Sunday, September 1, 2013
Gascoigne’s “Notes of Instruction”
Between Wyatt and Surrey, George Gascoigne is probably England’s most significant poet. His historical position is unassailable. According to Legouis’ thorough A History of English Literature Gascoigne wrote the first “prose story taken from real life, the first prose comedy, the first tragedy translated from Italian, the first masque, the first regular satire, and the first treatise on English prosody.” He was perhaps only too prolific; he is little-read today. In his pursuit of a career as soldier, courtier, and poet, he never measured up to the high standard Sidney would achieve in each of these realms after him. Though workmanlike with considerable ingenuity and occasional wit, his poetry has only flashes of memorable phrase. His alexandrines and fourteeners sound all but interminable to today’s ears. He is capable of sounding very like the rustics of Midsummer Night’s Dream: “My liking lust, my lucklesse love,” “My secrete partes are so with secret sorrowe soken.” Still, the conceit of his “Lullaby of a Lover” is striking “Full many wanton babes have I,/ Which must be stilled with lullaby.” He is good with proverbial expressions: “every bullet hath a lighting place” “mo the merrier” “castels buylt above in lofty skies,/ Which never yet had good foundation.” Other folk-like materials sound fresh and lively: “There's nobody at home/ But Jumping Joan,/ And father and mother and I.” He can have a spurt of Renaissance freshness: for him, the devil must be killed “with gonshote of beleefe.”
His pioneering poetics, called “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English” appeared in The Posies in 1575. His terminology and habits of thought are Aristotelian and rhetorical. His ideas arise from induction, not a priori, and seek to account for his own experience in poetry. Gascoigne betrays no belief in inspiration of either the Platonic or the Christian varieties.  Influenced by authors like Castiglione and by his own position, seeking patronage at court, he portrays poetry as a refined accomplishment like skill at arms, horsemanship, or love-making.
Like most pre-modern literary theorists, Gascoigne’s analysis is centered on the use of the conceptual framework and terminology of the rhetorical tradition.  Gascoigne’s rhetorical orientation is evident in his stress on invention and on propriety. To him a work must be both “good” (appealing in concept or content) and “fine” (that is, well-executed or stylish).
In invention the poet can display his “the quick capacity,” a quality that might be equated today with originality. Each work has its own unique character which must be consistently maintained. The reader may relish the wit of the author’s ideas independent of their validity.
The interest in propriety is another rhetorical trait. Meter must be consistent. Each metrical form implies a certain appropriate subject matter. The tradition allows the artist to convey more semantic data when his audience is familiar with a set of conventions and expectations.
Further, Gascoigne, as a writer in an age when Latin composition still made the vernacular seem to many second-rate, insists on the value of natural colloquial language in poetry. Metric stress should correspond to stress in spoken usage ; iambic is the ordinary meter of the English language; words of one syllable are more English than polysyllabics. Obsolete and foreign or learned words are generally undesirable.
Gascoigne says nothing about morality, or instruction. Art is wholly aesthetic; a good poem is “delectable,”  To please readers, authors must avoid trite expressions, avoiding the “uncomely customes of common writers,” and expressing ideas obliquely through tropes, allegory, or allusion, or some other novel presentation. Thus the aesthetic text affords the pleasures of a riddle or crossword. It must be soluble but not obvious, in Gascoigne’s terms “frame your stile to perpiscuity and to be sensible,” neither too obscure nor too “easie.”
His stress is on ingenuity or wit in a context of shared convention. The poet is in fact, quite similar to a skilled raconteur or a clever party guest. Art is a display of well-wrought words, clearly within a tradition, yet defining its own sophistication through moves that cannot be wholly anticipated. This sort of dance of expectations between the writer and the audience requires considerable shared education and culture. Such poetry works most efficiently with the most homogenous readership.
Gascoigne insists on this familiar yet refined milieu when he places his essay in an upper-class familiar social context, addressing it to an Italian friend in fulfillment of a personal promise. Thus his formulas of humility – he calls his own ideas “simple” at the outset and concludes saying “I doubt my own ignorance” – reinforce the genteel amateur’s love of art that was part of upper-class identity. Far from defining his profession, Gascoigne’s poems, like those of the other chief poets of his age, are an decorative ornament, a flower of chivalry which, when combined with his other elegant accomplishments and his martial valor, characterize him as one of “the best,” that is to say, an aristocrat. Though his ideas are neither as well-worked-out as Sidney’s nor as original as Dr. Johnson’s, he provides a reliable view of the ideas current in his time and social milieu.
1. I am using the Collected Works of George Gascoigne edited by John W. Cunliffe, a 1969 Greenwood Press reprint of the 1907 Cambridge University Press edition.
2. Some decades after Gascoigne rhetoric received its definitive Elizabethan treatment in George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie (1589). This topic in general has been too little appreciated. Rhetoric has too often been abandoned to those interested in “public speaking.”
3. The discussion of meter is complicated by the fact that Gascoigne conflates Classical quantitative meters with accentual English ones.
4. He does make a formulaic gesture toward Christianity in his “Advertisement” to the reader that prefaces The Posies.