The Pursuit: Shakespeare’s Sources

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death has prompted an onslaught of “did you know” sorts of articles, including Jonathan Bate’s recent piece on Shakespeare’s sources. Bate points out three major ones: Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Florio’s translation of Montaigne, and Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Most Noble Grecians and Romans.

I’m interested in a less often discussed source: Tottel’s Miscellany: Song and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others. Published in 1557, the Miscellany is believed to be the first printed anthology of English poetry, and is the central source for the poems we have by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Their translations/adaptations of Petrarch’s sonnets appear in the Miscellany, and mark the beginnings of the English sonnet—what came to be known, somewhat misleadingly, as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Based on that formal influence alone, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare was familiar with the Miscellany, but the influence goes beyond that. He quotes lines from it in The Merry Wives of Windsor and in the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. In Hamlet, the gravedigger sings a few slightly misquoted lines from Lord Vaux’s “The Aged Lover Renounceth Love.”

As far as I can tell, Shakespeare’s most substantial engagement with the Miscellany occurs in his sonnet 129, “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” I’d argue that this poem is a recasting/agonistic re-writing of Surrey’s “Brittle Beauty,” which is the ninth poem printed in the Miscellany. Here’s Surrey’s poem:

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And, for ease of reference, here’s Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

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Thematically, they’re quite similar: the promise of beauty/bliss vs. the disappointment of its attainment. Both are explicit about the unreasonableness of the pursuit: “Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason” (“Brittle Beauty”); “Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had than / Past reason hated” (129). And both call their subjects toxic: “infecting as the poison” (“Brittle”); “a swallowed bait/On purpose laid to make the taker mad” (129).

Most compelling to me is how they explore the temporal nature of desire—how it moves from present or proposed (future) enjoyment to consequent disappointment (past)—and how their lines and logic enact that movement in similar ways:

“Brittle”:

Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail…

Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason…

Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason 

129:

Mad in pursuit and in possession so…

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

However, I did evoke a bloomian agon above, so I feel compelled to address whether WS’s piece does more than echo Surrey’s sonnet—whether WS overwrites his predecessor. It feels cheap and opportunistic to succumb to bardolatry on the 400 anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but I must give the win to him here. First of all, there’s the rhythmic ruggedness Shakespeare’s “lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,” portraying in language the unsettled state of mind that is “lust in action.” It could be argued that Surrey’s subject is beauty, not lust, and does not call for such language of extremity. However, it could also be argued that the point of 129 is to show that’s Surrey’s verse is not up to the representational challenge lust presents.

Speaking of representational challenges: it is perhaps more accurate to say that lust isn’t linear, but circular, which strikes me as something that’s particularly difficult show in language. Look at how Shakespeare does it: “Mad in pursuit and in possession so,  / Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme.” The second line here goes beyond the binary before/after pattern discussed above, evoking instead three states—and presenting them in reverse order. Shakespeare shows us that lust is not linear, moving from pursuit to attainment to disappointment, but an endless series of never nows.

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