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The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  6 Sep 2007

The Elite Audience of Poetry:  Manuscript Coteries and Printed Works

The audience of Renaissance poetry could not have been more different than that of Renaissance drama.  In order to understand the different audience of poetry, we must understand how contemporary manuscript and print culture dealt with patronage and the stigma attached to print.  In “Manuscript, print, and the social history of the lyric,” Arthur Marotti writes that,

in the course of the seventeenth century[,] lyrics were in the process of changing their status from that of ephemeral productions transmitted in manuscript within restricted social environments to that of durable artefacts widely distributed through the medium of print.  (52)

Poems, like dances and songs, were traditionally part of courtly culture -- and were traditionally considered more as performance, as statement of sentiment, than as text to be preserved for its own sake.  Even when they were later published, poems were circulated first as manuscripts to “family members, friends, colleagues, and patrons” (Marotti III 54).  Poems were frequently occasional; Marotti describes the various circumstances:

Poems were used to celebrate births, commemorate deaths, pursue a courtship, seek benefits from a patron or patroness, or express gratitude for favors received, present (or serve as) gifts at New Year, cement the bonds of friendship, attack or answer the attacks of rivals or enemies, engage in literary competition, commend the writings of others, mock or satirize social inferiors, equals or superiors, and share private devotional exercises with others.  (Marotti III 52-53)

Many, including university students, gathered poetry from various authors into collections, to which they would freely add without authorial consent.  Patrons and friends would, of course, have their own collections of manuscript poems.  These most frequently, at least traditionally, made it into print through wealthy women who not only kept manuscript miscellanies but sometimes had them printed -- a relatively respectable use of the popular and lowly printing press.  When writers gathered their work for publication, increasingly in printed form, they often pretended someone else had done so; some went so far as to mask their work as a miscellany by multiple authors (see Marotti II 8-9).  Frequently, occasional poems were decontextualized -- or recontexualized, even placed in new sequences -- by publishers.  Obscene and political subjects both were more common, and more extreme, in manuscript than print.  Misinterpretation by the more common and less educated was very much an issue:  most believed (with Plato) that speech, and not the written word, better eliminated miscommunication.  As the seventeenth century wore on, manuscripts began copying print culture just as print culture initially copied manuscript culture:  in manuscripts, authors’ names appeared more frequently, and poets began arranging their poems more consciously, using titles and headers, tables of contents and indexes.

Unlike drama, a money-making enterprise, poetry was essentially an elite medium.  One did not even have to be literate to attend a play:  one merely had to watch and listen, more or less.  The elitism of poetry, however, was only enhanced by the circulation of manuscripts.  In stark contrast to the universality pursued so vigorously by Shakespeare, such coteries could be entirely of the same mind:  partisans, from liberal or royalist, could circulate poetry collections only amongst the like-minded.  The result, it should not surprise, was art that -- very much unlike Shakespeare -- took political and religious stands.


John Donne

John Donne as poet, just as surely as anyone, was defined by his audience.  He wrote his works for a coterie of readers, including patrons and possible patrons.  Later condemning his poetry as the work of “Jack Donne,” Donne seems to have seen his poetry as disposable and he certainly never sought to publish it.  But, in this, he was not alone; poetry was not made to be otherwise, except for those of “suspicious” character.

Arthur F. Marotti’s 1986 John Donne, Coterie Poet is the monolithic text on the subject of Donne and English Renaissance manuscript and print culture.  As the title indicates, Marotti argues for an accounting of Donne’s limited poetic audience, ably demonstrating that Donne (until shortly before his death) considered publication of his poetry, likely for monetary reasons, but thought the better of it, likely at least in part because of potential misunderstandings.  On the other hand, Donne forbade his work to be destroyed and allowed its circulation, making him a poet for a small but more sophisticated and sympathetic audience.

Marotti’s own “John Donne and the Rewards of Patronage” ably places Donne within the context of patronage, finding addresses to powerful people in Donne’s poetry but admitting that Donne sought political rather than artistic patronage.  Of course, Donne’s marriage to Ann More rather hurt his chances.  Even a decade later, Donne’s letters show that his efforts at gaining patronage were spoiled by that act.  From about 1607 onward, Donne pursues patronage fiercely, requesting several jobs, sitting in the 1614 Parliament, and publishing Pseudo-Martyr.  King James wanted Donne for ecclesiastical work, which was not Donne’s intension.  Donne was ordained in1615 because his attempts at gaining patronage had failed, and when they seemed likely to succeed, he quickly (but temporarily) put aside the ministry to take a position with a socially doubtful person.  Upon ordination, the King offered Donne patronage as a royal chaplain, and Cambridge offered Donne an honorary doctor of divinity.


Ben Jonson the Poet

Unlike Donne, Jonson consciously sought to preserve his poetry in printed form, publishing his Works in 1616 as a folio of both plays and poetry.  The two thus represent two different paths poets could take, in terms of audience.  Andrew Marvell, among others, followed Donne’s route and confined their poems to circulated manuscripts.  Others, including Robert Herrick and Richard Lovelace, took Jonson’s less traveled path and supervised the printing of their previously circulated manuscript poems.  In Jonson’s case, the poet went as far as to create his own coterie:  the worshipful so-called “Tribe of Ben” (referenced in Underwood 49).

Jonson’s poetry is remarkably occasional, demonstrating the traces of manuscript culture.  Jonson’s “Song:  That Women are but Men’s Shadows” (Forest 7) seems autonomous enough.  But Conversations with Drummond notes the occasional circumstances of its composition:  “Pembrok and his Lady discoursing the Earl said the Woemen were mens shadowes, and she maintained them, both appealing to Johnson, he affirmed it true, for which my Lady gave a pennance to prove it in a Verse, hence his epigrame.”  This occasion is also tied to patronage:  “Pembrok” is the Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert, and was one of Jonson’s patrons, and the poet dedicated his Epigrams to the Earl.

Sometimes, Jonson’s poetry demonstrates how he operated poetically on both manuscript and print levels.  Epigrams 96, “To John Donne,” has Jonson claiming to care more about Donne’s response than the public.  Yet the poem was printed in the 1616 Works, which seems to praise in its very form the culture of print.  Thus was the poem written for one very narrow audience -- a single man -- only to be printed for an entirely different audience of readers of printed poetry.  The existence of the dual traditions is altogether more apparent when one considers that Donne’s own poetry was not published until 1633, two years after Donne’s death -- yet Jonson’s poem, printed in 1616, venerates Donne as arch-poet who Jonson invites to comment on his own work.

Like so many of his plays, Jonson’s poetry, is filled with attacks, and poems of condemnation are probably the most common sort of poem.  Some are particularly notable for their vehemence.  In “To Groom Idiot” (Epigrams LVIII) sardonically claims “Thy ignorance still laughs in the wrong place” (4).  “On Court-Parrot” (Epigrams LXXI) attacks a courtly writer (perhaps the largely un-noteworthy Henry Parrot) as a parrot living solely to attack others.  But probably best in respect to vehemence is “To Sir Cod” (Epigrams L), which offers a scant three rhyming lines, concluding that “Arsenic would thee fit for society make.”  (The short poem “To Pertinax Cob” [Epigrams LXIX] condemns Cob, who “by thy weapon liv’st” [2].  The same might also be said of Jonson, of course.)

Many critics, including Michael McCanles’s Jonsonian Discriminations, have focused on Jonson’s tendency in the Epigrams to discriminate between the virtuous and the unworthy, ostensibly by providing the “facts” -- a word often used in this critical discourse.  Sometimes Jonson makes his juridical power quite clear indeed, especially in his condemnation of other poets.  “On Poet-Ape” (Epigrams LVI) offers an attack by implicitly positioning Jonson as the Poet who may denounce as autonomous arbiter of poetic values.  In the poem’s attack, Poet-Ape’s “frippery of wit” (2) leaves the audience “robbed” (4).  Poet-Ape’s plagiarism, or at least lack of originality, is criticized long before the formal cult thereof:  “He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own” (8).  (It is ironic, yet important to note when discussing faultlines with Jonson’s self-presentation, that Jonson has, of course, been accused of plagiarizing some of John Donne’s poetry.)

Poetry was truly Jonson’s medium -- one far more elitist than the democratic medium of theatre.  Jonson’s judgmental nature could reign more easily in poetry:  a few lines, written privately for a manuscript culture and later collected as a largely unconnected artifact in a poetry collection, would not face the response of playgoers watching such judgmental lines spoken on the stage.  Whereas Jonson’s relative inability to censor his opinions in his plays -- and his resentment at the degree to which he did -- led to controversy and even imprisonment, the elite audience of poetry, largely safe from the eyes of the tasteless mob Jonson so detested, allowed Jonson freer reign.  Jonson certainly had a great capacity for comedy, though in his case it seems to come from his condemnatory observations of those around him.  But it was in poetry that Jonson thrived, elevated from the smelly commoners of the pit.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby