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The Work of Conjoining
by Ted Tregear

Michelle O’Callaghan, Crafting Poetry Anthologies in Renaissance England: Early Modern Cultures of Recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 290pp. ISBN: 9781108491099. £75 hardback.


Megan Heffernan, Making the Miscellany: Poetry, Print, and the History of the Book in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. 336pp. ISBN: 9780812252804. £52 hardback.


A Gorgious Gallery, of Gallant Inventions, printed by Richard Jones in 1578, pitches itself to readers with a flurry of metaphorical and relentlessly alliterative enticements. This anthology is hailed by its title-page as ‘Garnished and decked with diuers dayntie deuises, right delicate and delightfull, to recreate eche modest minde withall’. On top of its poetic charms, readers are promised a paradigm of expert craftsmanship, in the poems themselves, and in their compilation: ‘First framed and fashioned in sundrie formes, by diuers worthy workemen of late dates: and now, ioyned together and builded vp: By T.P.’ Each of these claims is picked up by Anthony Munday in his commendatory poem a few pages later. What makes A Gorgious Gallery a must-have for ‘all yong Gentilmen’, Munday urges, is not just the pleasure of its constituent parts, but the way they are put together:

Which workemanship, by worthy workemen wrought,
(Perusde) least in obliuion it should ly:
A willing minde, eche part togeather sought,
And termde (the whole) A gorgious Gallerye:[1]

Contrary to Munday’s sense, however, anthologies have generally been valued, when they have been valued, for their parts: namely the poems which, without their mediations, would lie in ‘obliuion’. How those parts were assembled is, from this standpoint, irrelevant at best, and intrusive at worst. The result is an uncoupling of the history of English poetry from the history of the volumes in which that poetry was published. While the poets and poems these anthologies collect have been installed in the early modern canon, the anthologies themselves have been left sequestered in a lonely corner of literary scholarship.

This is the separation that both these recent books set out to undo. As it happens, A Gorgious Gallery provides the starting point for both. The metaphors of its title-page, for example, contain in miniature the two overriding arguments of Michelle O’Callaghan’s book, arguments she condenses in her own similarly bifold title. Crafting Poetry Anthologies in Renaissance England (CPA for short) deals with the crafting of anthologies, the creativity and labour involved in joining them together and building them up. Volumes like A Gorgious Gallery are at once buildings and building-sites. The edification they offer is possible only through the collective efforts of the people whose traces are visible in their pages – the printers, stationers, editors, collectors, and others involved in their construction. O’Callaghan reads her selection of anthologies for the practices they encode, and for the practices they invite. For besides attending to how these anthologies were produced, this book also tracks how they were circulated, read, and adapted, as elements in what its subtitle calls Early Modern Cultures of Recreation. This second argument takes seriously the claim of collections like A Gorgious Gallery to ‘recreate eche modest minde’; and in so doing, it shows how eagerly they were welcomed by new classes of readers into new scenes of reading. For all their appeals to ‘yong Gentilmen’, these collections were at the heart of sixteenth-century bourgeois culture, as often found among women, and in the household, as in the more rarefied masculine circles. In its reception, as in its production, the early modern anthology is a ‘book in process’ (CPA, 10). Crafting Poetry Anthologies considers a series of books, from Richard Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes to Francis Davison’s Poetical Rapsody, to unlock the social and cultural dynamics moving through them and through which they moved.

Megan Heffernan’s Making the Miscellany is deeply sympathetic to this approach, and at points comes uncannily close to O’Callaghan’s findings. Its difference in emphasis lies in its attention to what Munday calls, in the lines quoted above, the ‘willing minde’ of the compiler. Not that Heffernan thinks of compiling as solo work: like O’Callaghan, she reveals a multitude of willing minds behind the collections she examines. Rather, Munday’s phrase clarifies the cognitive stakes of compilation, ‘not just as a material practice, but, more significantly, as a conceptual skill’ (MM, 3). Making the Miscellany aims to recover the force of the conceptual dilemma that collections like these were trying to resolve: that is, how to draw together various short, disparate poems into a larger collection. The work of compiling is akin to building, and joining, and other artisanal labours; by the same logic, it is akin to the work of poetry. Early modern anthologies hold within them an untapped vein of poetic thinking, which Heffernan describes as a ‘poetics of organization’ (MM, 4). Organisation has and is its own poetics, just as poetry, at its minutest level, is itself a question of organisation. The poetics described here, and unfolded through the rest of the book, is tentative, heuristic, experimental, and frequently contradictory. It can be felt in the metaphors by which compilatio and ordinatio are figured; it can be felt, too, in the design of the anthologies, and the formal and bibliographical negotiations they reveal. And it is fundamentally collective, opening the activity of poetic making to a new cast of protagonists. Crucially, this poetics is not restricted to anthologies. Similar efforts to strike a balance between coherence and variation, the one and the many, are required by every collection of lyric poetry, even the ones we have come to see as authorial. Yet while one aim of Heffernan’s book is to retrieve the poetics of compilation, another is to explain how it faded from sight. The answer lies in the shifting dynamic – collaborative at first, then increasingly oppositional – between compilation and authorship. In the sixteenth century, where Making the Miscellany begins, the activities of authorship and compilation were intimately connected; by the time it ends, in the eighteenth century, the predominance of the author as a principle of coherence has blotted out the practice of compilation through which it developed. The making of the miscellany thus bears witness to the extension of that practice and its extinction, and traces ‘the decline of a poetics of compiling’ (MM, 211).

Crafting Poetry Anthologies and Making the Miscellany both belong to a rich seam of recent scholarship aimed at redressing the manner in which such matters have been subject to chronic oversight. Work by Michael Hetherington, Erin McCarthy, Jessica Rosenberg, Angus Vine, Matthew Zarnowiecki, and others, lies behind both monographs’ revaluations of the anthology, and underwrites their ambitious claims – claims whose repercussions go far beyond anthologies themselves.[2] After setting out each book’s argument in greater detail, this review essay will sketch out how those claims affect our understanding, not just of anthologies, but of early modern lyric more generally. Implicit in both these books is nothing short of a new history of English poetry and its poets, and of the vanishing mediators through whose labour it came to be.


In Crafting Poetic Anthologies in Renaissance England, Michelle O’Callaghan offers the most comprehensive study of the sixteenth-century anthologies since Elizabeth Pomeroy, and finds in them a raft of new insights. After an introduction laying out the two chief arguments of the book, Chapter One presents its readers with a pairing of familiar and unfamiliar volumes: Richard Tottel’s 1557 Songes and Sonettes, and Henry Disle’s 1576 Paradyse of Daynty Devises. Both volumes confess their origins in the hitherto exclusive world of manuscripts, and acquire some of their cachet from the aristocratic culture into which readers are invited to peek. Yet what makes them so important, O’Callaghan argues, is the ‘ethos of publication’ they venture (CPA, 21). By invoking ‘ye honor of the english tong’ to justify his decision to publish, Richard Tottel signals his participation in the ‘civic Renaissance’ project: an undertaking termed thus by the historian Phil Withington, and glossed by O’Callaghan as the project by which ‘humanism extends beyond the ambit of the court to fashion other communities and to incorporate the middling sort in the fashioning of an English vernacular poetics’ (CPA, 21). In this context, Tottel looks like less of an exception in literary history, and more like other printers in whose words O’Callaghan identifies a ‘rhetoric of common profit’ (CPA, 26): William Awen, William Rastell, and Henry Disle. Like Tottel, O’Callaghan argues, Disle is interested less in the manuscript milieu behind his anthology than in the diligence with which it was compiled, a diligence he attributes to the poet and musician Richard Edwards. The rest of Chapter One moves between the production of these volumes and their reception, and between the public and private spheres. For O’Callaghan, civic humanism was distinguished by its attempt to fold the bourgeois household into its public-minded ethos; and, so far as these anthologies were concerned, it succeeded. Whatever their origins, their poems were absorbed into the domestic setting, as testaments to the power of humanist learning, or as songs, ballads, and occasions of playful but modest recreation.

Chapter Two continues this pivot from a civic to a domestic Renaissance with a study of Richard Jones, ‘the most significant publisher of poetry anthologies in sixteenth-century England’ (CPA, 73). Jones’s anthologies included A Gorgious Gallery and A Handefull of Pleasant Delites, and they rubbed shoulders with a range of adjacent titles in his catalogue: Isabella Whitney’s The Copy of a Letter and A Sweet Nosgay, Nicholas Breton’s Smale Handfull of Fragrant Flowers, and others. O’Callaghan reads across these volumes from the 1560s and 1570s to show how they call to one another. A complaint in Jones’s Handefull elicits a response from Isabella Whitney, who, in turn, is answered by George Whetstone, all three poems pitching themselves at a prospective female readership. Together, O’Callaghan argues, these poetic exchanges model a distinct alternative to the elite fussiness of courtly verse, voicing instead the artisanal and domestic values of the urban bourgeoisie. The result is ‘a domestic poetics that emerges out of and speaks to the middling sort in all its diversity’ (CPA, 89).

After this spate of anthologising, O’Callaghan writes, the 1580s were ‘comparatively lean years’ for the printing of compilations (CPA, 114); and Chapter Three jumps to the 1590s, to deal with the collections printed in the wake of Philip Sidney’s untimely death. This moment is often taken as a retrenchment along class, and gender, lines – a retreat from the bourgeois ethos of earlier anthologies in favour of a more elevated attitude towards print. Gentlemen authors are seen to write to gentlemen readers over the heads of the ‘poore Printer’. Commendations of the publisher’s labour are replaced by armorial crests among the preliminary materials. And the collections themselves are newly peopled with shepherds, nymphs, and other figures of pastoral, as though to supplant their former civic sympathies with a new allegiance to the land-owning class. O’Callaghan follows the contours of this narrative without wholly endorsing it, and offers some careful qualifications. Chief among them is the fact that this turn is itself the result of an artful retooling of printers’ conventions – the printers’ flowers, for instance, which represent a flagrantly purposeless use of space on the pages of The Phoenix Nest. Moreover, O’Callaghan argues, the idleness of Sidney’s Arcadian pastoral is itself ambivalent. The Sidney in these anthologies is not the hero of the militant Protestant cause, but a sweet, loving, even effeminate character.

The variable affordances of this pastoral turn are demonstrated by Englands Helicon, the subject of Chapter Four. Englands Helicon is emphatically pastoral, selecting and rewriting its constituent poems by the light of pastoral conventions. Yet, O’Callaghan argues, it is equally ‘the high point of a civic Renaissance brought about through the work of learned citizens’ (CPA, 155). The debt it owes to Sidney is thus combined in its prefatory epistle with a pugnacious apology for a more egalitarian literary sphere. This conviction is born out in the volume itself, which gathers a ‘socially diverse’ band of poets, most of them accredited, but none distinguished with the title of ‘Gent’ (CPA, 166). The result is a homelier vein of pastoral, more open about the georgic pains of its production, and less high-handed towards the mixed audience it envisages. Chapter Five moves forwards a few years to the more complex case of Francis Davison’s Poetical Rapsody. This anthology is something of a paradox: as the collection most averse to the taint of craftsmanship, it is also the collection for which there exists the most evidence for the labour of compilation. That evidence exists in notes and lists of ‘manuscripts to gett’, which reveal the methodical planning and research Davison put into the volume once his hopes of a secretarial career were dashed. Sidney is once again the guiding light of Davison’s project, this time as the exemplar of the Protestant soldier-poet. By a sleight of compilation, Davison weaves his own family’s poems around those of the Sidneys to identify himself with the same political and poetic milieu. Davison’s anthology was a success, but, O’Callaghan suggests, at the cost of his bid for respectability. Subsequent editions reoriented the collection in different ways, until, in Francis Jackson’s 1621 edition, the Poetical Rapsody appeared as the latest in a run of ‘practical manuals addressed to the gentry’ (CPA, 227). The book closes by recapitulating some of its chief concerns, before a curiously abrupt ending, without a final full-stop, in what feels like mid-sentence. Schooled by O’Callaghan’s rigorous attention to the material form of her case-studies, it is hard not to read this as somehow significant.

It seems oddly fitting, then, that Megan Heffernan retells so much of the same story, before continuing it further into the seventeenth century. Making the Miscellany: Poetry, Print, and the History of the Book in Early Modern England offers not a history but a genealogy of the miscellany, an account of how it came to be. Heffernan too begins with Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes. The collection is important, she argues in Chapter One, not as a lifeline for otherwise perishable poems, or as proof of a market for printed verse, but as an initial experiment in how to feature diverse lyrics within a larger collection. That experiment takes place in its omissions as much as its interventions. Whatever its view of the dignity of publication, Songes and Sonnetes is a decidedly plain affair. The sparse mise-en-page gives readers little sense of how to pick their way through the poems: not as an oversight, Heffernan suggests, but as a strategic underdetermination. More important still are the titles attached to the poems: ‘The lover comforteth himselfe with the worthinesse of his love’; ‘The lover complaineth himself forsaken’; and so on. These titles reattribute the voices of Tottel’s various poets to the overarching persona of ‘The Lover’: as a principle of tonal and thematic coherence, and also, perhaps, as an oblique commentary on the way that different lovers, flush with Petrarchan enthusiasm, all sound the same anyway. Besides foregrounding the character of the lover, Tottel’s titles create loose associations between small groups of poems, breaking up the run of the volume into what Heffernan, after Tottel, calls ‘parcels’ of verse. Altogether, these tamperings amount to a strategy of judicious abstraction. ‘The compilation set poems loose from their origins, scoured away all traces of an occasional temporality, and made it possible to read the gathered writing in multiple different ways’ (MM, 47), Heffernan writes. The book located as the epicentre of the history of English lyric, then, takes care to hide the traces of its lyrics’ history.

Songes and Sonettes bequeathed to future printers a model of how to gather poems: neither conceding their scatteredness, nor stitching them into a continuous whole, but holding them together in ‘an unfolding assemblage of fluid and shifting parcels’ (MM, 38). Chapter Two surveys the ramifications of that model, and its imitators and competitors, over subsequent decades. That survey encompasses many of the same collections as O’Callaghan’s study, with occasional additions: A Gorgious Gallery, Disle’s Paradyse, Englands Helicon, Davison’s Poetical Rapsody, but also Thomas Purfoote’s Forrest of Fancy. While the degree of indebtedness to Tottel’s example differs from volume to volume, all these collections emerge as partners in his tricky conceptual enterprise of cultivating variation without letting it run wild. What links them all is a shared challenge: namely, the challenge of disorder, understood not as a threat to form, but as form’s incitement. Disorder, as George Puttenham clarifies, indicates ‘a deliberate rearranging of the order, not an absence thereof’ (quoted in MM, 64). If the disorder on show in these volumes veers away from integration, it nonetheless refuses to resign itself to fragmentation; instead, it finds out a path between absolute order and absolute dispersal. Heffernan reads these collections for their efforts to marshal and temper disordered matter. In her hands, the form of these collections opens up to reveal the practices of stationers, anthologists, and other figures of the book trade, all of them engaged in negotiating this common problem of gathering.  

At this point, though, Making the Miscellany strikes off in a different direction from Crafting Poetic Anthologies. Having followed the ‘poetics of compiling’ through the experiments of various anthologies, Heffernan moves to the poets caught up in that poetics. To make their poems hang together, authors could not trust in their own authorship as an a priori guarantee of coherence; they had to be just as crafty as the compilers from whose efforts they learned. The author, too, is a work of art. Chapter Three reads George Gascoigne as one of the craftier players at the game of compilation. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, published in 1573, is shot through with hints about the figure behind it. It teases readers with connections and subplots beneath the collection’s surface; it trains them in drawing out inferences, in effect teaching them how to read it; but it refrains from naming its author. Gascoigne’s collection is characterised by an artful, riddling disorder: undigested, unresolved, open to discernment. By 1575, it seems, the suspicions this volume cultivated among its readers had rendered it suspect, and, in a new edition, the author of the volume is unmasked: The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire. Like many readers, Heffernan is disappointed by this big reveal, not least because it paradoxically diminishes the collection’s coherence. The Posies, she writes, is ‘an attenuated echo of a piecemeal, playful coherence that was actually much stronger in A Hundreth because it made imaginative use of the material affordances of the printed book’ (MM, 122).

A similar narrative repeats itself in the run of sonnet collections published throughout the 1590s, the subject of Chapter Four. Heffernan talks about these as ‘sonnet books’, rather than sequences, or cycles, or any more familiar shorthands, because such shorthands only beg the question of how these collections should be read. The wager of this chapter is that we should read Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, and the collections that imitated it, with the same tolerance for loose and hazy coherences that we show with Gascoigne’s Hundreth Sundrie Flowres. Astrophil and Stella nevertheless represents a break in the poetics of compiling, not least through the insatiable antipathy of its narrator to textual compilation. Astrophil begins by casting aside the ‘inventions fine’ of other poets. Sidney’s sonnets replace imitation with iteration, offering a string of efforts to fathom the significance of particular occasions: looks, touches, kisses. But the erotic (and erratic) rhythm of repetition disrupts any linear movement we might think we see. The connection between the poems of Astrophil and Stella is ‘open, malleable, and unfixed by any narrative chronology of composing or compiling’ (MM, 148). Only in 1598, Heffernan insists, did it first become a ‘totalizing’ sequence, when it was reprinted in The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia. Earlier quartos presented the poems without titles or ordering; the 1598 folio installed a series of numbers to settle their relationship. Numbers, unlike other markers of division, ‘seemed definitive, absolute, and unsullied by the process of compilation’ (MM, 148). They hardened the implications of collections like Gascoigne’s into an abstract logic that runs through the poems and situates them into an empty, homogeneous, indefinite progression. And they seemingly cut out the middlemen, the printers and compilers, with their impression of an immediate contact between poet and reader. By the end of the sonnet craze, short-lived though it was, a decisive shift had occurred: a transition from compilation to authorship. ‘Sonnet books made prior modes of compiling appear disorderly and poetically insensitive’, Heffernan argues, ‘because, in implicitly positing the textual control of a single author, they consolidated an agency that was at first distributed among multiple, unknown participants in the book trade’ (MM, 167).   

To push this story into the seventeenth century, Chapter Five tracks the developing authorship of John Donne, in manuscript and print. During Donne’s lifetime, the puzzle of how to connect the points across his variegated span of work was taken up by manuscript compilers. His poems were arranged by genre, or object, or tone; less predictable relations were noted in marginalia and provisional indexes; poems that seemed not to fit under any heading, stranded by their own originality, were gathered – by one scribe at least, in a manuscript held at the Folger Shakespeare Library – under the heading of ‘Miscellanea’. This, Heffernan cautions, is still far from the modern sense of miscellaneity. ‘Miscellanea’ was not the default and arbitrary organisation of short poems. It was a result of the urge to organise, and the index of its failure – a product, not a prior state. The second half of the chapter turns to the two editions of Poems, By J.D., printed in 1633 and 1635. By 1635, Donne’s secular lyrics had been drawn into a narrative of the poet’s biography; the solution to their formal and tonal spontaneity was found in the figure of the youthful ‘Jack Donne’. Moreover, the image of the author this yielded was one by which other, older poets were retrospectively reshaped. Heffernan’s chapter closes on Shakespeare, who in John Benson’s 1640 edition of Poems was removed from the sixteenth-century literary scene and recast in the model of Donne. By grouping Sonnets 72, 74 and 75 under the title ‘A Valediction’, Benson rereads Shakespeare by way of Donne, to produce a Shakespearean contribution to Donne’s signature genre. Heffernan sticks with Shakespeare in a brief coda, which follows that journey from Sonnets to Poems into the eighteenth century, where his poetry was published as a set of Miscellanies. That moment marks the triumph of authorship as the default logic of poetic organisation, and the bracketing of miscellaneity as an exception to that logic. Ironically, Benson’s own edition eventually stood condemned by the standards of a biographical authorship it had itself helped to establish.


Visible in both these works are the outlines of a new history of English lyric. In beginning with the central decades of the sixteenth century, O’Callaghan and Heffernan examine a period of poetic production whose reputation for drabness has been questioned and dismissed but not entirely dispelled. Responsibility lies as much with later developments within the period itself as with subsequent critics. Heffernan shows how the increasingly regular and serial form of the 1590s sonnet books made earlier lyric gatherings look so heterogeneous as to be virtually unreadable, except as stations on the road to the later sequences. The irony is that this does violence to the ‘sonnet books’ themselves, which teem with stranger temporal indications than the empty, homogeneous progression of numbers. Both monographs find new poetic possibilities in the sonnet, and beyond it too, in the bewildering multiplicity of English lyric. O’Callaghan reintroduces us to forms like the sextilla from Spain, or (more fleetingly) the formes fixes from France, in the name of a more ‘heteroglot’ technical polyphony. She is sensitive to even the most unloved forms of verse, among them, what she calls ‘aphoristic’ or ‘commonplace’ poems. Made up from a seemingly inexhaustible string of proverbs and sententiae, commonplace poems are the sonnet’s drabber cousins. Yet, as O’Callaghan shrewdly observes, they are ‘microcosms of the craft of anthology-making’ (CPA, 17). They assemble the sorts of textual matter students were instructed to write in their commonplace books, and then they set to work on them, using rhyme, alliteration, and a range of other poetic techniques to join them together. They demonstrate the poetics of compilation, where poets act as compilers, and compilers see their own efforts reflected in their poems. Against the Petrarchan model, aphoristic poems are handier, more pragmatic, more at home in the schoolroom – even at home – than at court. In early modern households, commonplaces like this were written in books, inscribed on rings or cups, painted on walls or engraved in windows, as per Erasmus’s instructions in his De ratione studii.

Aphoristic poems thus multiply the sites of poetic activity, and make sense of those moments in early modern lyric which revert to the domestic sphere. Take, for instance, the way Wyatt launches his satire on the court from the surprising position of women at work – women with whom he grew up, and with whom, according to the present tense of Tottel’s verbs, he is still familiar: ‘My mothers maides when they do sowe and spinne: /They sing a song made of the feldishe mouse’. (By contrast, the Devonshire manuscript sets this anecdote in the past tense.) Or else, take another poem included in O’Callaghan’s analysis, this time by Richard Edwards, printed in the 1576 Paradyse of Daynty Devises: ‘In goyng to my naked bedde’. On his way to bed, the poem’s speaker overhears a woman who sings to her crying child, settling it down, and drawing from this instance a proverb: ‘The fallyng out of faithfull frends, is the renuyng of loue’. The woman’s reported variations on this proverb quickly broaden outwards, to the continual jostling of kings and princes, and to the antagonism animals apparently display towards their own species. But all these grander instances are drawn back to the proverb, and to the primal scene from which it emerges. The poem’s narrator snatches up ‘paper, penne and ynke’ to jot down the proverb, which, translated into Latin, stands as the poem’s title: ‘Amantium irae amoris redintigratia est’. The line comes from Terence, and seems to draw this intimate domestic scene – and the vernacular in which it takes place – into the humanist ambit. But by extracting the proverb, the poem’s narrator seems to miss the point of the woman’s song, which redescribes the great doings of history as the fallings-out of so many wailing children. And he misses the way that he, too, regresses to the child’s position, listening like a baby for the consolations of the mother tongue. English lyric has its ineliminable origins in the maternal, the domestic, the work of care and reproduction. For O’Callaghan, this reveals the domestic as a complementary site of poetic activity, one that belongs happily within the civic humanist paradigm. She reads this poem as a scene of instruction, where a weeping boy is schooled by his mother in the ‘proper acquisition of manhood’ (CPA, 53). Yet, perhaps the relation between these two spheres, the domestic and humanist, remains more uncomfortable. After all, it is unlikely that this ‘little bratte’ will one day grow into a king, prince, or lord himself. And the woman’s caustic reflections on the world imply the opposite direction of travel: rather than forming boys into men, she reduces men to boys.

‘In goyng to my naked bedde’ was one of several poems in the Paradyse of Daynty Devises to be set to music, featuring as a part-song with lute in Mulliner’s music book. The traffic between lyric and music, O’Callaghan shows, was busy and mutual. Poems written at court passed into broader circulation through musical settings, revoiced for the recreation of the middling sort, and dispersed further still in the form of ballads. This, too, spells a new role for the sixteenth-century anthologies, which have sometimes been blamed for suppressing lyric’s relationship with the ballad. Far from withdrawing from the popular culture of ballads and songbooks, O’Callaghan argues, anthologies leaned into it, advertising their borrowings from the increasing corpus of printed songbooks, and soliciting the same ‘acoustic communities’ for their poems (CPA, 228-9). This may not have delighted certain poets. In ‘The Triple Fool’, for example, Donne complains ruefully when ‘Some man, his art and voice to show, /Doth Set and sing my paine’.[3] But he takes the blame himself, casting himself as the triple fool of the title; a title that is, incidentally, replaced in the Dowden manuscript with the generic marker ‘Song’. The mediation of music opened even the most insistently aristocratic lyrics to dislocations of class. Lord Thomas Vaux was listed among the foremost ‘courtly makers’ by George Puttenham, yet the poems of his included in Songs and Sonettes were toured around the country by professional minstrels like Richard Sheale and Henry Spooner. ‘I lothe that I did love’, for example, crops up in a highly embellished manuscript songbook currently in the British Library (BL Additional MS 4900), arranged as a duet. The same poem famously reappears on the Shakespearean stage, with variants, sung by the Gravedigger in Hamlet as he digs Ophelia’s grave. Far from the corruptions of memory, O’Callaghan argues, these variants make this ‘a lyric that has been carefully re-crafted through the tools and rhythms of the working life’ (CPA, 72).    

I wonder, though, whether ‘carefully’ is quite the right word here, or ‘crafted’, for that matter. ‘Craft’ is a term found throughout both these books: most prominently in Crafting Poetic Anthologies, from its title onwards, but no less readily in Making the Miscellany, which describes the form of the early modern collection as ‘an invitation to expand the practical limits of poetic craft’ (MM, 56). Both authors’ understandings of this term rely on work by Rayna Kalas, Pamela Smith, and others. Yet O’Callaghan especially tends to reuse the word so often that it loses some of its definition. While this suggests the focus these volumes maintain, often despite themselves, to the culture of the middling sort, it also risks subsuming all forms of work under that bourgeois pattern. ‘Craft’ dignifies the production of anthologies, that is, only insofar as that production approximates an urban standard of skilled artisanal work. It refocuses attention not on labour as such, but on a particular kind of labour. And despite the dedicated reconstruction of female activity in O’Callaghan’s work, it would normally exclude those tasks usually left to women: spinning, sowing, the raising of children. Using ‘craft’ for those domestic activities too might look like a welcome revaluation of work rarely counted as work at all. But this move has its strategic risks as well as its benefits, by eliding the distinction Hannah Arendt famously drew between ‘work’ and ‘labour’, the latter consisting in the ‘constant, unending fight against the processes of growth and decay’.[4] In her catalogue of male infidelity, for instance, Isabella Whitney urges her (female) readers to take note: ‘I wish al Maids within their brests /to kepe this thing in store’. The word ‘store’, O’Callaghan nicely observes, is ‘a favourite word of Whitney’s’ (CPA, 86), and includes women in the humanist routine of excerpting and collecting moral lessons for future uses. But Whitney also addresses women, ‘Maids’ no less, as experts in the processes of storing and preserving that belonged to the household routine. Gathering and compiling examples is indispensable, but humdrum, repetitive, and only sporadically illuminating – more like labour than work, and no less vital for that fact. That distinction, recently deployed in Katie Kadue’s luminous account of ‘domestic georgic’, suggests that even the most capacious notion of ‘craft’ will have its blind-spots. When the woman in Richard Edwards’ poem soothes her child, she takes part in an unending labour of care; producing and varying the proverb is a way of making it through the night, long after the author is tucked up in his naked bed.


If making anthologies involves craft, then, it is not necessarily the case that all the work of making counts as craft, or must be viewed as craft in order to count. Nor can craft encompass all the activities on which anthologies rely, but which cannot be so readily embodied on the page. And this raises questions concerning the political allegiances these collections encode. The problem of how to bind together disparate individual parts, how to secure internal differentiation while achieving some measure of unity, is a political as well as a poetic one; and it was especially pressing in the middle of the sixteenth century. The ‘civic Renaissance’ project was intended to stabilise a still fragile Tudor regime by drawing affluent members of the urban middling sort into the business of civic administration alongside the gentry and nobility. This was a project of incorporation – both in the literal sense through which towns were granted their charters, and in the broader sense, as suggested by Raymond Williams, by which a society requires ‘the continual remaking of a corporate culture on which its reality depends’.[5] O’Callaghan includes anthologies like Tottel’s and Disle’s within this project because of the nationalist sentiments they express in their prefaces. But anthologies are also implicated by virtue of their form, which seems especially suited to holding together a heterogeneous group of readers. Thus the preface to Gascoigne’s Hundreth Sundrie Flowres boasts that ‘the worke is so universal, as either in one place or other, any mans mind may therewith be satisfied’.[6] The paradox is noted by Heffernan, who observes how books designed as compilations can demand, as Jones’s Smale handfull does, to be ‘throughly scand’: to be read thoroughly, and to be read through (MM, 66). The corporate ideal of civic humanism, though, was far from ‘demotic’ (CPA, 63); it had very definite limits. It would have been good to hear more about the corresponding limits of the anthologies’ claims to coherence: about moments, perhaps, where anthologies register those political limits by feeling what Heffernan terms ‘the omnipresent threat of fragmentation’, and by giving in. 

Such a focus might also help to explain what exactly happened in the 1590s. Both authors agree that something changed over these years, and track those changes in the pages of the anthologies. O’Callaghan is reluctant to endorse any straightforward account of a withdrawal from bourgeois culture, partly on the reasonable grounds that such a withdrawal must have been overseen and encouraged by the printers themselves. Those anthologies that used Sidney’s example to license a writerly hauteur are best seen, she argues, as part of a ‘diversification’ across the board (CPA, 138). While this is bolstered by her reading of Englands Parnassus, as the product of an undoubtedly bourgeois circle gathered around John Bodenham, it produces a history of the anthology without much sense of history passing. After all, grouping Bodenham and Tottel as participants in the same phenomenon assumes that this phenomenon was indeed the same, rather than a process that had adapted and altered over forty years. Each chapter devoted to a different group of anthologies can thus end up re-treading the same ground, with rich but dense descriptions of the collections’ design followed by evidence of their recreational use. Similarly, although she qualifies the closure with which A Poetical Rapsody is often viewed by following its further editions, O’Callaghan does not explain why Francis Davison should find so few immediate imitators. One gap in both studies is the relationship between sixteenth-century anthologies and their seventeenth-century counterparts, namely the sort of collections studied in Adam Smyth’s earlier work. However, while Heffernan too avoids any linear narrative, she emphasises the role played in the decline of compilation by the burgeoning concept of authorship. Over the early decades of the seventeenth century, she argues, the spectrum of disorder along which anthologies situated themselves began to break up, its poles separating and rigidifying, with authors placed over and above miscellanies as a way of joining and reading lyrics together.

Both O’Callaghan and Heffernan leave readers with a more expansive understanding of what poetic making involved, and whom it involved. Both share the urge, articulated at the end of Crafting Poetic Anthologies, ‘to bring into focus the role of non-élite poetic cultures and alternative “minor” traditions in shaping the history of English lyric poetry’ (CPA, 229). That means expanding the standard roster of authors with figures like Isabella Whitney, Richard Edwards, George Whetstone, and others; it also means drawing well-known authors, like Sidney and Shakespeare, into the story of compilation. Most of all, it means blurring the distinction between creation and recreation, to allow the compilers, printers, readers, and performers of these poems a share in their crafting. Yet while O’Callaghan offers a corrective to the overvaluation of authorship during the period, Heffernan offers an explanation. Making the Miscellany is a story of how authors became authors – in the sense, at least, of principles of coherence across disparate bodies of work – and of how miscellanies became miscellaneous. The advantage of this approach is to throw the concept of the anthology itself in question. O’Callaghan argues that ‘this is the period when vernacular anthologies emerged as a recognised and recognisable type of printed book’ (CPA, 6). Heffernan is less certain, mindful of the dangers in emphasising the stability of the category over its heuristic flux. O’Callaghan shows that anthologising includes a range of practices, of production and reception; but those practices are nonetheless delimited within a fixed class of objects, the anthologies themselves. Heffernan complements this approach by showing how the dilemmas of compilation, however keenly felt in anthologies, were registered across the field of English poetry. No volume was immune from them. The authorial presence cultivated by solo-author editions was itself a sophisticated production on the part of their mediators, the various agents who played a part in compiling and publishing them. Meanwhile, authors who wanted to play with the common threads across their poetic writings were forced to act like their own compilers. The story of early modern poets thus cannot be understood without understanding the strategies of compilation by which their poems were presented, by themselves or by others.

The importance of those strategies has been written out of literary history. It comes as a shock to be reminded that, with his 1595 Astrophel, Spenser acted as the anthologist of his own and others’ works, or that Newman’s 1591 edition of Astrophel and Stella was a surreptitious anthology. Sidney’s poems and those of Spenser have long since been disarticulated from the compilations in which they appeared. The same goes for Shakespeare. His first attributed collection of sonnets, The Passionate Pilgrim, was an anthology in disguise; his second collection, all his own work, was written off by one early reader for its manifest disorder, as nothing but a ‘heap of wretched Infidel stuff’. (The term is repeated in Charles Gildon’s critique of The Passionate Pilgrim, quoted by Heffernan, as ‘no more than a medly of Shakespear’s thrown into a Heap without any Distinction’ [MM, 214].) Even Sidney’s outsized influence served to license a broader look at the literary field, with an emphasis on contemporary poets as contemporaries. The authorship anthologies established for him was thoroughly and ironically collective, his irreplaceable singularity established by the chorus of voices he left behind him. Anthologies are effective and ambivalent ways of remembering the dead. While the poems in The Phoenix Nest assemble as a funeral cortège, Englands Helicon is constituted by a jumble of singing shepherds. It represents the current state of authorship at the same time as mystifying it, by supplementing the names of authors (generally subscribed beneath their poems) with a dramatis personae of shepherds. Spenser is present as, and alongside, Colin Clout; Anthony Munday appears only as a fictitious avatar, ‘Shepherd Tonie’; altogether, Heffernan writes, the anthology allows a preoccupation with authorship to exist alongside a ‘strategic anonymity’ (MM, 81). O’Callaghan observes these distortions already in Spenser’s Astrophel, where Colin Clout straddles the boundary between poet and compiler. For all its elegiac respect for Sidney’s authorship, she writes, Astrophel ‘puts into circulation a collaborative, co-creative mode of authorship that does not fully cohere into a unified author’ (CPA, 135).

Anthologies were spaces in which authors encountered and remembered each other, and themselves; they were testing sites in which writers could experiment with assembling their own lyrics; they were catalysts in establishing authorship as a transcendental ground for the coherence of a poetic oeuvre. They set out to understand what lyric poems were, and what they had in common. And in all this, they were the result of immense collective labour: craft, yes, but also other, less artisanal forms of toil, all in the name of the production and reproduction of English poetry. Without the example they set, and the joyful affordances they invited, it is hard to see how the history of early modern lyric could be the same. Reading both these books makes poetry look more like a verb than a noun: a practice, not an object, and one with a multitude of lives within it. Poetry, in Michelle O’Callaghan’s happy phrase, is a ‘work of conjoining’ (CPA, 32): one in which poets are closely, but never exclusively, involved; and one whose conjunctions have not yet been exhausted.


Ted Tregear

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge


[1] A Gorgious Gallery, of Gallant Inuentions (London, 1578), A2r.

[2] See, among others, Michael Hetherington, ‘The Poetics of Coherence: Logic and Miscellaneity in Late Sixteenth-Century Literature’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2013); Erin McCarthy, Doubtful Readers: Print, Poetry, and the Reading Public in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); Jessica Rosenberg, ‘Bound Flowers, Loose Leaves: Horticultural Form and Textual Practice in Early Modern English Print’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Pennsylvania, 2014); Angus Vine, Miscellaneous Order: Manuscript Culture and the Organization of Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Matthew Zarnowiecki, Fair Copies: Reproducing the English Lyric from Tottel to Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

[3] ‘The Triple Foole’, in Poems, By J.D. (London, 1633), 2D2v.

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 100; see also Katie Kadue, Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).

[5] Raymond Williams, ‘Marxist Cultural Theory’, in Culture and Politics: Class, Writing, Socialism, ed. Phil O’Brien (London: Verso, 2022), 101.

[6] George Gascoigne, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, ed. G.W. Pigman III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 4.


  • Comment deleted 1 year, 12 months ago

  • San Ramon Concrete And Masonry 4 months, 1 week ago

    That distinction, recently deployed in Katie Kadue’s luminous account of ‘domestic georgic’, suggests that even the most capacious notion of ‘craft’ will have its blind-spots.

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  • Lakewood Fence Company 4 months ago

    While the poets and poems these anthologies collect have been installed in the early modern canon, the anthologies themselves have been left sequestered in a lonely corner of literary scholarship.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

Ted Tregear, "The Work of Conjoining," Spenser Review 52.1.4 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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