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George Puttenham

AKA George Puttehnam

Born: c. 1529
Died: 1590
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Author

Nationality: England
Executive summary: The Arte of English Poesie

George Puttenham is the reputed author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589). 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 Queen Elizabeth I his Partheniades (printed in a collection of MSS. 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 the 2nd of July 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 the 1st of September 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 grandfather, Sir Thomas Elyot's estates, Richard Puttenham was proved in an inquisition held at Newmarket to have been twenty-six years old.

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. It is interesting to note that in his remarks on language 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. Professor 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 Governour. A careful investigation brought him to the conclusion that the evidence was in favor of Richard. There are other modern editions of the book, notably one in J. Haslewood's Ancient Critical Essays (1811-1815.)

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