible with his true talents; it was not for masques he wished to be remembered” (261). Poor Samuel Daniel.

In chapter 15, “Egerton: A Patron’s ‘Canon,’” McCabe analyzes the 122 extant dedications to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper to Elizabeth I and Lord Chancellor to James I, in order to learn “what patterns … emerge over an entire patronal career, and to what extent patrons shape such patterns” (271). Egerton’s appeal as a dedicatee derived from his enormous influence as a patron with power in both ecclesiastical and secular politics: as Lord Keeper, Egerton had charge of the disposal of all crown livings below twenty pounds in value; by 1614, he had patronage of seventeen seats in the Commons. McCabe discusses dedications by literary men such as Sir John Davies, John Donne, and John Davies of Hereford, finding that dedications of a wide variety of types of works to Egerton, including religious, scholarly, legal, and poetic works, nevertheless over the course of his career add up to “a remarkably coherent patronal persona” (283). Importantly, McCabe never loses sight of the extent to which a persona is a “rhetorical construct” (273), and this chapter is most interesting when it explores the slippages between person and persona, especially with regard to Egerton’s religious beliefs and how this played out in the dedicatory arena.

Chapter 15, “The Courts of King James and Prince Henry,” continues McCabe’s practice elsewhere of contrasting two figures in order to illuminate both. Here we see the instructive contrasts between King James I as “laureate king” and Ben Jonson as “king’s laureate” (288) and between King James I as peaceful moderate and Prince Henry as the hoped-for militant Protestant hero, which McCabe explores through paratextual materials written by King James and Jonson or dedicated to King James and Prince Henry. A brief conclusion focusing on John Dryden and John Milton takes the reader into an era when the market economy plays an increasing role in authors’ financial rewards from writing, decreasing but not eliminating the importance of patronage.

Overall, this book presents a coherent, historically grounded understanding of the extremely complex relationships among “poet, patron, publisher, and reader” (3) in Early Modern England. McCabe’s interest in change over time both in the careers of individuals and in the ways that politics, history, and literature intersect leads to a nuanced series of arguments that are both learned and readable.


Rachel E. Hile
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne


  • Allie Glimson 4 months, 1 week ago

    Richard A. McCabe's The Unhappy Art sounds fascinating and promises to look at poetry, patronage, and print in the early modern era. Perhaps the author examines how these elements interacted and shaped the cultural and literary trends of the time. I will definitely read this work as soon as I pass the narrative essays, I use for college. I really like this topic. This could be a fascinating study for those interested in early modern literary and cultural history.

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Cite as:

Rachel E. Hile, "Richard A. McCabe, “Ungainefull Arte”: Poetry, Patronage, and Print in the Early Modern Era," Spenser Review 47.3.46 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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