Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
An Account of English Poets
By William Webbe (c. 15501591)
From A Discourse of English Poetry
THE FIRST of our English poets that I have heard of was John Gower, about the time of King Richard the second, as it should seem by certain conjectures both a knight, and questionless a singular well learned man: whose works I could wish they were all whole and perfect among us, for no doubt they contained very much deep knowledge and delight: which may be gathered by his friend Chaucer, who speaketh of him oftentimes, in divers places of his works. Chaucer, who for that excellent fame which he obtained in his poetry, was always accounted the god of English poets (such a title for honours sake hath been given him) was next after, if not equal in time to Gower, and hath left many works, both for delight and profitable knowledge, far exceeding any other that as yet ever since his time directed their studies that way. Though the manner of his style may seem blunt and coarse to many fine English ears at these days, yet in truth, if it be equally pondered, and with good judgment advised, and confirmed with the time wherein he wrote, a man shall perceive thereby even a true picture or perfect shape of a right poet. He, by his delightsome vein, so gulled the ears of men with his devices, that, although corruption bare such sway in most matters, that learning and truth might scant be admitted to shew it self, yet without controlment, might he gird at the vices and abuses of all states, and gall with very sharp and eager inventions, which he did so learnedly and pleasantly, that none therefore would call him into question. For such was his bold spirit, that what enormities he saw in any, he would not spare to pay them home, either in plain words, or else in some pretty and pleasant covert, that the simplest might espy him.
Near in time unto him was Lydgate, a poet, surely, for good proportion of his verse, and meetly current style, as the time afforded, comparable with Chaucer, yet more occupied in superstitious and odd matters than was requisite in so good a wit: which, though he handled them commendably, yet the matters themselves being not so commendable, his estimation hath been the less. The next of our ancient poets, that I can tell of, I suppose to be Piers Ploughman, who in his doings is somewhat harsh and obscure, but indeed a very pithy writer, and (to his commendation I speak it) was the first that I have seen, that observed the quantity of our verse without the curiosity of rhyme.
Since these I know none other till the time of Skelton, who writ in the time of King Henry the eighth, who as indeed he obtained the laurel garland, so may I with good right yield him the title of a poet: he was doubtless a pleasant conceited fellow, and of a very sharp wit, exceeding bold, and would nip to the very quick where he once set hold. Next him I think I may place Master George Gascoyne, as painful a soldier in the affairs of his prince and country, as he was a witty poet in his writing: whose commendations, because I found in one of better judgment than my self, I will set down his words, and suppress mine own: of him thus writeth E. K. upon the ninth Æglogue of the new poet:1
Master George Gascoyne, a witty gentleman and the very chief of our late rhymers, who, and if some parts of learning wanted not (albeit it is well known he altogether wanted not learning) no doubt would have attained to the excellency of those famous poets. For gifts of wit and natural promptness appear in him abundantly.
I might next speak of the divers works of the old Earl of Surrey: of the Lord Vaux of Norton, of Bristow, Edwardes, Tusser, Churchyard, Will Hunnis, Heywood, Sand, Hyll, S. Y., M. D., and many others, but to speak of their several gifts, and abundant skill shewed forth by them in many pretty and learned works, would make my discourse much more tedious.
I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble lords and gentlemen, in her majestys court, which in the rare devices of poetry, have been and yet are most excellent skilful, among whom, the right honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to him self the title of the most excellent among the rest. I can no longer forget those learned gentlemen which took such profitable pains in translating the Latin poets into our English tongue, whose deserts in that behalf are more than I can utter. Among these, I ever esteemed, and while I live, in my conceit I shall account Master D. Phaer without doubt the best: who as indeed he had the best piece of poetry whereon to set a most gallant verse, so performed he it accordingly, and in such sort, as in my conscience I think would scarcely be done again, if it were to do again. Notwithstanding, I speak it but as mine own fancy, not prejudicial to those that list to think otherwise. His work whereof I speak, is the enlightening of Æneidos of Virgil, so far forth as it pleased God to spare him life, which was to the half part of the tenth book, the rest being since with no less commendations finished, by that worthy scholar and famous physician Master Thomas Twyne.
Equally with him may I well adjoin Master Arthur Golding, for his labour in Englishing Ovids Metamorphosis, for which gentleman, surely our country hath for many respects greatly to give God thanks, as for him which hath taken infinite pains without ceasing, travaileth as yet indefatigably, and is addicted without society, by his continual labour, to profit this nation and speech in all kind of good learning. The next, very well deserveth Master Barnaby Googe to be placed, as a painful furtherer of learning, his help to poetry besides his own devices, as the translating of Palingenius Zodiac. Abraham Flemming as in many pretty poesies of his own, so in translating hath done to his commendations. To whom I would here adjoin one of his name, whom I know to have excelled, as well in all kinds of learning as in poetry most especially, and would appear so, if the dainty morsels, and fine poetical inventions of his, were as common abroad as I know they be among some of his friends. I will crave leave of the laudable authors of Seneca in English, of the other parts of Ovid, of Horace, of Mantuan, and divers other, because I would hasten to end this rehearsal, perhaps offensive to some, whom either by forgetfulness or want of knowledge, I must needs over pass.
And once again, I am humbly to desire pardon of the learned company of gentlemen scholars, and students of the universities, and Inns of Court, if I omit their several commendations in this place, which I know a great number of them have worthily deserved, in many rare devices, and singular inventions of poetry: for neither hath it been my good hap to have seen all which I have heard of, neither is my abiding in such place, where I can with facility get knowledge of their works.
One gentleman notwithstanding among them may I not overslip, so far reacheth his fame, and so worthy is he, if he have not already, to wear the laurel wreath, Master George Whetstone, a man singularly well skilled in this faculty of poetry: to him I will join Anthony Munday, an earnest travailer in this art, and in whose name I have seen very excellent works, among which surely, the most exquisite vein of a witty poetical head is shewed in the sweet sobs of shepherds and nymphs, a work well worthy to be viewed, and to be esteemed as very rare poetry. With these I may place John Graunge, Knight, Wilmot, Darrell, F. C., F. K., G. B., and many other, whose names come not now to my remembrance.
This place have I purposely reserved for one, who if not only, yet in my judgment principally deserveth the title of the rightest English poet, that ever I read: that is, the author of the Shepheards Calendar, intituled to the worthy gentleman Master Philip Sydney, whether it was Master Sp. or what rare Scholar in Pembroke Hall soever, because himself and his friends, for what respect I know not, would not reveal it, I force not greatly to set down: sorry I am that I can not find none other with whom I might couple him in this catalogue, in his rare gift of poetry: although one there is, though now long since seriously occupied in graver studies (Master Gabriel Harvey), yet, as he was once his most special friend and fellow poet, so because he hath taken such pains, not only in his Latin poetry (for which he enjoyed great commendations of the best both in judgment and dignity in this realm) but also to reform our English verse, and to beautify the same with brave devices, of which I think the chief lie hid in hateful obscurity; therefore will I adventure to set them together, as two of the rarest wits, and learnedst masters of poetry in England. Whose worthy and notable skill in this faculty, I would wish if their high dignities and serious businesses would permit, they would still grant to be a furtherance to that reformed kind of poetry, which Master Harvey did once begin to ratify: and surely in mine opinion, if he had chosen some graver matter, and handled but with half that skill, which I know he could have done, and not poured it forth at a venture, as a thing between jest and earnest, it had taken greater effect than it did.
As for the other gentleman, if it would please him or his friends to let those excellent poems, whereof I know he hath plenty, come abroad, as his Dreams, his Legends, his Court of Cupid, his English Poet, with other: he should not only stay the rude pens of myself and others, but also satisfy the thirsty desires of many which desire nothing more, than to see more of his rare inventions. If I join to Master Harvey his two brethren, I am assured, though they be both busied with great and weighty callings (the one a godly and learned divine, the other a famous and skilful physician) yet if they listed to set to their helping hands to poetry, they would as much beautify and adorn it as any others.
If I let pass the uncountable rabble of rhyming ballad makers and compilers of senseless sonnets, who be most busy to stuff every stall full of gross devices and unlearned pamphlets, I trust I shall with the best sort be held excused. Nor though many such can frame an alehouse song of five or six score verses, hobbling upon some tune of a Northern jig or Robin Hood, or La lubber, etc., and perhaps observe just number of syllables, eight in one line, six in an other, and there withal an A to make a jerk in the end: yet if these might be accounted poets (as it is said some of them make means to be promoted to the laurel) surely we shall shortly have whole swarms of poets, and every one that can frame a book in rhyme, though for want of matter it be but in commendations of copper noses or bottle ale, will catch at the garland due to poets: those potticall poetical (I should say) heads, I would wish, at their worshipful commencements might in stead of laurel be gorgeously garnished with fair green barley, in token of their good affection to our English malt. One2 speaketh thus homely of them, with whose words I will content myself for this time, because I would not be too broad with them in mine own speech:
In regard (he meaneth of the learned framing [of] the new poets works which writ the Shepheards Calendar) I scorn and spue out the rakehelly rout of our ragged rhymers (for so themselves use to hunt the letter) which without learning boast, without judgment jangle, without reason rage and fume, as if some instinct of poetical spirit had newly ravished them above the meanest of common capacity. And being in the midst of all their bravery, suddenly for want of matter, or of rhyme, or having forgotten their former conceit, they seem to be so pained and travailed in their remembrance, as it were a woman in childbirth, or as that same Pythia when the trance came upon her, os rabidum fera corda domans, etc.