AN ELIZABETHAN POETICS: William Scott’s “The Model of Poesy”

William Scott The Model of Poesy ed. by Gavin Alexander (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

by Matthew Blaiden

“[R]ight poets,” says Sir Philip Sidney in The Defence of Poesy, “do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger, and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved.” Written around 1580 and first printed in 1595, and also known as an Apology for Poesy, Sidney’s Defence, a landmark in Renaissance literary theory and criticism, claims for poesy a status not as a mere academic exercise, an indulgence of fancy, or indeed a threat to society, but as something that can and ought to “teach” and “delight” in order to “move” people to greater virtue. For Sidney, poesy “is an art of imitation” which produces “a speaking picture […] to teach and delight,” but whereas other arts take nature as a starting point, it uniquely “doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature”; “[nature’s] world is brazen [i.e. brass], the poets only deliver a golden.” Poets begin with an “idea or fore-conceit” whose “delivering forth […] is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air, but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses.” The difference between painters “who counterfeit only such faces as are set before them, and the more excellent, who having no law but wit bestow that in colours upon you which fittest for the eye to see” is akin to that between normal poets and “right poets” who, “to imitate[,] borrow nothing of what is, hath been or shall be, but range […] into the divine consideration of what may be and should be” [1]. The art of poesy, then, is rather more than a fanciful or facile arrangement of words for Sidney; it is a method of moral instruction through the delightful representation of the exemplary. Linguistic virtuosity without this educative consideration is empty.

Sidney’s is (and was considered even in the 1590’s) one of the best known and most important voices in Renaissance literary theory, but it was one of many on what was a hot topic on the Elizabethan literary landscape. George Gascoigne’s Certain Notes of Instruction (1575) is often credited as the earliest English Renaissance essay on versification theory, George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy (1589) one of the longest, and from the early seventeenth century we have works such as Thomas Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesy (1602), Samuel Daniel’s response to Campion in his Defence of Rhyme (1603), and Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1605), to name but a few. The flurry of commentary was fueled in part by the period’s considerable amount of discovery and rediscovery of, and (re)engagement with, a variety of Classical texts on poetry, rhetoric and oratory by figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Horace, et al., activity facilitated by a combination of newly discovered manuscripts, new printed editions (coming out of an international printing trade), and new translations. European writers were busy theorising too, producing surveys of poetic knowledge such as Julius Scaliger’s Poetices libri septem (1561) which was widely read in Britain at the time.

A vivid, learned and groundbreaking new voice has recently been added to the milieu. William Scott’s The Model of Poesy (1599) was known to E.K. Chambers in the 1930’s but never again mentioned until its fresh (re)discovery was announced by Stanley Wells in the Times Literary Supplement in 2003, and it is now available to modern readers for the first time in an exemplary new edition by Gavin Alexander [2]. Scott’s Model was never printed but exists in manuscript (not in Scott’s own hand but that of a scribe) in what is likely to have been a presentation copy for its dedicatee, his patron Sir Henry Lee, alongside the beginnings of Scott’s own translation of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas’ La sepmaine; ou, création du monde (1578). Alexander’s meticulous edition includes a full text in modern spelling of the Model, giving modern pagination and line numbers alongside bracketed references to the manuscript’s pagination; three appendices that give texts of the dedication at the beginning of Scott’s Du Bartas translation, his only known surviving letter, and of his will; and a generous introduction and commentary that combine clear, engaging critical prose with enviable depth of scholarship, and are, much like Scott’s treatise, supremely well organised [3].

Alexander’s introduction includes a wealth of new and corrected biographical information often the result of meticulous archival research (from which I draw heavily in what follows). Scott was born into a literary family; George Wyatt was his uncle, his mother was the daughter of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Reginald Scott (author of The discoverie of witchcraft (1584)) his father’s cousin. Alexander corrects Scott’s date of birth from 1579 to the early 1570’s, possibly as early as 1571 and definitely by 1574, meaning he was in his mid-to-late rather than early twenties when he wrote the Model in 1599. Likely educated at Oxford, possibly even to MA level, he entered the Inner Temple in May 1595 and gained the patronage of Sir Henry Lee, to whom Scott was related through the Wyatts.

In 1601 he served as a Member of Parliament for New Woodstock, and having connections with a Kentish family, the Smythes, travelled to Russia’s Tsar Boris Godunov in 1604 with Sir Thomas Smythe, returning in 1605. This trip is the context for Scott’s only surviving letter which, Alexander tells us, “raises some intriguing questions about his literary activities,” because Scott tells his addressee, Robert Cecil, that he has written an extensive account of the journey, which he summarises in the letter. Alexander discusses a document that appeared in 1605 similar to what Scott promises Cecil, a patchwork of accounts sown together by an anonymous editor which includes a wealth of contemporary literary allusions, and concludes that although we cannot ‘quite claim to see Scott’s signature’ on a particular passage quoted, “it is difficult to believe that Scott has nothing to do with this volume.”

Scott tried to start a family in his last years, marrying around 1610 or 1611 and moving to live with his wife near the Smythes, and had a stillborn child as well as a son William and daughter Kathryn, both of whom died tragically young. Scott was previously thought to have died “after 1611” but Alexander presents evidence – including the birth of Kathryn – to correct this to a date definitely after 1615, possibly after 1616, and definitely before June 1617.

The Model was written in 1599 during Scott’s time in the Inner Temple, itself a hotbed of aspiring young lawyers reading, writing and debating, and it was geographically close to the booksellers of St Paul’s and the Bankside theatres. This allowed him frequent access both to manuscript works being circulated (such as the Directions for speech and style by John Hoskyns, from which Scott quotes in the Model and was “written for a young Templar probably only a matter of weeks or months before Scott was writing”), and London’s lively print and theatre cultures. The manuscript in which the Model is found may well have been intended to impress Sir Henry Lee, a friend of Sir Philip Sidney, into becoming Scott’s patron, but it is possible Lee was already financing him. Interestingly, the Model was written as factors brewed which led to the 1601 “rebellion” of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, whom Scott mentions twice in his treatise. The Model, then is a work born of a particularly exciting cultural and fraught political context.

Scott’s Model “is in many ways a commentary on The defence of poesy,” writes Alexander at one point, but “it is also a very different sort of work,” inspired by Sidney’s Defence “but not bounded or constrained by it.” It begins with a brief methodological summary, procedurally inspired by “those great fathers of science Plato and his scholar Aristotle”:

“in our ‘Model of Poesy’ we must proceed (if we will proceed orderly) first to lay the foundation, to define it in general; which explained we may show, by division, how all several kinds of poetry as the divers rooms and offices are built thereon, how the general is dispensed into the particulars, how the particulars are sundered by their special differences and properties, that as walls keep them from confounding one another; and lastly what dressing and furniture best suits every subdivided part and member, that thereby direction may be given how to work in which of the kinds our nature shall inform us we are most apt for.”

This passage gives a fairly accurate summary of the actual tripartite structure of the treatise, but it also introduces some recurring features of Scott’s writing, such as his own creative flair for metaphor (here, describing his structure using architectural imagery), and his supreme organisation (or in Scott’s terms, order – the treatise ends with a quotation whose final word is ‘ordo’ from Horace’s Ars poetica). For Scott’s treatise is far from the dry reading one might expect (and often encounters) in some tracts on versification theory: his writing is vivid and characterful, scholarly and critical, and comprehensive and (fairly) easy to follow.

Scott’s first section shows perhaps most clearly his debt to Sidney (although the close relationship between their work is visible throughout). He defines poetry as “an art of imitation” that “feign[s] or represent[s] things, with delight to teach and to move us to good,” and then discusses this definition in relation to genus (poetry is an art), difference (of imitation in style) and end (meant to delight, teach and move to virtue). The conclusion of the second and much of the third section of the definition is missing because several leaves of the manuscript are lost (in his introduction Alexander speculates on what sorts of topics might have been included in the lost material). The treatise restarts in a discussion of why “we joy in the works of imitation” and of poetry’s long history of educative use that arose out of such joy or delight, and continues by addressing the required qualities of a poet (“to be absolute poets they must have […] most pure and refined wits, most industrious and considerate dispositions, and […] most indifferent, temperate, and constant affections”; “[t]he poet is to be that polypus, which in sundry shapes must transform himself to catch all humours and draw them to virtue”), and describing the process of creating poetry (“a liking and delight is bred [in the poet] that stirs a desire, and this we peculiarly name love” that “pricketh the mind forward to imitate”).

The Model’s second section describes the properties of what he sees as the six major kinds of poetry – heroic, pastoral, tragedy, comedy, satire, and lyric. In so doing, Scott reveals succinctly the way in which antiquity figures in his conception of a theory for literary creation in the late sixteenth century: when he asserts that “differences of poets, or rather poems, will best be showed by the manner of handling and the particular end,” he writes that in such a claim “we bind ourselves […] not to vary from antiquity, but make it more applicable to our later and modern kinds.” For Scott, antiquity should be neither dismissed nor unquestioningly embraced, but rather one should take valuable principles and bring them up-to-date, and it is this sort of attitude – one concerned above all with producing a theory drawn from and applicable to his contemporary literary landscape, and which recurs throughout the Model – that shows Scott to be a purveyor of a truly “Elizabethan poetics,” to recontextualise a phrase of Alexander’s. This sense of drawing and commenting on both ancient and contemporary poetic production is exemplified in Scott’s (arguably exceptional for the period) range of literary reference; for instance, his examples of heroic praising verse are “Homer in Greek, Virgil in Latin; modern, Ariosto, Tasso” and Lucan, and in prose “Xenophon’s Cyrus, Heliodorus, ancient; later, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia” and Sidney’s Arcadia. Scott consciously produces bridges between the established ancient canon and holding up to it recent and contemporary writing, making sure almost every genre and sub-genre he discusses is illustrated by historically varied examples. Throughout the Model, he references Chaucer and Renaissance writers such as Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, and indeed Shakespeare, to name but a few, just as much as classical authors.

The final and longest section of Scott’s treatise deals with the subject matter, stylistic features and rules for each of the genres he introduces in the second section. He begins with a caveat – to which he occasionally returns – that “[i]t is neither possible nor needful to set down so absolute a frame of rules in the institution of our poet as shall be able to direct him to every particular circumstance required and belonging to the setting forth and dressing of every poem.” Space is an issue for Scott, but he also offers the slightly artistically relativist explanation that “there are many things which must, in so infinite variety of device and ornament, be left to the prudence and discretion which is to be an unseparable companion of the poet’s.” Proceeding, we are told that “some beauty or sensible object, suitable to our appetite and will” is how poetry achieves its end – to teach, delight, and move – and that what will ensue is a discussion of “what is required to the making a thing beautiful.” He organises this by finding three aspects of every poem – “the subject and ground of the device,” “the device itself,” and “the clothing of the device” – and then, borrowing from Scaliger, adopts and applies to each genre and its poetry’s three aspects “four virtues […] especially requisite”: proportion, variety, sweetness, and energeia, the last a “force, effectualness, or vigour, which is the character of passion and life of persuasion and motion.” In the following fifty pages or so, then, Scott goes through the six major genres discussing them according to each of the four requirements, marked by clear shifts in subject and his usual vivid prose, critical scholarly engagement with classical and some contemporary literary theory, and a wide range and balance of ancient and more up-to-date literary reference.

The final few pages offer little codas. Firstly, Scott considers forms of poetry “which admitteth some material object to the discovering the conceit,” the emblem and “that noble device of impresa,” where for him there is a symbiosis between word and image; he describes “the body or picture as a lifeless carcass if it be not informed and actuated by the word as the spirit, the word as an idle, fantastical air that hath no sensible existence, that cannot move the sense, unless it be organised and embodied by some image or superficial portraiture objected to the eye.” Then, after a brief extra commentary on what is desirable in a poet, and indeed what is undesirable, Scott’s Model concludes with a short “peroration,” to use Alexander’s word. If the poet, “disposed by nature, informed by art, qualified by virtue,” are modest and avoid overreaching themselves, then, quoting Horace’s Ars poetica, “nec facundia deseret hunc nec lucidus ordo,” “neither speech will fail him, nor clearness of order” (translation from Loeb provided in Alexander’s commentary).

William Scott’s Model of Poesy is a clear, learned and very readable new voice amongst Renaissance literary theory and, where his treatise is an example if particular note, criticism, and will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, such as those interested in Renaissance literature, the history of the period, English and/or European intellectual history, reception history and theory, literary theory, and translation, to name but a few areas of research in which this new work could have particular impact. Gavin Alexander’s edition presents a painstakingly prepared text alongside but never obstructed by a wealth of contextual information, scholarly discussion, and editorial matter. It is always possible to read Scott without Alexander, the approach the editor recommends for all new readers of Scott; the Model’s text runs without footnotes with Alexander’s commentary given its own section, and the only editorial intervention visible in Scott’s text are line numbers on each page and bracketed references to page-breaks in the original manuscript. But, since Scott’s range of reference, both explicit and obliquely implicit, makes his treatise quite an involved read at times, the helpful contents and index pages, clear headings for each section of the introduction, and a meticulously referenced commentary, ensure those who wish to can peruse Alexander’s editorial work with ease. This valuable edition is a triumph both for the two scholars, Scott and Alexander, and for Renaissance studies as a whole.

[1] These quotations are taken from Gavin Alexander’s (ed.) Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism (London: Penguin, 2004).

[2] See Stanley Wells, ‘By the placing of his words’, The Times Literary Supplement, 5243 (26th September 2003), pp. 14-5.

[3] Alexander has also produced an original-spelling text of Scott’s Model, preserving pagination and lineation to give a more accurate idea of how the treatise looks on the manuscript pages, which is available online.

One response to “AN ELIZABETHAN POETICS: William Scott’s “The Model of Poesy””

  1. […] My first piece for them reviews the recent edition from Cambridge University Press (CUP) of a newly rediscovered Renaissance treatise of literary theory and criticism, William Scott’s The Model of Poesy (1599), stupendously edited by Gavin Alexander. [For the article, click here] […]

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

We aim to be an accessible, non-partisan community platform for writers from Glasgow and elsewhere. We are interested in many different kinds of writing, though we tend to lean towards more marginal, peripheral or neglected writers and their work. 

Though, our main focus is to fill the gap for careful, considered critical writing, we also publish original creative work, mostly short fiction, poetry and hybrid/visual forms. 

Find us on: