Autobiography and Authorship in Renaissance Verse: Chronicles of the Self

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Hoccleve, however, claims to find final closure and identity in the authorizing discourses of God conveyed through the authoritative words of Reason. The secular Elizabethan texts I study find no such resolution to the competing discourses and identities that shape their first-person speakers. Their subjects are characterized by contingency and instability and by a lack of trust, implicit or explicit, in the capacity of language to offer a firm and final grounding in truth.

The mirror focuses our attention on the difference between the vanity of the visible things of this world and the truths of the next. Where for Hoccleve the disjunction between what he seemed to himself and what others saw in him, is a sign of the imperfection of the world and the vanity of seeking satisfaction in it, the disjunction is for Whythorne a mark of the inadequacy of the mirror as a satisfactory record of the self in the world:.

In a perfect outer image the subject could admire what he had made himself to be, seen from the same perspective by all. The manuscript attempts to produce, as a mirror cannot, a perfected image of Whythorne for himself, in which the inner man is seen to be as well-framed as the outer man.


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The manuscript is fraught, however, with unresolved struggles and remains unfinished, as the life was unfinished in For Whythorne, a working musician from relatively humble origins who insists on his status as an accomplished gentleman, success lies in producing himself, visibly, in the world, in conformity to idealized social and cultural models none of which proves quite compatible with the others. One such moment of uncertainty is the mirror image whose impermanence and reversed perspectives challenge the fragile construct of the subjective authorial self.

In the absence of a single, dominant, validating paradigm for the self, the Renaissance author produces proliferating roles and paradigms, amongst which the possibility of a single true identity becomes, increasingly and self-evidently, an illusion. Verse, which until the advent of print, often circulated unattributed, and was open to appropriation, copying, and alteration by anyone, shows particularly clearly a shift in the s and s to a more privatized form of presentation, with collections attributed to a named poet and contributing to his authorial self-presentation.

Literary Non-Fiction

Poetry lent itself particularly readily to appropriation by authorial voices because of its extensive use of the first person subject position either for the effects of amorous self-expression, or, in epigrammatic verse and first-person complaint, as a voice that confirms through experience, cultural truisms and traditional wise saws. With its well-established generic models for voices and narratives, verse provided readily available paradigms for the development of authorial personae.

In addition, the self-evident artfulness of verse, its foregrounded artifice, may well have suited not only the promotional selfdisplay of many of the writers I study, but have offered genres in which autobiographical and authorial selves could appear as safely figurative and rhetorical. The first three chapters of this study concentrate on the ways in which verse offered prestigious and in many cases marketable forms in which writers, seeking to advance their fortunes in the world and to please potential patrons, could present plausible versions of themselves as gentlemen, or exceptionally, in the case of Isabella Whitney, as a gentlewoman, of accomplishments and wit, afflicted by misfortunes not of their own making, and fit objects for generous patronage and support.

Short verses allowed writers the flexibility to present themselves in a variety of first-person voices, as amorists and moralists. In Chapter 3, I examine a genre of longer autobiographical poems that became very popular in the early Elizabethan period. These poems figure their author-heroes as men of experience and effort, attempting to get on in the world through their own travails or travels. In each case the established paradigms of virtue that shape the author-hero — man of education and enterprise, brave soldier, or epic adventurer — are threatened 10 Autobiography and Authorship in Renaissance Verse and undermined by narratives of injustice, misfortune or, in some cases, foreign outlandishness.

These career narratives contain some of the most fascinating and least studied writing of this period. Edmund Spenser repeatedly figured versions of himself in his own verse. In Colin Clovts Come Home Againe, discussed among the narratives of career and travel in Chapter 3, and Amoretti and Epithalamion, discussed in Chapter 4, Spenser represents the poet as a man who, through his personal experience, his vision and his eloquence, is able to instruct and transform his own society.

Writing from the political margins in Ireland, and from a social background very similar to those of writers studied in Chapters 1 and 3, Edmund Spenser established a precarious position for himself within an expatriate social elite. In Amoretti and Epithalamion, he presents himself and his marriage in Ireland, on the margins of the English political body, as a model to his readers of what virtuous Protestant English civility should be, dependent on the self-rule of each of its citizens.

However, in ways that this study suggests is characteristic of all amorous writing in this period, the language of passion proves unsettling to claims of self-rule. In both texts, we find that the language of the heart, that which lies intimately within, is found to be not only destructive of the ordered self, but exposes the fiction of a single, authorial, controlling presence.

The lover-poet of the sonnets, like most of the Elizabethan writers of versions of the self that I study, identifies himself as belonging on the margins of courtly society, clearly differentiated by his demotic status from the splendid and aristocratic young man who is the object of his admiration.

However, through the course of the sequence, the language of passion, through which the poet-lover articulates his subjectivity, exposes all distinctions of class, individuality, and even of gender as unstable. The poet-lover is given his authorial name only at the moment in which all individual Wills are confounded in the undifferentiating discourse of desire.

In the second section of the chapter, I shall discuss how, in the miscellanies of George Gascoigne and George Turbervile, amorous verse sequences expose anxieties about a dangerous, feminized, instability in language that calls into question the inscription of the well-framed, masculine authorial self. In the final section of the chapter, I consider the very different representations of gender in the work of the only female miscellanist, Isabella Whitney.

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The single-author miscellanists were almost exclusively gentlemen, or men who aspired to gentry status, for whom writing and printing verse should be understood, at least partly, in terms of social definition and career advancement. In turn the printers of these pamphlets offer a highly saleable commodity to aspiring young men eager to learn the skills and behaviours of a cultivated elite.

Ascham, for example, warned that if ye suffer the eye of a yong Ientleman, once to be entangled with vaine sightes, and the eare to be corrupted with fond or filthie taulke, the mynde shall quicklie fall seick, and sone vomet and cast vp, all the holesome doctrine, that he receiued in childhoode, though he were neuer so well brought vp before.

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The world of the court and courting, however, offered a dangerous threat to such a gathered masculine self. The court was itself often perceived as an effeminate place, a perception exacerbated in the second half of the sixteenth century by the rule of female monarchs.

Spenser, no admirer of courts, associated them with corrupt pride in his description of the court of the maiden queen Lucifera in The Faerie Queene. The courtiers are undifferentiated by gender, but all behave effeminately: Her Lordes and Ladies all this while device Themselves to setten forth to straungers sight: Some frounce their curled heare in courtly guise; Some pranke their ruffes; and others trimly dight Their gay attire; each others greater pride does spight. The volume gives us the illusion that it has merely extended the process of manuscript copying to reach a wider network of coterie readers, some of whom seem to have treated it as they would a manuscript miscellany, answering, adapting and freely imitating individual items.


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Early readers of Tottel seem not to have been particularly attentive to the different identities of contributors. Many of the ironies and political manoeuvrings inherent in a poem about virtuous retirement by a courtier as ambitious as Wyatt, are easily lost when the poem is removed from the milieu in which it was written.

Paradoxically the effect of such titles is both to represent the poems as the spontaneous and intimate expression of individuals participating in an exemplary amorous narrative in a privileged social world, and at the same time to erase all sense of idiosyncracy and possible irony. The accomplished courtier was a man who might participate in a courtly amour and could turn an elegant verse in praise Miscellanies and the well-formed gentleman 17 of his mistress, but who also participated in the gentlemanly exchange of aphoristic verse and could show his personal mastery of the copia of classical and Christian moral teaching.

Howell advertises his gentlemanly status not only on the title page, but also through various signals about his background and his participation in the manuscript exchange of poems by cultivated men. Howell is here displayed as a participant in cultivated exchange between friends. So should my Parents not, haue been at such great cost, To bringe me vp on whom by fate, their great good gifts are lost: Ne yet haue left to me, no whit such wealth at all, Whereby from wealth to miserie, might chaunce a soden fall.

Yet when thy maister likes thee well, thy mistres may thee hate: and thus betwene Caribdis rockes, thou sailst in doubtfull state.

Autobiography and Authorship in Renaissance Verse

A later volume, H. If the first volume, Newe Sonets, was a gambit of self-promotion, advertising Howell as the gentleman he claimed to be, in manners and accomplishments as well as in birth, then it seems to have been successful, perhaps playing a part in his eventual employment by the literary Countess of Pembroke.

Writers like Howell, eager to display their credentials as gentlemen of courtly skills, yet equally eager to present themselves as men well-grounded in Protestant humanist precepts, faced a dilemma. This is followed by a flurry of short epistles exchanged with L. Elsewhere, poems of courtship are menacingly surrounded by poems of moral warning.

Eglogs, Epitaphes and Sonettes carefully constructs Googe as not only a well-taught humanist student, but also, through the sonnets section, as a gentleman, able to turn his hand to a courting lyric, whether in his own voice or not, while demonstrating his morally-sound awareness of the dangers of fancy and its bait, female beauty. How care them cloyes that live in jelousie.

Eager to please potential employers by displaying themselves as sober, well-formed gentlemen, the mid-century poets were also keen to demonstrate their courtly credentials as men able to turn a neat sonnet or balet, and to figure themselves as experienced participators in elegant pastimes. Allusions to censure and criticism in prefaces and poems Miscellanies and the well-formed gentleman 23 suggest that the advantages of appearing as a courtly writer in print may have been at least partly qualified by the risk of moral disapproval on the part of the public, and even worse, on the part of potential patrons.

The degree to which single-author miscellanies flag their anxiety about moral censure indicates not only the potential damage of such censure, but also pervasive fears about the dangers to the well-framed masculine self of the writing of such amorous verse. In this section, I shall discuss ways in which incipient narratives, developed from the implied occasions of amorous verses, and from the dire warnings of moral and aphoristic verse, could be appropriated for autobiographical narratives.

In amorous verse sequences by two of the early Elizabethan miscellanists, George Gascoigne and George Turbervile, the self-promotional masculine authorial subject finds himself implicated in tales that call attention to the unreliability of writing and the emasculating deceptions of discourse.

As Wendy Wall and Arthur Marotti have pointed out, it mimics a manuscript album.

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Against G. He thus first appears in a carefully modulated guise, translating both a courtly Italian text and a classical Greek tragedy. The editor, presumably G. The poems explicitly attributed to Gascoigne are carefully selected to display him as adept at courtly skills but distanced from amorous delinquency. Gascoigne here presents himself as a humanist scholar and virtuoso, with a well-stored head, copious invention, and a well-trained memory. On closer inspection this splendid mirage proves illusory, depending as it does on rhetorical performances whose ostentatious artfulness undermines the very possibility of sincerity and integrity.

The excess of the attack, unjustified in terms of the narrative this recantation concludes, draws our attention to the formulaic nature of the recantation and its moralism. The words he speaks, the verse he writes, can be appropriated and assigned at will, its speaking voice a rhetorical effect, a mirage of presence. The poet-lover of A Hundreth may be not only a manipulator of illusions, but also their victim. The narratives of courting with which his volume abounds, repeatedly construct the male poet-lover as contaminated by the glamorous vanity of the world he seeks to exploit and judge.

It is also a warning tale, like most of those Gascoigne tells, of female faithlessness and betrayal.

It seems to offer its readers a glimpse of a glamorously exclusive social world, but the figure that suffers most is the poet-lover who creates it and initiates the action, Master F. As we shall see when we examine this text in more detail in Chapter 5, the world of Master F. The narrative takes the form of prose introductions and explanations to written epistles and verses sent by the lover, or sung aloud, or occasionally written for his private pleasure. The story of F. The verses, written in her manuscript album, are answered by an encouraging line from the lady.

The lengthy head note tells us: You shall now understand, that soone after this answer of hirs, the same Author chaunced to be at a supper in hir company, where were also hir brother, hir husband, and an old lover of hirs by whom she had bin long suspected.

The Devonshire Manuscript: A Women’s Book of Courtly Poetry, by Lady Margaret Douglas and Others

Nowe, although there wanted no delicate viands to content them, yit their chief repast was by entreglancing of lookes. For G. And the Dame of a curteous enclination deigned now and then to requite the same with glancing at him. Hir old lover occupied his eyes with watching: and hir brother perceyving all this could not absteyne from winking, ….


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But most of all hir husband … was constreyned to play the fifth part in forward frowninge. The high society amours with morally loose courtly dames legitimize the courtly credentials of those who take part in such games. In the case of this particular sequence, Gascoigne himself is implicated, not only through the prominent appearance of his name as a Miscellanies and the well-formed gentleman 29 contributor to this supposed manuscript in print, but veiled behind the lover whose initials, we are told, are G.

The poet who uses this discourse is, however, also constructed by it. Although represented as the male initiator of seduction narratives, the poet-lover is doomed always to re-enact the scenario of deception and female perfidy that constitutes this courtly world in so many poems in these miscellanies. By his very participation in an amorous courtly discourse, the poet-lover inscribes himself as marginal, powerless and insubstantial, a player in a game of charades, a user of a language which is never his own and can never be trusted.

By casting himself as victim in amorous narratives of his own telling, in which power is attributed to untrustworthy women, the poetlover paradoxically produces himself as both effeminate and tainted. It is possible that the G. Like other early Elizabethan poets he presents himself to the public and to potential employers, through his miscellanies, as participating in the social and manuscript exchange of poetry within a privileged coterie in which both sober humanist and witty courtly discourses are both common currency.

Like Gascoigne also, these narratives of courting call into question the very stability of writing and voice on which the more moralistic self-presentations 30 Autobiography and Authorship in Renaissance Verse of the author depend. A verse sequence in Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonets, presents fictional protagonists, Tymetes and his lady Pyndara, but it develops motifs that reappear in a more explicitly autobiographical sequence in Epitaphes and Sonnettes, and I shall therefore consider it briefly. His absence produces doubt and misunderstanding foregrounding the instability of writing, its lack of a seemingly authenticating voice and presence.

His second, written in ink and charging Pyndara to avoid the shame of Cressida by remaining faithful to him, produces, rather than assuages, distrust. After all, the introduction to the sequence has assured us that it is Pyndara who will betray, not Tymetes, however much she may be given the language of moral counsel, and warn women of the falseness of men: If she that reades this rime, be wise as I could wishe, 32 Autobiography and Authorship in Renaissance Verse She should auoyde the bayted hooke that takes the biting fishe.