Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
William Webbe (c. 15501591)
[A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586) was written by William Webbe, a. Cambridge scholar, while tutor to the sons of Mr. Edward Sulyard at the manor-house of Flemyngs in Essex. Little is known of Webbe apart from his treatise. He was a friend of Robert Wilmot, one of the authors of the sententiously composed tragedy of Tancred and Gismunda, and wrote a letter to him, printed in Wilmots revised version of the tragedy in 1592.]
LITERARY criticism was not to be found in England, except in an occasional and parenthetical form, till the time of Queen Elizabeth. In other countries there had been earlier essays in this field, of which Dantes treatise de Vulgari Eloquio is the chief, while there are others, the Provençal Rasos de Trobar, the Art de dictier et faire balades of Eustache Deschamps, and the letter of the Marquis of Santillana to the Constable of Portugal, in which various portions of the subject are dealt with, from the elements of grammar to the universal history of the poetic art.
In few of the earlier pieces of criticism in English is there much breadth of view; none, except Sidneys Apology, goes much beyond the rudiments of verse on the one hand, or commonplace disquisitions on the utility of poetry on the other. Prosody was one of the principal objects of attention; the literature dealing with it ranges from Gascoignes Notes of Instruction to the various documents in favour of the classical forms of verse, and from these to Campions advocacy of rhymeless but not classical forms, and Daniels Defence of Rhyme. The debate on the value of poetry, which called out Sidneys Apology, is mainly connected with the Puritan assault on the theatres, but goes on independently. The fullest Elizabethan summary of all the popular hypocrisies about poetry is Haringtons introduction to his Orlando Furioso, taken along with his moral and edifying applications of each canto of that poem.
Webbes essay refers directly to Gascoignes Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or rhyme in English, published in 1575; it does not improve on them. Gascoignes advice to poets is a plain statement of elementary rules; a sensible explanation of English metre and English forms of stanza, the Rime Royal, the Sonnet, and others. Such doctrine was not superfluous at that time; and it came none too soon, to help to drill the shambling and self-satisfied doggerel of the common rhymers into something like humanity. There is nothing very complicated or subtle in Gascoignes notes; they fall in with the Provençal grammarian, in recognising the practical advantages of a rhyming dictionary:To help you a little with rhyme (which is also a plain young scholars lesson) work thus: when you have set down your first verse, take the last word thereof, and count over all the words of the selfsame sound by order of the alphabets; as for example the last word of your first line is care; to rhyme therewith you have bare, clare, dare, fare, gare, hare, and share, mare, snare, rare, stare, and ware, etc. Of all these take that which best may serve your purpose, carrying reason with rhyme; and if none of them will serve so, then alter the last word of your former verse, but yet do not willingly alter the meaning of your invention. Gascoignes sound judgment is shown in his regret that all English verse should be reduced to the iambic, whereas we have used in times past other kinds of metres, and also in his remarks on that dull fashion of poetry common in his time, which made couplets of an Alexandrine and a fourteen-syllable line alternately. Gascoigne calls this poulters measure, which giveth xii. for one dozen, and xiv. for another, and dismisses it to the hymn-books, where it may still be found: The long verse of twelve and fouretene syllables, although it be nowadayes vsed in all Theames, yet in my iudgment it would serve best for Psalmes and Himpnes.
Webbe founds his discourse on Aschams Schoolmaster, especially in the theory that rhyme was brought first into Italy by the Hunnes and Gothians. He does not quite share Aschams contempt for our rude and beggarly rhyming: he admires Phaers famous translation of Virgil into the eights and sixes which Ascham slighted. But he also, though somewhat in the rearward of the fashion, attaches himself to Gabriel Harvey, and contributes some arguments in favour of the reformed kind of English verse; he offers with much satisfaction some of his own hexameters, to the extent of two Eclogues of Virgil
Tityrus happily thou list tumbling under a beech-tree,
and so forth; and a version of Hobbinols praise of Eliza in the Shepherds Calendar, done into Sapphics.
The Discourse is full of interest, as an example of average literary opinions of a certain type. Webbes appreciation of the new poet of the Shepherds Calendar is sincere; his learning is rather casual, his judgment rather wavering and apt to be controlled by other peoples opinion. But his Discourse is published as a small trauell, not as an exquisite censure concerning this matter.