George Gascoigne. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres. Ed. G.W. Pigman III. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. lxv+781 pp. ISBN 0 19 811779 5.
University of Reading
Smyth, Adam. "Review of George Gascoigne. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres. Ed. G.W. Pigman III." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 11.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-2/smythrev.html>.
Henry R. Plomer declared George Gascoigne's A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573) "one of those bibliographical eccentricities which it seems hopeless to explain," and the printer's preface to Gascoigne's text notes, with comic understatement, that the book has "a greater commoditie than common poesies have ben accustomed to present"(4). Gascoigne's collection includes the first Italian-style comedy in English, Supposes; Jocasta, a tragedy deriving from Euripides; poems in numerous verse forms and on diverse topics (Psalm translations; protestations of love; descriptions of hunting and of gardens; celebrations of individual aristocrats); a marriage masque; and Gascoigne's most famous work, The Adventures of Master F.J., still judged by some - although a dwindling some - to be the first English novel. The second edition of 1575 tops this up with, among other things, the first treatise on prosody in English. Confronted with this gathered diversity, one is reminded of Barabas' ambition to "inclose / Infinite riches in a little roome".
To compound the complexities of his volume, Gascoigne delights in tricks, games, disorientations. The idea of authorship, in particular, is twisted and stretched as a multiplicity of narrators, sources, speakers, writers, and occasions is introduced. Who is H.W.? And G.T.? And A.B.? And F.J.? Is Gascoigne lurking behind these initials? A section of the book titled The Devises of Sundrie Gentlemen - a verse anthology - is initially presented as the work of various unascribed poets, with the principal author artfully concealed: "Neyther can I declare unto you who wrote the greatest part of them" (216). But then there are complicating glimpses: verses appear which contain - or nearly contain - anagrams of Gascoigne's name, and later poems include ascriptions which unsettle but do not completely dislodge the earlier claims of anonymity. Supposes is a play based around the mistaking of one identity for another. And The Adventures of Master F.J. concludes with notes which accentuate the uncertainties of the text: the narrator has used "sundry names for one person, as the Dame, the Lady, Mistresse, etc. The Lorde of the Castle, the Master of the house, and the hoste I have thought it no greater faulte then pettie treason thus to entermyngle them" (215-6).
In fact, as an early modern printed text which resists easy generic and bibliographical description, and which complicates ideas of authorship, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres is not quite as eccentric as Plomer suggested. In many ways, Gascoigne's book - particularly his selections of poetry - grows out of a miscellany tradition which gained momentum with Tottel's Songes and Sonettes (1557), and later Elizabethan collections such as The Paradise of Dainty Devises (1576) and A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584). Later printed miscellanies in the mid-seventeenth-century echo the blurring of genres and the resistance to stable ideas of authorship that likewise mark out Gascoigne's text.
To this exuberant, overflowing collection Pigman brings a scholarly clarity while avoiding subduing the vibrancy of Gascoigne's work, or offering resolved readings where there are none. Pigman bases his text on the first 1573 edition, but he also records variants that appeared in The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire, the second, significantly altered edition from 1575. Pigman offers a biographical sketch of Gascoigne's life - a tale of thwarted ambition and bathos, worthy of a work of Elizabethan fiction - which is sensibly tentative, and is conscious of the complex and often impenetrable relationship between a literary text and an author's life. There is an extensive and dependable glossary which, crucially, renders A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres a teachable text. And the commentary, running to nearly 300 pages, presents a scholarship that is dexterous, lucid, provocative, and as wide-ranging as Gascoigne's own writing.
- Gascoigne has traditionally been cast as the herald of greater writers to come - in particular, of Sidney and Spenser. (Thomas Nashe declared that Gascoigne "first beate the path to that perfection which our best poets have aspired to since his departure.") Thus Gascoigne's Supposes, a creative translation of Ariosto's I Suppositi, has received most critical attention not for its own merits or significance, but for its role as a source for Shakespeare's plays. Pigman's meticulous edition will ensure a more even-handed reading of Gascoigne, and will enable scholars to study A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres not merely as a precursor to something better, but as a significant collection in its own right.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).