Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 4. The Phoenix Nest; Nicholas Breton; Thomas Lodge

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Song-Books and Miscellanies

§ 4. The Phoenix Nest; Nicholas Breton; Thomas Lodge

The practice of compiling miscellanies was continued, and the first to show the influence of the new life and vigour was The Phoenix Nest, “set foorth” by “R. S. of the Inner Temple Gentleman,” in 1593. The Phoenix Nest is dedicated, as it were, to the memory of the earl of Leicester, and opens with three elegies upon Astrophel (i.e Sidney). The volume contains poems by certain anonymous writers who clearly belong to the old, rather than to the new, school of poets. And, in the main, N. B. Gent, as Nicholas Breton is here written, belongs to that school too. A voluminous writer in verse and prose, Nicholas Breton, who was born about 1542 and was probably in the service of Sidney, or of his sister the countess of Pembroke, or of both, belongs in spirit, by his protestantism no less than by his poetical usage, to the school of Wyatt and Surrey. Many of his longer works are written in the fourteen-syllable lines and the “poulter’s measure” beloved of the poets of that school; and his use of stanzas of six and eight lines, or of rime royal, does little to link him with the new writers. In The Phoenix Nest, too, he indulges very freely in the old allegory, a heritage from medieval times which was soon to fall out of use. A strange description of a rare garden plot is an allegorical poem in “poulter’s measure.” An excellent dreame of ladies, and their riddles and The Chesse Play are, also, allegorical. In the next anthology which we have to consider, we shall find Breton in a different guise; but, in The Phoenix Nest, the new note is struck most forcibly by Thomas Lodge. The fifteen poems by that author which the volume includes are the best of its treasures. Three of them are from his Phillis (1593), a volume of eclogues, sonnets, elegies and other lyrical pieces; the rest appear first in The Phoenix Nest, though one, “Like desart woods,” is published in England’s Helicon, where it is given either to Sir Edward Dyer, or to “Ignoto.” It is worth noticing that Lodge, in one song, “The fatall starre that at my birthday shined,” makes use of a metre which might be scanned as, and is clearly modelled upon, alcaics, but is, in practice, composed of iambic feet. The earl of Oxford has a charming lyric, “What cunning can expresse,” and it is possible that the longest poem in the volume, A most rare and excellent dreame, is the work of Greene. The dream is the favourite one of the visit of a lady to her sleeping lover. Her beauties are described and his parlous state explained. Then follows a long argument on love, of the kind that had not yet passed out of fashion; and, on the relenting of his mistress, the lover wakes. There is much of the old school in the matter, but little in the manner. The stanzas in rime royal move freely and strongly, and the whole is a good specimen of the poetry of the time. It needs, however, only to place it side by side with such a lyric as Lodge’s “My bonnie Lasse thine eie,” in the same volume, to realise the immensely enlarged field in which the poet had to work. “Sweete Violets (Loves paradice) that spred” is a good example of the long stanza of complicated structure and involved rime-sequence which the poets of the day used with rare skill, and which led the way in time to the formal ode.