The poet and dramatist George Gascoigne (1542–1577) is credited with having written the first literary-critical essay in the English language, entitled Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English. This essay appeared in a collection of Gascoigne’s works entitled The Posies of George Gascoigne, Esquire, corrected, perfected, and augmented by the author (1575). This collection contained Jocasta, the second earliest English tragedy written in blank verse. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at Gray’s Inn, Gascoigne was a poet and soldier, as well as a Member of Parliament for Bedfordshire. He fought as a mercenary in Holland (1572–1575) and was captured by the Spaniards. He produced numerous other dramatic and poetic works.
Gascoigne’s essay Certayne Notes follows in the tradition of Horace’s Ars poetica as a treatise or manual offering advice to the aspiring poet on the entire range of rhetorical issues, including invention, prosody, verse form, and style. The feature of poetic composition that Gascoigne most insists upon is “fine invention,” or the finding of appropriate theme and material. It is not enough, he says, “to roll in pleasant words,” or to indulge in alliterative “thunder” (alliterative verse being common in parts of England such as the north and the midlands).1 Gascoigne insists that the poet must employ “some depth of device in the invention, and some figures also in the handling thereof,” or else his work will “appear to the skilful reader but a tale of a tub” [i.e., some trite or ordinary matter] (163). Indeed, like many Renaissance literary theorists, Gascoigne advises the poet to “avoid the uncomely customs of common writers” (163). Gascoigne cautions against the use of “rhyme without reason” (164). In other words, a poet should not be distracted by rhyme for its own sake, nor should he allow the search for rhyme to guide the matter of the poem.
Gascoigne also advises the poet to be consistent in his use of meter throughout a poem. He admonishes the poet to situate every word such that it will receive its “natural emphasis or sound . . . as it is commonly pronounced or used.” He indicates the three types of accent: gravis (\) or the long accent, levis (/) or the short accent, and circumflexa (~), which is “indifferent,” capable of being either long or short (164). He notes that the most common foot in English is the foot of two syllables, the first short and the second long (the iambic foot), and he encourages the use of the iambic pentameter (in which, as many other writers have noted, the English language seems naturally to fall). Also furthering the cause of a distinctive English verse is Gascoigne’s advice that the poet avoid words of many syllables, since “the most ancient English words are of one syllable, so that the more monosyllables that you use the truer Englishman you shall seem, and the less you shall smell of the inkhorn” (166).13 A further reason is that long words “cloy a verse and make it unpleasant.” Indeed, while Gascoigne follows Cicero in urging the poet to use the same figures or tropes that are used in prose, he generally opposes the use of strange and obscure words and asks the poet to find a middle ground between “haughty obscure verse” and “verse that is too easy” (167). Much of the advice offered by Gascoigne moves in the direction of both standardizing certain English poetic and metrical practices and differentiating these from “foreign” practices.
1. George Gascoigne, “Certayne Notes of Instruction,” reprinted in English Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 162. All subsequent page citations refer to this edition.