George Puttenham

George Puttenham (1529–1590) is the reputed English author of "The Arte of English Poesie" (1589).


George was the second son of Robert Puttenham of Sherfield on Loddon in Hampshire and his wife Margaret, the daughter of Sir Richard Elyot and sister of Sir Thomas Elyot. He had an elder brother, Richard. George married Elizabeth, the widow of both Richard, brother of William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester, and William, Baron Windsor, and the daughter of Peter Coudray of Herriard House. They had at least one daughter.

For more detailed data see May, "George Puttenham's Lewd and Illicit Career," and the Introduction to Whigham and Rebhorn's edition of "The Art of English Poesy" (see Further Reading).


The book was entered at Stationers' Hall in 1588, and published in the following year with a dedicatory letter to Lord Burghley written by the printer Richard Field, who professed ignorance of the writer's name and position. There is no contemporary evidence for the authorship, and the name of Puttenham is first definitely associated with it in the "Hypercritica" of Edmund Bolton, published in 1722, but written in the beginning of the 17th century, perhaps as early as 1605. The writer of the "Arte of English Poesie" supplies certain biographical details. He was educated at Oxford, and at the age of eighteen he addressed an eclogue entitled "Elpine" to Edward VI. In his youth he had visited Spain, France, and Italy, and was better acquainted with foreign courts than with his own. In 1579 he presented to Elizabeth I his "Partheniades" (printed in a collection of manuscript "Ballads" by F. J. Furnivall), and he wrote the treatise in question especially for the delectation of the queen and her ladies. He mentions nine other works of his, none of which are extant.

There is no direct evidence beyond Bolton's ascription to identify the author with George or Richard Puttenham, the sons of Robert Puttenham and his wife Margaret, the sister of Sir Thomas Elyot, who dedicated his treatise on the "Education or Bringing up of Children" to her for the benefit of her sons. Both made unhappy marriages, were constantly engaged in litigation, and were frequently in disgrace. Richard was in prison when the book was licensed to be printed, and when he made his will in 1597 he was in the Queen's Bench Prison. He was buried, according to John Payne Collier, at St. Clement Danes, London, on July 2, 1601.

George Puttenham is said to have been implicated in a plot against Lord Burghley in 1570 and in December 1578 was imprisoned. In 1585 he received reparation from the privy council for alleged wrongs suffered at the hands of his relations. His will is dated September 1, 1590. Richard Puttenham is known to have spent much of his time abroad, whereas there is no evidence that George ever left England. This agrees better with the writer's account of himself; but if the statement that he addressed "Elpine" to Edward VI when he was eighteen years of age be taken to imply that the production of this work fell within that king's reign, the date of the author's birth cannot be placed anterior to 1529. At the date (1546) of his inheritance of his uncle, Sir Thomas Elyot's estates, Richard Puttenham was proved in an inquisition held at Newmarket to have been twenty-six years old.

The Arte of English Poesie

Whoever the author may have been, there is no doubt about the importance of the work, which is the most systematic and comprehensive treatise of the time on its subject. It is "contrived into three bookes: the first of poets and poesies, the second of proportion, the third of ornament." The first section contains a general history of the art of poetry, and a discussion of the various forms of poetry; the second treats of prosody, dealing in turn with the measures in use in English verse, the caesura, punctuation, rhyme, accent, cadence, proportion in figure, which the author illustrates by geometrical diagrams, and the proposed innovations of English quantitative verse; the section on ornament deals with style, the distinctions between written and spoken language, the figures of speech; and the author closes with lengthy observations on good manners. He deprecates the use of archaisms, and although he allows that the purer Saxon speech is spoken beyond the Trent, he advises the English writer to take as his model the usual speech of the court, of London and the home counties.

Many later "poetics" are indebted to this book. The original edition is very rare. Edward Arber's reprint (1869) contains a clear summary of the various documents with regard to the authorship of this treatise. The history of the Puttenhams is discussed in H. H. S. Croft's edition of "Elyot's Boke" called the "Cover nour". A careful investigation brought him to the conclusion that the evidence was in favour of Richard. There are other modern editions of the book, notably one in Joseph Haslewood's "Ancient Critical Essays" (1811–1815). For editions with critical apparatus see Willcock and Walker's Cambridge edition of 1936 and Whigham and Rebhorn's new critical edition (Cornell UP, 2007).

Influence of Puttenham

According to George Puttenham, presumptive author of "The Arte of English Poesie", Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, "trauailed into Italie" (49) and brought back the verse forms that make them "the first reformers of our English meter and stile" (49). The introduction of these new Italian forms in turn necessitated the flurry of Renaissance poetry manuals, by George Gascoigne, Samuel Daniel, Charles Webb, and Sir Philip Sidney, in addition to Puttenham's "Arte". Book I, "Of Poets and Poesie," contains a remarkably credible history of poetry in Greek, Latin and in English. All subjects, including science and law, were in primitive times written in verse, and the types of poetry number in the dozens. Because it is decorated with versification and figures of speech, poetry is a more persuasive and melodious form of language, and is very much given to structure and accuracy. The countless examples of dignities and promotions given to poets throughout history, and the numerous examples of royal poets, show up the ignorance of Renaissance courtiers who suppress their poetry or publish under a pseudonym.

In Book II, "Of Proportion Poetical," Puttenham compares metrical form to arithmetical, geometrical, and musical pattern. He adduces five points to English verse structure: the "Staffe," the "Measure," "Concord or Symphony," "Situation" and "Figure".

The staff, or stanza, is four to ten lines that join without intermission and finish up all of the sentences thereof. Each length of stanza suits a poetic tone and genre. Each is overlaid by a closed rhyme scheme. This latter, termed "band" (65) and "enterlacement" (70), is of primary concern to Puttenham. He views English as having solely a syllabic system of measure, or metre. The length of lines may alternate in patterns that support the rhyme scheme, and so increase the band. Syllabic length is a factor but accentuation is not. Caesura should occur at the same place in every line; it helps to keep up distinctness and clarity, two virtues of civil language.

"Concord, called Symphonie or rime" (76) is an accommodation made for the lack of metrical feet in English versification. The matching of line lengths, rhymed at the end, in symmetrical patterns, is a further accommodation. A number of graphs are shown to illustrate the variety of rhyme schemes and line-length patterns, or situation. The poet who can work melodiously within the strictures of versification proves a "crafts master," a valuable literary virtue. Proportion in figure is the composition of stanzas in graphic forms ranging from the rhombus to the spire.

Book III, "Of Ornament," which comprises a full half of the "Arte", is a catalogue of figures of speech, in the tradition of Richard Sherry, Henry Peacham, Abraham Fraunce, and Angel Day. Since language is inherently artificial, and "not naturall to man" (120), the added artifice of figures is particularly suitable. Figures give more "pithe and substance, subtilitie, quicknesse, efficacie or moderation, in this or that sort tuning and tempring them by amplification, abridgement, opening, closing, enforcing, meekening or otherwise disposing them to the best purpose ..." (134). From page 136 to 225, Puttenham lists and analyzes figures of speech. His book concludes with a lengthy analysis of “decency,” and the artificial and natural dimensions of language.

However there is currently debate about his authority in the area.

Further reading

* Steven W. May, "George Puttenham's Lewd and Illicit Career," "Texas Studies in Literature and Language" 2008.
*Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn (eds.). "The Art of English Poesy: A Critical Edition." Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007.
* Walter Nash, "George Puttenham," "The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 281: British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660, Second Series", Detroit: Gale, 2003, pp. 229-248.
* G. D. Willcock & A. Walker, eds., "The Arte of English Poesie", Cambridge: University Press, 1936, pp. ix-cii.
* W. K. Boyd, ed., Vol. 9 of "Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots, 1547-1603", Glasgow: Hedderwick, 1915, pp. 356-388.
* J. Bruce & A. J. Crosby, eds., "Accounts and papers Relating to Mary Queen of Scots", Westminster: Nichols & Sons, 1867, pp. 257-279.

External links

* Steven W. May, [ ‘Puttenham, George (1529–1590/91)’] , "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 8 Nov 2007


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