Literary Criticism of George Puttenham

A long and influential treatise entitled The Arte of English Poesie, published anonymously in 1589, is attributed to George Puttenham (1529–1590, though the evidence for this is not conclusive and continues to be argued by scholars. Puttenham was educated at Oxford and presented Queen Elizabeth I with his poem Partheniades in 1579. The Arte is a text that belongs in a tradition of poetical and rhetorical treatises stretching from the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Quintilian’s Oratorio institutio through Geoffrey de Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova and Matthew of Vendôme’s The Art of Versification to Dante’s Il Convivio. The central purpose of Puttenham’s treatise is similar to that of writers such as Dante and Joachim Du Bellay: to justify the use of the vernacular language for poetry, and specifically to establish English vernacular poetry as an art, requiring serious study and labor.

The Arte is divided into three books, the first justifying poetry as expressing the needs of individual and society; the second, “Of Proportion,” devoted to the craft of poetry; and the third, “Of Ornament,” offering a renaming of the figures and tropes of classical rhetoric. Puttenham’s text was influential on his contemporaries, as well as on seventeenth-century writers; more recently, some of its terms and insights have figured in New Historicist studies. There is no doubt that Puttenham was writing at the advent of a great period of English letters, and his text amply exhibits how early English criticism was tied to certain controversies over language (such as the desirability of importing terms from Greek, Latin, and other languages), as well as to the emerging perception of certain features of English verse, such as the emphasis on stress of syllables. It might be said that his treatise not only contributed to the idea of a “standard” English, but also founded and enabled some of the terminology of early modern literary criticism in English. Terms such as “ode,” “lyric,” and “epigrammatist” were brought into standard currency partly through the agency and influence of Puttenham’s text.1 In short, his text helped establish the terms and methods of modern English criticism.

At the outset of his treatise, Puttenham defines the poet as both a “maker” and an imitator: he is able to create from his own mind the substance and form of his poetry, an ability that, as in Sidney’s defense, raises poetry above all other arts and sciences. But unlike Sidney, for whom poetry presented things in their ideal, rather than actual, condition, Puttenham states that the poet may also express in a “true and lively” manner “every thing that is set before him” (3). Puttenham argues that English poetry, no less than Greek and Latin poetry, can be formulated as an art: “If . . . Art be but a certaine order of rules prescribed by reason, and gathered by experience,” he asks, then English poetry is subject to just as many rules and subtle distinctions as classical verse. Moreover, English is just as rich in signification, in conceits, and in the possibilities of wit and invention. Though classical metrics are based on quantitative feet which are lacking in English verse, this is compensated by the richness of rhyme and melody (5–6).

Like Sidney, Puttenham notes the disrepute into which poetry has fallen, both in general and with royal patrons, attributing this to “barbarous ignoraunce” and the poet’s externality to “the busie life and vayne ridiculous actions” of the people (16–18). In a passage that might well be thought to anticipate Matthew Arnold’s lamentation over the state of modern mechanical civilization – to which he saw poetry and literature as the remedy – Puttenham bemoans his own “iron & malitious age,” in which the energies of princes and rulers, and even gentlemen, are exhausted by “the affaires of Empire & ambition”; they have no leisure “to bestow upon any other civill or delectable Art of naturall or morall doctrine . . . whereby their troubled mindes might be moderated and brought to tranquillitie” (21).

The second book undertakes a survey and analysis of stanza (staffe), meter (measure), rhyme, and rhyme pattern, offering advice on all of these matters to those who would write English verse. Puttenham sees the English line of verse as based on meter and rhyme. It is the latter that creates much of the musical effect of English verse. Importantly, Puttenham moves toward a perception of the function of stress in English verse (78–80). Perhaps what is most significant about this section is that it formalizes and classifies the various meters actually employed in English at this time: in this sense, it is effectively the first English prosody.

The final book of the Arte, “Of Ornament,” primarily addresses language as it can be analyzed for the poet’s task. This section, which is a manual of rhetoric, reflects a broader background of humanistic concern with language and rhetoric. Puttenham describes this section as concerned with “the fashioning of our makers language and stile, to such purpose as it may delight and allure as well the mynde as the eare of the hearers with a certaine noveltie and strange maner of conveyance, disguising it no little from the ordinary and accustomed” (137). Interestingly, the emphasis here is not on the classical balance of teaching and delighting, but on the latter: the poet delights both the mind and the ear, the sensible effects of poetry being viewed as important; moreover, this delight proceeds from a new mode of expression. These obligations of poetry will be repeated by many Romantics and modernists. In fact, according to Puttenham, a poet’s chief merit lies in the skillful employment of figures (138).

Puttenham’s chapter “Of Language” is a locus classicus of the issue of standard English. At the time there was a controversy, begun in the 1540s, known as the “Inkhorn term” controversy, concerning the extent to which Latin and Greek words could be imported into English. Puttenham’s views appear to call for some compromise. Puttenham sees a point at which a language achieves a general consensus and standardization, a point beyond which only minor changes are admissible. However, as we progress through Puttenham’s text, we see that this “consensus” is not truly the consensus of an entire country. The poet, he says, must use language which is “naturall, pure, and the most usuall of all his country.” He identifies this “most usuall” language, however, with “that which is spoken in the kings Court, or in the good townes and Cities,” and in general by “men civill and graciously behavoured and bred,” rather than with the language spoken “in the marches and frontiers” or by “poore rusticall or uncivill people” or in universities where scholars suffer from “affectation” of words. Puttenham identifies “standard” English not only with the courtly class but also with geographical region: the language spoken north of the River Trent is not admissible since “it is not so Courtly nor so currant as our Southerne English is” (144–145). Puttenham goes so far as to suggest an inviolate linguistic perimeter, admonishing the poet: “ye shall therfore take the usuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles, and not much above” (145). He accepts the standardizing authority of the extant English dictionaries, and warns against using “ill affected . . . inkhorn termes” imported by secretaries and merchants and travellers (145). However, he acknowledges that many terms such as “significative,” “figurative,” and “penetrate” are indispensable in English. In partial support of his view, he quotes from Horace’s Ars poetica lines which suggest that a language changes over time (146–148).

Puttenham defines style not as contained in particular words or phrases but as “a constant & continuall phrase or tenour of speaking and writing,” a total impression that reveals the “disposition of the writers minde” (148). He reiterates the classical dictum that a man’s style should conform to his subject matter and that the three principal styles are high, mean (middle), and low; the high style embraces hymns, tragedies, and histories, portraying the affairs of the gods and noble families; the mean style (as in comedy) deals with the business of ordinary men; the low style (as in the eclogue and pastoral) deals with commoners and craftsmen. Puttenham reaffirms the classical principle of decorum whereby a high style should express a lofty subject matter, and a low style a meaner subject, acknowledging that this principle can sometimes be violated for specific ends (149–150).

In his chapter “Of Figures,” Puttenham points out that figures of speech have an intrinsic doubleness or duality, since they go beyond the limits of common utterance and plain speech. Metaphor, for example, is “an inversion of sense by transport”; allegory contains “a duplicitie of meaning or dissimulation under covert and dark intendments” (154). As such, all of these figures are subject to abuse; in the hands of the poet, however, whose only purpose is to please his hearers, such dissimulations are not vices but virtues, provided he observes decorum and measure in the use of his figures (155). Puttenham proceeds to explain that, just as the Greeks and Romans devised names for the various figures, so he will devise English terms for them. Puttenham reminds his reader that his text is intended “for the learning of Ladies and young Gentlewomen, or idle Courtiers, desirous to become skilful in their owne mother tongue.” He wishes to instruct them for their “private recreation,” for the purposes of “Courting” as well as of “poesie” (158). In chapter XV Puttenham begins by renewing his address to Queen Elizabeth, and reaffirming his own status as a court poet, providing “entertainment to Princes, Ladies of honour, Gentlewomen and Gentlemen,” entertainment which includes offering solace and giving serious advice “in matters . . . profitable as pleasant and honest” (298–299).

Puttenham sees the arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic as simply a formalization – acquired by “studious observation” and practice – of his natural abilities. And the poet’s relation to nature comprehends all of the foregoing possibilities, integrating imitation, supplementation, and invention (306). But, like Sidney Puttenham urges that poetry is unique among the arts inasmuch as it is enabled by “a cleare and bright phantasie and imagination.” The poet, in fact, works in the same way that nature does: “even as nature her selfe working by her owne peculiar vertue and proper instinct and not by example or meditation or exercise as all other artificers do, [the poet] is then most admired when he is most naturall and least artificiall” (307). Puttenham’s text represents in many ways an important stage in the development of modern English criticism, long anticipating what will become Romantic reactions against neoclassicism, and even moving toward a notion of art as primarily offering pleasure. The overt emphasis on pleasure, as opposed to moral instruction, is an implicit – though not at this stage a consciously or precisely formulated – gesture toward poetic autonomy.


1.George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (1936; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. xcii. Some of my comments are indebted to the editors’ introduction. All subsequent page citations refer to this edition.

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