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Puttenham, George (c. 1529–1590) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

arte puttenham’s author elyot

George Puttenham has been accepted as the author of the important Elizabethan critical work The Arte of English Poesie , since the 1936 edition of Willcock and Walker. Until then, opinion tended to view Puttenham’s elder brother Richard as author. Both brothers led relatively insignificant lives, though at times each became embroiled in legal controversies.

The Puttenhams were landowning gentry from southern England. The brothers’ father married Margery Elyot, sister of Sir Thomas Elyot,* author of The Governor (1531). Elyot alludes to his nephews in the dedication to The Education or Bringing up of Children (1535). The author of the Arte refers to studying at Oxford (though no Puttenham is listed in the university registers), growing up among courtiers and diplomats, and visiting various Continental courts.

George married Elizabeth Coudray. A poor reputation prompted the bishop of Winchester to describe him to the Privy Council as dissolute and ungodly. In the late 1570s and 1580s, Puttenham fought bitterly with his wife’s family. He was summoned before the council and imprisoned for a period, before finally receiving a cash grant for injustices suffered. His will left all his property to his servant, Mary Symes.


Puttenham’s emphasis on rhetorical and personal dissimulation has been studied in detail in recent criticism. The Arte is now considered a central Elizabethan account of the social and political stakes of literature and representation, while its concern with courtly identity raises issues of selfhood as cultural process.

Prior to this reading, the Arte was recognized as a significant handbook on rhetoric and poetics. It was cited and commended by various contemporaries, including John Harington,* William Camden, Francis Meres, Ben Jonson,* and Henry Peacham. The focus on courtiership raises ideas related to Castiglione’s* The Courtier , especially on naturalized performance of actions and speech. The Arte was reprinted twice during the nineteenth century. Its pre–World War II editors, Willcock and Walker, see in it “an urbane and flexible temperament, shrewd and critical in its judgments” ©, not taken in by ideological excesses but holding to an Elizabethan and an English via media (xcvi). Similarly, C. S. Lewis considers Puttenham’s views highly sensible, marking a civilized and disinterested critical intelligence.

Recent interpretations have reviewed these responses to the Arte . The author’s humanism is deemed a strategic negotiation of the court’s Petrarchan submission and service to the queen. Allegorical dissemblance is seen as resisting this rhetoric of obedience, enabling the courtier to exercise some individuality and agency within it (Davis, Javitch, Montrose, Plett). Other critics have questioned whether Puttenham’s ideas can be seen as ideologically resistant, since they remain focused on the fate of the male courtier and reinforce existing class and gender hierarchies (Lezra, Kegl; also David Norbrook and Annabel Patterson). All these discussions underline the Arte ’s depictions of selfhood as social and discursive process (Whigham).

A further critical development has been to read Puttenham’s rhetoric in de-constructive terms, with its emphasis on the power of tropes to subvert premises of natural linguistic order and meaning (Galyon, Attridge, Parker).

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