Thursday, September 04, 2008

‘At hand quoth pickpurse’

Michael Drayton finished off the 1605 version of his sonnet sequence Idea with a set of dedicatory sonnets, ‘Certaine other Sonnets to great and worthy Personages. There’s one ‘To the high and mighty Prince, James king of Scots’, then one to Donne’s patroness, ‘To Lucy Countess of Bedford’; followed by ‘To the Lady Anne Harington.’, then ‘To the Lady L. S.’ The final one is the only one that has any circulation at all:

To Sir Anthony Cooke. Sonnet 64.

Vouchsafe to grace these rude unpolished rhymes,
Which but for you had slept in sable night,
And come abroad now, in these glorious times,
Can hardly brook the pureness of the light.
But sith you see their destiny is such,
That in the world their fortune they must try,
Perhaps they better shall abide the touch,
Wearing your name, their gracious livery.
Yet these mine own, I wrong not other men,
Nor traffic further then this happy clime,
Nor filch from Portes, not from Petrarch’s pen,
A fault too common in this latter time:
Divine Sir Philip, I avouch thy writ,
I am no pick-purse of another’s wit.

One of Drayton’s regular topics was his own ‘fantastic’ inventiveness, which he affects to defend so as to go on about it in a self-advertising way. Here, though, he rather oddly stakes his claim for originality (unlike others, he neither steals from Desportes nor Petrarch, he brags) by using and roundly endorsing a line from Sir Philip Sidney (‘Astrophel and Stella’, no 74). He doesn’t lift phrases from other writers!

At least one early modern writer apparently found this a strange way to profess how original you are:

Henry Parrot, Epigram 168, ‘Trahit sua quemque voluptas’ in Laquei ridiculosi: or Springes for Woodcocks (1613):

Wat wills you know how much he scorneth it,
To be a pick-purse of another’s wit:
But in a pocket, please you understand,
He hath a reaching, deep, and diving hand.

It appears to be a ‘pop’ (as we say these days) at Drayton. But the other possible reading of the epigram is that Parrot’s jest was merely that while ‘Wat’ (in this reading, just an invented epigrammatic malefactor) scorns to steal wit, ‘Wat’ is nevertheless in the literal sense an active pickpocket. This would make Parrot a secondary re-user of Sidney’s phrase about not lifting phrases.

There’s probably a Note and Query about this lofty matter, but I profess not to have read one, honestly.

Image, a detail from Adriaen van Utrecht, ‘Fishmonger's Stall’


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