Commonplacing and Originality: Making Sense of Francis Meres
The purpose of this paper is to reassess the practice of commonplacing, which was one of the dominant modes of reading in the early modern period. Modern intellectual historians have sometimes taken the prevalence of commonplacing as evidence for the thinness of early modern pretensions to classical learning. While a few exceptional readers may have been drinking directly from the Heliconian spring, most ignored the humanistic call for a return ad fontes, making do with the epitome and the digest, with second-hand citation rather than direct engagement. More recently, scholars including Mary Thomas Crane, Margreta de Grazia and Juliet Fleming have seen commonplacing as an index to a past order in which writing was shared and anonymous rather than individual and autographic. And in the wake of the material turn, reading for sententious matter has been rebranded as a form of cutting and pasting that allowed for genuine creativity, albeit in forms that sometimes appear strange to us.
My paper focuses on the figure of Francis Meres, whose 1598 Palladis Tamia was a massive collection of similitudes ranged under commonplace headings. Buried deep in the book was a ‘A Comparatiue discourse of our English Poets, with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian Poets’, which compared Orpheus with Chaucer, Musæus with Lydgate and Homer with Langland, and which also offered some of the earliest critical commentary on Shakespeare. Modern responses to the work have been sharply divided; for its editor D. C. Allen it was ‘the product of an intellectual conspiracy against originality’, while for Lukas Erne it is ‘a fascinating attempt at the formation of an English literary canon avant la lettre’. This paper will assess the evidence of the Palladis, of Meres’ surviving annotated books, and of the remarkable epitaph that he wrote for his wife in a parish register, in order to ask how we can come to terms with a singular commonplacer.
Jason Scott-Warren is Lecturer in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.