Fine Knacks, Painted Things: John Dowland and Michael Drayton


The history of poetry is tied up with the history of courtship, and the history of courtship is tied up with the history of courts as a setting for elegant flirtation and elegant language.

Display, in particular male strutting, with verbal wit as the peacock’s tail, is part of that tangle in the first great period of English poetry. From the beginning there seems to be a reaction or counter-tradition, emphasizing plainness and sincerity as superior qualities in a lover — and in love poetry.

Even the stylish, glossy boasting of Michael Drayton, in Sonnet 6 from his sequence Idea embodies that appeal to plain speech and candor: I smile a little, every time at “that now in coaches trouble every street” in his second line. Along with his quick-footed, somewhat foppish capering for the lady, he successfully speaks in the role of a blunt, even rude speaker, not mincing words: “paltry, foolish, painted things.”

The musician John Dowland may have written the words for his own songs. Dowland’s cunning madrigal has its game at least two ways: the poet engages in a more elaborate role-playing than Drayton’s and makes a more extreme, emphatic claim on plainness and sincerity. Presented as the cry of a street-merchant, the poem is an ornate claim to plainness. For instance, the line “Of others take a sheaf, of me a grain,” enforces its boast about concentrated value with a pun on “sheaf,” which can mean a bundle of stalks (as in wheat) or a bundle of papers (as in poetry). The line “It is a precious jewel to be plain” both embodies what it says and represents, in context, footwork so fancy it makes Dowland look straightforward.

In their complicated way, Dowland’s “knacks” (do people still have knick-knack shelves?) make a larger, grander claim than Drayton’s “immortal song.”

The song, with Dowland’s engaging tune, can be heard on YouTube performed by the counter-tenor Alfred Deller and by Sting.



(Michael Drayton, 1563-1631)

How many paltry foolish painted things,
That now in coaches trouble every street,
Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings,
Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet!
Where I to thee eternity shall give,
When nothing else remaineth of these days,
And queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
Shall be so much delighted with thy story
That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
To have seen thee, their sex’s only glory:
So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
Still to survive in my immortal song.




(John Dowland, 1563-1626)

Fine knacks for ladies, cheap, choice, brave and new!
Good pennyworths! but money cannot move.
I keep a fair but for the fair to view.
A beggar may be liberal of love,
Though all my wares be trash, the heart is true.

Great gifts are guiles and look for gifts again;
My trifles come as treasures from the mind.
It is a precious jewel to be plain;
Sometimes in shell the Orient’s pearls we find.
Of others take a sheaf, of me a grain.

Within this pack pins points laces and gloves,
And diverse toys fitting a country fair.
But in my heart, where duty serves and loves,
Turtles and twins, court’s brood, a heavenly pair.
Happy the heart that thinks of no removes!


182 thoughts on “Fine Knacks, Painted Things: John Dowland and Michael Drayton

  1. Pingback: “CLASSIC POEM” DISCUSSIONS RETURN TO | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum

  2. Thanks again to all for another genuine discussion. Illuminating conversation, various viewpoints, information, fulfilling my hope that this does provide, in a word, a forum. In a month or so I will be trying to come up with another topic. Something different, I hope.


  3. Hello everyone. I’ll never come late to a forum again. So much to catch up on.
    Let me weigh in on what intrigues us so much about this 1st great period of English poetry. From the historical perspective (putting aside philosophy for the moment) this was a time when the bourgeoisie first became aware of itself, but not yet as a political force. The king’s court still ruled. And among the courtiers, acting “princely” became an ideal to strive for, even though they and the king’s class would eventually part ways. It was a time when the word “gentleman” evolved from an economic stature to a moral and behavioral standard in men. The ascendance of a courtly culture also worried the powers-that-be in the church. The clergy suspected that that this culture had replaced the pursuit of God and salvation with the pursuit of love, in the form of an earthly (or even idealized) woman. You could argue that this “tail-chasing” epoch ( sometimes called the era of conversation) paved the way to humanism and other secularisms, on the path to Enlightenment.
    So, it’s in this context that I would take exception to Ted Burke’s tone where he calls this period of the sonnet “morally insidious”. And I would second Anna’s questioning along these lines and add Hey, this is a guy (Dowland) with a lute and a couple of pennies in his pocket, who is he oppressing? More to the point, women were second class citizens well into the 20th century. It serves no purpose to single out the sonnets as instruments of male domination. Instead, may I suggest a study of the honette[sic] homme culture in France at this time that introduced us to the salon (read = women-run book clubs) that began to flourish as a preview of things to come.
    As far as the poems, I feel that Dowland’s Fine Things is more direct. Here, I see a poor, poor fellow on his bended knee with a cracker jack ring in his pocket. This image is universal and it will always make the woman (and us onlookers) smile. Now, whether she says yes or no; whether she is imagined or real; whether he is judged to be sincere, or cheap and phony, that is what we can debate for all of time.
    Love the poems. And as far as “male preening” – from this period or from ours today — I would like to throw it out here: Is there anything that can compare to Thomas Carew’s “A Rapture”, that Bloom calls “one of the finest erotic poems in the language”? … and please don’t tell me that it was NeoPlatonic , or I’ll be disappointed…

    • What I enjoy most about your posting (and Anna’s) is the specificity of it and the questioning tone. Personally, I won’t tell you anything that you can’t check out for yourself in the proper manner, so I’ll never disappoint you. Count on it. If you dismiss what I say, I’ll trust that it won’t be a matter of language that simply does not “add up” and then answer further enquiries with silence, but that your dismissal will be accompanied by a reasoned gathering of evidence. And in fact, I believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (and I’m reading your “don’t disappoint me” as indicating an extraordinary claim), and that the preponderance of evidence for a Neoplatonic** reading of what is probably not a lyric written by Dowland (I’ve been checking), and Drayton’s sonnet exists as evidenced by documentation by recognized scholars in the field*, vs. claims by recognized scholars in the field* that they exhibit none. Therefore, it rests with you to prove other wise, but mind you, you will not be arguing with me, you’ll be arguing with or against established scholarship either way. Good luck with that. That’s the spirit I admire and (secretly) wish to encourage here. Please do a little checking around among the available scholarship, but while you do, I also want to take this opportunity to point to the same tools that I personally use when considering Emily Dickinson’s, and other literary work: consistency and probability: If Drayton has been documented by recognized scholars* to use Neoplatonic* symbolism, tropes and narratives both in his sonnet sequences and in his other poetic works and this particular sonnet, written by Drayton, appears in the same or similar sonnet sequence or sequences that has or have been identified and documented by these recognized scholars in the field* as exhibiting this concern with Neoplatonism, then don’t you think the tools of consistency and probability logically apply? Meaning that, if Drayton uses a particular conceptual model to create his art in one case, it’s highly probable that those same clusters of ideas and narrative strategies would be used by Drayton (be identifiably present on normal occasions of inspection) in his other works written at about the same time, or even over a period of many years? It seems to me that my assumption could make inductive sense, although of course there is the philosophical problem that Hume points out with induction and certainty. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) But anyway,that’s why Concordances are handy in normal literary studies, although their use could be questioned too, I suppose. Because I’m happy to see any reasoned argument in favor or against a Neoplatonic reading of either or both of these poems, and I assume that you dislike the state of being disappointed, I await the results of your investigation into the subject. Welcome rbrto88! Sincerely, Jesse Glass P.S., Hey Anna!

      **Definitions and explanations of Neoplatonism and Neoplatonism and its traditions in literature are widely available.

      *My working definition of “recognized scholar in the field” is a degreed person who publishes significantly in peer-reviewed journals devoted to scholarship in X area of expertise and are published by peer-reviewed presses respected by the academic community for publications in X area of expertise. A good example of this would be Nature magazine, and Cambridge University Press, respectively. .

    • Well, rbrto88, I like how everything you say here returns to the _conventional_ aspect of these poses or modes of writing and/or courting and/or entertaining: the implicit author of the sonnet sharing with any reader a knowledge of the conventions and their moves: comparable, for me, to the way the implicit author(s) of an animated sitcom, in 2014, shares with viewers a knowledge of conventional moves and ingredients– so that the variations and changes and reversals have (in a word) meaning.

      Thank you!

      • Mr. Pinsky and everyone, I like the use of the word conventional, and conventional reading here for democratic reasons. That’s the whole purpose of your singing school.

        • But the more you know about the work in question, the more you like and the more choices you can make about that work and that “other” reading(s) should also be noted in more than an off-hand manner and available for anyone invited to engage a text by way of a “conventional” reading. That also is democratic. Anti-intellectualism (or the appearance of it) won’t help even if it takes place in a university setting, because the reading and writing of poetry is an intellectual endeavor, (we all recognize that) no matter how conventional a reading you wish to foster. You may seek to bring folks in by the “easy gate” but if you stay there, and insist on staying there, then you’re offering a model of a democratic poetics that further diminishes the niche place that poetry already has in America’s cultural ecology. Jess

      • But any approach to teaching and promoting poetryas a living breathing tradition and adding to the appreciation of it–an endeavor I have been passionately engaged in all of my life– is to the good. Soon enough the “digital future” will be selling Beethoven and Mozart creativity kits so that you–enhanced by artificial intelligence–will be able to compose “like” genius X, Y, or Z. That’s coming to poetry, too, within the next 20 years or so. The “product” will be available to any and all, and poetry itself will be yet another human activity that will be pre-empted by machines and business. Just an opinion but one that’s supported by some ominous trends. Jess

        • Jesse, which kind of makes the timeless pieces so much more precious, right? Somethings cannot be mass produced, or rather like in open competition, the clones will disappear… just that art is not about competing, …(thinking aloud)
          What exactly is your idea of democratic Jesse…I read it as a certain open attitude, but I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to say, because you later on speak about the niche…
          hey, rbrto88

          • Hey Anna–That’s a nice way of looking at it. But unfortunately if a “creativity kit” allows one to use an Emily Dickinson algorithm to write poems that mimic an Emily Dickinson poem of, say, the 1860’s, and allows the same depth and same virtuosity to be easily available to anyone who buys the kit, then I’m afraid that a certain retrospective pre-empting of meaning will take place. Sort of what happened when Big Blue beat Kasperov, the moves of the great Capablanca, Morphey and others sort of lost their shine. My opinion is that everyone deserves access to the keys to understanding any poem–that’s real democracy–and limiting them to a conventional reading in the name of democracy and in a kind of anti-intellectual manner, is not democratic but elitist. It allows the power structure to stay securely in place. Professor Pinsky in an interview talks about the turn-off of poetry being the occasion of saying “smart” things and how that causes a bad taste in people’s mouths, but the irony of that is that many things cause the same reaction in students,and the TV watching public and a reducation and–if you will–a dumbing down in the name of attracting people to poetry or math or any subject in an easy manner asks for an equally easy dismissal. Bringing the Mountain to Mohammed requires drastic reductions of the mountain. Those reductions have already happened in public high school where the big mantra in education classes was kss–“keep it simple, stupid.” and you see the results.

  4. Hello Prof. Pinsky, thanks for the poems, there is a wealth of comments to read and think over…can there be a better respite…

    Hi all

    • Anna, it’s truly a pleasure to point toward poems like these two– and encouraging for me to know that many people read ’em with interest and pleasure, not necessarily commenting. Thanks!

  5. There’s a poem that Thom Gunn wrote that was apparently based on Dowland’s “Fine Knacks for Ladies” called “Street Song.” I can’t remember anymore where I found the connection, but it said that he was introduced to the poem by Ivor Winters. In his poem, Gunn turns Dowland’s peddler into a California dope dealer. His poem has similar cadences and the same feel of local dialect and the feel and the sounds and senses of the street, as Robert Pinsky described so well.

    The dealer’s ad slogan promises, not the keys to true love like in Dowland’s poem, but something closer to a sense of inner peace and momentary happiness. For me, it’s much more than a counter-culture poem specific to its time and place. Its sense of fun and irreverence helps you see how the kind of verse used by poets like Dowland and Drayton can transcend their moment in time to find new meaning with new audiences.

    Street Song

    I am too young to grow a beard
    But yes man it was me you heard
    In dirty denim and dark glasses.
    I look through everyone who passes
    But ask him clear, I do not plead,
    Keys Lids acid and speed.

    My grass is not oregano.
    Some of it grew in Mexico.
    You cannot guess the weed I hold,
    Clara Green, Acapulco Gold,
    Panama Red, you name it man,
    Best on the street since I began.

    My methedrine, my double-sun,
    Will give you too lives in your one,
    Five days of power before you crash.
    At which time use these lumps of hash
    – They burn so sweet, they smoke so smooth,
    They make you sharper while they soothe.

    Now here, the best I’ve got to show,
    Made by a righteous cat I know.
    Pure acid – it will scrape your brain,
    And make it something else again.
    Call it heaven, call it hell,
    Join me and see the world I sell.

    Join me, and I will take you there,
    Your head will cut out from your hair
    Into whichever self you choose.
    With Midday Mick man you can’t lose,
    I’ll get you anything you need.
    Keys lids acid and speed.

    • Yes! The rhythms of “Keys lids acid and speed” a tribute to Dowland. Yvor Winters introduced me, too, to this poem, years after Thom Gunn. YW uses it as an example re rhythm. Now, thanks to you Farisa, I’m asking myself how Gunn’s peddler and his wares might, like Dowland’s, be a version of the poet and his wares.

      • Thank you, Robert. What a fascinating connection! And as you say, both poems have an extraordinary ability to be rooted to the rhythms and vernacular of their time and place, and yet, can transcend that time and place, too.

        • Exactly, Farisa– and in Gunne’s drug dealer argot as in the 16th-century turtledoves and coaches, the transcending of time and place depends on knowledge and understanding of what’s already-there, or conventional, and how one may improvise away from that given or expected element, or invert it, etc. (Harry Thomas’s Winters quotation appropriate here, additionally, since Thom Gunn was a student of Winters when a Stegner Fellow, As were many of us.)

      • I’d forgotten until I looked just now that Winters gives a page and a half to Dowland’s song in The Function of Criticism, saying that “Technically, this is one of the most brilliant poems in the language” and that in the first line
        “we have the illusion of a foot consisting of three accented syllables, or an English molussus.”

  6. I rather like the wit and spare and adroit verbal sharpness that mark both of these poems; graceful, preening, softly boasting and flattering the women to whom they are addressed in terms that bestow qualities exceptional , unique, miraculous to behold, these are the testimonies of horn dogs working their way into a woman’s favor. And, perhaps, the respective beds they sleep in.

    • Rather classically, both these quick witted sonnets display less the feeling of spontaneity , of genuine play, than they do the feeling of a well constructed presentation, an argument mulled over, finessed and converted into a poeticized template intended for the means of endearing oneself to women by appealing to their perceived vanity. This makes you consider the old cartoon line when Olive Oyle says to Popeye and Bluto , as they try to woo her , “I bet you say that to all the girls.” The speakers, the wooers, the orators that profess the unqualified beauty , brilliance, charm, grace and sublimity of their objects of affection , deliver their testimonies with it in mind to present themselves in an exceptional light; the sonnets are, in essence, sales pitches, imbuing the speakers with qualities compatible with the ones they’ve ascribed to their ladies dearest without so much as one self-glorified personal pronoun being used in either of these artfully cantilevered proclamations. It’s a subtle argument to be made that requires the most skillful of tongues, that the qualities , the talents that are being attached to the would be betrothed have not been noticed by the the rabble, the masses, those who live a penuric existence, and that only the men who have broached and spoke to the subject of the ladies beauty are intelligent, sensitive, caring, dynamic enough to speak these truths. It is artful indeed, requiring a fine a balance, of knowing when to let one’s voice trail off, to end on a soft syllable, awaiting a response. This is bragging through the flattering of another.


        (Michael Drayton, 1563-1631)

        How many paltry foolish painted things,
        That now in coaches trouble every street,
        Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings,
        Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet!
        Where I to thee eternity shall give,
        When nothing else remaineth of these days,
        And queens hereafter shall be glad to live
        Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
        Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
        Shall be so much delighted with thy story
        That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
        To have seen thee, their sex’s only glory:
        So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
        Still to survive in my immortal song.

        Michael Drayton’s ode speaks to posterity, speaking to what he believes is the likelihood that this fair woman will be remembered, gloried and virtually worshipped as womanly perfection in ages yet to come by virtue of his poem. The ladies who now clutter the streets “shall be forgotten” by poets and this miss will be the envy of women of future elegant pretense because Drayton’s directly addressed ideal is “their sex’s only glory”. A harsh judgement, but it plays to vanity and a person’s feeling of being unjustly ignored. There is resentment here to be exploited and Drayton’s technique, effective or not, is a masterful piece of exploitation. It takes a man, after all, to make the world aware of the genius of the woman who has taken his arm in companionship, in romance, in matrimony. The woman is anonymous, a cipher without the right man to make the powers that are innate in her bosom radiate fiercely, proudly, for the world to praise and to cater to. “So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,/Still to survive in my immortal song.” This is to cleverly say that the woman will be remembered forever because of the man’s immortal song, which is also to say that only a man, this man, could have written. Without the man’s words, his voice, the woman being seduced is unknown, without the power he extols in the lyric, which is to say that she is without her own voice, bereft of even a language to command.

      • Burke, I find your comment most delightful, dare i say, especially so because you mention the absence of the self-glorified personal pronoun,…

        But what I am kind of trying-to-think is this:
        when the “I” occurs in a poem, it takes on the voice, let us say, it takes on the voice it is read in.
        So were a woman to read this Michael Drayton poem to the man she were courting ( if and when it were to happen in those times, maybe more so then than in the now) watch how the shift of the scene occurs and what a shift, how the poem changes, :)

        • Anna, you make me think that reversing genders (or imagining a same-sex duo) emphasizes the generalized element in the poem– the streets and coaches are more present than “you,” and “you” (“we”?) are invited to enjoy that cunning, showy athleticism of language, image, verses. Drayton’s lady changes eye-color in the course of “Idea,” and we are free to change almost everything, in this mode of writing? (No wonder Dowland and many others want to celebrate or manifest “plainness,” in such an elaborate context.)

      • Yes, as you indicate Ted this is a _calculated_ kind of writing, in both poems– and openly so. In your words, “graceful, preening, softly boasting and flattering ” The blend of boasting and flattering . . . in my personal judgment, directed more at readers than ladies. (As Olive Oyl implies–I like that reference– all-purpose and impersonal.) The self-conscious preening maybe directed more at the literary mind than the amatory one?

        • The intended audience, I’m sure, is for an audience that considers itself literate and therefore possessed of an elevated sensibility regarding what I think both these verses are about, really, seduction. But we do have the experience , as readers, of getting a vicarious thrill and find ourselves imagining to be the speaker in either poem, no less than small boys imagine themselves to be a super hero with great powers in
          the fight against immediate evil. The works seduction both ways, upon the women who are listening and to the readers who are literate and , we might assume, a tad shy and less quicksilver in their effusions of love, honor, grace. It is a way of being that readers, male overall, can fancy themselves as possessing their object of desire (“object” being the operative term) taking ownership of a would-be lover’s (sexual or courtly) self esteem because the virtues outlined in these cleanly articulated metaphors and allusions would not have come to mind and, further , would not have existed had not been for the innately superior senses of the male. Even the women in the poems, the ones who stand apart from others of their own gender, are chattel nonetheless. While I think the function of the sonnets are morally insidious–this is a world where women are lesser beings and have no selfhood, no definition in the absence of men who control them–it is a kick to realize that it is the male of the readership who is also being played with the sweetness of these words, in the words of internet, “owned”.

          • Why do you use, chattel, Burke?
            I do happen to agree with almost everything that you say,
            To me the poems are just court performances, seeking the stamp of approval from the audiences … they lack a certain sensitivity- which is kind of paraphrasing what you did mention in your posts. But how does the word chattel, work in there? Hmm

            Prof. Pinsky, were there any women poets of that time who wrote poems like these, or perhaps as retorts to such poems? Just curious.

            • Hi Anna and Mr. Pinsky and everyone:

              Just searching through The Penguin Book of English Verse and came across “Fine Knacks for Ladies” credited to anonymous, and listed as published in 1600. It’s followed by a listing for Autolicus the Peddler’s song in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as 1611. Here it is, as it might provide context for an understanding of “Fine Knacks”:

              Lawne as white as driven Snow,
              Cypresse black as ere was Crow,
              Gloves as sweete as Damask Roses,
              Masks for faces, and for noses:
              Bugle-bracelet, Neck-lace Amber,
              Perfume for a Ladies Chamber:
              Golden Quoifes, and Stomachers
              For my lads, to give their deers:
              Pins, and poaking-stickes of steele.
              What Maids lacke from head to heele:
              Come buy of me, come: come buy, come buy,
              Buy Lads, or else your Lasses cry: come buy.

              The uncouth “clown” and shepard add their own bawdy comments in the same scene making us understand what Autolicus might also be selling to lads and lasses.

              Anna, you ask for poems similar to Drayton’s and “Fine Knacks” and The Penguin Book of English Verse renders up many anonymous authors–who may be women, in fact “Fine Knacks” might have been written by a woman for all we know. Poems like this penned by named women are few and far between, but there is one truly fine poet, or poetess if you will, named Katherine Philips, and her poems are listed as published in 1667, but the one in question that comes closest to Drayton is dated 1751. and the title is

              To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship. 17th. July 1651.

              I DID not live until this time
              Crown’d my felicity,
              When I could say without a crime,
              I am not thine, but Thee.

              This Carcass breath’d, and walkt, and slept, 5
              So that the World believ’d
              There was a Soul the Motions kept;
              But they were all deceiv’d.

              For as a Watch by art is wound
              To motion, such was mine: 10
              But never had Orinda found
              A Soul till she found thine;

              Which now inspires, cures and supplies,
              And guides my darkned Breast:
              For thou art all that I can prize, 15
              My Joy, my Life, my Rest.

              No Bridegrooms nor Crown-conquerors mirth
              To mine compar’d can be:
              They have but pieces of this Earth,
              I’ve all the World in thee. 20

              Then let our Flames still light and shine,
              And no false fear controul,
              As innocent as our Design,
              Immortal as our Soul.

              As you can see this is a love poem, a Platonic love poem (in this period Platonism and Neoplatonism were often used interchangeably), from one woman to another.

              And here is yet another by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle dated 1653, I add it because it’s a fascinating poem reflecting the new technology of the time and the older, Neoplatonism:

              Of Many Worlds in This World

              Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
              Degrees of sizes in each box are found:
              So, in this world, may many others be
              Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
              Although they are not subject to our sense,
              A world may be no bigger than two-pence.
              Nature is curious, and such works may shape,
              Which our dull senses easily escape:
              For creatures, small as atoms, may there be,
              If every one a creature’s figure bear.
              If atoms four, a world can make, then see
              What several worlds might in an ear-ring be:
              For, millions of those atoms may be in
              The head of one small, little, single pin.
              And if thus small, then ladies may well wear
              A world of worlds, as pendents in each ear.


              • Jesse, hi again, and thanks for the poems.
                “Anna, you ask for poems similar to Drayton’s and “Fine Knacks” and The Penguin Book of English Verse renders up many anonymous authors–who may be women, in fact “Fine Knacks” might have been written by a woman for all we know”
                makes it easier to appreciate these poems. It almost got me enacting ” fine knacks” in a mall. :)
                I do like the last poem and the way it incorporates the sciences, reminds me of the worlds and galaxies around the cat’s neck in MIB1, the cat wears a pendant that contains these galaxies…leads me to the poems last lines, if every other woman wore world of worlds in each ear, how many worlds exist…kind of mind boggling…
                I was wondering how many men and furthermore how many women were literate in the period pertaining to the same time period as the above two poets – 1550- 1650. For that would dictate the way the poems were read and perhaps theatrics were called for, brazen words to attract the attention of the audiences as the works were read aloud…thinking aloud

                • Anna, a great book for non-specialists interested in these poems and the context in which they appeared is Ian Mortmer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide To Elizabethan England (London: Vintage Books, 2013) there’s also a video on Youtube based on this and his other book on Medieval England (which is also great and “user-friendly”). According to Mortimer, the advent of printing increased the desire and the occasions of reading–jobs opened up for clergy, lawyers, secretaries to the aristocracy and government, so there was an educational boom really taking off during Henry the 8th’s reign–primarily for sons of the middle class. There were church schools, prvate tutors, A primary education was relatively easy to obtain for boys, with girls sometimes allowed to sit in, Almost every town had a grammar school. What really spurred reading in English was the publication of the English Bible, self-help books, and tracts on religious controversies, and, as Mortimer tells us, “If you travel through England in 1600, almost every self-respecting yeoman (lower middle class) household has a Bible, a psalter, a prayer book and an almanac. The desire to read thus takes over from education: people start to teach themselves. As a result , male literacy increases from about 10 per cent in 1500 to about 25 per cent in 1600. Female literacy similarly increases from less than 1 per cent to about 10 per cent. More than 400,000 people in England can read by the end of Elizabeth’s reign.” pg 102. There was about 4.11 million people total living in England by 1600 with the largest number living in London. pg. 16., same source.

                  Most women were taught to read at home, but, as I’ve read elsewhere, it’s likely that even Shakespeare’s wife and daughter would not have been able to read his plays.


            • Hello Anna.

              By chattel , I mean to say that the women of this historical period, even the ones singled out for plain-tho-generous praise in verse, are considered property. From Merriam Webster’s On Line dictionary ” something (such as a slave, piece of furniture, tool, etc.) that a person owns other than land or buildings.” While I do believe that the real world sensibilities were a saner as regards the treatment of women, but there is the tendency in cultures dominated by the will, wishes, wiles and whinings of men to treat women as if they were accessories , an extension of a man’s personality and little else. In the grander rhetoric of love poems and protestations of virtues bordering on sheer virtuosity, we realize that that the man who seeks to woo may as well be talking to a car salesman as he describes the vehicle he’d like to drive off the lot and bring home where he keeps his other stuff. On occasion I am of the mind that love poems of the period were , in essence, projections of fragile egos confronting a Hobbesian universe where life was nasty, brutish and short. Again, this is a seduction that works in two different directions, to an audience that wishes to think well of itself and the ability of their cultivated readings and wit to make disruptive realities remain at bay, or at least out of mind, and , of course, for the women addressed directly, bluntly and yet with a spare poetry that resembles a truth the subject has denied.

              • Thank you Burke,…more interesting are these lines from the Drayton poem:

                “Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
                Shall be so much delighted with thy story
                That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,”

                –it is not disturbing that the men meted out what they did, it appals me that the women accepted these…let us say -courtship…parodies, as in evident from the above lines. Which is why I asked the question of women poets who offered a proper retort, and Jesse came up with the answer that a woman could as well have written the “fine knick-knacks” poem as any man,
                –which is also why I asked you about “chattel” because one needs a certain kind of survival instinct to be chattel when one is a sentient being, which kind of contradicts the word chattel, I don’t know whether I am being clear enough here or rather sloppy with my thoughts…a man can consider a woman as personal possession, but the idea needs a woman who is ready to comply to being considered as such. Which is why the poem is so interesting to me as is the periodic setting of the poem.

                • A woman can indeed sing the verse for a man and have no real confusion as a result if the situation were our current period, the here and right now. It’s a dubious proposition that a woman to man address , at least in what there was of the public sphere, would have done well with a readership , or listenership, as the case may be. Drayton’s verse survives because the word choices travel well through the centuries and the changes in how the culture leans. So yes, a woman may serenade a male with few changes to this lyric, but such was not always the case. I have my doubts Drayton had adaptiblity on his mind when he wrote his song; the constraints of songwriting likely had more to do with its genderless brevity. And yes, all seductions need willing partners for their to any kind of dominant/submissive relationship, but we must remember all the same that it is men writing these verses, not women, and that it is a world of moral, aesthetic and philosophical imperatives that are created by generations of male poets. We may turn all of this on its head all we may care to and say a is really y, but that is really knee jerk deconstruction at best.

                  • Yes, Burke, I agree with what you say, about the way the word choices travel well through the centuries, and the changes in his the culture leans. Yes indeed.
                    Esp. the Fine Knacks piece, and here I have to say that adaptable it is, though adaptability may not have been on the poet’s mind, we have here the links for two artists performing it, and I can easily visualise the piece being performed on stage by kid from kindergarten and kids from high school, and that is some kind of adaptability, which is why it is rendered timeless.

                    But your mention of deconstruction, that has me thinking, only I am not still clear about what it is that makes me want to think a while more, and I may be back to continue this immensely productive discussion, hope you have the patience to help me out with that,

                    thanks Burke,

            • Anna, a good retort to these conventional love poems is Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” You can find it online.

              • Hi MerryAnns, thanks for that. It is a different kind of sonnet. It is the kind of poem I would recite to my man after his night out with his pals, :) thanks and cheers.

            • Anna, the best poem I know in this category is “The Lover,” by Mary Wortley Montagu, born in the late 17th century–a couple of generations later. Montagu (I include the poem in my _Essential Pleasures_) scorns “toasters and songsters” and says “I never will share with the wanton coquette,/ Or be caught by a vain affectation of wit.” In a passage I like, she describes her ideal lover as “not fulsomely pert, nor yet foppishly low.” And imagines them at the end of the day: “We meet with champagne and a chicken at last.” Love that “champagne and a chicken”!

              There is a poem attributed to Queen Elizabeth that can be read as a reaction to the genre, and generations later there’s Aphra Behn . . . but to my (very limited!) the best work of Sidney’s sister Mary and his cousin Lucy does not take up the sonnet-flattery-courtshi-plain-ornate matter. It doesn’t seem impossible to me that these distinguished, learned literary minds simply didn’t take the material seriously. Mary Sidney, for example, did notable, sometimes wonderful verse translations of the Psalms.

              Maybe a scholarly reader will have more to offer here?

              • From a position of interest rather than expertise I offer a few names: Continental poetry has a number of significant women poets who wrote in the “courtly manner,” beginning with the 12th century trobairitz, or women troubadors. Some of these poets (Beatrice of Die, in particular) are easily as wickedly funny and technically elegant as Dowland. But the nature of that kind of verbal wit is really hard to translate. From that tradition comes the great Christine de Pisan (ca.1400, Italian-born but a member of the court of Charles V of France) who early on wrote love ballads and shorter lyrics before her better known longer works (The Book of the City of Ladies). And then when you get to the Renaissance, the Pertrachan sonnetter Louise Labe (there’s a Neoplatonist for you, Jesse Glass!) is a poet of the first order — in fact, she’s so good, scholars are still claiming she’s the “creation” of a group of male poets. That recalls the reception of the only woman Roman poet whose works are extant, the young Augustan Sulpicia, whose lyrics have come down to us for the simple reason they were thought to be the work of Tibullus. These, for the record, are a bit racy, with suggestive puns not so dissimilar from Dowland’s.

                • Thanks for the new names, too, Mary. I want to add one to your list and that’s Elizabeth Jane Weston, a young woman of extraordinary education and accomplishment who wrote in Latin in the first decade of the 17th century. She called herself Westonia, and she lived in Prague. She was the step-daughter of Edward Kelley, Dr. John Dee’s Irish companion in his Hermetic and alchemical researches. When Dee returned to England with his family, an old and beaten man, Kelley stayed on at the court of Rudolph II because of his alleged ability to do the Great Work and was given high honors and land and an aristocratic title, but because of his inability to accomplish the turning of lead into gold, he was imprisoned in a tower and–it is said–died trying to escape. This left Joane (Cowper) Kelley–the mother–Jane and her brother in difficult financial circumstances, and this initially prompted the young Westonia to take up her pen to write poetry. Her complete poems and collected writings have recently been issued in a bi-lingual edition by the University of Toronto Press, edited by Donald Cheyney and Brenda Hosington. Because of her Latin virtuosity, Jane Weston was recognized across Europe as an international woman of learning and art well before Sidney and his shabby English writing. Neoplatonically, Jess of Japan

                  • Hi Mr. Pinsky, just noticed your rationale for the on-line course. You mention that concerns for context are secondary to the poem itself in discussion and I really think that’s grand. Reading the poem yourself outloud appears to democritize the experience of the poem and bring poetry back to the days when it was mandatory in public schools to learn and memorize and recite certain poems–personally I enjoyed that experience because it awoke in me the knowledge and strange power of words stacked up in columns on a page. Not only does it bring poetry back to the lips and encourage a bodily enjoyment of sound and sense–as Whitman shows it memorably in Song of Myself–the buzzed and belched words, etc., but it gives permission in its generosity to everyone to recite and enjoy and tell their own personal reasons for loving that poem, showing in a very real way that a melding of personality–personality and text–happens, a bonding that is primal and necessary even before intellectual appreciation begins. That is a rich and enduring experience that is wholly pre-logical and wonderful. But after that happens–the making the poem part of the self, and using it as a triggering mechanism for personal history and reflection and sharing, that other context–the current of history and the intricate interplay between the poem as literary artifact and the ever-changing culture that surrounded and surrounds it, can’t be cut away without removing dimensions of meaning from the poem. You can’t cut a poem free from those entailments without risking a misrepresentation of the poem, and depriving necessary tools for readers to enjoy the poem in a deeper manner. It’s like putting a frame around a banana plant, so that one cannot see the other living plants nearby, the sun in the sky, the roots and deeper tap roots of the plant and many of its leaves. I honestly wonder what this forum would be like if students and writers of British literature–I mean British students and writers or European students–participated. (Or maybe they are?) but I think this idea might work better with American poems and poets rather than poems from older traditions, simply because I think this is a real “American” way of looking at a poem while keeping the other things that help it mean at a distance and limiting the focus on relativistic opinion and feelings, that as Ted puts it all so eloquently, are wholly subjective and relativistic. Ted, I think I got that right. Anyway, I know you’re thinking that I should inhale, and I will, sir. Back to Plato’s cave, Jess , .

                  • Hello Mr. Pinsky, just wanted to add that there’s a great book about the whole tradition of memorization and recitation of poems titled Heartbeats; Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem by Catherine Robson from Princeton University Press. The first part tracks the history of poetry memorization and recitation as part of the education of children in both Britain and America from the Victorinw times through the 1970’s of the last century, but it’s the second half of the book that includes “case histories” of various people who because of the circumstances of their lives, found meaning and comfort in certain poems that might be most valuable to you. These poems are not always top-drawer work. A good example is Henley’s “Invictus”, and the ever-recited “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” One gentleman mentions the comfort a poem he’d memorized gave him when he was held in a POW camp in WWII. Reading classical poems and other literature aloud was also a popular thing to do here in Japan several years back–but Japan is always kind to its poets and NHK even has a haiku writing show which I watch from time to time, usually on Sunday mornings and starts out every morning with a famous haiku, waka, tanka, or more contemporary effort. Jess from Plato’s cave

              • Yes, I checked out Sidney’s sister as well and found that she did not address this subject, though she was a good poet and better translator. I would have included Montagu and Aphra Behn but the date of their births caused me not to. Mr. Pinsky, what do you think of the slippage in concept between Dowland’s composing music for Anonymous’ lyric, and Dowland being the writer of the lyric as well as the composer? I see you noted the uncertainty, so I presume that you feel that it doesn’t matter. Jess

              • Prof. Pinsky, thank you for introducing Montagu. I like the poem.
                The poems here are what they are, a facet of what life in those times was like, sometimes it does seem like poems open a time window, and though it is Fine Knacks that captivates me, it is the Drayton poem that intrigues me Prof. Pinsky, it is really a portal back into time…

  7. Both of these poems aim to persuade. But to persuade whom, of what? The peacock-preening in these works of love seems designed to convince a broader audience (not merely the beloved) of the lover’s worth (not primarily the beloved’s). To point out the obvious: If the lover merely wanted to create intimacy with the beloved, that would be better served by not publishing the poem.

    It’s not a completely ignoble goal, either; we’re endeared by the boasts of Muhammad Ali or (in some eyes) Lebron James to the extent that they can actually back up the boasts with performance. And in the course of boasting, music is made.

    Irony is at work in each of these. Dowland delivers his faux-humble statement of his own plainness or simplicity in a finely crafted, “lacey” form. Drayton bases his plea on his ability to memorialize the lover, but he never actually does so; the lover isn’t named—so we remember him, not her. They both remind me for some reason of rap battles: one becomes the alpha male by displaying technical prowess and lyric intensity. It’s also important to diss other candidates, as Dowland does directly, and Drayton does implicitly: if so many women go unsung, it’s because their nameless lovers aren’t up to the task.

    It really IS “a precious jewel to be plain”: the smooth surface of a pearl is only free of imperfections because it’s been compressed for so long. That might be why so much love poetry is highly formal (sonnets especially): to make it abundantly clear that the lover can show close, patient attention and appreciates nuance—exhibits a “sense of touch.”

    High schoolers and others who might be lurking here: Can you think of a love song similar to one of these poems? What case is it making, and how? Does it work?

    Maybe there’s some truth about the way art can breathe life into love in these rap lyrics from the parody group Flight of the Conchords:

    “My lyrics are so potent that in this small segment
    I made all of the ladies in the area pregnant.”

    • Hahahahahahah! I love the Flight of the Conchords quotation– makes me think they understand not just the blues tradition (“Ask any woman in my neighborhood”) but also some large, anthropological and/or historical tradition that embraces blues, Petrarch, yes rap battles, and these two poems!

      I also appreciate your gloss, Daniel, on the plain surface of the pearl. Reading, when it begins with the actual experience of the work of art, really is a pleasure. When it’s more like animated conversation than cryptology. Thank you.

Comments are closed.