Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 5. England’s Helicon; “Ignoto”

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

§ 5. England’s Helicon; “Ignoto”

The next miscellany to be published has been generally found the most interesting and beautiful of all. The first edition of England’s Helicon was published in 1600; it appears to have been projected by John Bodenham, and, possibly, collected by him, the editorial work being carried out by a certain “A.B.,” who has not been identified. A second edition appeared in 1614 with a few additional poems.

In England’s Helicon, we find the best of the pastoral and lyric poetry of the age. The only blot on the collection is the excessive space allotted to Bartholomew Young, or Yong, whose poems, taken from his translation of Montemayor’s Diana, are not on a level with those of the other contributors. A list of the poets drawn upon for the collection will give some idea of its value. Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, E[dmund] B[olton], Michael Drayton, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Nicholas Breton, Shepherd Tony, George Peele, John Dickenson, Henry Howard earl of Surrey, Thomas Watson, John Wotton, Shakespeare(?), Richard Barnfield, the earl of Oxford, Sir Edward Dyer, Sir Walter Ralegh, H[enry] C[onstable], Bartholomew Yong, W[illiam] S[mith], Fulke Greville(?), Christopher Marlowe, William Browne and Christopher Brooke. The large number of poems subscribed “Ignoto” are also unusually interesting. Of these, three were attributed in the first edition to W[alter] R[alegh]; but, in later copies of that issue, a slip of paper bearing the word “Ignoto” has been pasted over the initials, though a manuscript list of poems made by Francis Davison (editor of A Poetical Rapsody) and now in the British Museum ascribes them to Ralegh. The same signature “Ignoto” stands, in several cases, as Bullen has pointed out, for a mysterious poet, “A. W.,” of whom nothing but his work is known, and that mainly through A Poetical Rapsody.

The poems by Sidney in England’s Helicon are taken from Astrophel and Stella, Arcadia, The Lady of the May and A Poetical Rapsody, while one, An Excellent sonnet of a nymph, appears in England’s Helicon, probably for the first time.

The three poems by Spenser are taken from The Shepheards Calender and his Astrophel, the elegy on the death of Sidney. Edmund Bolton, the author, probably, of the four poems signed “E. B.,” which include a particularly beautiful carol, was a retainer of George Villiers duke of Buckingham, and belongs, properly, to the Jacobean age. The poems of Drayton in England’s Helicon are taken from his Eclogues, in Poems Lyric and Pastoral, and his Idea, while two appear for the first time in this volume. Greene’s are taken from Menaphon and Francesco’s Fortunes; Peele’s from The Hunting of Cupid and The Arraignment of Paris; Lodge’s from Rosalind, A Margarite of America and Phillis, while two appear here for the first time; and Watson’s mainly from his EKATOMIIA[char]IA, while one appeared first in The Phoenix Nest and another is not known before its appearance here.

Nicholas Breton, as we have said, appears here at his best. There are eight of his poems in the book, six of which do not appear elsewhere, and, of these six, one is in the old “poulter’s measure,” and three in the once popular fourteen-syllable line. But Breton’s use of these almost discarded metres differs greatly from that of the lesser followers of Wyatt and Surrey. By dividing the long lines into two and giving them rimes at each pause—a practice that had been followed before—he breaks the monotony; and in his hands these measures no longer “jog,” but flow. There is a buoyancy and a liveliness in his verse which is the very spirit of the lyrics of his age; and, though he never tries the elaborate harmonies of some of the writers in this miscellany, his note is clear and perfect in the short lyric outbursts which he too seldom attempted. His longer narrative, religious and allegorical poems, The Pilgrimage to Paradise, The Countesse of Penbrooke’s love, The Soules immortall Crowne and others, which are written, some in fourteeners, some in rime royal, or stanzas of six or eight decasyllables, lack variety, and cannot stand by the side of Samuel Daniel’s for dignity or depth. Nicholas Breton’s best work is to be found in the short lyrics, and in the delightful Passionate Shepheard, a volume containing pastorals, many of which are written in the trochaic measure of four feet, the lightness and grace of which was then becoming fully recognised.