Italian and Italianate Poetry
D. G. REES
'HAVING travailed into Italie, and there tasted the sweete and stately measures and stile of the Italian Poesie, as novices newly crept out of the schooles of Dante, Arioste, and Petrarch, they greatly pollished our rude and homely maner of vulgar Poesie from that it had bene before, and for that cause may justly be sayd the first reformers of our English meetre and stile.' The author of The Arte of English Poesie ( 1589) was writing of Wyatt and Surrey, and acknowledging the beginnings of the literary portion of that incalculable cultural debt to Italy which his country, in common with the rest of Western Europe, was incurring in the sixteenth century. And he was being no more than just in proclaiming this paramountcy of Italian influence on the English poetry of his day, for even when the immediate texts which his contemporaries drew from were French, it was often the voice of Du Bellay's 'docte et ingénieuse nation italienne' which they were hearing, albeit in a foreign tongue. And as one might expect when a young literature, searching for its own idiom, looks to an already established and adult literature for guidance and example, there was good imitation and bad. There was sterile and mechanical copying of externals, as well as true evaluation and restatement; and if out of the whole extensive process the broad, fruitful avenues for future development eventually appeared, many frustrating culs de sac had been blundered into first. Up to the 1590, in fact, one of the strongest impressions which the student of the English literary scene receives is of a confused, if dynamic, situation, involving experiment, endeavour, and argument in many varying directions. Spenser's deliberate attempts to create a poetic language, Sidney's and Harvey's interest in classical metres, the form of Thomas Watson's 'sonnets'--all these, in their differing ways, testify to a period of quest and ferment at diverse levels.
In such an atmosphere, the attitude of poets to the question of literary imitation seems to have been complex and varied. Watson, for instance,