chapter  II
The Theory of Imitation Before Sidney
Pages 22

SI X T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y English writers before the accession of Elizabeth practised the classical theory | of imitat ion quite as consistently as their contem-poraries on the Continent, but discussed i t infrequently. Leonard Cox's The Art or Craft of Rhetoric ( I53°?)> the first English treatise of its kind, puts " I n - vencyon" first among the writer's requirements and treats nothing else. But invention to Cox is not fabrication. On the contrary, i t " i s comprehended in certain placys . . . out of whom he that knoweth the facultye may fetche easyly suche thynges as be mete for the mater that he shal speke of." These mysterious "p lacys" are definitions, divisions, causes, effects, comparisons, and contrasts, and are to be found in the works of authorities on the subject in hand. I n short, invention means finding quotations w i th which to fill note-books, and selecting from them as occasion demands.1 Thomas Wilson's The Art of Rhetoric (T553) advocates a much less servile type of imitation. Wilson admits that " a wiseman . . . wi l l not be bound to any precise rules" of art, and even that " a right wise man unlearned, shall doe more by his Natural l witte, then twentie of these common wittes that want Nature to helpe

39 Ar te . " Having thus made the most generous allowance for originali ty, he explains how i t is to be trained and improved: "Rules were therefore given, and by much observation gathered together, that those who could not see Arte hid in an other mans doings, should yet see the rules open, all in an order set together: and thereby judge the rather of their doings, and by earnest imitat ion, seeke to resemble such [in] their invention." For he insists that however well the "unlearned wise m a n " may write, " he shall doe much better that knoweth what arte other men have used, what invention they have followed." 1

Certain general didactic works incidentally i l luminate the imitat ive att i tude of this period. Stephen Hawes, in The Pastime of Pleasure (1509), praises the " invencyon" of "famous poetes . . . in olde antyquyte," but he is as far as Cox from meaning fabrication: these "so wyse and so inventyfe" poets composed their " fables" according to "good auctoryte." He commends Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate for following the ancients, from whom "our connynge . . . procedeth," and blames the low state of English letters in his own day on the fact that, instead of wri t ing "upon auctoryte," his contemporaries "spend theyr time in vaynful l vanyte," making "tryf les without fruytfulnes." 2 Thomas Lupset's An Exhortation to Young Men (1529, published 1535) expresses similar disapprobation of the "tr i f les and vayne inventions that men nowe a daies wr i te," and for exactly the same reason: either they do not follow the ancients at all or they imitate servilely and superficially, incorporating passages "p iked out . . . of

aunciente bokes," which " fo r the mooste parte [are] defaced and broughte out of good fashion wi th theyr yvel handelynge." 1 I n The Book named the Governor (1531) Sir Thomas Elyot does his best to avoid such censures as those of Hawes and Lupset. Of his matter he says, " I have gathered [ i t ] as well of the sayenges of moste noble autours (grekes and latynes) as by myne owne experience/' and he usually cites his sources; in any case they are to be easily recognized by those "whiche have radde . . . good autours." And whereas he seeks a degree of novelty, " lest in repetyng a thinge . . . frequent and commune [his] boke shulde be fastidious or fulsome," he seeks i t , not in fabrication, but in borrowing material which has not become hackneyed from over-use, "mater as well apte to [his] purpose as also newe or at the lest waies infrequent, or seldome herde of them that have nat radde very many autours in greke and lat ine." 2 Elyot is but following the example of the far-ranging bee, in true classic style. And Roger Ascham, unable in Toxophilus (1545) to follow Elyot's method of composition because he is " t h e firste, whiche hath sayde any thynge in this matter," goes so far as to present his book apologetically: "fewe begynnynges be perfect, sayth wyse men." I n the course of the work he takes occasion to discredit the Officina of " a certaine Frenchman called Textor," because the author "weveth up many brokenended matters and settes out much rifraffe, pelfery, trumpery, baggage & beggerie ware clamparde up of one that would seme to be fitter for a shop in dede than to write any boke." 3 Bi t ter words, these; but

Ascham is attacking poor choice and use of material, not borrowing in itself. H a d Textor imi tated correctly, Ascham would probably have described his work in a vein more similar to that of John Palsgrave, who explains that he has translated the La t i n comedy Acolastus (1540) because i t is " a very curiouse and artif iciall compacted nosegay, gathered out of the moche excellent and odoriferouse swete smellynge gardeynes of the moste pure latyne auctours." 1

John Hooper, in A Declaration of the Ten Holy Commandments (1549), includes l i terary theft in his exposition of the commandment, " T h o u shalt not steal." "He re is forbidden also," he specifies, " t h e d iminut ion of any man's fame; as when for vain glory any man at t r ibute unto himself the w i t or learning that another brain hath brought f o r t h " ; and he supports his contention by ci t ing "^Esop's c r o w " and quot ing the protests of V i rg i l and Mar t ia l against piracy. 2 Thomas Cranmer takes a similar stand in An Answer unto a Crafty and Sophistical Cavillation devised by Stephen Gardiner (1551), l ikening Gardiner to "Esop's chough," not because he borrowed his arguments from many sources, but because he took over in their entirety those collected by another man, " a n d stole from him all his thank and g lory . " 3

Sixteenth-century poets before Elizabeth practise imitat ion as the natural method of composition, w i th no thought of explanation or defense. Alexander Barclay and John Skelton announce in passing that they wri te in " i m i -

tation of other Poetes o l d e " 1 and according to their "greate auctoryte," 2 but in general they and their contemporaries say nothing of their practise. Their methods have been developed in detail by their modern editors. The pages of TotteVs Miscellany (1557) show the poets represented there calmly borrowing " n o t only subjectmatter but also exact phraseology" from one another as well as from the Continent.3