California State University, Chico
Continental Travel and the Sonnet Sequence: The Example of Robert Tofte's Laura, The Toyes of a Traveller
1> Historians have described the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as an unprecedented period of social mobility in England, with families "moving up and down in the social and economic scale at a faster rate than at any time before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (Stone, Crisis 36-38). These unstable conditions were accompanied by the growth of literary genres that helped readers and writers build and preserve the cultural and social capital needed to achieve or maintain status. Courtesy books, books of rhetoric, and guides to continental travel assisted readers—especially those from newly wealthy families—who wanted to fashion themselves as gentlemen. Writing lyric poetry served a similar function, as Arthur Marotti, John Carey, Lauro Martines, and others have shown. This scholarship has focused primarily on London and the court, where it was easiest to accumulate social, if not financial, capital. Yet like financial capital, social capital could be created in places other than London. This essay will show how Robert Tofte, a member of a newly gentle family, used continental travel—and the discourse associated with it—to create a sonnet sequence that bolstered his social status.
2> Literary historians remember Tofte for his translations and for his second sonnet sequence, Alba, The Months Minde of a Melancholy Lover (1598), which contains an allusion to Love's Labor's Lost (3.XX.1-12). Typically, Janet Scott describes this allusion, rather than literary merit, as the main reason for remembering Alba. She similarly disparages Tofte's first sequence, Laura, The Toyes of a Traveller: Or, The Feast of Fancie (1597). While not a plagiarist like many of his contemporaries, in Laura Tofte "ne dédaigne pas de cueillir des fleurs chez ses prédécesseurs" (202). Scott's assessment is seconded by C. S. Lewis, who says that, though less derivative than other 1590s sequences, Laura deserves little attention based on its literary value (498). Yet minor sonneteers like Tofte reward our attention by showing us features of literary and cultural history that we would miss if we focused only on the major poets. For example, by repeatedly picking Sir Philip Sidney's flowers, the minor sonneteers show us the extent of his influence. They also help us better understand the genre's cultural context, especially when their work has features missing in the major sequences.
3> Tofte's Laura has at least one such feature: the Italian setting indicated by the names of cities attached to poems throughout. Three sonnets are headed with "Fano" (3:XXVI, XXXV, XXXIX), others with "Padua" (1:I), "Venice" (1:XXI), "Siena" (1:XXVIII), "Pisa" (2.III), "Roma" (2:XI), "Fiorenza" (2:XXXI), "Napoli" (3:I), "Mantua" (3:XXX), and "Pesaro" (3:XXXIIII). These datelines make Laura resemble a wide-ranging version of Joachim du Bellay's Antiquités de Rome, translated by Spenser six years earlier. They also proclaim the poems' intimate connection to the sites of their conception. In a dedicatory epistle to Lady Lucy Percy, Tofte explains that the sonnets are "Toyes of mine own travell, most parte conceived in Italie, and some of them brought foort in England." His metaphor and datelines emphasize the relationship between his sequence and Italy, a relationship also suggested by other Italian trappings. Laura takes its title and the name of the poet's love object from the name of Petrarch's beloved. The epigraph is from the Paradiso, and the second dedication, to the unidentified "E. C.," begins with "Alla bellisima sua Signora" and ends with "Affettionatissimo servid, della divina Bellezza sua."
4> These Italian touches should be expected from a poet whom one scholar describes as being "as conversant with the history and culture of Italy as any man in England" (Hardin 104). Tofte expended most of his literary energy on translating Italian texts: tales and the satires of Ariosto, three books of Boiardo's Orlando Inamorato, Ercole and Torquato Tasso's Of Marriage and Wiving, and a lecture by Benedetto Varchi, translated as The Blazon of Jealousy and quoted repeatedly in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (Nelson xiv-xvii). Tofte's extensive annotations to these translations show his deep understanding of Italian culture. His annotations to The Blazon of Jealousy, which have been described as his crowning achievement (Kahrl 49), provide a detailed account of sixteenth-century Italy; he provides an even more extended description in A Discourse of the five last Popes of Rome (1598), recounting a decade of continental European history while painting a vivid picture of contemporary Rome. The Tofte who emerges from these works is a man thoroughly at home in Italian society. He was equally at home elsewhere on the continent: his translations of a romance by Pierre Joulet, of Les Quinze Joyes de Mariage, and of Cinquieseme et Dernier Livre des Bergeries de Juliette as Honours Academie show his proficiency in French; and we have a record of him passing as a Frenchman in Italy, presumably to obscure his Protestantism (Williams, "Tofte" 288-9).
5> Tofte was not born into this cosmopolitanism. The research of Franklin B. Williams has shown that his father was a fishmonger's apprentice who married the daughter of a different, wealthier fishmonger. After his father died, presumably from the plague, Tofte's mother remarried a man who accrued large debts ("Tofte" 282-86). Though his immediate family's financial situation was wobbly, his grandfather provided money that allowed him to attend and graduate from Oxford ("Oxford" 177). When his grandfather died two years later, leaving Tofte a third of the estate, Tofte used the money for a Grand Tour, a luxury usually available only to "the sons of noblemen and the top segment of the squirearchy" (Stone, "Educational Revolution" 58). With his grandfather's money and continental travel capping his upper-class education, Tofte had gained the right to describe himself as a gentlemen. Yet like Chad Newsome in The Ambassadors, "The source of his grandfather's wealth—and thereby of his own share in it—was not particularly noble."
6> Class anxiety may explain why Tofte repeatedly uses features of his translations and poetry to shore up his gentle status. In his translation of Ariosto's satires, for instance, we find him assiduously avoiding offending the upper classes, an effort that contradicts the spirit of the original. Richard F. Hardin observes that Tofte blunts Ariosto's bitter attacks on the aristocracy by omitting them or softening them with a note (105-7). For example, Tofte excises descriptions of court women's adulterous behavior and annotates an assault on their general corruption with, "Here Ariosto is a little malitious against the Court, for many Gentlewomen . . . are as well brought vp, and as vertuously giuen, liuing in the Court as if they had all the daies of their youth beene trained and mewed vp in their fathers owne houses" (50). His chivalrous tone is what we might expect from a translator whose name appears on the title page as "R.T. Gentleman." Tofte used this appellation on all of his signed work except A Discourse of the five laste Popes of Rome, which is by "Robert Tofte Gentleman." In his other work, his initials identified him to those who might provide patronage or personal recognition for his literary accomplishments. To the general public, he was simply an anonymous "gentleman."
7> Tofte carries the pose of genteel anonymity even farther in Laura with the help of his printer and an unidentified friend. In a letter "to the gentle, and Gentlemen Readers whatsoever," the printer Valentine Sims claims that he doesn't know the poet or his beloved: he acquired the poems by accident and feels guilty about publishing them since he promised to keep them private. His story is supported by the unidentified "R.B." in "A Frends just excuse about the Booke and Author, in his absence." R.B. affirms what was "before said by the Printer," claiming that "the Gentleman himselfe . . . earnestly intreated me to prevent" the poems' publication. He presents the sequence as a random collection, expressing regret that thirty of his own sonnets have been accidentally included. Though he says that "the wel judging Reader" will easily distinguish between his poems and Tofte's, I have trouble attributing any of the sonnets in Laura to a different author. Franklin Williams has similar doubts, pointing out that R.B.'s contention seems especially unlikely when we consider the sequence's symmetrical arrangement: three parts with forty sonnets each. Williams also questions R.B.'s description of how the poems came to be printed: "Every feature of the book contradicts the pretense of piracy," Williams writes, pointing out that the "Errata . . . is not of a printer's devising," the sonnets are carefully arranged, and each part concludes with an additional verse signed by "R.T." ("Tofte" 407).
8> If Laura consisted of random sonnets pilfered from a gentleman who would rather have kept them secret, we would not find the poet seeking patronage with a flattering dedication and poems praising a noble lady's beauty. Tofte's first dedication is "To the no lesse vertuous, than faire, the honourable Ladie Lucie [Percy], sister to the thrice renowmed and noble Lord, Henry Earle of Northumberland"; and we know that he addresses at least one poem to her because he puns on her name:
“O worthie Beautie, peerlesse a per se,
To whom all other Beauties are most vile,
O fairnes such, as fairer none can bee.
Thou Grace it selfe of graciousnes doost spoyle.”
9> His declaration of Lady Percy's unsurpassed beauty leads us to suspect that he addresses other sonnets to her as well. In turning a patronage-bestowing dedicatee into his love object, Tofte follows a practice that begins in English literature as early as 1576, when George Turberville used the device in Epitaphs, Epigrams, Songs and Sonnets (Marotti, "Patronage" 9). Sonneteers in the early 1590s did the same: both Samuel Daniel in Delia and Thomas Watson in Diana had female patrons as their love objects, though the device contradicted the "loving in truth" posture that became part of the genre after a pirated edition of Astrophil and Stella was published in 1591.
10> By the time Tofte wrote Laura, a posture of authenticity was essential, and so we find his first dedication followed by another: five Venus and Adonis stanzas "Alla bellissima sua Signora. E.C." These verses support Sims and R.B.'s depiction of the Laura sonnets as written by a would-be anonymous gentleman to an anonymous lady. The gentleman R.T., disguised as "Roben Red bresT" (15), tells the lady E.C. that his sonnets were written for her alone (18-19). His assertion contradicts the first dedication and any poems written for Lady Percy. It also prepares us for the sequence's main organizational device—that the would-be anonymous gentleman wrote many of the sonnets in Italy as a way of reassuring his beloved in England:
“doubt mee not, though parted wee remaine,
In England though, and I in Italy:
As I did part I will returne againe
Loyall to thee or els with shame Ile dye.
True Lovers when they travaile Coutreyes strange,
The aire, and not their constant mindes doo change.”
11> The final line adapts Horace's "Caelum, non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt" (Epistles I.xi.27) to Tofte's poetic schema, introducing the theme of separation and fidelity that runs throughout the sequence.
12> As in most Elizabethan sequences, individual poems, such as the one to Lady Percy, depart from the larger frame. Generally, however, Laura follows R.T.'s travels in Italy and his eventual return to England, developing the fidelity theme and exploring the psychological effects of the lovers' separation. The first sonnet, datelined "Padua," uses the trope, best realized in Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning," that though Fortune has separated the lovers' bodies, it cannot separate their souls (7-10). Yet though the lovers' souls are united, their physical distance alienates R.T. from his self: "Woe's me, in England thou dost bide, and I / (Scarse shadow of my selfe) in Italy" (5-6). R.T.'s sense of alienation increases in the sequence's first and second parts. By the opening of the third part, in a poem written in "Napoli," he has become a kind of zombie:
“what am I?
Euen bones and flesh vnited cunningly.
The Soule, where ist? Loue that hath tane away,
My Bodie onely resteth in his place.
Depriu'd of Soule and Hart, how liue? I say,
I liue (maintaind by Loue) in this strange case.
O wonder strange, the Bodie liue to see,
The Hart and Soule in other place to bee.”
13> His eventual return to England marks a reunion with his soul as well as with his beloved:
“When I did part, my Soule did part from mee,
And tooke his farewell of thy beauteous Eyne:
But now that I (returned) doo thee see,
He is returned, and lives through kindnes thine.”
14> The lovers' reunion after R.T.'s journey replaces what in other sequences would be simply the moment when the lady requites the poet's love. The replacement makes Laura resemble the Odyssey more than Astrophil and Stella, with R.T./Ulysses returning to Laura/Penelope. Tofte intends the parallel. He twice alludes to stories from the Odyssey: in one poem, he wishes he were Proteus so that he could transform himself into the shape of Laura's dog (2:XXV); in another, he is transformed by Circe (1:XL). He also draws his imagery from sea voyages (1:IIII, I.XVIII, 2:XXXIIII, 2:XXXVII, 3:XXXIX) though, except for the channel crossing that brings him home, he travels on land. Tofte parallels R.T. and Ulysses because both are steadfast—or, in the case of Ulysses, relatively steadfast—lovers traveling in foreign lands. He also parallels them because, for many Elizabethans, Ulysses epitomized the "vertuous man" (Spenser 1:167). Most important, he parallels them because Ulysses exemplified the gentleman who cultivated himself through travel.
15> We repeatedly find this reading of the character in travel books aimed at aristocratic young men. For example, in his Discourse . . . of all those cities wherein do flourish . . . privileged Universities (1600) Samuel Lewkenor describes Ulysses as "the most perfect and accomplished gentleman of Greece" because of his travels (Einstein 124). This somewhat bizarre idea—after all, Odysseus wasn't on a Grand Tour—derives from the Odyssey's third line: "πολλῶν δ' ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω," which Robert Fitzgerald translates as "He saw the townlands / and learned the minds of many distant men." In the Ars Poetica, Horace translated "νόον" or "mind" as mores (McCain 434). The Elizabethans followed his lead by using "manners": "All trauellers do gladly report great prayse of Vlysses, / For that he knew many mens maners and saw many Cities" (Ascham 224). In A Direction for Travailers (1592), Sir John Stradling calls these "the verses which are in eury ones mouth" (sig. 2Bv). As an example of refinement through exposure to foreign customs, Ulysses is ubiquitous in the period's discourse on continental travel.
16> He appears in that discourse as a wise man who avoided both the physical and moral hazards of travel. In The Scholemaster (1570), Roger Ascham writes that Ulysses is not "commended, so much, nor so oft, in Homere, bicause he was . . . skilfull in many manners and facions, as bicause he was . . . wise in all purposes, & ware in all places" (225). Englishmen can thus use him as a model for avoiding dangers that Ascham describes with stories from the Odyssey: Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, the Cyclops, Calypso, and the Sirens. Stradling uses similar allusions to describe the perils of Italian travel: Italian men are the rock of Scylla, while Italian women are a "quicksand or bottomlesse gulfe, (you may tearme it as others haue Carybdis)" (C4r-v). The primary danger posed by continental travel was that one might go too far in imitating foreign fashions. Elizabethans disapproved of "Italianate Englishman": Ascham writes that the greatest hazard of Italian travel is that "Some Circes shall make . . . of a plaine English man, a right Italian" (225). The English thus added Ulysses' steadfastness to his cultivation to produce the ideal gentleman traveler.
17> For many Elizabethans, a willingness to travel signified a noble character. Hearing that the young Earl of Bedford wishes to go to the continent, for example, Stradling says,
“surely I am not a little glad thereof. For this braue and heroycall disposition, I know is onely in noble and vertuous natures. Base and badder minds indeed content their poore thoughts with their owne countries knowledge, ande being glued to their home they carrie (with the sluggishe and slowfooted snaile) their howses on theyr backs . . . but contrarily the haught and heauenlie spirited men, (men indeed) are neuer well but when the imitate the heuens.” (A3v)
18> Because travel denoted this celestial nobility, Tofte could use it much as he used the pretence of piracy. He used that pretence to present himself as a love-besotted gentleman, not a writer seeking patronage; and he used allusions to Ulysses, a travel frame, and Italian datelines to create a sonnet sequence that bolstered his social status, helping a fishmonger's apprentice's son to fashion himself as "R.T. Gentleman."
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Robert Viking O'Brien is a Professor of English Literature at California State University, Chico. He has translated and retold Melanesian folktales and written articles on travel and exploration narratives, autobiography, South Pacific novels, Renaissance literature, and Shakespeare. He is writing a book on Shakespeare movies.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures