Starting Things Off

Elizabethan poetry volumes tend to begin with a curious mixture of self-promotion and self-deprecation. The poet Robert Roche, for instance, warns his readers not to expect the invention or style of “Lucrece Rape-write” or the “famous Fairy Swain”:chicken

My chicken-feathered wings, no imps enrich,
Pens not full sum’d, mount not so high a pitch.

The young Roche parodies E.K.’s account of Spenser “as a bird, whose principals be scarce grown out, but yet as that in time should be able to keep wing with the best.” His chicken feathers offer only a bumpy, uneven, and homely flight. So too, the poet Nicholas Breton imagines himself at the door of Parnassus, deciding whether to “press into the place/ where poets stand”:

No, no, (God wot) it is enough for me,
To stand without, and hearken at the door.
And through the key hole somewhat for to see…

But for all their sense of their own shortcomings, these writers (and countless others) attempt to explain the value of what they’re up to, what they’ve done and why they’ve done it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time mining these prefaces for accounts of writers to understand the work of writing, but it wasn’t until I reread these today, as I worked on building this site, that I realized how much bravery it takes to take off on chicken wings. I hope to use this space to wrestle with ongoing questions and passing fancies, to share little snippets I find as I work, and to reflect upon my practices as a teacher, writer, and researcher. But who knows–these things find a rhythm of their own, bumpy and uneven though it may be.

Image: “Chollerick” by William Marshall, from Foure Complexions [London: Peter Stent, 1662]. Image taken from the Folger’s excellent Luna database.