James Yates, Elizabethan Servant Poet
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James Yates, Elizabethan Servant Poet

A Lady I obey and serueWith heart and minde and onelie will:Who hath done more then I deserue,For which I am her seruant still,To wish her well since wealth is small,And wishing is the most of all.1

Surprisingly little is known about servant writing in Renaissance England. This statement obviously raises a problem of definition: on the one hand, almost all writing of the period is involved in discourses of "service" of one sort or another and thus has some claim to be "servant writing." On the other hand, one may usefully adopt for the moment Mark Thornton Burnett's operational definition of "servant" as an employee of an aristocratic family who "lives in" at the family home.2 The literary representation of servants has received some attention, and individual texts by servants have been studied for their representations of class and in particular gender, but "servant writing" as a category remains largely unexplored.3 [End Page 48]

A project to uncover early modern servant writing would have obvious points of contact with the emphasis in recent literary studies on recovering the voices of women writers. As Burnett notes, senior servants were in many ways in a position comparable to that of aristocratic women, and scholars will be faced with the same sorts of methodological problems in investigating their literature. One may note that in general both groups lacked the financial and educational privileges of the male aristocrats they lived with; neither group was socially encouraged to rush into print; both groups are relatively invisible in archival records, making their biographies difficult to trace; and subsequent literary studies have tended to marginalize both groups.

However, such a project would also throw up some interesting and important theoretical questions, again similar to those faced by scholars of Renaissance women's writing: to what extent can servant writing be considered as a distinct category? What genres did servants write in, and for whom-other servants, or their masters as well? How did those works circulate? How much servant writing survives, and in what form, and can the surviving writing safely be taken as typical? How does such servant writing negotiate the power relations which put servants in a subordinate position, and is it in any sense a voice of resistance? Is literary merit a relevant or helpful criterion?

This article offers a test case for such a project, looking at the Elizabethan servant poet James Yates. It should be conceded at the outset that Yates is not a great undiscovered writer. To modern ears, and I believe to Renaissance ears as well, his jog-trot meters, clumsy use of fillers, and habitual accidental bathos mark out his poetry overall as technically clumsy and aesthetically unappealing (although the stanza that appears as the epigraph to this article represents his plain style at its best).4 What makes Yates interesting, for the purpose of this article, is the issue of class. Yates identifies himself on his own title-page as "servingman," and up until now this was all that was known for sure of his identity. This article offers evidence to identify his patrons, explores the literary environment within which he worked, and examines those of his poems which deal with the idea of service. [End Page 49]

The DNB On Yates

James Yates (fl. 1582) is a poet whose life and work have received almost no scholarly attention at all since A. F. Pollard's 1900 article in the Dictionary of National Biography. The first step, then, is to return to the question of evidence. Since no primary biographical documents survive concerning Yates, it is necessary to use allusions from within his poetry to establish who he was. His one known publication was entered in the Stationers' Register on 7 June 1582, to John Wolfe, and published in that year: The Castell of Courtesy. Whereunto is adioyned the Holde of Humilitie: with the Chariot of Chastitie thereunto annexed. Also a Dialogue between Age and Youth, and other matteres herein contained. Yates's name appears on the title page and in several other places, and it also forms the basis for...