Compiling the Canon

The story of a surprisingly influential sixteenth-century English poetry anthology.

By Megan Heffernan

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sketch of conductor, attributed to Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840. Art Institute of Chicago, Leonora Hall Gurley Memorial Collection.

In 1557 the legal printer Richard Tottel published an auspicious volume of English poetry: Songes and Sonettes written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other, or as Thomas Warton, who wrote the first modern literary history in the late eighteenth century, called it, “the first printed miscellany of English poetry.” According to Warton, Tottel salvaged “many admirable specimens of antient genius” when he “collected at a critical period, and preserved in a printed volume” poems that had previously “mouldered in manuscript.”

It was only from the long vantage point of Warton that Songes and Sonettes could be taken as a new kind of compilation with an explicit investment in the literary status of English poetry. From the perspective of the summer of 1557, when Tottel published the compilation in two distinct editions in less than two months, there was no reason to predict that Songes and Sonettes would become so successful. Most of the nearly three hundred poems in the volume were written by members of Henry VIII’s court, poets who held little currency late in Mary I’s reign. Equally, printed compilations of new vernacular poetry were rare in England. Within this uncertain landscape, Tottel was experimenting with how to make a book of poems that could appeal to his customer base of London law students.


Richard Tottel earned his fortunes with a lucrative patent for common-law books, first granted for seven years under Edward VI in 1553 and then renewed for another seven years under Mary in 1556. Alongside this steady business supplying Tudor London’s burgeoning legal class, Tottel began to publish more speculative handbooks and English translations of classical and continental works, including John Lydgate’s translation of Boccaccio’s A Treatise Excellent and Compe[n]dious, shewing…The Falles of Sondry Most Notable Princes and Princesses (1554) and Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1557). But Songes and Sonettes departed from these publications in ways that suggest the real anomaly of the small quarto, both in Tottel’s list and in the printing of English poetry more generally. Other poetry publications were filled with extensive organizational features: multiple prefatory addresses, tables of contents, marginalia, and other finding aids for navigating the contents. By contrast, the pages in Songes and Sonettes were almost bare, adding only titles above each of the poems. The effect of this sparse page layout was to wash away prior traces of circulation. Unlike books that explained their origins, the design of this compilation made it possible for poems to stand as their own context for interpretation.

A veritable storehouse of poetry, the organization of Songes and Sonettes was strikingly inconsistent. The first quarto contained 270 poems that were divided into six sections, with the first four comprising most of the volume: thirty-six poems by the Earl of Surrey, ninety by Thomas Wyatt, forty by Nicholas Grimald, and ninety-four by unnamed poets. The final two sections are brief runs of four poems by Surrey and six by Wyatt, likely added after the volume was already in press. In a bid to promote the most aristocratic poet, the full title was Songes and Sonettes written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other. Yet while Surrey is named in the volume title, and “the depewitted sir Thomas Wyat the elder” is mentioned in the prefatory note, the arrangement of the poems did not consistently promote the agency of individual poets. Surrey’s poems are not attributed until the end of his section. His name appears in a much larger italic type below the final poem—and even below the signature mark—in the otherwise blank bottom half of the page. The work of Wyatt, the other poet identified in the preface, is signed in the same way. But if the names of the two most prominent writers were literally an afterthought, the other sections begin with headings that announce the poems that follow: “Songes written by Nicholas Grimald” and “Uncertain Auctours.” The extra clutches of poems at the end of the volume are similarly introduced as “Other Songes and Sonettes written by the earle of Surrey” and by “sir Thomas wiat.” Together with the redundant final sections, the piecemeal attribution suggests that the need for treating authorship as a basis for textual organization only became apparent well into the process of compiling, after the first pages had already been set, and no one found it necessary to revise the earlier portions.

Anonymity was not the norm in published poetry compilations from this moment. In editions of medieval English writing still being printed in the mid-sixteenth century, the identities of poets actively guided textual arrangement. Compilations of new poetry also helped readers navigate gathered texts by explaining their origins and their organization in the hands of their authors.

In 1550 Thomas Berthelet published An Hundred Epigrammes Invented and Made by John Heywood, a subtitle that cleverly puns on the dual senses of invention as both discovery and creation. Heywood would expand on that doubled poetic activity in A Fourth Hundred of Epygrams, Invented and Made by John Heywood (1560), where he remarked “none do I touche here: by name, but onely one, / which is my selfe” and “I, for myrth, myrly dyd make it.” Making is the English for poesis, vernacularizing an act of artistic creation that was at once imaginative and material. Heywood thus blurs the distinction between writing and compiling. Was he “making” poems or a book of poems?

Tottel’s editions similarly picked up on this question of how a poet’s agency might extend to the design of printed books. In 1557, the same year as Songes and Sonettes, Tottel published Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, a manual of versified advice on farming. The volume opens with a poem to the patron William Paget, Lord Privy Seal, defending the value of Tusser’s “homely gyft.” This poem is also an acrostic in which thomas tusser made me is spelled out by the first letters of each line, running vertically along the left margin. With a typographic arrangement that verges on ornamentation—and that could not have been implemented by the poet farmer himself—“making” once again collapses the otherwise very real distance between the composition of the single poem and the multiple acts of compiling that produce the homely book.

Where other midcentury compilations stretched the limits of a poet’s textual agency, Songes and Sonettes by contrast gave extraordinarily few signs of who was responsible for the book. In addition to the uneven attributions to Surrey and Wyatt, the preface “The Printer to the Reader” was a model of impersonal speech, leaving no clues about how these poems arrived in Tottel’s print shop. Songes and Sonettes was instead advancing a model of publication that had proven successful for classical and continental poets. As the preface claimed, “the workes of divers Latines, Italians, and other doe prove sufficiently” that “our tong” is able “to do as praiseworthely as the rest.” Tottel urges his potential buyers to excuse his publication of poems that had been circulating privately: “Thinke it not evill doon, to publish, to the honor of the Englishe tong, and for profit of the studious of Englishe eloquence, those workes which the ungentle horders up of such treasure have heretofore envied thee.”

With this claim for general eloquence, Tottel shifted attention away from how poems had been gathered. Songes and Sonettes lacked all the usual expressions of the publisher’s influence over the compilation, containing no defenses of the author, no pleas for patronage, no accounts of the manuscript origins of the poems, and no marginal glosses identifying sources or intertexts. The compilation instead shared responsibility with a new community of readers. Later in the preface, Tottel feared that “some may mislike the stateliness of stile removed from the rude skil of common eares,” and invoked the goodwill of his readers: “I aske help of the learned to defend their learned frendes, the authors of this work.” This request for help transfers textual agency from the people who made the compilation—both the poets and the printers—to the readers who willingly buy the book.


Songes and Sonettes was at its most innovative in the use of textual features to situate poems within the compilation. The use of titles that could express poetic fictions was revolutionary in 1557. Manuscripts from the period, including those circulating the work of Wyatt and Surrey, tended not to provide headings for individual poems. In Songes and Sonettes, every poem is preceded by a heading that is set in a large roman type, looming over the smaller, black-letter text of the poems. These titles typically reflect poetic content, not the circumstances that inspired them.

Molded dish with an allegory of love, Italian, c. 1535.

Individual titles did frequently skew the readings of poems. The first poem is Surrey’s complaint of a lost love, which was called “Descripcion of the restlesse state of a lover, with sute to his ladie, to rue on his diyng hart.” Beyond relating the speaker’s current suffering, the title predicts the effect the poet hopes to achieve by the conclusion of the long, fifty-five-line poem. He ultimately compels his cruel beloved to “rue” his waning life and “Printe in your harte some parcell of my tene.” The poet further threatens to expose the mistress if she does not acknowledge her own ruthlessness: “Rue on my life: or els your cruell wronge / Shall well appere, and by my death be sene.” The title thus picks up on and tames the poem’s scenario, diminishing the speaker’s manipulative shaming of the addressee. Yet while this heading is extensive, spanning four lines, it is a profoundly uneven synopsis. Only in the last six lines does the speaker address his beloved: “For I, alas, in silence all to[o] long,” have “plaine[d] my fill / Unto my selfe.” Before this plaintive turn to a public audience, the bulk of the poem—forty-nine lines—consists of the private complaint of a lover who has wallowed alone in his erotic disappointment. The title thus compresses the lament, transforming the memory of prolonged suffering into a warning about the even more harmful conclusion to come.

Whatever the title’s inaccuracies, the imperfect summary in “Descripcion of the restlesse state of a lover” had the effect of affiliating Surrey’s poem with work elsewhere in the compilation. By amplifying—and at times inventing—continuities between discrete poems, the textual features in Songes and Sonettes created a common context for reading. Many headings softened the disparity between poetic scenarios with attributions to anonymous, seemingly interchangeable lovers:

The lover comforteth himselfe with the worthinesse of his love


The lover complaineth himself forsaken


The lover shewing of the continuall paines that abide within his brest determineth to die because he can not have redresse


The lover praieth his service to be accepted and his defaultes pardoneds

These headings generate a sameness of tone and content. They identify the speakers as stock lovers, making it possible for readers to recognize and engage the similarities between poems by Surrey, Wyatt, and the anonymous poets. By prompting readers to project themselves into the world of each poem, the compilation added tools through which the generic and fictional lyric personae take priority over the identities of the authors.


The enduring visibility of Songes and Sonettes made the book a touchstone for the development of English poetic style, which developed not as a matter of individual skill but rather through the protracted influence of the compilation. Shakespeare treated it as a handbook for love and poetry, albeit one showing its advanced age. When Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1623) is left speechless at the sight of his beloved, he does not reach for Petrarch, Wyatt, or any other single poet but instead begs for Tottel’s whole volume: “I had rather than forty shillings I had my book of Songs and Sonnets here.” The inept suitor’s yearning for Tottel’s old book is a joke that depends on a dual consciousness of the compilation, which allows it to be liked by one kind of reader and mocked by another for precisely the same qualities. The reference was not in the first quarto of Merry Wives from 1599 but appeared only in the 1623 First Folio, when the outmoded style of Songes and Sonettes would have been even more legible to readers of Shakespeare’s printed plays. By layering temporally dissonant perspectives, the knowing reference to Tottel’s book became a tiny meditation on English poetic history.


Excerpted from Making the Miscellany: Poetry, Print, and the History of the Book in Early Modern England by Megan Heffernan. Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press. Excerpted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.