The first hint of this poet's existence comes from "Ignoto’s" commendatory poem in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590).
When Spenser published his epic poem, he prefaced it with a variety of materials including short poems written by his friends in commendation of the work, and a large number of dedicatory sonnets which Spenser wrote to his friends and members of the court. The commendatory verses are by the poets “W. R.” (Walter Raleigh), “Hobynoll” (Spenser’s friend Gabriel Harvey), the unidentified poets “R. S.,” “H. B.,” and “W. L.,” and lastly “Ignoto,” meaning “the unknown poet.” Since Elizabethan poets occasionally published under the pseudonym “Ignoto” when they wished to remain anonymous, and because publishers sometimes attributed anonymous poems to “Ignoto,” the pseudonym’s appearance in The Faerie Queene does not point to a unique author. However, the literary importance of Spenser’s work, and the poetic quality of Ignoto’s verses, excite interest in this particular Ignoto’s identity—especially because Ben Jonson echoed two lines from Ignoto’s commendation of The Faerie Queene in the opening stanza of his own commendatory poem to Shakespeare in the 1623 First Folio.
In his commendatory poem Ignoto plays with the colloquial phrase “Good wine needs no bush,” in reference to the ancient custom of hanging greenery outside inns to let travelers know that wine could be had within. The point of the saying is that when the wine was excellent, no advertisement was required. This phrase also interested Shakespeare, whose character Rosalind plays it in the Epilogue to As You Like It: “If it be true that good wine needs no bush, ’tis true that a good play needs no epilogue; yet to good wine they do use good bushes, and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues.” Her reasoning is similar to Ignoto’s, whose commendatory poem reads in full:
To look upon a work of rare devise
The which a workman setteth out to view,
And not to yield it the deserved praise,
That unto such a workmanship is due,
Doth either prove the iudgement to be naught
Or else doth show a mind with envy fraught.
To labor to commend a piece of work,
Which no man goes about to discommend,
Would raise a jealous doubt that there did lurk
Some secret doubt, whereto the praise did tend.
For when men know the goodness of the wine,
’Tis needless for the host to have a sign.
Thus then to show my iudgement to be such
As can discern of colors black, and white,
As als’ to free my mind from envy’s touch,
That never gives to any man his right,
I here pronounce this workmanship is such,
As that no pen can set it forth too much.
And thus I hang a garland at the door,
Not for to show the goodness of the ware:
But such hath been the custom heretofore,
And customs very hardly broken are.
And when your taste shall tell you this is true,
Then look you give your host his utmost due.
Ignoto’s poetic voice is assured, his imagery fresh. His rhyme scheme is the six-line stanza in iambic pentameter with the rhyme pattern a-b-a-b-c-c, also employed in Shakespeare’s 1593 epic poem Venus and Adonis. His tone is that of a major poet, one whom Spenser admired and turned to for help in promoting The Faerie Queene. Ignoto’s desire to remain anonymous may indicate that he was an aristocrat.
There is no scholarly consensus on Ignoto’s identity, nor has any substantial attention been paid to the question. Various researchers have suggested that Ignoto may have been Spenser’s publisher William Ponsonby, Francis Bacon, or Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, but the arguments for these candidates are not conclusive. A clue to Ignoto’s identity can perhaps be found in Spenser’s commendatory sonnet to Thomas Sackville, the Lord Buckhurst:
To the right honorable the Lord of Buckhurst, one of her Majesty’s privy Counsel.
In vain I think right honorable Lord,
By this rude rhyme to memorize thy name;
Whose learned Muse hath writ her own record,
In golden verse, worthy immortal fame:
Thou much more fit (were leisure to the same)
Thy gracious Sovereign praises to compile.
And her imperial Majesty to frame,
In lofty numbers and heroic style,
But since thou may’st not so, give leave a while
To baser wit his power therein to spend,
Whose gross defaults thy dainty pen may file,
And unadvised oversights amend.
But evermore vouchsafe it to maintain
Against vile Zoilus’s backbitings vain.
By asking Sackville to “evermore vouchsafe” The Faerie Queene against “vile Zoilus’s backbitings,” in effect Spenser was asking him to eternally defend its worth against envious detractors. (Zoilus was an ancient Greek rhetorician who became famous for denouncing Homer’s inspired poetry; the Elizabethan poets often used his name as shorthand for a carping critic.) Spenser’s use of the word ‘evermore’ is significant because it implies the kind of immortality conferred by a printed work such as a commendatory poem. In a meaningful sense, Ignoto carried out in his commendatory poem what Spenser asked of Sackville, the Lord Buckhurst: he defended The Faerie Queen’s worth against envious critics by declaring that any poet who failed to “yield it the deserved praise” had “a mind with envy fraught.” He further condemned “envy’s touch, that never gives to any man his right.” Since Ignoto’s lines can still be read today, more than four centuries after The Faerie Queene was written, it is fair to describe them as “evermore vouchsafing” Spenser’s work. While there is no way to prove his authorship, Thomas Sackville is a plausible author of Ignoto’s commendatory poem.
When Spenser complimented Sackville in his 1590 Faerie Queene, he also described Sackville as his poetic superior. He called him “much more fit” to write such a work, and portrayed himself as the “baser wit.” However, he seems to have viewed Sackville as a man who had largely turned from poetry to government service. There is no sense that Spenser knew or suspected that Sackville had begun to secretly author important new poetic works by the year 1590.