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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

figure poetry puttenham figures

The single extant text that identifies Puttenham as its author is a handwritten 1590 pamphlet, An Apologie or True Defens of her Majesties Honorable and Good Renowne , defending Elizabeth’s treatment of Mary Stuart. The author of the Arte describes other works he has written, but only one survives— Partheniades , poems presented to the queen. The lost texts include a comedy, Ginecocratia ; two interludes, Lusty London and Woer ; a hymn dedicated to the queen; and some prose treatises on rhetorical decorum, ornament, and the history of English. The main concerns of these works are praise of the sovereign and rhetoric. They also form the focus of The Arte of English Poesie .

In many ways the Arte is the most comprehensive early-modern piece of English literary criticism. It surveys the history of poetry and compares English poetry to classical and European traditions. It provides a detailed glossary of tropes and figures. Perhaps most interestingly, it reflects on the social and political stakes of poetry and the position of the “courtly maker” or poet. Like other writers at Elizabeth’s court such as John Lyly,* Philip Sidney,* Edmund Spenser,* and George Peele,* Puttenham is sharply conscious of the need to balance submission and service against hopes of promotion, reward, and self-assertion. More directly than many, however, Puttenham discusses the ways that texts and symbolism represent and inform these relationships.

The Arte is divided into three books: “Of Poets and Poesie,” “Of Proportion Poetical,” and “Of Ornament.” The first offers various definitions of poetry and poets, reiterating traditional accounts of their development and considering their position in sixteenth-century England. The opening chapters make similar points to Sidney’s* Defence of Poesie , such as poets’ descent from ancient seers and makers and their pivotal role in the development of civilized society, as “the first law-makers to the people, and the first politicians, devising all expedient means for th’ establishment of Common wealth, to hold and contain the people in order and duty” (7). The poet imitates and creates, “both a maker and a counterfeiter” (3). The natural purpose of language is to persuade others and benefit oneself, and because poetry is pleasing, it can be highly persuasive. Appropriate subject matter includes praise of gods, kings, and virtue, condemnation of vice, and moral instruction. These thematic goals determine its various forms, including the heroic, lyric, elegiac, tragic, and satirical. Puttenham maintains that poetry and poets are not properly appreciated and supported in present times. This is despite the excellence of contemporary English poetry, its quality fostered earlier in the sixteenth century by Thomas Wyatt* and the earl of Surrey.*

The second book of the Arte focuses on poetry’s formal elements and variations. Puttenham details rules for technical aspects such as placement of the caesura and various rhyme schemes. He emphasizes the interrelation between visual and aural responses to poetry—the shape of the verse should be linked to its meaning. Square poems, for example, capture the solidity and materiality of earthly topics, while spherical poems reflect heavenly ideas. Similar kinds of visual effects are created by having emblems or devices accompany poems, “the words so aptly corresponding to the subtlety of the figure, that as well the eye is therewith recreated as the ear or the mind” (102). Puttenham’s notion of poetry is of a form read as much as heard.

The third book, “Of Ornament,” is the longest. It contains much detail on tropes and figures, taken from classical rhetoric but enlivened by English names and examples from contemporary poetry and life, notably Ralegh’s.* Puttenham considers that figures affect the mind, not the senses; hence ornament is central to the persuasive functions of language. A text’s style should suit its subject matter; but style is also an index of the poet’s mind, “for man is but his mind, and as his mind is tempered and qualified, so are his speeches and language at large, and his inward conceits be the metal of his mind” (148). Textual style becomes the arena where an author’s motives and reader’s responses interact.

Tropes and figures deviate from normal usage and are “occupied of purpose to deceive the ear and also the mind, drawing it from plainness and simplicity to a certain doubleness, whereby our talk is the more guileful & abusing” (154). There are three kinds of figures. The “auricular” strikes the ear; an example is a suggestive midsentence pause, what the Greeks called Aposiopesis but what Puttenham Englishes as the figure of Silence or Interruption (166). The “sensible” strikes the imagination and includes metaphor and metonymy, renamed Transport and the Misnamer. The key sensible figure is “the Courtly figure Allegoria . . . the figure of false semblant or dissimulation ,” which comes into play “when we speak one thing and think another, and that our words and our meanings meet not” (186). For Puttenham, this figure is so central that it crosses over to the next category, “sententious” figures, which strike the ear and imagination, such as the trope “ Amphibologia . . . the ambiguous , or figure of sense uncertain” (260).

All figures should realize “decency” or decorum, a kind of natural conformity between “sense and the sensible” (261–62). A lack of “decency” risks losing poets their audience’s good opinion. The key to sustaining decorum and opinion is to simulate the natural through practice and training in the figurative. The rhetorical concepts start to supply models for ways of constructing identity, especially amid the court’s social rivalries and political complexities.

Here Puttenham returns to the figure of Allegoria , which he sees as highly relevant to the courtly poet’s position. As courtier, the poet must “cunningly . . . be able to dissemble. . . his conceits as well as his countenances, so as he never speak as he thinks, or think as he speaks. . . the figure Allegoria . . . therefore not impertinently we call the Courtier or figure of fair semblant” (299). Through careful monitoring of self and others, the poet shall “be more commended for his natural eloquence then for his artificial, and more for his artificial well dissembled, than for the same overmuch affected and grossly or undiscreetly bewrayed” (307). The Arte closes with an appeal to the queen’s recognition of the author’s talent and “ability to any better or greater service” (308).

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