Our book today is Alastair Fowler’s 1991 New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, and it’s as volatile and tremendous a tribute to National Poetry Month as could be imagined. Opinion among those I’ve quizzed is decidedly mixed as to the merit of even having a National Poetry Month (one poet of my acquaintance summed things up by saying “it can’t possibly have any widespread effect other than to further marginalize the most marginalized literature in America”), but that’s surely a debate about browbeating the public, not about the worth of poetry itself. And no other period of human history can rival the ‘long’ 17th century for verse, that glorious epoch from roughly the final years of Queen Elizabeth I to the advent of the Glorious Revolution. As Fowler here reckons that time, it stretches from George Chapman all the way to Alexander Pope, with stops along the way for Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, and Dryden.
There are lots and lots of other names in this updated version of the Oxford classic, including quite a few names that don’t deserve to be here. Fowler is typically British in his diffidence:
A representative selection has meant more Drayton; more Cowley and Marvell; more Oldham and Strode; and many more female poets. It has meant including marginal figures such as the waterman Taylor, the alcoholic Brathwait, and the lunatic Carkesse. It has meant, in fact, including some ‘subliterary’ verse, and some very minor poets. If literature is the nation’s memory, forgotten verse may contain things we need to know.
Or it may not. It’s hard to imagine what even mercifully brief extracts from the life-outpourings of Emilia Lanier, John Chalkhill, or John Digby, the Earl of Bristol could teach us about much of anything, but if they and their ilk are the price of admission to the rest of this mighty host, you won’t hear me complaining.
There’s our old friend Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, writing about the cruelties of mankind and meaning, as she so often does, men, in this excerpt from 1653’s “The Hunting of the Hare”:
As if that God made creatures for man’s meat,
And gave them life and sense, for man to eat;
Or else for sport, or recreation’s sake,
Destroy those lives that God saw good to make;
Making their stomachs graves, which full they fill
With murthered bodies that in sport they kill.
Yet man doth think himself so gentle, mild,
When of all creatures he’s most cruel wild;
And is so proud, thinks only he shall live,
That God a godlike nature did him give,
And that all creatures for his sake alone
Was made for him to tyrannize upon.
And there’s Will Davenant, that weak-willed wit and wannabe wastrel who got his start in literary London while serving in the household of our old friend Fulke Greville and who, amidst stacks and stacks of intensely conventional writing, could occasionally produce something puckish and original, like this from 1673:
O Thou that sleepest like pig in straw,
Thou lady dear, arise:
Open, to keep the sun in awe,
Thy pretty pinking eyes;
And having stretched each leg and arm,
Put on your clean white smock,
And then, I pray, to keep you warm,
A petticoat on dock.
Arise, arise! Why should you sleep,
When you have slept enough?
Long since French boys cried ‘Chimney-sweep’,
And damsels ‘Kitchen-stuff’.
The shops were opened long before,
And youngest prentice goes
To lay at his mistress’ chamber door
His master’s shining shoes.
Arise, arise; your breakfast stays:
Good water gruel warm,
Or sugar sops, which Galen says
With mace will do no harm.
Arise, arise; when you are up,
You’ll find more to your cost,
For morning’s draught in caudle cup,
Good nutbrown ale and toast.
And what of William Drummond of Hawthornden, the able poet and late-life friend of Ben Jonson? Drummond let a long and very active literary life, but in less inclusive anthologies than this one he might nevertheless get crowded right off the stage – either in favor of demographically advisable nonentities or to make room for more Shakespeare. Not so here, where we can read bittersweet little ditties like this bit fro Madrigal II.i, written in the first decade of the new century:
This life which seems so fair
Is like a bubble blown up in the air
By sporting children’s breath,
Who chase it everywhere,
And strive who can most motion it bequeath:
And though it sometime seem of its own might,
Like to an eye of gold, to be fixed there,
And firm to hover in that empty height,
That only is because it is so light.
But in that pomp it doth not long appear;
For even when most admired, it in a thought,
A swelled from nothing, doth dissolve in nought.
I’ve praised these wonderful Oxford Books here before, but when it comes to anthologies this wide-ranging and thought-provoking, I don’t mind repeating myself. And when I’m delighting in the acuity of Fowler’s choices, I don’t even mind all the makeweight names he was forced to mix in amongst them.
Our book today was written quite some time ago: it’s Fulke Greville’s biographical sketch of his friend Philip Sidney. As every English major in the Western world once knew, Sidney died while fighting Spanish forces in the Netherlands in 1586 (“thy need is yet greater than mine” he reportedly told a fellow wounded man, handing him his water canteen) at the age of 32. Fulke Greville, his devoted friend since childhood (“Fulke Greville is a good boy” the boy Sidney scrawled in one of his friend’s schoolroom copy-books), probably wrote his The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney around 1611 or 1612. On 1 September 1628, Greville – Lord Brooke by then, and fairly wealthy from a lifetime spent at court – was stabbed in the back by his servant, Ralph Haywood (who then killed himself), allegedly because Haywood was irritated that Greville hadn’t mentioned him in his will. In 1652, Greville’s Life of Sidney was finally printed.
Unlike the case of poor Spenser, the ensuing centuries have seen many, many excellent biographies of Sidney – they could hardly resist such a tempting subject, now could they? Sidney was everything a young courtier should be – well-educated, widely-travelled, well-spoken, much-respected, only picturesquely reckless, personally brave, artistically gifted, and physically beautiful. His father, Henry Sidney, had been much the same – plain-spoken, handsome in his youth, non-ostentatiously honest and as sharp as a well-wrought weathervane. Henry Sidney did much that deserves censure while pursuing the Tudor oppression of Ireland, but it was also he who held the shivering, pain-wracked Edward VI in his arms in the last hour of his life and, his rough lips touching the boy’s brow, whispered “Rest now, dearest one; fine to rest now” – greater comfort than which no servant has ever given a king. Henry’s son Philip never got a chance to grow into the hale middle-aged statesman and writer he would have become – but he dazzled all the same, dazzled like the sun for the time he had.
Greville was as dazzled as the rest, and his portrait of Sidney – an intensely, almost joyfully strange little book, as passionate and distractible as its author – unapologetically displays that fact:
Indeed he was a true model of Worth; a man fit for Conquest, Plantation, Reformation, or what Action soever is greatest, and hardest among men: Withall, such a lover of Mankind, and Goodness, and that whosoever had any real parts, in him found comfort, participation, and protection to the uttermost of his power …
Perhaps some readers will take these tones of outright worship, link them with that business of old Lord Brooke being stabbed to death in a fit of pique by a manservant, perhaps mix in the many happy, laughing, sweaty days when Greville would join Sidney and the other lusty courtiers of Elizabeth’s court in elaborate jousts and contests and pantomimes, and derive a picture, a reality, that has familiar names and taxonomies here in the 21st century. In the Elizabethan Age, open and strenuous protestations of friendship between men was the highest fashion, so such a picture might be too presumptuous – or too easy. Safer just to say Greville was completely devoted to his handsome friend – and that he received in return the passionate reciprocation Sidney (the son, just like the father) gave to everybody he found worthy. Certainly Greville could never really believe in a world where Sidney was so abruptly taken away – like most of Sidney’s friends, he more or less refused to live in that world. “For my own part,” he writes, “I observed, honoured, and loved him so much; as with what caution soever I have passed through my days hitherto among the living, yet in him I challenge a kind of freedom even among the dead.”
At one point while his brief biography is thumping along, Greville pauses for the most unaffectedly touching line in his whole book. He’s relating some anecdote from long ago when he stops and admits, “Besides, I do ingenuously confess, that it delights me to keep company with him, even after death.”
Although he himself assesses Sidney’s work with a severity of judgement we might not expect of an acolyte (to be fair, Sidney himself set the example in this, referring but casually to the ultimate worth of any of his own works), Greville has nothing but offhand scorn for those uncomprehending readers – “our four-eyed Criticks” – who might come along later. And come along they did, in their legions! They annotated his works, wrote his many biographies – and annotated Greville’s biography. Our particular version of that biography today is the 1906 edition by Nowell Smith, whose work is superb – and whose assessment of the four-eyed Critick who came before him, Dr. Grossart, thunders with Edwardian excess:
Lovers of literature, who happen to have scholarly instincts and training, can never speak of enthusiastic antiquaries like Dr. Grossart without compunction. On the one hand they admire the generous expenditure of time and money which Dr. Grossart gave to his many ‘labours of love.’ On the other hand they can only look aghast at on the mass of inaccurate statements and worthless judgements which swell the undigested bulk of his editions. The gratitude which they are anxious to feel as they enter into the fruits of his labour is thwarted by the double labour which they have to expend in correcting his mistakes and verifying the rest of his statements.
As mentioned, many, many worthy biographies have appeared since this one. In recent years, the scholarly volume by Alan Stewart and the lively one by Katherine Duncan-Jones stand out as equally good and pleasantly different from each other, for instance. But there’s something about Greville’s haphazard devotion and lovable garrulity that take the palm for charm even in their fallibility. There’s devotion here, as might be expected of a man who ordered that his grave’s inscription read: “Fulke Greville, servant to Queen Elizabeth, conceller to King James, friend to Sir Philip Sidney.”
No real doubt which of those he considered the greatest honor.