Question 1 -- Did any writers of the period pretend to have written works they hadn’t actually written?
Question 2 -- Did any writers of the period make use of literary front men in an attempt to conceal their identities?
I plan a series of posts exploring these questions, beginning with Question 1. It turns out that some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries did in fact go around pretending to have written poetry they had not actually written.
I never realized the extent to which Elizabethan England was a society of hustlers, deal-makers, social climbers, and charlatans until I began reading the topical satires of the period. Even the literary world was infested with con men and poseurs. The ability to write poetry was so highly prized by the age that some men sought to be known as eloquent poets despite lacking any talent in this arena. In some cases they were aided in this deception by real poets who needed money or were willing to help out their less eloquent fellows in a spirit of generosity. In other cases, they stole poetic works and lied about their authorship.
The practice of pretending to have written poetry that another man really penned dates back to at least the early Elizabethan period. In the preface to his poetry collection Posies (1575), George Gascoigne claims that nearly all his poems were written for others: “if ever I wrote a line of love for myself in causes of love, I have written ten for others in lays of lust.” One of Gascoigne’s contemporaries, a poet with the initials “H. C.,” wrote in his poetry collection The Forest of Fancy (1579) that some of the works had been written for others “who craved his help in that behalf.”
The witty writer Thomas Nashe sometimes wrote “toys for private gentleman,” as he informs us in his 1596 pamphlet “Have with you to Saffron Walden,” because he was too poor to neglect this potential source of writing income. “I am fain,” he explains, “to let my plow stand still in the midst of a furrow, and follow some of these new-fangled Galiardos and Senior Fantasticos, to whose amorous villanellos and qui passas I prostitute my pen, in the hope of gain." In other words: he had recently been forced to abandon his own literary efforts mid-stream to write love songs and poems for silly men with disposable incomes who wished to flatter and impress their mistresses through poetry.
A different type of poetic fraud is lampooned in Ben Jonson’s 1598 comedy Every Man in His Humour. One of the major subplots centers on the character “Master Matthew, the town gull.” Matthew is revealed to be a fake poet and a thief who “utters nothing but stolen remnants” according to Ed Kno’well, a young man-about-town. Knowell also calls Matthew a “filching rogue.” Matthew’s stolen verses are of excellent quality, hailed as the best his hearers have ever heard. He brazenly pretends that he does no more than “take pen, and paper presently, and overflow you half a score, or a dozen of sonnets…you’ll say there’s some sparks of wit in ’hem, when you see them.” In one scene, after Matthew utters some lines stolen from Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander, he pretends that he wrote them “extempore” that morning. In another scene Matthew carries sonnets that he stole from Delia by Samuel Daniel. Eventually Matthew is exposed before Justice Clement. After learning that Matthew has poems in his pockets, Clement searches his clothes. He is shocked to find “a whole realm, a commonwealth of paper, in’s hose!” After reading a couple of Matthew’s lines he says:
“How? This is stol’n…Bring me a torch; lay it together, and give fire. Cleanse the air. Here was enough to have infected, the whole city, if it had not been taken in time! See, see, how our Poet’s glory shines! Brighter and brighter! Still it increases! Oh, now, it’s at the highest: and, now, it declines as fast. You may see. Sic transit gloria mundi.”
Justice Clement, Ed Kno’well, and other characters then discuss the fallen state of Poetry in their times. Ed Kno’well says that it should not be “any blemish to her Fame” that “such lean, ignorant, and blasted wits, such brainless gulls should utter their stolen wares with such applauses in our vulgar ears.” In addition to portraying Matthew as a fraudulent poet, Jonson portrayed him as a man who sought to be known as the best poet of the period. When Matthew is first introduced in a letter written by Wellbred, he is described as “a rhymer” who “doth think himself Poet-major of the town, worthy to be shewn, and willing to be seen.”
To be continued...there are lots of other examples along these lines.