The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Introduction
The vivid imagination of the Greeks created a mythology, which has coloured the sentiments of all succeeding generations. To understand many of our vernacular phrases and allusions, we must even now go back to that wonderful life and learn something of its tendencies and meaning. In its commonest forms it overflowed with poetry. All nature ministered to its embellishment. Every stream had its naiad: the forest, the plain, the mountain and the ocean-cave were thronged with imaginary habitants; while the diversified products of the earth had each their guardian divinity, and their consecrating use. The conspicuous glory of the Olympic conqueror was typified by the silvery olive; and what symbol so appropriate to indicate the immortality of Verse as the unfading laurel? A myth was readily supplied. The tree was at one time a nymph seen and beloved by Apollo. The bashful Thessalian fled before his eager pursuit, and ere overtaken an interposing power shielded her from harm, and the virgin stood transformed into a bay-tree. The disappointed god wreathed for himself a garland from its boughs, and pronounced it for ever sacred to himself.
The Romans adopted from the Greeks the practice of rewarding eminent merit by the presentation of some symbolical chaplet. They, however, enlarged it into an elaborate system. A variety of crowns, formed of various materials, were held forth as the worthy guerdon of numerous warlike feats and accomplishments; and certain rules were prescribed which the candidate or the champion was strictly required to observe. We have no very authentic assurance that poets were thus rewarded under the republic; but later, Statius three times gained the prize in the Alban contests, instituted or revived by Domitian, and on such occasions a garland of laurel leaves was the usual acknowledgment of musical or poetical success. The custom most prevailed, however, after the revival of letters in the middle ages. Learning then appeared to many with more than a syren's fascination. Its progress and its pursuit became the sole subject of their concern. No form or ceremony was omitted that might feed a useful vanity or kindle the ennobling emulation. Such forms then, were not idle or meaningless. At a time when profound learning existed side by side with an almost hopeless barbarism; any fiction that surrounded the individual with dignity, or challenged respect for his occupation, was more valid to withstand wrong, than the fitful vigilance of a prince, or the frail enactments of ill-executed laws. Hence originated the pomp and the splendour of the mediaeval laureations to which we shall have occasion presently to advert.
In England the title of poet-laureate was then never conferred, as is now the case, by royal appointment; it was a scholastic distinction, and of many poets-laureate, the King merely selected one to publish his praises and to attend his court. It was simply a university degree.
The origin of degrees, as is the establishment of the universities by which they were conferred, is involved in considerable obscurity. Such institutions have no type in the classic era. As Christianity prevailed over Paganism, the schools connected with cathedral churches, and afterwards with monasteries, became the sole nurseries of general education. When Bishops became temporal lords and monks accumulated wealth, those seminaries were neglected; and scholars eschewing the rule of their negligent masters, withdrew from their several societies and themselves opened independent places of teaching. In this way the University of Paris had its origin.
These establishments were encouraged and prospered. Nobles endowed them and kings granted immunities; but though schools of universalia studia, as had been the cathedral and monastic seminaries, it was long before they were erected into universities or corporations; and this word University we first find applied to the school at Paris, in a decretal of Pope Innocent III., dated the beginning of the thirteenth century. They then obtained powers of self-government and of conferring degrees of honour and precedence within their several republics. These degrees which at first were only the old distinction between teacher and scholar became civil honours, were conferred with great pomp, and were in some cases placed on a par with nobility itself. "When a Bachelor was created Master," says Wood, "the Chancellor gave him the badges with very great solemnity, and admitted him into the fraternity with a kiss on his left cheek using then these words, 'En tibi insignia honoris tui en librum, en cucullum, en pileum, en denique amoris mei pignus, osculum; in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sanctus.' That being done, he was to consider what was to belong to the reverence of so great a name as Master, viz., what he ought to have in relation to his habit, because for fifteen days he was to walk the streets in a round cap, not a plaited cap; neither in a collobe or tabard. He ought also to be so chaste and modest in word, look and action, that he may resemble a virgin newly espoused. Also that he was not to go alone; but always—chiefly within these fifteen days—have with him an Esquire or supporter of his body or at least a companion.
"When the ultimate day of proceeding was come, care was to be taken that the Inceptor should be commended by a venerable company of Masters with a brief and well-ordered speech, and that also the Master under whom he proceeds should use decent and fruitful words, lest the venerable company of Masters should be reviled by the standers-by, for the miscarriage and ill deportment of one Master redounds to the dishonour of all the rest."
Laureation, which had accompanied degrees in law and medicine, was reserved eventually for the graduate in grammar. It was in fact, his Master's degree in that faculty which included rhetoric and the art of versification. These degrees were more common at Oxford than at Cambridge, and there are various instances of their being taken so late as the sixteenth century. Thus by the University Registers at Oxford, we find that on the 12th March, 1511, one Edward Watson, student in grammar, obtained a concession to be graduated and laureated in that faculty, provided he composed a Latin comedy, that is; any short poem not of a tragic cast, or one hundred Latin verses in praise of his University. The next year Richard Smyth obtained the like concession on condition that at the next public Act he should affix one hundred Latin hexameters to the great gates of St. Mary's Church; and Maurice Byrchenshaw, scholar in rhetoric, obtained the same honour provided he wrote the customary number of verses, and promised not to read Ovid's "Art of Love" to his pupils. On the 5th June, 1511, John Bulman graduated in rhetoric, and a wreath was placed on his head by the Chancellor of the University. Skelton was laureated at Oxford, and some years afterwards, viz. in 1493, he obtained public permission to wear his laurel at Cambridge, or as we now should term it, took an ad eundem there; thus Churchyard writing in 1568 says:
"Nay, Skelton wore the laurel wreath,
And past in schoels, ye knoe."
Whittington, a graduate in rhetoric, in his panegyric on Wolsey, says:
"Suscipe Lauricomi munuscula parva Roberti."
(Accept this slight tribute from Robert the Laureate.) Through the more general use of English, the Latin language gradually became an accomplishment rather than a medium of communication; and such degrees ceasing to be useful were no longer solicited or conferred. The last instance was in 1514, when one Thomas Thomson was laureated.
In the annals of the German Empire, we meet with several instances of poets being presented with a crown of laurel. Frederick III. conferred it on Conradus Celtes Protuccius, the first poet-laureate of Germany, who by a patent of Maximilian I. was made Superintendent or Rector of the College of Poetry and Rhetoric in Vienna, with power to bestow the laurel on approved candidates. The honour being purely civil, emanated solely from the supreme authority, and the power of conferring it was occasionally invested in Counts Palatine and others, as a delegated portion of the imperial prerogative. Rodolph II. by his letters patent, elevated two professors of the law at Strasburg, George Obrechtus and his son Thomas, to that rank; and the licence to grant the degrees of Doctor, Licentiate, and Bachelor of both laws, of Master and Bachelor of Arts, and of Poet-Laureate was inserted in the patent, as appurtenant to the dignity. It was long a debated question among the learned whether such degrees were the same in their nature, and consequently were attended with the same privileges as those conferred by a University, and the power itself like all other authority was at length contested by the Popes, and Pius V. by a bull denied it to the Counts, and deprived the recipients of all the privileges such degrees might otherwise have conferred upon them in the Church.
The learned research of Selden has enabled us to present the reader with the following account of the manner in which the ceremony of laureating was performed at Strasburg in the seventeenth century. In the year 1616 one John Paul Crusius had petitioned for the laurel. Obrechtus, the Count Palatine, in a formal instrument dated 20th December, reciting how degrees are conducive to the advancement of learning, and how Crusius having already attained the dignity of Master in Arts, now through his skill in versifying, deserved also the laurel of Poetry; through the power and licence given him by the Emperor, appointed the 23rd of December for the presentation. In the document which is extant, he beseeches and entreats all who have any affection for learning, and especially all noble and illustrious lords, counts, and barons, all academic dignitaries, all doctors, licentiates, professors, masters and others, not only to dignify the ceremony by their presence, but also to assist him with their prayers for the safety of the Church, the Schools and the Commonwealth. On the day appointed, Crusius stept forward before the assembled magnates, arrayed in all the pompous insignia of their quality, and recited a short Latin poem petitioning for the honour of the laurel. The Count then in a long Latin oration extolled the poetical art, and addressing Crusius, proceeded in graceful panegyric to exhort him ever to merit and sustain his high reputation; that Justice herself might pronounce him worthy of the honour, nor even Envy question his claim. When the murmur of applause had subsided, Crusius again stood forth to recite an original poem, on a subject selected by himself. This composition extended to about three hundred lines in elegiac metre, its theme was "Quam nihil omnis homo," and it was termed his exercise for obtaining the laurel. The Count, to give the greater assurance that he had full power and authority to confer the title, produced his letters patent from the Emperor. The public notary solemnly inspected the seal and subscription, and read the document aloud to the meeting. The Count then briefly summing up the authority given him, observed that whoever desired to be crowned with the laurel, must first take the oath of allegiance to the Emperor and his successors, which he ordered the notary to read and Crusius carefully to listen to. When Crusius had taken the oath, the Count in another Latin oration proceeded to the main business of the day, and placed the laurel upon the head of the candidate, and a ring of gold upon his finger, pronouncing him Poet Laureate, and confirming him in all the privileges of the degree. The Count then made another speech, expatiating upon the laurel and the ring; and Crusius returned thanks in a poetical recitation which concluded the elaborate ceremonial.
All patronage given to letters requires the nicest tact and judgment in its application. The indulgence of the emperors was abused by the lavish and indiscriminate distribution of poetical honours; and the very means designed as an encouragement of the art, tended ultimately to cover it with ridicule. The learned Paulus Hachenbergius, in his "Dissertations on the state of Mediæval Germany," a monument, as his editor Franckius justly observes, of stupendous diligence, has commented on the evil consequences of this injudicious liberality. Referring to the time of the promulgation of the constitution of Maximilian, concerning the privileges of poets, he writes: "Ab eo tempore magnus poetarum proventus in Germania fuit, qui Latino æque ac patrio carmini studium addixêre: plures procul dubio et meliores futuri; nisi coronæ laureæ etiam ad imperitos delatæ essent, et divinam cœlestemque artem ipsa canentium vilitas paupertasque prostituisset." To check the abuse, it was ordained that those only should be crowned who had obtained testimonials of their capacity from a board of at least three examiners. But this rule was relaxed, and it was observed that poets-laureate were as plentiful in Germany as poets were rare in all countries. The wits of Italy and Germany launched the most ferocious satires ("de sanglantes satires" is the strong expression of the Abbé du Resnel) alike against those who received and those who conferred the title. We do not read, however that the privilege was ever suspended, and so late as 1621, the Emperor Ferdinand II., in augmenting those of the University of Strasburg, especially gave it the right of creating poets-laureate, before enjoyed by the Counts Palatine. That body was not slow to exercise its authority. The examination of three candidates who presented themselves was referred to the Faculty of Philosophy; and it was arranged the degrees in the two branches should be conferred at the same time. The ceremony was announced. The degrees in philosophy were conferred, and a concert of vocal and instrumental music divided the labours of the day. The Syndic of the University then made an ingenious speech upon the connection between philosophy and poetry, and the three candidates proceeded to give public proofs of their sufficiency. The Dean then rose. He applauded these favourites of the Muses, and bitterly reflected upon what had happened: that, through the ignorance and the corruption of the times, the sacred laurel, the peculiar privilege of the Cæsars, was prostituted and sold, so to speak, to men whose harshness, prosiness, and insipidity rendered them unworthy of the name of poets. But he would not hesitate to assure his audience that the University of Strasburg, in the case of the three poets now before them, could never be exposed to such reproaches. The Chancellor next proposed three oaths, which were severally taken; 1. that they would sustain the privileges of the University; 2. that they would not accept the crown from any other University, nor from any Count Palatine, even though he were an hereditary one; and 3. that, in all their compositions, they would propose for their object, the glory of God and the honour of his Imperial Majesty; that they would banish from their work anything that might hurt another's reputation; and that in their conduct, nothing should escape them which might be turned to the disgrace of literature or the dishonour of their University. He then created and crowned them poets-laureate, and accorded them all the honours, ornaments, privileges, prerogatives, and immunities, in the best possible form, in such manner as other poets-laureate use and enjoy them, notwithstanding all laws and customs which would seem to derogate from such imperial grace and concession.
The laureation of Petrarch in the Capitol, will naturally suggest itself to the reader's mind. This proceeding appears to have been an act of homage, and a public assurance of protection on the part of the city or senate to the most distinguished poet and man of letters of the age. Petrarch had coveted some such distinction, and Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, aware of his desires, had urged the Roman Senate to offer such a recognition of the poet's merit. Accordingly, a notification of their intention reached Petrarch, at Vaucluse, on the 23rd of August, 1340. The Neapolitan monarch was an enthusiast in letters, and Petrarch embarked at once for the court of his patron, carrying with him his Latin epic, "Africa." He there demanded a public trial of his qualifications, and offered to reply, during three successive days, to all questions that might be proposed to him in history, literature, or philosophy. He passed his examination with distinguished success; and the King, pronouncing him fully worthy of the proposed triumph, took off his robe of state, and threw it around Petrarch, desiring him to wear it on the day he was to receive his crown. He proceeded to Rome, and on Easter day, 8th of April, 1341, slowly ascended the Capitoline Hill, amid the acclamations of the assembled city. Twelve youths, belonging to the principal families in the place, preceded him, reciting extracts from his poems; and the Count Anguillara, one of the senators who governed the town during the residence of the Popes at Avignon, after having made a speech to the people, placed the laurel on his head, and crowned him as poet-laureate and historiographer. He then recited a sonnet on the heroes of ancient Rome, and returning to the Church of St. Peter, dedicated his chaplet on the altar, and travelled home slowly by land, luxuriating in his renown. He was presented with letters patent by the King of Naples and from the Senate, authorizing him to read and explain ancient books, compose new ones, write poems, and wear his laurel crown whenever it pleased him.
The poet had sought this honour partly, perhaps, from vanity, but chiefly for protection. We read in his letters how some had called him a necromancer, some a heretic, because he read Virgil. Accusations or even suspicions of such a nature were then no light matter. Verse-making was looked upon by many as nearly allied to magic, and such unholy tampering with unseen agencies called for reprehension or summary punishment. These opinions were not counteracted by the conduct of those in authority, and the Dominican Solipodio, when Grand Inquisitor, was the scourge and the terror of poetasters. Petrarch escaped from Scylla to fall into Charybdis. Though relieved from the imputation of witchcraft, he feelingly complained that envy had stepped in to increase the number of his calumniators. Even the great Maffei could not contain his spleen. He was a scholar, and one of the first Latin poets of his time, and some epistles Petrarch had written appeared to him excessively absurd. "Having read them," says he, "I could not help laughing; and who would not laugh, to see a man, who can only be famous through the assent of those who concur to praise him, fool enough to make his reputation depend on the certificate of an ignorant notary?" Maffei had not been guilty of such folly. He had never been offered the laurel.
But the Romans, in the dearth of more manly occupation, were delighted with any idle or frivolous spectacle, and undignified burlesques would occasionally divert the listlessness of an unoccupied but lively people. About a hundred years after Petrarch's coronation, one Camillo Querno visited the city, bearing as his credentials an epic poem, with the title of "Alexias," extending to the imposing length of twenty thousand lines. These he proposed to repeat for the edification of the Latin gentry; a day was fixed for the purpose, when, to give the performance greater éclat, he retired with a select circle to a small island in the Tiber. He there proceeded with the recitation, assisting his labour by frequent and copious draughts of wine, till at the conclusion of the feat a crown of mingled laurel, vine, and cabbage leaves was placed on his head, and he was dubbed Archipoeta by his jocose auditory. Leo X., hearing of the circumstance, was delighted with the jest, and invited Querno to the pontifical palace. His voracious appetite was whetted rather than satiated by the sumptuous dishes sent to him from the papal table; but before receiving his wine he was required to extemporize a certain number of Latin verses, an art in which he possessed a marvellous facility, and for every false quantity, a proportion of water was added by the unfeeling orders of his entertainer. On one unhappy occasion, holding forth a goblet pallid with immoderate dilution, the poet assuaged his despondency by the following epigrammatic conceit:
"In cratere meo Thetis est conjuncta Lyæo:
Est Dea juncta Deo, sed Dea major eo."
Such refined torture on the part of His Holiness amused their Eminences the Cardinals, and once excited some literary sparring between the accomplished Leo and his dependent, which the pious care of Paulus Jovius has preserved for the amusement of posterity:
"Archipoeta facit versus pro mille poetis,"
once indignantly yet proudly exclaimed Querno.
"Et pro mille aliis archipoeta bibit,"
was the ready and reproving reply.
"Porrige," exclaimed the bard in despair,
"Porrige quod faciat mihi carmina docta, Falernum."
The pontifical punster smiled as he observed:
"Hoe etiam enervat debilitatque pedem,"
and the worsted victim at once withdrew from the unequal contest.
Some of our readers may be surprised to discover a poet-laureate among the Popes. Pius II., however, attained that dignity, and has left his written testimony to the fact. In a letter to his friend, Cardinal Sbigneus, Bishop of Cracow, he confesses his former devotion to the Muses, and his composition of elegies, eclogues, nay, even a satire. He assumed not, however, the designation of poet of his own accord, nor used the title until the Emperor Frederick, having seen some of his letters, presented him with the laurel at Frankfort. "Edidimus et nos aliquando versus; scripsimus elegias, eclogas, satyram quoque dictavimus; non tamen poetæ nomen propria temeritate suscepimus, nee prius hoc titulo sumus usi quam nos Fredericus Cæsar apud Franckfordiam, visis quibusdam epistolis nostris, laurea nos donavit."
Thus England, Germany, and Italy had their poets-laureate, nor was the title unknown in Spain. Nicolas Antoine mentions one , who received the laurel at Alcala, and asserts that the custom was established in the University of Seville. speaks of , a Catalan, who was poet-laureate, and as famous in his time as Petrarch had been eighty years before. It may not be deemed out of place here to mention Vargas the Spaniard, who, for an epithalamium he wrote on Queen Mary's marriage with Philip at Winchester, received a pension of two hundred crowns for life. France alone appears never to have known the title, and this peculiarity has elicited some amusing and characteristic remarks from a French writer, jealous for the honour of his country. Referring to a formula used at Strasburg, the asks, "What are these privileges and immunities which were conferred with such emphasis?" and replies, "It is not easy to give any idea." The worthy Abbé had forgotten that he had before confessed to the tangible realities that accrued from them, but his patriotism at that moment must have been dormant. These immunities might have been in the first instance usurped, but that they were ultimately recognised by law is evident from the constitution of Maximilian, "De Honore et privilegiis Poetarum," referred to by Hachenbergius. Such, however, must necessarily in process of time have become more and more contracted, until they gradually became extinct, and a law of the Emperor Philip expressly declared that such could no longer be claimed. "Poetæ nulla immunitate donantur." The weighty dispute upon this simple text will afford an illustration of legal subtlety. The learned Cujas and his followers maintained that it by no means implied that poets were not most worthy of such, but that there was no actual legislative enactment upon the point. The opposite school proceeding farther in the reaction against such privileges, maintained that the clause was not to be regarded as noticing an omission merely, but was a peremptory exclusion of poets from any and all immunities whatever.
To return, however, to the Abbé du Resnel. The impossibility those in power labour under to confer always real honours upon meritorious persons, drives them often to invent imaginary ones. But when they who govern are fortunate enough to have as much generosity as power, it is by solid recompenses and not by exterior ornament and vain titles that they nourish emulation among those who consecrate their talents to the advantage and glory of the state. Although the French poet Ronsard is ordinarily represented with the laurel crown, yet the Abbé could not discover he have ever received one in due form, though the University of Paris believed it had the right to grant it. "Nevertheless," says he, "no poet perhaps was ever more honoured than he was. Charles IX. condescended to write poetry in his praise, in which he assured him the art of versifying ought to be held in greater honour than the capacity to rule.
"L'art de faire des vers, dût-on s'en indigner,
Doit être à plus haut prix que celui de regner."
"A prince," resumes the excited Abbé, "who could think and express himself after this fashion, was he under any necessity to have recourse to the laurel, to assure immortality to a poet he judged worthy of it? And, on the other hand, the signal favours the generality of our kings, especially since Francis I., have heaped upon those who cultivated the Muses; the highest dignities in church and state, which often become their recompense, inspires them with an indifference to a crown, which was granted to poets in other countries, only because the donors had usually nothing better to give them." Oh, incomparable land, in which a sonnet or a satire is repaid with archbishoprics and dukedoms! Well may the Abbé exclaim: "It is not surprising, we have had many poets amongst us, who have exulted in the title of Poet to the King; whilst we have had no one who has taken that of Poet-Laureate!"
Chaucer obtained from King Edward III. the grant of a pitcher of wine, charged on the port of London, to be received daily during his life. This was commuted by Richard II. into an annual payment of twenty marks; but it does not appear from the letters patent, that the allowance was in acknowledgment of the poetical merit of the recipient. On his return from abroad, where he had probably made the acquaintance of Petrarch, he styled himself, Poet-Laureate; but the title was probably nothing more than a poetical assumption; as Skelton, writing of Gower, Chaucer and Lydgate, winds up his description with the line:
"They wanted nothing but the lawrell."
The great eminence of this poet has induced some writers to take his laureateship for granted, forgetful of the fact, that in those times poetical merit was even nominally no qualification for the honour. Skill in Latin versification was the essential requisite. Petrarch relied upon his "Africa." The university exercises were, of course, in Latin, and poets-laureate were only expected to celebrate their patrons in that tongue. The language fell into disuse, and the degrees became obsolete; the designation was wrested from its original meaning, and survives solely in its present acceptation.
From very early times, there was an officer attached to the court, termed the King's Versifier. Richard I. took with him to Palestine one William the Foreigner, who was styled an excellent poet of that age, to sing the renown of his crusade. Edward II., in his advance on Scotland, was accompanied by his versifier Baston, a Carmelite friar of Scarborough, described by Bale as "laureatus apud Oxonienses," who was to celebrate his conquest of that country. He wrote a poem on the siege of Stirling Castle, but was captured, and compelled to change his views, and to write on the contrary side. "Jussu Roberti Brusii tormentis compulsus erat, ut contrarium scriberet, quasi Scoti de Anglis triumphassent." This he did ingeniously, though with reluctance, and thereby obtained his release. The Scotch must have had some relish for humour even in those days. Wale the versifier, panegyrised King Henry I. and the park which he made at Woodstock. In Henry III.'s reign, we first find a record of an annual stipend being paid to that officer. A French minstrel, Henry of Avranches, received six shillings a day (equivalent to seven and sixpence of the present currency) as the King's Versifier. Master Henry, as he is termed, must have been a man of note, and consequently had his enemies. In one of his poems he had reflected on the boorish manners of the denizens of Cornwall. The insult was taken up by one Michael Blancpaine, i.e. Whitebread, or Whitbread, a Cornish man, with great spirit. It is amusing to witness the atrabilious rancour of the literary character manifesting itself in those far-off ages. Michael, in a Latin poem recited before the Abbot of Westminster and other high ecclesiastical dignitaries, tells Master Henry how he had once termed him the arch poet, but that henceforth he will only call him a poet; nay—and he waxes wroth as he approaches his climax—he shall be dubbed a petty poetaster! He then launches out in a virulent attack on his person, much in the style of Churchill's "Epistle to Hogarth."
We first read of the King's poet-laureate in the reign of Edward IV.
John Kay was honoured with the appointment, and by a singular fatality, none of his poetical efforts have been transmitted to our times. The reputation of some of his successors might probably not have suffered had they been equally negligent or careful of their fame. The only specimen of his literary talents that has survived to prop his reputation, is an English prose translation of the Siege of Rhodes, a work originally written in Latin. This was printed in London, in 1506. We have no record of the date of his birth or death.
Andrew Bernard was poet-laureate to Henry VII. and Henry VIII. He was born at Toulouse, and became an Augustine monk. Rymer preserves an instrument by which the King grants to Bernard, poet-laureate, a stipend of ten marks, until he can obtain some equivalent appointment. He received several ecclesiastical preferments in this country, one of which was the mastership of St. Leonard's Hospital at Bedford, which he owed to the favour of Smith, Bishop of Lincoln, one of the founders of Brasenose. He was likewise made the royal historiographer, and tutor in grammar to Prince Arthur.
In his character as laureate, he wrote an address to Henry VIII. for the most auspicious beginning of the tenth year of his reign, an "Epithalamium on the Marriage of Francis, the Dauphin of France, with the King's daughter," "A New Year's Gift, 1515;" and verses wishing prosperity to his Majesty's thirteenth year. All these were of course in Latin. As royal historiographer, he wrote a "Chronicle of the Life of Henry VIII.," and "Commentaries" upon his reign. He composed likewise some Latin hymns, and was living in 1522.
John Skelton was poet-laureate to King Henry VIII. He was the last who bore the title in its primary signification as a University degree, the last whose qualification for the office was skill in Latin versification.
The little we know of this singular writer only serves to provoke our curiosity. A jesting priest, with coarse humour, his rough laugh tingled rudely in the ear of Wolsey, and cowled monks waxed wroth at his strange and caustic satire. Unconsciously, like Chaucer and others our greatest thinkers, while entertaining a profound reverence for the Romish Church, he was steadily preparing the English mind for the great Reformation. Those men were ever foremost to brand with ignominy the foul corruptions of the papal system; but while abhorring heretics, and justifying persecution, they little dreamed that they themselves were efficient instruments in securing the triumph of the opinions they denounced. So essential are institutions for the preservation of truth, so fondly does human weakness cling to any system that has obtained the sanction of time, that the boldest would have shrunk from any attempt to deface the unity of that marvellous organization which had assumed an indefeasible dominion over the consciences of men. They thought to purify the stream, and blinked the fact that the fountainhead was poisoned. The struggles of such men awake a painful interest. Enslaved to a system they reverenced as a whole, yet despised in detail; their inner belief jarring with that outer creed which education and custom had fastened round their minds; they inculcate alike a lesson and a warning. The chain that shackled them has been broken, and the thraldom shattered. A spurious liberality would again facilitate the imposition of the exploded delusion.
Skelton was descended from a family anciently settled in Cumberland. He himself was probably born in Norfolk soon after the middle of the fifteenth century. He studied at Cambridge, at Oxford and at Louvaine. At Oxford he was laureated, and obtained the privilege to wear a particular robe. In a satirical poem against his contemporary Garnythe, he says triumphantly:
"A king to me mine habit gave:
At Oxford, the University,
Advanced I was to that degree;
By whole consent of their senate,
I was made Poet-Laureate."
The habit here referred to, and which by special favour he was allowed to wear at Cambridge, was a robe of white and green, as we gather from another of his diatribes against the same individual.
"Your sword ye swear I ween,
So trenchant and so keen,
Shall cut both white and green.
Your folly is too great,
The king's colors to threat."
The word Calliope was worked upon it, in silk and gold as we learn from the following poem:
"Why were ye, Calliope, embroider'd with letters of gold?
Skelton Laureate, orator regius, maketh this answer:
As ye may see,
Regent is she
Of poets all,
Which gave to me
The high degree
Laureate to be
Of fame royal;
Whose name enrolled,
With silk and gold,
I dare be bold
Thus for to wear
Of her I hold
And her household;
Though I was old
And somewhat sere.
Yet is she fain,
Void of disdain,
Me to retain
With her certain
I will remain
As my sovereign
Most of pleasure.
Malgré tous malheurs."
Our author became famous as a scholar and a satirist; and was almost the only popular poet that appeared during the reign of Henry VII. But though a favourite with the lower orders, his talents were equally recognised by the learned, and fostered by the noble. Erasmus styled him the light and the glory of English literature; and Caxton, in his preface to a work published in 1490, pays him the following compliment: "But I pray Master Skelton, late created poet-laureate in the University of Oxford, to oversee and correct this said book, and to address and expound where, as shall be found fault, to them that shall require it. For him I know sufficient to expound and English every difficulty that is therein. For he hath late translated the epistles of Tully, and the book of Diodorus Siculus, and divers other works out of Latin into English, not in rude and old language, but in polished and ornate terms craftily, as he that hath read Virgil, Ovid, Tully, and all the other noble poets and orators to me unknown. And also he hath read the Nine Muses, and understands their musical sciences, and to whom of them each science is appropred. I suppose he hath drunk of Helicon's well. Then I pray him, and such other, to correct, add, or minish where as he or they shall find fault," &c.
His talents procured him the appointment of tutor to Prince Henry, and he received substantial encouragement from Algernon Percy, fifth Earl of Northumberland, a nobleman who, in an illiterate period, was an enthusiastic student of letters, and a liberal patron of all contemporary merit.
In 1498 Skelton took orders, and was soon afterwards presented to the rectory of Dysse, in Norfolk; but his conduct was not such as to obtain the approbation of his diocesan. His conversation partook largely of the nature of his ballads; and in the pulpit his propensity to buffoonery and raillery was not held in due subjection. "Having been guilty of certain crimes, as most poets are," quietly observes Wood, Bishop Nykke suspended him from his benefice, and in 1501, it would seem, he suffered temporary incarceration. But though his mouth was closed, his pen was free; and his angry soul threw forth fierce invectives, written in coarse rude doggrel, too pungent to be soon forgotten. These were flung abroad at random, like floating seeds upon a gusty day, and settled and struck root, as chance listed. Many of them were never committed to print, but learned by heart by hundreds, repeated in the roadside alehouse or at the market-cross on fair days, when dealer and customer left booth and stall vacant, to push into the crowd hedging round the itinerant ballad-singer.
Puttenham, the stately critic of Elizabeth's reign, speaking of the jingling carols and rounds sung "by blind harpers or such like tavern minstrels, who give a fit of mirth for a groat," says "such were the rhymes of Skelton, usurping (i. e. using) the name of a poet-laureate; being, indeed, but a rude railing rhymer, and all his doings ridiculous. He used both short distances and short measures, pleasing only the popular ear, in our courtly maker we banish them utterly." It was in this consisted his strength. While enjoying with a keen relish the severer beauties of the classic writers, he could indulge in homely galloping verses which went right to the hearts of those he addressed, and made him at once the darling of the populace. Webbe, another critic, appreciated him more correctly. After a reference to preceding writers, he continues: "Since these, I know none other till the time of Skelton, who writ in the time of Henry VIII., who, as indeed he obtained the laurel garland, so may I with good right yield him the title of poet. He was doubtless a pleasant conceited fellow, and of a very sharp wit, exceeding bold, and would nip to the very quick where he once set hold."
His principal objects of attack were the clergy and the Dominicans, until at length, for some reason unexplained, his whole strength was directed against Wolsey. The Cardinal was then luxuriating in the full plenitude of his more than regal pomp, and his imperious demeanour had caused a wide-spread though concealed dissatisfaction. There were no newspapers then to drain off the discontent that in a greater or less degree will always fester in every free community; and any production that gave utterance to the sentiments of an aggrieved class, would be effective in proportion to the extent of the distemper. And, moreover, the sarcasms of an obscure priest, himself in ill odour for certain assumed irregularities of life, must have irritated the sensitive pride of one impatient of reproof or of contradiction. The Cardinal, at length, "being inveighed at by his pen, and charged with too much truth," issued orders for his arrest, and the satirist fled for sanctuary to Westminster, where Islip the Abbot afforded him an effectual safeguard.
One of the charges afterwards preferred against Wolsey bears a striking resemblance to a passage in one of Skelton's poems. In "Why come ye not to Court?" he writes:
"In the Chamber of Stars
All matters there he mars:
Clapping his rod on the board,
No man dare speak a word,
For he hath all the saying,
Without any renaying;
He rolleth in his records,
He saith, How say ye, my lords?
Is not my reason good?
Good even, good Robin Hood!
Some say yes, and some
Sit still as they were dumb:
Thus thwarting over them
He ruleth all the roast
With bragging and with boast;
Borne up on every side
With pomp and with pride."
Turning to the articles of impeachment, we find the fifteenth runs thus: "Also the said Lord Cardinal, sitting among the lords and others of your most honourable Privy Council, used himself, that if any man should show his mind, according to his duty, contrary to the opinion of the said Cardinal, he would so rake him up with his accustomable words that they were better to hold their peace than to speak, so that he would hear no man speak but one or two personages, so that he would have all the words himself, and consumed much time with a fair tale."
Wolsey was unrelenting in his resentment, and Skelton never ventured from his place of voluntary confinement. He died on the 25th of June, 1529, and was buried in the chancel of the neighbouring church of St. Margaret, where the following inscription was placed upon his gravestone:
"Joannes Skeltonus, Vates Pierius, hic situs est."
He remained, nominally at least, rector of Dysse, till his decease, as the institution of his successor is dated the 17th of the following month.
"This ribald and ill-living wretch," such is the delicate language of Miss Agnes Strickland, who insinuates that King Henry's "grossest crimes" resulted from the "corruption imparted" by his former tutor, had been guilty of an unpardonable enormity in the eyes of the Christian clergy of that day, as perhaps also in the immaculate imagination of Miss Agnes Strickland. The Church that could denounce marriage and countenance brothels was scandalized that one of its ministers should be so obtuse to all notions of decorum, as to enter that state which it had solemnly pronounced dishonourable. Preferring to obey the moral rather than the ecclesiastical law, his name was loaded with disgrace, and "merry Skelton being a priest, and having a child by his wife, every one cried out: 'O! Skelton hath a child, fie on him!'"
His fluctuating reputation has now assumed some definite shape. The high opinion of his contemporaries, of the learned as of the vulgar, was succeeded by the unjust depreciation of the critics in the reign of Elizabeth: he was gradually neglected and almost forgotten. An effort was made in Pope's time to revive his fame by the republication of an edition of his works, but the epithet "beastly," applied by the poet, consigned them again to oblivion. After some further lapse of time, some resolute inquirers undertook to read his productions, and his originality and spirit have at length received their due recognition. Of his writings many are lost, and what remain can only be appreciated by one who is both an antiquarian and a poet. His qualities are judgment, fancy, little imagination, but considerable humour. He took the language of low life, and twisted the unformed stubborn tongue with marvellous power, coining words when it suited his purpose, and running riot in his exuberant facility of rhyming. He was conscious where lay his strength.
"Though my rhyme be ragged,
Tatter'd and jagged,
Rudely rain beaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith."
His favourite measure was one which was named after him "Skeltonical," and his success in Macaronics was universally conceded. This curious transition style of verse was frequently practised about that time and later. English composition larded with patches of Latin, sometimes of French, in a most extraordinary jumble, would seem absurd to us, but appeared natural then; and the skilful execution of the feat was highly commended. We select a specimen of each of these styles.
The first are extracts from the description of Miss Jane Scroupe, who resided at the nunnery of Carow at Norwich, taken from "The Book of William Sparrow."
Comfort, pleasure, and solace,
My heart doth so embrace,
And so hath ravished me
Her to behold and see,
That, in words plain,
I cannot me refrain
To look on her again.
Alas! what should I fain?
It were a pleasant pain
With her to aye remain.
The Indy sapphire blue
Her veins doth ennew;
The orient pearl so clear
The whiteness of her lere;
The lusty ruby ruddes
Resemble the rose-buds;
Her lips, soft and merry,
Embloom'd like the cherry,
It were a heavenly bliss
Her sugar'd mouth to kiss.
Her beauty to augment,
Dame Nature hath her lent
A wart upon her cheek.
Who so list to seek
In her visage a scar,
That seemeth from afar
Like to a radiant star,
All with favour fret,
So properly it is set;
She is the violet,
The daisy delectable,
The columbine commendable,
This blossom of fresh colour,
So Jupiter me succour,
She flourisheth new and new
In beauty and virtue.
"But whereto should I note
How often I did tote
Upon her pretty foot?
It raised mine heart-root
To see her tread the ground
With heels short and round.
She is plainly express
Egeria the goddess.
There is no beast savage,
Nor no tiger so wood,
But she would change his mood,—
Such relucent grace
Is formed in her face;
For this most goodly flower,
This blossom of fresh colour,
She flourisheth new and new
In beauty and virtue.
"So goodly as she dresses,
So properly she presses
The bright golden tresses
Of her hair so fine,
Like Phœbus' beams shine.
It is for to suppose
How that she can wear
Gorgeously her gear,
Her fresh habiliments
With other implements
To serve for all intents,
Like Dame Flora, queen
Of lusty summer green.
For this most goodly flower,
This blossom of fresh colour,
So Jupiter me succour,
She flourisheth new and new
In beauty and virtue.
"My pen it is unable,
My hand it is unstable,
My reason rude and dull
To praise her at the full;
Goodly Mistress Jane,
Sober, demure Diane;
Jane, this mistress hight,
The load-star of delight,
Dame Venus of all pleasure,
The well of worldly treasure;
She doth exceed and pass
In prudence Dame Pallas;
This most goodly flower,
This blossom of fresh colour,
So Jupiter me succour,
She flourisheth new and new
In beauty and virtue.
"It were no gentle guise
This treatise to despise,
Because I have written and said
Honour of this fair maid;
Wherefore should I be blamed
That I Jane have named,
And famously proclaimed?
She is worthy to be enroll'd
With letters of gold."
The following passage is taken from "Colin Clout:"
"And how, when ye give orders.
In your provincial borders,
As at Sitientes,
Some are insufficientes,
Some parum sapientes,
Some nihil intelligentes,
Some valde negligentes,
Some nullum sensum habentes,
But bestial and untaught;
But when they have once caught
Dominus vobiscum by the head,
Then run they in every stead,
God wot, with drunken nolls;
Yet take they cure of souls,
And wot not what they read,
Paternoster, Ave, nor Crede;
Construe not worth a whistle,
Neither Gospel nor Epistle;
Their matins madly said,
Nothing devoutly pray'd;
Their learning is so small,
Their primes and hours fall
And leap out of their lips
Like saw-dust or dry chips.
I speak not now of all,
But the most part in general,
Of such vagabundus
Speaketh totus mundus;
How some sing lætabundus
At every ale stake,
With welcome hake and make!
I speak not of the good wife,
But of their apostle's life,
Cum ipsis vel illis
Qui manent in villis
Est uxor vel ancilla,
Welcome Jack and Gilla!
My pretty Petronilla,
And you will be stilla
You shall have your willa
Of such Paternoster pekes,
All the world speaks."
The chief satires of our poet are "The Bowge of Courte," "Colyn Cloute," and "Why come ye not to Court?" The first is an allegorical poem in which a variety of characters are introduced, touched with great powers of discrimination. The second is a denunciation of the corruptions of the Church: and the fearless way in which he assailed the most glaring abuses of the time, shows a strength of mind and a courage rare in that age of universal obsequiousness to the powerful. "Why come ye not to Court?" is a personal satire on Wolsey. The attack is unsparing, and in places scurrilous, though in commenting upon the extravagant pomp and the insolent demeanour of the grasping Cardinal, even satire itself could but speak the simple truth.
His "Philip Sparrow" is a fanciful piece occasioned by an event similar to the one Catullus has immortalized, and has won from Coleridge the praise of being an exquisite and original poem. His most popular production, however, was "The Tunning of Elinor Rumming." This is a description of an old hostess, who kept an ale-house at Leatherhead in Surrey, with some of her customers; and for coarseness, and at the same time for broad humour, exceeds anything he ever wrote. An interlude called "Magnificence," and "The Garland of Laurel," conclude the list of the larger poems which have survived to our times. In style they are obsolete, and without a copious glossary difficult to be understood, but they are valuable as having once powerfully affected opinion, and interpreted human conviction. The man has passed away, and his works, from their nature, could only be transitory as their author; but the brief glimpse we have of him, the scholar and the buffoon, a priest with his married concubine, and bastardized children, mocking half in anger, half in jest, or it might be in the wantonness of sorrow, at the falsehoods by which he was surrounded, may justly awaken our sympathy, nor fail to suggest a moral.
Skelton being the wag par excellence of his time, his name, as more recently that of honest Joe Miller, was woefully abused; and all the stray jests that nobody would own, were freely fathered upon him. Soon after his death, a small volume appeared, and became popular, entitled "Merry Tales, newly Imprinted and made by Master Skelton, Poet-Laureate," "very pleasant for the recreation of the mind," The admirers of "Punch" may be entertained with a specimen of the drollery that could amuse a ruder age.
TALE I. HOW SKELTON CAME LATE HOME TO OXFORD FROM ABINGDON.
"Skelton was an Englishman, born as Scogan was, and he was educated and brought up at Oxford; and there was he made a poet-laureate, And on a time he had been at Abingdon to make merry, where that he had eat salt meats; and he did come late home to Oxford, and he did lie in an inn named the 'Tabard,' which is now the 'Angel,' and he did drink, and went to bed. About midnight, he was so thirsty or dry, that he was constrained to call to the tapster for drink; and the tapster heard him not. Then he cried to his host, and his hostess, and to the ostler, for drink, and no man would hear him. 'Alack!' said Skelton, 'I shall perish for lack of drink! what remedy?' At the last he did cry out, and said: 'Fire! fire! fire!' When Skelton heard every man bustled himself upward, and some of them were naked, and some were half-asleep and amazed, and Skelton did cry, 'Fire! fire!' still, that every man knew not whither to resort; Skelton did go to bed, and the host, and hostess, and the tapster with the ostler, did run to Skelton's chamber with candles lighted in their hands, saying: 'Where—where is the fire?' 'Here, here, here,' said Skelton, and pointed his finger to his mouth, saying, 'Fetch me some drink to quench the fire, and the heat and the dryness in my mouth;' and so they did. Wherefore it is good for every man to help his own self in time of need with some policy or craft, so be it there be no deceit nor falsehood used."
We conclude our quotations by an extract from a brochure termed "The Life of Long Meg of Westminster," detailing the first introduction of that interesting personage to our jovial laureate.
"After the carrier had set up his horse, and despatched his lading, he remembered his oath, and therefore bethought him how he might place these three maids. With that he called to mind that the mistress at the 'Eagle' in Westminster had spoken divers times to him for a servant. He with his carriage passed over the fields to her house, where he found her sitting and drinking with a Spanish knight, called Sir James of Castille, Doctor Skelton, and Will Somers; told her how he had brought up to London three Lancashire lasses, and seeing she was oft desirous to have a maid, now she should take her choice which of them she would have. 'Marry,' quoth she, (being a very merry and a pleasant woman), 'carrier, thou comest in good time; for not only I want a maid, but here be three gentlemen that shall give me their opinions which of them I shall have.' With that the maids were bidden come in, and she entreated them to give their verdict. Straight, as soon as they saw Long Meg, they began to smile; and Doctor Skelton, in his mad, merry vein, blessing himself, began thus:
"'Domine, Domine, unde hoc?
What is she in the gray cassock?
Methinks she is of a large length,
Of a tall pitch and a good strength,
With strong arms, and stiff bones;
This is a wench for the nones.
Her looks are bonny and blithe,
She seems neither lither nor lithe,
But young of age,
And of a merry visage,
Neither beastly nor bowsy,
Sleepy nor drowsy,
But fair-faced, and of a good size;
Therefore, hostess, if you be wise,
Once be ruled by me;
Take this wench to thee,
For this is plain,
She'll do more work than these twain.
I tell thee, hostess, I do not mock,
Take her in the gray cassock.'
"'What is your opinion?' quoth the hostess to Sir James of Castille. 'Question with her,' quoth he, 'what she can do, and then I'll give you mine opinion. And yet first, hostess, ask Will Somers' opinion.' Will smiled, and swore that his hostess should not have her, but King Harry should buy her. 'Why so, Will?' quoth Doctor Skelton. 'Because,' quoth Will Somers, 'that she shall be kept for breed; for if the King would marry her to long Sanders, of the Court, they would bring forth none but soldiers.' Well, the hostess demanded what her name was? 'Margaret, forsooth,' quoth she. 'And what work can you do?' 'Faith, little, mistress,' quoth she, 'but handy labour, as to wash and wring, to make clean a house, to brew, bake, or any such drudgery; for my needle, to that I have been little used to.' 'Thou art,' quoth the hostess, 'a good lusty wench, and therefore I like thee the better. I have here a great charge, for I keep a victualling-house, and divers times there come in swaggering fellows that, when they have eat and drunk, will not pay what they call for; yet, if thou take the charge of my drink, I must be answered out of your wages.' 'Content, mistress,' quoth she; 'for while I serve you, if any stale cutter comes in and thinks to pay the shot with swearing, hey, Gog's wounds! let me alone! I'll not only (if his clothes be worth it) make him pay ere he pass, but lend him as many bats as his crag will carry, and then throw him out of doors.' At this they all smiled. 'Nay, mistress,' quoth the carrier, ''tis true; for my poor pilch here is able, with a pair of blue shoulders, to swear as much!' and with that he told them how she had used him at her coming to London. 'I cannot think,' quoth Sir James of Castille, 'that she is so strong.' 'Try her,' quoth Skelton; 'for I have heard that Spaniards are of wonderful strength.' Sir James, in a bravery, would needs make experience, and therefore asked the maid if she durst change a box on the ear with him? 'I, Sir,' quoth she, 'that I dare, if my mistress will give me leave.' 'Yes, Meg,' quoth she, 'do thy best!' and with that it was a question who should stand first. 'Marry, that I will, Sir,' quoth she, and so stood to abide Sir James's blow, who, forcing himself with all his might, gave her such a box that she could scarcely stand. Yet she stirred no more than a post. Then Sir James he stood, and the hostess willed her not to spare her strength. 'No,' quoth Skelton; 'and if she fell him down, I'll give her a pair of new hose and shoes.' 'Mistress,' quoth Meg (and with that she strook up her sleeve), 'here is a foul fist, and it hath past much drudgery, but, trust me, I think it will give a good blow!' and with that she raught at him so strongly, that down fell Sir James at her feet. 'By my faith,' quoth Will Somers, 'she strikes a blow like an ox, for she hath struck down an ass.' At this they all laughed, Sir James was ashamed, and Meg was entertained into service."
We have ventured, in our extracts, to modernise the spelling, for the greater convenience of those readers who may not be familiar with our older authors.
Edmund Spenser was born in London about the year 1553, in East Smithfield, near the Tower, if we may trust the uncertain whisper of tradition. He was descended from the stock of the Spensers, afterwards Spencers of Hurstwood, near Burnley, in Lancashire, his own branch being probably seated on a small estate still called Spencers, situated at Filley Close, in the forest of Pendle, at the foot of Pendle Hill. The direct ancestor of the poet, Adam le Spenser, held lands of King Edward II., by military tenure, in the township of Worsthorne, a few miles from Spencers; and though the branch to which he belonged had sunk into obscurity, the remote connection was acknowledged by the Spencers of Althorpe, afterwards distinguished by the trophies and dukedom of Marlborough.
Spenser was sent to Cambridge, and entered at Pembroke Hall as a sizar, 20th of May, 1569. He there contracted a friendship with Gabriel Harvey, of Christ's College, or, according to another account, of Pembroke Hall, afterwards fellow of Trinity Hall, who, like himself, was in reduced circumstances, with powerful connections, and became afterwards eminent as a poet and scholar. This friendship endured through life, and Harvey figures as Hobbinol in his friend's "Eclogues."
Spenser is recorded to have taken his B.A. degree in January, 1573, and his M.A. in June, 1576, and he then finally quitted the University. There is some obscurity hanging over this part of his career, but the prevailing impression is that he left in chagrin, being disappointed in his expectations of a fellowship. This probably prevented him from taking orders. He always remembered the University with gratitude, and frequently mentions it with honour; but it is a singular fact that Pembroke Hall is never once referred to through the voluminous range of his compositions, strewed as they are with allusions to his personal history.
On retiring from the University, he went to live with his relatives in the north of England. Here the sensitive poet fell a victim to the arts of a country girl, whom he has immortalised under the name of Rosalind, but whose actual name is still a mystery. An ingenious writer has attempted a solution by resolving the anagram into "Rose Linde," averring that "Linde" is a common surname in Kent, and "Rose" a frequent feminine appellation everywhere. He himself calls her "the widow's daughter of the glen," and writes as though she were of low degree, though in the gloss on the poems, written, probably, by Harvey, we are told she was of gentle blood. The wily maid encouraged his advances, and then left him, to give her hand to another. The heart-broken poet turned the incident to account in some plaintive pastorals; and, under the name of Menalcas, took satisfactory vengeance on his rival in the shape of satire.
To relieve his despondency, or perhaps to dissipate his idleness, Harvey urged him to remove to London, and obtained his introduction to Sir Philip Sydney. Sydney presented him to his uncle the Earl of Leicester. He was invited to Penshurst, the princely domain of the Sydneys in Kent, where he stayed a few months, doubtless assisting his patron in his studies, and returned with him to London, as, in October, 1579, we find him writing to Harvey from Leicester House.
In 1579, Spenser, in a letter to his friend, several times alludes to his prospect of travelling abroad; and in some Latin lines enclosed, intimates that his journey may stretch, not only to the Alps and Pyrenees, but beyond, to the inhospitable Caucasus and to Babylon. This was some proposed appointment as agent for the Earl of Leicester—a project, however, which proved abortive—as, from the first, had appeared likely, and probably as the poet hoped. In the following year, Lord Grey of Wilton, was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. This nobleman was a connection of the Earl of Leicester; and on his recommendation, took out Spenser with him as his secretary. This first offer of employment was speedily followed by a second, as in March of the following year, 1581, the poet became clerk to the Irish Court of Chancery; and in the same year the Queen conferred on him the grant of a lease of the Abbey of Iniscorthy or Enniscorthy, with the castle and manor attached, in the county of Wexford, at an annual rent of ₤300. 6s. 8d., on condition of keeping the buildings in repair. This property—the estimated value of which, at the commencement of the present century, was ₤8,000 per annum—he conveyed, by indenture, on the 9th December, 1581, to Richard Synot, who afterwards conveyed it to Sir Henry Wallop, the Treasurer of War in Ireland, from whom the Earls of Portsmouth descended, in which family the estate remained. From the short time Spenser retained possession of it, we may infer either that his resources were exhausted or that a residence in Ireland had no attractions for him, and that he was already meditating his departure.
In 1582, Lord Grey resigned, or was recalled, and it has been generally assumed that his secretary returned to England with him.
On the 27th June, 1586, Spenser, probably through the powerful mediation of Sir Philip Sydney, obtained from the Crown a second grant of land in Ireland. This consisted of 3,028 acres in the county of Cork, at an annual rental of £17. 7s. 6d., forming part of the forfeited estates of the rebellious Earl of Desmond. On the 17th October of the same year, Sir Philip Sydney fell at the battle of Zutphen. Never before had the death of a subject been mourned with so universal a regret. In his lofty character we see the ideal of that age—the model of what every Englishman longed to be. Oldys says, he could muster two hundred authors who had written in praise of Sydney. It seemed as though every mean passion was disarmed by the nobleness of that rare disposition. Spenser bitterly felt the loss of his patron, and bewailed him through life. But the lassitude of grief was dispelled by the active duties of his position. By the terms of his grant, he was compelled to cultivate his land, and accordingly the poet departed to establish himself in his new domain. In the castle of Kilcolman, now a ruin, but then in tolerable repair—a seat of the Earl of Desmond—he resumed his life of meditation. His new home was delightfully situated on the margin of a fine clear lake, which stretched away to the southward, its position, about two miles west of Doneraile. It stood in a broad plain, surrounded on all sides by mountains—by the Waterford mountains on the East, and the Nagle on the south. Northward rose the Ballyhowra Hills, or, as he termed them, "the mountains of the Mole," from which descended the stream of Awbeg or Mulla, meandering through his grounds, while, on the west, the vista was closed by the mountains of Kerry. In this retreat, he was visited by no less a person than Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh had been active in the suppression of the rebellion, and had been rewarded with an extensive grant of the forfeited estates. The tastes of the two neighbours were congenial, for Raleigh was a poet; and here, Spenser tells us, would he sit with his friend, the Shepherd of the Ocean, in the shade of the green alders that waved beside the stream of Mulla, listening to projects of high adventure, or wandering through Faëry Land, whose utmost romance was exceeded by the everyday wonders of that adventurous age. When the first three books of the "Faëry Queen" were completed, Raleigh urged their immediate publication, and the two friends proceeded to London together. The work was entered on the Register of the Stationers' Company 1st December, 1589, and was published probably early in January following, with the title of "The Faërie Queene, disposed in XII Bookes, fashioning XII Morall Virtues." It was dedicated to the most mighty and magnificent Empress Elizabeth; and in the second edition, containing six books, Spenser again entrusted his labours "to the Most High, Mighty, and Magnificent Empress, to live with the Eternity of her Fame." To the end of the first edition he appended a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, expounding his whole intention in the course of the work, and among other similar compliments, two copies of verses heralded in the poem, written by his distinguished friend.
He had resigned his clerkship on the 22nd June, 1588, and was appointed Clerk to the Council of Munster.
Although we have mentioned no previous publication, yet it must not be concluded that this was the first poem with which Spenser delighted his contemporaries. Our author was one of those extraordinary men who appear occasionally to prove the marvellous fecundity of the human mind. With him incessant production seemed a law of nature; composition was but the spontaneous and unlaboured flow of his ever teeming fancy; an exercise necessary to his healthy existence, and an ever originating source of solace. His earliest work was his "Shepherd's Calender," published ten years before, a series of twelve eclogues, appropriated to each month of the year, detailing the course of his hapless passion. Within the intermediate decade of years, he had written nine comedies, a composition called "The Dreams," "The Dying Pelican," "Slumber," "The Court of Cupid;" "Legends," probably afterwards worked into the "Faëry Queen," "Pageants," concerning which a like conjecture has been expressed, "Sonnets," "The Marriage Song of the Thames," Translation of Moschus's "Idyllium of Wandering Love," "The English Poet," probably a prose essay, and "Stemmata Dudleiana."
In 1591, William Ponsonby, publisher of the "Faëry Queen," brought out a volume of his minor poems. Among these were "The Ruins of Time," a poem in ninety-seven stanzas, bewailing the death of the Earl of Leicester. In this piece there are a few bitter lines, which have generally been applied to Burleigh. The occasion of the attack is contained in a story related by Fuller, which it has been the fashion of late to discredit. The recent discovery of a MS. diary of a barrister from 1601 to 1603 tends, however, to confirm the tale, which bears no internal improbability. On the presentation of some poems to the Queen, we are told that she ordered him a gift of ₤100. Burleigh disliking Spenser probably on political grounds, he being protected by the party opposed to himself, observed testily, "What, all this for a song?" The Queen replied, "Then give him what is reason." Spenser waited, but no realization of the royal bounty reached him, and he embraced an opportunity of presenting her with a paper, purporting to be a petition, in which were written the following lines:
"I was promised on a time
To have reason for my rhyme;
From that time unto this season,
I have had nor rhyme nor reason."
The device was successful, as the Queen requested the immediate payment of the money.
In "The Tears of the Muses," a poem containing numerous allusions to the persons and literary history of the time, are some stanzas referring to "Our Pleasant Willy," by whom it is supposed that Shakespeare is meant. "Virgil's Gnat" is a free translation of the "Culex" attributed to that poet. "Prosopopoia, or Mother Hubberd's Tale" is a remarkable poem. Lying ill of a sickness produced by the excessive heats of Midsummer, some friends gathered round him to divert him with their stories, and among the rest a good old woman named Mother Hubberd, who related this fable of the "Fox and the Ape." In it occur those powerful lines, which springing from blighted hopes, are among the most nervous that dropped from his pen.
"So pitiful a thing is suitor's state!
Full little knowest thou that hast not tried
What hell it is in suing long to bide;
To lose good days that might be better spent,
To waste long nights in pensive discontent;
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow;
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow;
To have thy prince's grace, yet want her peers';
To have thy asking, yet wait many years;
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares;
To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs,
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone."
"The Ruins of Rome" by Bellay, are thirty-three sonnets translated from the French, of no particular merit. "Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterfly," is an allegory, the drift of which at present is not very apparent. "Visions of the World's Vanity," and a few sonnets completed the list of this collection. Ponsonby, in the address to the reader prefixed to his volume, observes that finding the "Faëry Queen" had found a favourable passage among them, for the better increase and accomplishment of their delight, he had collected such small poems of the same author, as he had heard were dispersed abroad in sundry hands, and refers to other poems in addition to those enumerated as lost. Those, however, which were published, and the titles of others already recapitulated, to which frequent allusions were made in the poet's correspondence, exhibit in their amount alone a rare industry, and an unparalleled facility of composition.
We may assume—and most of the incidents in the biography of Spenser are but assumptions, gleaned from incidental notices of himself in his works—that he now remained in England for a year or two. In February, 1591, Elizabeth conferred on him a grant of £50 a-year. The discovery of this instrument in the Chapel of the Rolls has induced his biographers to class Spenser with the Poets-Laureate. He held, however, a sort of intermediate position between the old University Graduates, and the subsequent tenants of a legally constituted office. In January of the following year he published his "Daphnaida," an elegy on the death of Mrs. Arthur Gorges, and soon afterwards he returned to Ireland. Though we fail now to trace his proceedings from his writings, we have some glimpse of him through the following unpoetical documents. In 1593, Maurice, Lord Roche, Viscount Fermoy, petitioned the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, objecting that "one Edmund Spenser, gentleman, hath lately exhibited suit against your suppliant for three plough lands, parcels of Shanballymore, your suppliant's inheritance, before the Vice-President of the Council of Munster, which land hath been heretofore decreed for your suppliant against the said Spenser and others, under whom he conveyed, and nevertheless for that the said Spenser being Clerk of the County in the said province, did assign his office unto one Nicholas Curteys, among other agreements with covenant, that during his life he should be free in the said office for his causes, by occasion of which immunity he doth multiply suits against your suppliant in the said province upon pretended title of others." Lord Roche presented at the same time another petition against one Callaghan, whom he therein alleges as his opponent, "by supportation and maintenance of Edmund Spenser, gentleman, a heavy adversary unto your suppliant." In a third petition the same suppliant states, "that Edmund Spenser, gentleman, hath entered into three plough-lands, parcel of Ballingerath, and disseised your suppliant thereof, and continueth by countenance and greatness the possession thereof, and maketh great waste of the wood of the said land, and converteth a great deal of corn growing thereupon to his proper use, to the damage of the complainant of £200 sterling." Whereunto we are informed by the Record in the Rolls Office, the said Edmund Spenser had several days prefixed unto him peremptorily to answer, which he neglected to do. Wherefore, after a day of grace given on the 12th February, 1594, Lord Roche was decreed his possession.
From these extracts, we may suspect that Spenser was by no means neglectful of his rights as a proprietor, or considerate of those of his neighbours. The plaintive, even querulous complaints with which his works are studded, indicate some deficiency of moral power, and are no assurance of the writer's gentleness or sensibility. Such laments spring usually from a deep selfishness, which precludes the possibility of a keen sensitiveness to the rights of others, or a generous sympathy with suffering. Thus Spenser encroached upon his neighbours, and never made way in the affections of the surrounding poor, and his memory was long held in detestation. In life he was eminently fortunate. Starting from obscure circumstances, he gained the affection and patronage of the noblest in the land. The Queen was munificent in rewarding his merit. His works were highly popular, and he escaped all annoyance from the irritating shafts of satire, yet in one poem he terms himself "the wofullest man alive." He was always complaining and always poor. So assiduous was he in soliciting the favour of the great, as apparently to be oblivious of the obligation and dignity of self-reliance, and his comparative failure as a courtier overwhelmed him with mortification.
"Poorly, poor man, he lived, poorly, poor man, he died."
So wrote Phineas Fletcher; summing up his history in a line.
In 1595, Ponsonby published a quarto in London, containing, with other poems, "Colin Clout's come home again." Colin Clout is Spenser himself, and the poem, which is dedicated to Raleigh, is most interesting as refering to contemporary circumstances and persons. Here we meet with the last allusion to his false but not yet forgotten Rosalind. In the same year appeared a small duodecimo, containing the "Amoretti," a series of eighty-eight sonnets relating the progress of a new affection, with the "Epithalamium; or, Bridal Song." After so long an interval he again had wooed, and this time with success, as he was married at Cork, June 11, 1594.
The pastoral elegy of "Astrophel," devoted to the memory of Sydney, "the pride of a proud age," was given to the world in 1595.
In 1596, Spenser returned to England with the three latter books of his "Faëry Queen, and in the course of the year the whole six were published together. The "Protholamium," and "Four Hymns," which appeared likewise in the course of the year were the last of his publications. The two additional cantos of the "Faëry Queen" were posthumous as they were first printed in the folio edition of 1609. His prose dialogue on the state of Ireland, showing enlarged political knowledge and much antiquarian learning, finished in 1596, did not see the light till thirty-four years after his death, when Sir James Ware published it at Dublin, with a dedication to the then Lord-Deputy Wentworth. Some short additional poems appeared in the collected edition of his works in 1611, and a few sonnets have been recovered by a later editor.
The poet had returned to Ireland, and on the last day of September, 1598, the Queen, not forgetful of her absent flatterer, addressed a letter to the Irish Governor, recommending Spenser to be Sheriff of Cork. In the next month broke out the rebellion of the treacherous Tyrone. Kilcolman was sacked and burned. The poet fled from his flaming home; one of his children perished amid the havoc, and with his wife and remaining two he, with difficulty, escaped to England. He did not long survive this mishap, as he died January 16, 1599, at an inn or lodging-house in King Street, Westminster.
"A damp of wonder and amazement struck
Thetis' attendants; many a heavy look
Followed sweet Spenser, till the thickening air
Sight's further passage stopped. A passionate tear
Fell from each nymph; no shepherd's cheek was dry;
A doleful dirge and mournful elegy
Flew to the shore.
Spenser was the last interpreter of those waning modes of thought, which had once exercised so powerful an influence through the wide extent of Christendom. With him the romance of the mediæval chivalry expired, and his genius availed to immortalize the splendid euthanasia.
Samuel Daniel has been termed a volunteer laureate. We know but little of his life, and principally acquire our estimate of his character from the general tenor of his writings. Through all, there runs a propriety and an unaffected simplicity, that the "well-languaged" poet cannot fail to be a favourite with all who have mused over his pages. He was born near Taunton in Somersetshire, in the year 1562, of a father "whose faculty," to use the quaint language of Fuller, "was a master of music, and his harmonious mind made an impression on his son's genius, who proved an exquisite poet. He carried in his christian and surname two holy prophets, his monitors, so to qualify his raptures, that he abhorred all prophaneness." In 1579, he was entered as a commoner at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, where he remained about three years, but left without a degree. He then resided in some capacity at Wilton, and under the patronage of the Countess of Pembroke, sister of Sir Philip Sydney, devoted himself to the study of poetry and history. He was afterwards selected by the Countess of Cumberland to superintend the education of her daughter, the Lady Anne Clifford. This high-spirited and accomplished lady profited by his advice, and was not unmindful of his memory; and many years afterwards, when he had long been dead, but she had become the great Countess of Pembroke, Dorset and Montgomery, she superintended the erection of a monument over his remains; and a likeness of the poet accompanied a full-length portrait of herself, which hung in one of her castles in Westmoreland. Daniel was fortunate in his patrons. Lord Mountjoy, afterwards Earl of Devonshire, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton, the friend of Essex, honoured him with their friendship, and enriched him by their munificent regard. He was fortunate likewise in his friends, among whom may be enumerated Sir Fulke Greville, Sir John Harrington, Sir Henry Spelman, Sir Robert Cotton, Cowell, Camden, Spenser, Jonson, Drayton and Browne. Great names!—but that was the heroic age of England.
The works of our author were varied but not voluminous. He wrote Masques, Tragedies, Poems and Sonnets, and a History of England, extending to the reign of Edward III. His poetical efforts are deficient in force either of imagination or passion. Their flow is temperate and equable. His aim was to please; and he seldom aspired to influence or inflame his readers. "He wrote the 'Civil Wars,' and yet had not one battle in his book," was the depreciatory observation of Ben Jonson; and from this poem, which may be regarded as his most ambitious effort, we have selected the following favourable specimen of his manner. It is taken from the third book, and depicts the captive Richard soliloquizing, on the morning of his murder in Pomfret Castle.
"The morning of that day, which was his last,
After a weary rest rising to pain,
Out at a little grate his eyes he cast
Upon those bordering hills and open plain,
And views the town, and sees how people pass'd:
Where others' liberty makes him complain
The more his own, and grieves his soul the more,
Conferring captive crowns with freedom poor.
"O, happy man, saith he, that lo I see
Grazing his cattle in those pleasant fields!
If he but knew his good (how blessed he
That feels not what affliction greatness yields!)
Other than what he is he would not be,
Nor change his state with him that sceptres wields;
Thine, thine is that true life, that is to live,
To rest secure, and not rise up to grieve.
"Thou sitt'st at home safe by thy quiet fire,
And hear'st of others' harms but feelest none,
And there thou tell'st of kings, and who aspire,
Who fall, who rise, who triumphs, who do moan;
Perhaps thou talk'st of me, and dost inquire
Of my restraint, why here I live alone,
And pitiest this my miserable fall;
For pity must have part, envy not all.
"Thrice happy you that look as from the shore,
And have no venture in the wreck you see;
No interest, no occasion to deplore
Other men's travails, while yourselves sit free.
How much doth your sweet rest make us the more
To see our misery and what we be!
Whose blinded greatness ever in turmoil,
Still seeking happy life, makes life a toil.
"Are kings that freedom give, themselves not free,
As meaner men to take what they may give?
What, are they of so fatal a degree,
That they cannot descend from that and live?
Unless they still be kings, can they not be,
Nor may they their authority survive?
Will not my yielded crown redeem my breath
Still am I fear'd? is there no way but death?"
Daniel received warm encouragement from Queen Anne, consort of James I. He was nominated Gentleman-Extraordinary, and afterwards one of the Grooms of her Privy Chamber. It was during the leisure afforded by these offices, he composed the chief part of his history. He likewise wrote several Masques for the entertainment of the Court; but gradually declined the occupation, awed or chagrined by the superior ascendant of Ben Jonson. When in the fervour of dramatic composition, he generally withdrew to the seclusion of a garden residence he occupied in Old Street in the parish of St. Luke's, then a suburban district. Here he would remain for months together, patiently weaving his solitary task.
Ben Jonson said of him that he "was a good honest man, had no children and was no poet," poetical and connubial fecundity we presume being usually associated. His reputation, though equal to his deserts, fell far short of what he had fondly anticipated, and he at length retired altogether from public view. He returned to his native county, and occupied the intervals of studious contemplation, by the labours of his farm at Beckington, near Philips-Norton. He died October 13, 1619, and was buried in the parish church.
- A proverbial expression—a civil answer returned through fear.
- Perversely controlling them.
- The azure blue sapphire.
- The beautiful ruby complexion.
- Wrought with beauty.
- Sitientes is the first word of the passage from Isaiah, (ch. LV., v. l.), which commences the Introit of the mass for Passion Sunday.
- The devotions so named.
- A haking fellow means a loiterer.
- Make—a companion.
- Contemptible fellows.
- A cant word for swaggerer or bully.
- A carman's leather coat.