Category Archives: History

Shall I come, Sweet Love

A paraclausithyron is a poetic genre that originates in Ancient Greek, meaning ‘lament by a closed door.’ A lover, or suitor speaks aloud by the door of a woman who has refused him entry. Here is a salty example from Asclepiades of the Hellenistic Greek period.

The night is long, and it is winter weather, and night sets when the Pleiads are half-way up the sky. I pass and repass her door, drenched by the rain, smitten by desire of her, the deceiver. It is not love that Cypris smote me with, but a tormenting arrow red-hot from the fire.

(http://www.attalus.org/poetry/asclepiades.html)

Cypris, is another name for the Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, who was supposed by some to have originated in Cyprus, thus named so. Sherod Santos did away with the Goddess in his translation, and turned the second half of the poem into a question, starting ‘So how have I come / wet and whimpering / as a beaten dog […]? (I would heartily recommend Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry to anyone – it was one of the books that ignited my interest in poetry about a decade ago; but one must accept his translations as creative, not strictly literal.) A question this brought to my mind was ‘what on earth did those infamously strict Greek fathers think of these lovelorn poets lurking outside their daughter’s doors’?

In this commentary on a paraclausithyron of Ovid, W. Turpin, part-answers the question for me, though it refers to Roman rather than Greek life: the lover is not outside a bedroom door, or even a front door, but the great wooden doors of the great courtyard through which a visitor would have to pass to reach the ‘front doors’ of the house. Thus a ‘paraclausithyron’ is not only a lament by the door, but effectively to the door – no-one else can hear it. In the poem Turpin is discussing, Ovid changes this a little by having the lover address the doorkeeper, a slave actually chained to his post on the inside of the doors, and responsible for letting people in, or not. In contrast to the short, bitter Asclepiades poem, Ovid’s is wry, rambling and somewhat deprecatory. Thus there is the predictable, and, to the modern reader, distasteful comparison of the slave’s actual chains and the lover’s slavery to love. And the lover makes several, part-humorous arguments to the doorkeeper to let him in the door. He leaves a garland of flowers for the girl, as literary convention demands, then, after a few final snipes at the door keeper, bids him farewell and departs.

 And, flowery wreath, which from my brows sadly I disengage, lie there upon this heartless threshold through the night. When on the morrow my mistress shall descry thee trailing there, tell her the hours that, sick at heart, I wasted at her door. Farewell, porter; in spite of all, I say to thee, farewell.

(Transl. J. Lewis May 1930, available here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo12.htm)

Farewell then, Ovid, and onto the 16th Century English poet and songwriter, Thomas Campion. In the sense that the speaker is at his love’s door, Campion’s poem can also be classed a paraclausithyron; but unlike Asclepiades’ and Ovid’s protagonist, the speaker addresses not the door, or doorkeeper, but the woman behind the door. Perhaps Campion, classically-minded though he was, wont to set his poems in an Arcadian idyll rather than England, had English houses in mind when he wrote this, although he too seems blithely unconcerned by the thought of the girl’s father.

 

Shall I come, sweet love, to thee,

When the evening beams are set?

Shall I not excluded be?

Will you find no feigned let?

Let me not, for pity, more

Tell the long hours at your door?

 

Who can tell what thief or foe,

In the covert of the night,

For his prey will work my woe,

Or through wicked foul despite?

So may I die unredressed,

Ere my long love be possessed.

 

But to let such dangers pass,

Which a lover’s thoughts disdain,

‘Tis enough in such a place

To attend love’s joys in vain.

Do not mock me in they bed,

While these cold nights freeze me dead.

 

(This version as printed in the NYRB English Renaissance Poetry, ed. John Williams)
In its humour, the poem sits between the two poets above: he is not as bitter and mournful as Asclepiades, but he does not deprecate the tradition of paraclausithyron as Ovid does. He is significantly more charming than either, and, unlike in the classical poems, there is a sense that he actually believes he might be let in, at least until the last stanza. The poem comes off more as an earnest attempt at a seduction, of sorts, even if in the end he settles for the conventional lover’s consolation of mere proximity to his love. And even if, yes, this seduction comes off as rather odd to our contemporary sensibility, relying as it does on emotional blackmail and shameless appeals to the woman’s pity.

There is a heavy element of carpe diem in the poem – in the suggestion that death is ever present and thus the lover must possess his love whilst he may. A generation or two later, Andrew Marvell would write his most famous poem with this motif in mind, contrasting the pleasures of love and the approaching horrors of death with comic aplomb. Marvell was also more explicit – or reductive – about what ‘possession’ of one’s love might actually entail – ‘tearing our pleasures with rough strife’, as he puts it; but Campion’s poem has the decorum of the drawing room to think of, where such coarse language might send the ladies of the house out blushing. Campion’s poem was, after all, a song too, to be played for a small audience in a domestic setting.

The music is quite as charming as the poem– here for example in the countertenor of Alfred Deller.

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Of a Contented Mind

800px-Thomas,_Lord_Vaux,_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Thomas Vaux by Hans Holbein

Thomas Vaux was a Catholic nobleman in the nervy middle years of the 16th Century. Friends with Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, he was much more troubled than they by the religious developments of Henry VIII’s reign, and effectively withdrew from public life for the latter years of the Henrican era and the even harsher (if less bloody) reforms of Edward VI’s minority, only to re-enter public life at the accession of Queen Mary. His descendants lived through more troubled times still for England’s loyal Catholics, as Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth was anathemised by the Pope, and Catholicism became straightforwardly treasonous in the view of the queen’s ministers. As Jesse Childs’ details wonderfully in her great book God’s Traitors, the family would be caught up in the war of espionage, propaganda and legalistic harassment between the state and its agents on one side, and the Vatican, the Catholic exiles and occasionally the French and the Spanish on the other.

Poetically, Vaux is often classed with a group of mid-sixteenth poets often known as the ‘natives’ who resisted (or simply never paid attention to) the new Italian forms and Petrarchisms that had such an impact on poets from Spenser and Sidney to Shakespeare and eventually Milton. This group is typified by George Gascoigne, and includes such poets as Barnabe Googe and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as Thomas Vaux. The writer and anthologist John Williams, who championed this group, explained that readers should read the poems as if ‘mortals listening to mortals’: ‘if we listen to the poem, we shall hear beneath the emphatic stresses, beneath the bare and essential speech, the human cadence of the human voice, speaking to us as if we were alive.’

‘The Mortals’ would perhaps be a better name for the group, contrasting them quite nicely with those poets who are so better remembered and were awfully (sometimes tediously) fond of that renaissance trope about poetry making its subject and writer immortal. And, as Williams suggests, there is a great deal of the fallibly human in their poetry. One of Gascoigne’s better known poems is ‘Gascoigne’s Woodsmanship’ which details the numerous mistakes and bad luck of his many failed careers. (I do intend to have a closer look at Gascoigne’s poem one day) That poem could be seen as archetypal of the natives’ style and their tone. It starts as so:

My worthy Lord, I pray you wonder not
To see your woodman shoot so oft awry,
Nor that he stands amazèd like a sot,
And lets the harmless deer unhurt go by.

One easily imagines Gascoigne sitting in a London tavern reflecting with some rue – and some mirth – on his life’s misses, as his audience chuckle and sympathise, now and again adding their own reflections and occasionally raising the tone with a classical or Biblical allusion, though nothing too clever.

And one imagines the Catholic nobleman and poet Thomas Lord Vaux (wearing his title lightly in Henry or Edward’s reign) in a similar mode. Not in London perhaps, but at his manor in the midlands, or that of a fellow recusant, explaining  -or justifying – his withdrawal from public life. His justification would perhaps run a long similar lines to this poem…

 

When all is done and said, in the end thus shall you find,

He most of all doth bathe in bliss that hath a quiet mind:

And, clear from worldly cares, to deem can be content

The sweetest time in all his life in thinking to be spent.

 

The body subject is to fickle fortune’s power,

And to a million of mishaps is casual every hour:

And death in time doth change it to a clod of clay;

Whenas the mind, which is divine, runs never to decay.

 

Companion none is like unto the mind alone

For many have been harmed by speech; through thinking, few or none.

Fear oftentimes restraineth words, but makes not thought to cease;

And he speaks best that hath the skill when for to hold his peace.

 

Our wealth leaves us at death; our kinsmen at the grave;

But virtues of the mind unto the heavens with us we have:

Wherefore, for virtue’s sake, I can be well content

The sweetest time of all my life to deem in thinking spent.

 

Thomas Vaux, From English Renaissance Poetry, Selected by John Williams, NYRB

 

I wonder whether, ‘when all is said and done’ (or done and said) had as hackneyed a ring to it in the sixteenth century as in the twenty-first; I suspect not quite as much so. Though the language is sometimes almost too plain, and the imagery hardly original, there are some nice lines of poetry in there, and the poet expresses his thoughts in balanced, precise lines; those thoughts are not as trite as they might first appear – they are, given the poet’s circumstances, deadly serious.

 

The first stanza is straightforward Platonism, though Platonism expressed with the charming bumptiousness of a lord of the manor. Plato decreed that thinking, particularly thinking of abstract thoughts, was the noblest of pastimes, as compared to the lower class, plebian business of dealing with particulars and actually – ugh! – doing stuff. For Plato and his compadres, contemplation actually was a near-religious act, as it brought us away from the shadowy corrupt world of our senses and closer to the real world of ideal objects. That is why Vaux uses a phrase like ‘bathe in bliss’ (also for its alliteration of course).

 

After the elevated imagery of the previous stanza, the second brings us down to earth – that is, down to the image of our death, and our bodies turning to mud in the grave. There is again a strong flavour of Platonism, what with that philosopher’s separation of soul and body; but there is also something very medieval about the imagery too. Fickle fortune makes an appearance, and death is something ever-present, waiting to waylay the unsuspecting person. The point is to drive home the importance of our immortal souls, or minds, as opposed to our all too vulnerable, corruptible bodies.

 

The third stanza is, I think, the most revealing about the times Vaux lived in, and about his own attitude towards the temper of those times. ‘[M]any have been harmed by speech’ he tells us, ‘Through thinking few or none’. He is not exaggerating! Henry Howard, Vaux’s friend and fellow poet, met a nasty end after crossing the king, and did not help himself with a couple of thinly veiled and sharply observed criticisms of the monarch in his verse. But those were actually thought through verses – if not at all wise to publish. A man who really may have been harmed by his own thoughtless speech, was Sir Nicholas Carew, who lost his temper with Henry at a game of bowls one day, and soon after lost his head. It didn’t help Carew that he was of royal blood himself – Henry didn’t like rival bloodlines hanging around; and his demise may also have been related to some natty properties of the noble’s that Henry had his eye on. And also to the fact that in his younger days, Henry may well have slept with his wife. No one likes a guilty reminder hanging around. Whatever the particulars of Carew’s demise, Vaux was certainly wise to refrain from speaking his mind too clearly in Mid-Tudor England.

 

What Vaux is advocating, ultimately, is a kind quietism. In one’s own mind, one can let one’s thoughts range freely, but in the perilous public sphere, one is better advised not to speak freely. In fact, one had better stay away from that sort of thing altogether. Of course, he dresses this up in Platonic philosophy and medieval wisdom – and, in the last stanza, he insists this is all done ‘for virtue’s sake.’ Self-preservation must have played on his mind somewhat too.

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And wilt thou leave me thus?

Wyatt and Boleyn

Jamie Tomas King and Natalie Dormer as Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (http://tudors.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Wyatt)

The above image is from HBO’s series The Tudors, and shows the lovelorn poet Thomas Wyatt wooing a somewhat less enamoured Anne Boleyn. In this scene of the series, Wyatt reads the below poem to Boleyn, and then she swiftly tells him never to see him again – not because of the poem, but because she knows the King of England wants her. We don’t know if such a scene ever took place, or indeed if Wyatt’s poem was inspired by his infatuation with the future queen, but of all the many liberties taken with history by that TV series, that was one of the more plausible ones: Boleyn really did terminate their relationship soon before being wooed by Henry VIII, and Wyatt really was besotted by her. Although it didn’t, alas for Wyatt – and for Boleyn – have the desired effect on its subject, it is indeed an arresting poem.

And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame,
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath given thee my heart
Never for to depart,
Neither for pain nor smart;
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

And wilt thou leave me thus
And have no more pity
Of him that loveth thee?
Alas, thy cruelty!
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

Thomas Wyatt

Notes: Grame- Sorrow; the ‘pity’ of the last stanza sometimes has an accent written on the second syllable; ‘Alas’ is sometimes written in French ‘Hèlas’

Wyatt is often credited (alongside Henry Howard) with bringing the influence of Petrarch into English poetry, an influence that would have such a great impact, for good and bad, through the English Renaissance and beyond. But there is much about this poem that is very un-Petrarchan. The language is plain and straightforward, and there are none of the elaborate metaphors and oxymorons that characterise Petrarchan poetry. Wyatt is not talking to his muse, to a distant and unobtainable image of feminine perfection, such as Petrarch, Dante and so many of their imitators, but a real woman, albeit one suddenly unobtainable. It is a poem with something of what has been called the ‘native’ tradition of English poetry, typified by Skelton and, especially, Gascoigne. The novelist John Williams, who edited the NYRB’s English Renaissance Poems, characterised this group rather nattily as ‘mortals speaking to mortals’. In this poem a mortal, that is normal – and, frankly rather desperate man, vents his feelings to his belle, aloof and cold-hearted, perhaps, but accessible enough to address directly.

Each stanza consists of a tercet in iambic trimeter (bada bada bada  – to save thee from the blame / of all my grief and grame) sandwiched between the poem’s refrain. As C. Jobin has pointed out down in the comments, one of Wyatt’s great skills was the adaptation of Italian forms to the English language with its accentual (‘stress-timed’) rhythm, as opposed to the syllabic rhythm of most Romance languages. Unlike French, Italian and Spanish poets, who must count the number of syllables in a line, an English poet should (while paying heed to the number of syllables) instead count the number of stresses. The correct placement of stressed and unstressed syllables will affect how natural the poem sounds in the reading. A skillful poet can vary the meters of individual lines of the poem, according to the rhetorical tone required, without breaking the underlying rhythm of the poem. Wyatt does this exceptionally well, only faltering on the words ‘pity’ and ‘cruelty’, which we feel compelled to pronounce pity and cruelty. This aside, he follows the natural rhythm of English very well.

This might be the first poem in the English language to start with the word ‘and’. Of course, starting with and may have been put there as a necessary unstressed syllable before the stressed ‘wilt’. But it somehow  creates a quite modern impression. We seem to be are coming onto the scene in media res, as they say on screenwriting courses, as if the girl has just declared her intention to break their engagement, and the poet is giving his heartfelt response. Having asked her if she really will leave like this, he does not let her get a word in, but appeals rather ‘say nay, say nay’ – a refrain that is repeated at the end of each stanza. This emotional ejaculation makes up the first four syllables of the first tercet, and the effect is to make the start of the poem more conversational . This may not have been Wyatt’s intention, but it could be said to reflect the state of mind of the scorned lover.

The poet goes on in his incredulous way, pleading the woman to stay, listing the brief reasons why she shouldn’t leave. For anyone used to the love sonnets of Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney et al, it is very direct and undecorated. There are, as I said, no elaborate metaphors – no metaphors at all, in fact – and no clever conceits. The ideas expressed may be conventional – some lines indeed are very similar to traditional marriage vows, and many are quite formulaic – but they are apt.

Where the poem really succeeds is in the marriage of a formal poetic form with a natural English rhythm, which makes it sound like an authentic (if unsuccessful) attempt at wooing, and more importantly to allow the charming voice of the 16th century poet to emerge.

The poem is also, how to put this? … abject. He appeals to the woman’s pity for him rather more than we might think manly these days. Sixteenth century men had a very different idea of what emotions were worthy of poetry. Could you think of a poem from subsequent centuries quite so pathetic and desperate? Certainly, it is hard to imagine any poet of the twentieth century laying down such emotions so baldly. Such sentiments are nowadays more likely to be heard in pop music – off the top of my head, say, Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, but I’m sure you could think of a half-dozen others. Thus (if we were being a bit silly), we could say that Wyatt with all his other achievements wrote an early example of the ‘Don’t leave me, baby’ genre of lyrics.

Interestingly, this poem was put to music by the early 20th Century composer Peter Warlock, who turned many poems into songs. His composition is a eerie with a lovely piano melody, although the song lacks the human warmth and natural rhythm of the poem read by the spoken voice.

N.B. I amended parts of this post in response to C. Jobin’s comments below. Thanks to her for her important observations.

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Lucks, My Fair Falcon

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Hawking, Edwin Henry Landseer. 1832

Lucks, My Fair Falcon

Lucks, my fair falcon, and your fellows all,
How well pleasant it were your liberty!
Ye not forsake me that fair might ye befall.
But they that sometime liked my company:
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.
Lo what a proof in light adversity!
But ye my birds, I swear by all your bells,
Ye be my friends, and so be but few else.
This poem starts by praising birds, then disparages people, then goes back to the birds. So let’s follow suit and start with those falcons.

Thomas Wyatt, 1540-41

Notes: “ye not forsake me that fair might me befall” means, you don’t forsake me in order that fair things might happen to you.

Falconry was one of the regular pursuits of noblemen in the sixteenth century, and most young noblemen would have at least one bird of prey they took hawking (the word ‘hawk’ then referred to a male bird, and ‘falcon’ female), often that they had trained themselves. Bands of men – and women too – would take their birds out to chase down grouse, rabbits and other prey. In a sense, then, Wyatt’s falcon would have been than a pet, but, a companion and a kind of team-mate – emotionally speaking, their relationship would have been closer to that of man and horse, than say a budgie kept in a cage.

The ‘loyalty’ that Wyatt lauds in falcons is of course strictly conditioned. The birds are trained to be dependent on their owners, and that is why, when they are let go – given their temporary ‘liberty’, they always come back. Still, who’s to say that the birds don’t also have a genuine emotional attachment to their owners, as I believe (and other, more strictly rationalistic, types don’t believe) many animals have? The opening and closing lines of the poem really are a kind of encomium to falcons and their qualities, they aren’t just there to draw a comparison with humans, who lack those same qualities. But that is the main reason they’re there…

Wyatt wrote this poem during a spell in prison, after he had been caught up in the downfall of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, whom he had courted when they were both younger. The affair had, it seems, come to nothing, but Wyatt’s name came up when the king’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, was investigating – or more likely fabricating – scurrilous rumours about the young queen’s conduct. Wyatt was thrown in the tower, and watched several others and then Anne herself being executed from his cell window. He was eventually acquitted of the charges, but the experience was bitter. Not only, as we can see, for the fear and dread it inspired, but the loss of social prestige – and of fair weather friends – that accompanied his fall.

The whole affair was bad for Wyatt, but much worse for the queen and her supposed lovers; and it may have been good for poetry. Wyatt is a great poet, but an awful lot of his poems are on the subject of love, and the sufferings of a dedicated lover, in the Petrarchan style. It can get a bit tiresome, especially for those of us whose courting days are long behind us. Reading through his poems, this stands out as one of the most distinctive and most arresting. After the soaring appreciation of falcons, we are brought down to earth with a most disparaging description of Wyatt’s one time friends. The lice simile is at once superbly contemptuous of those who he feels to have abandoned him, but also creepily morbid. I imagine that lice were omnipresent in prisons in the sixteenth century, so perhaps when he wrote the poem he was uncomfortably well-acquainted with them. Omnipresent too, and implicit in the same image, must have been the thought of his own death.

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Raleigh on his Execution

After a long hiatus (mostly due to the birth of my daughter), I am blogging again here, and also over at Andy Fleck’s Blog. The remit is a little wider than Sweettenorbull, but there will still be a lot about poetry. I guess about a quarter of the posts will focus on poetry, and I will reblog those here on Sweettenorbull.

Andy Fleck's Blog

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he…

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Change thy minde since she doth change

The Earl of Essex by Marcuse Gheeraerts

The Earl of Essex by Marcuse Gheeraerts

Our last poem showed poor Marvell’s mower wandering the woods his mind ‘displac’d’ by the lovely Juliana. And this week too, we’ll look at a man whose mind was moved to distraction by a woman. In this poem, however, it is the poet himself, none other than the Earl of Essex, who has lost his wits as a result of a woman, although, despite appearances, not at all in the same way.

One of the interesting differences between the present day and the 16th or 17th centuries is that many of the prominent poets of the day were also important men of their age, or else knew some. There are a few notable exceptions in the modern age – the current President of Ireland is a poet and the last President of the European Council (whatever that is) wrote Haikus – but you can’t quite compare that to the big men at Elizabeth’s court like the Sidneys, Raleigh and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who wrote this:

Change thy mind since she doth change,
Let not fancy still abuse thee.
Thy untruth cannot seem strange
When her falsehood doth excuse thee.
Love is dead and thou art free;
She doth live, but dead to thee.

Whilst she lov’d thee best awhile,
See how she hath still delay’d thee,
Using shows for to beguile
Those vain hopes that have deceiv’d thee.
Now, thou see’st although too late
Love loves truth, which women hate.

Love no more since she is gone;
She is gone and loves another.
Being once deceiv’d by one,
Leave her love, but love none other.
She was false, bid her adieu;
She was best, but yet; untrue.

Love, farewell, more dear to me
Than my life which thou preservest.
Life, all joys are gone from thee,
Others have what thou deservest.
O my death doth spring from hence;
I must die for her offence.

Die, but yet before thou die,
Make her know what she hath gotten.
She in whom my hopes did lie
Now is chang’d, I quite forgotten.
She is chang’d, but changed base,
Baser in so vile a place.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Though this sounds like a lover complaining about his untrue woman, the tone is one of rancour. Although lyrical, with simple rhymes and a jaunty rhythm, it is not really love poetry at all. It shares some qualities with the complaints of Catullus, with his speeches to himself not to pursue an unreturned love. But in fact it is not about romantic love at all, but about courtly pre-eminence. The woman Essex woos is long beyond the age of wooing – and in fact was never successfully wooed: he is adressing, rather too boldly, Elizabeth I of England.

It was written some time after Essex had lost his prestige at court, and perhaps not long before he made the wild, ill-conceived rebellion that he would be most remembered for. Essex clearly felt a great sense of injustice at his treatment at the hands of the queen (what he hints at in the poem, he confirmed by his armed uprising!) And there is a great ring of truth to his complaints: anyone who has read much about Elizabeth will recognise the eloquent and slippery obfuscator he characterises, who ‘ hath still delay’d thee, / Using shows for to beguile / Those vain hopes that have deceiv’d thee.’ But Essex would have been wiser to blame his own vain hopes for his misfortune, rather than her beguiling shows and delaying tactics: Elizabeth used equivocation and deliberate ambiguity as a means of rule. Even so, it is fair to ask if there is any justification in his sense of aggrievement.

Earlier in his career, he had been a favourite of Elizabeth, who had been impressed by his eloquence and dandiness, and later by his swashbuckling derring-do in England’s conflicts with Spain, not least a starring role in the capture of Cadiz. By the late 1590s he had built up a court faction to rival that of Elizabeth’s more austere, pragmatic ministers, the Cecils, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. In 1598, the elder Cecil died and the younger took his post as Chancellor, among other things, while Essex became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This was no mere fob-off, but a very important job: the Irish Nine Years War was in full flight, with rebellious Ulster, led by another great warrior of the age, Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, causing the English severe headaches. This was no mere local quarrel – the Spanish were happily sponsoring the Irish rebels to keep the English too busy to disrupt their own ambitions. For Elizabeth and Cecil this was an urgent and costly matter. Perhaps they both hoped that putting Essex in charge there would both relieve London of his oversized ego, and help to win England her war in Ireland.

Essex went into Ireland with a large contingent of troops but made no real difference to the situation there. Nor had the men before him, so he might have got away with that but for a fateful encounter with the Earl of Tyrone in Ulster. Their armies within fighting distance of each other, the two men agreed to parley head to head. They did so on horseback, for an hour or so, the Earl of Tyrone’s horse standing in a flowing stream. In their parley, the men agreed a truce, and their armies retreated. It is not clear exactly what had happened – had Essex been beguiled by the Earl’s charm and reputation, or – as a direct battle loomed – had he suddenly lost the heart to fight? Most likely, I think, in his gargantuan self-regard, he had deemed himself important enough to be able to come to terms as he wished. But he had miscalculated terribly. In Elizabeth’s eyes the Earl of Tyrone was an unforgivable traitor – he had been raised by the English in Dublin to rule in the Queen’s interests, and later in life he had rebelled and even colluded with the Spanish. Elizabeth didn’t want a truce with Tyrone, she wanted his head on a Pike. When Essex returned home, he was put on trial and thrown in the tower where he would brood on his revenge.

Elizabeth was like that. I have no sympathy for Elizabeth’s goals in Ireland, and a great deal more for Hugh O’Neill, in whose story there is more of great tragedy than the semi-farcical fall of the Earl of Essex. Still, it is pretty easy to understand what Elizabeth wanted and why she wanted it. When Essex complains that ‘others have what thou [i.e. he] deservest’, he doesn’t stop too long to wonder whether he did deserve the plaudits he yearned for. It is he, not women, who hates truth – the truth of his failure. He is wrong to claim ‘She in whom my hopes did lie / Now is chang’d ‘, for Elizabeth, shrewd, clever, calculating and ruthless, was the same as she had ever been. All that had changed was her view of the Earl. And on that she was quite right, really.

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To Lord Mounteagle

On 26 October 1605 William Parker Lord Monteagle (sometimes rendered Mounteagle) was sitting eating dinner with guests at his home in Hoxton, London, when a servant handed him a letter that a tall, mysterious stranger had just delivered to his door. Lord Monteagle broke the seal and then handed the letter back to the servant to read it out. The letter was anonymous, but supposedly from one of the gunpowder plotters, and started as so:

My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme.

Monteagle was a Catholic member of the House of Lords, a man of divided loyalties – on the one hand to the old religion of England and the severely put upon Catholic community, and on the other hand the protestant English state whose patronage he enjoyed, albeit tentatively. Monteagle reached a decision immediately. He delivered the letter himself into the hands of Robert Cecil Lord Salisbury, who happened to be in a meeting with some other important lords. When the King James returned from his hunting trip three days (!) later, Cecil informed him of the great danger that seemed to be abroad, and James, according to the official version, intuited that an attack was being planned on the state opening of parliament. Thanks to James’s quick-thinking, or, more likely, thanks to Salisbury’s, the great Gunpowder Plot was averted the night before it was meant to be carried out, as Guy Fawkes was accosted in a cellar under the parliament by some barrels of gunpowder, matches in his pocket.

Fawkes was interrogated and executed, his accomplices hunted down and shot, or brought in and executed, and their most audacious, murderous plot against the government and king foiled. The government were, understandably, ruthless in their dealings with the plotters, and the recusancy laws against Catholics were tightened – the plotters did the remaining Catholics of England little favour by their deeds. But there was no general punishment of Catholics in revenge for the plot, no wholesale murder, no Protestant version of ‘The St Bartholomew’s Massacre’. The state distinguished between Catholics loyal to the crown and those not, and this was in no small part thanks to the fact that it had been a loyal Catholic who had helped to foil the plot.

One man who felt particularly thankful to Monteagle was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson. Jonson – like Monteagle – was a Catholic at the time of the plot, and knew some of the main plotters well. He had been drinking and eating with some of the plotters only days before in one of London’s ordinaries. Perhaps, without Monteagle’s intervention, he might not have escaped so easily guilt by association with his co-religionists. In fact, after the plot and the inevitable backlash against Catholics (not as bad as it could have been, but pretty uncomfortable), Jonson turned his back on Catholicism and conformed to the Anglican Church. But he felt grateful enough to Monteagle to pen this epigram…

Lo what my country should have done (have raised
An obelisk, or column to thy name,
Or, if she would but modestly have praised
Thy fact, in brass or marble writ the same)
I, that am glad of thy great chance, here do !
And proud, my works shall out-last common deeds,
Durst think it great, and worthy wonder too,
But thine, for which I do’t, so much exceeds !
My country’s parents I have many known ;
But, saver of my country, THEE alone.

Since England has not seen fit to leave a memorial of Monteagle’s great act, Jonson is glad to do so, in verse. He brings up the contemporary idea, a well-worn idea in 16th and 17th century poetry, that poetry grants its subject, and its author immortality, only to argue that Monteagle’s act is more immortal still. Even as complimentary epigrams go, this is effusively positive. The last couplet is extremely complimentary ‘THEE alone’, Monteagle alone is the saver of England, next to whom no one can stand. This is the sort of language usually reserved for great military leaders, kings, or even God. But perhaps, knowing what we do about Jonson’s own situation, this is understandable. Jonson is as much thankful to Monteagle for saving his own skin as for saving the country.

Mind, there is more to Monteagle’s story than Jonson acknowledges here. First there is the question of Monteagle’s motivation. One theory is that the letter was written by Monteagle himself, acting alone or in collusion with Salisbury, either to scare the plotters off course, or to flush them out; perhaps Salisbury knew something was afoot, but wasn’t quite sure what. The delivery of the letter seems rather staged – Monteagle had the letter read out at the table, and, without pausing to confer with other Catholic lords, took the letter straight to the secretary of state who just happened to be in a meeting with other important people of state. If this was part of a grand eleventh hour ruse to stop the plot, it worked. And, while other Catholic lords struggled to retain their prestige, Monteagle’s career flourished. But perhaps this is churlish to point out given the lives he saved – and whoever said public benefit had to conflict with private gain?

And I was going to finish the post with that question. But then it struck me: What if I had got the poem wrong? All that gushing praise, even by the standards of the time, even in a world of patronage and respect for social betters – wasn’t it actually suspiciously over the top? To claim a column or obelisk should be raised to the man, – who got celebratory obelisks in the 17th century? – to put his act next to the work of the greatest poets, to call him the only saver of the country – ‘Nay, that were a bit much’ as Volpone, Jonson’s greatest comic creation, once said. Jonson was after all a satirist… and he was well-connected too: could he somehow have got wind of what many historians have since suspected, that Monteagle was merely a pawn, albeit a lucky one, in Salisbury’s great web of espionage? Could Jonson have resented his subsequent success, and the plaudits he won through the official story of his role foiling the plot? Is it possible that the epigram is mockery disguised as flattery?

Note: My source for the details of the plot was The Gunpowder Plot, Alan Haynes. The letter itself can be found on the UK National Archives.

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