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English Mercuries

Soldier Poets in the Age of Shakespeare

Adam N. McKeown

Publication Year: 2009

English Mercuries examines war and literature through the writings of veterans who came home from their deployments to pursue literary careers. From their often neglected writings emerges a new picture of the Elizabethan world at war. For centuries Elizabethan England has been characterized by booming patriotism and martial energy, and the literature of this period, epitomized in works like Shakespeare’s Henry V, has been seen as celebrating a proud and defiant kingdom unified around its wars with Spain. Beneath this patriotic veneer, however, was a country withering under the costs of seemingly endless military commitments and ripped apart by doubts about the purpose of war and mistrust of state officials who advanced their own political interests through war at the expense of the people who had to fight and pay for it. These misgivings are a powerful undercurrent in much of the literature of the period, even the most ostensibly patriotic works, but it is in the writings on war by soldier poets where they are most clearly pronounced. Fashioning themselves as servants of both Mars and Mercury (the god of war and the god of writing), Elizabethan soldier poets focused their war stories on the gritty realities of military campaigning, the price individuals paid for serving the state, and the difficulties of returning to civilian life. The book reconsiders some familiar writers like John Donne and Ben Jonson in the context of their military experiences and provides comprehensive studies of some important but underappreciated soldier poets like Thomas Churchyard, George Gascoigne, and John Harington.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page

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Table of Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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p. xi

Throughout this book I have modernized the spellings in the early texts I have quoted because I want them to be as alive and as familiar to modern readers as possible. I have, however, left the titles in their original form in the bibliography...

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Ecole Lemonier: An Introduction

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pp. 1-20

This book began in the small African nation of Djibouti, a stretch of barren and yet strangely beautiful desert on the shores of the Gulf of Aden north of Somalia. Djibouti’s claims to fame are few, resources for Shakespeare scholarship not among...

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Chapter 1. English Mercuries

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pp. 21-42

One of the most compelling contemporary accounts of an Elizabethan military operation comes from a pamphlet from Whitehall called The English Mercurie (figure 2), which is dated 23 July 1588. Published on the direction of Elizabeth’s chief minister ...

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Chapter 2. Men, Money, Iron, and Bread

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pp. 43-62

During a raid on the Portuguese city of Cascais, Robert Devereux, the dashing and controversial Earl of Essex, challenged any of “his quality” to single combat.1 There were no takers, and Essex was probably the better for it. William Drury issued ...

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Chapter 3. Thomas Churchyard’s “Valiant Soldiers” and the “Public State”

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pp. 63-82

In his introduction to Churchyard’s Choice, Thomas Churchyard, one of the most prolific of Elizabethan soldier poets, declares that “before all other things (except the honoring of Prince and public state) a true writer ought of duty, to have in...

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Chapter 4. A Tale of Two Cities

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pp. 83-101

George Gascoigne went to war for the time-honored reason of having burned the bridges to just about every personal relationship and professional opportunity he had. The clever, well-educated, but self-consciously feckless son of a well-to-do...

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Chapter 5. John Donne’s Emblem of War

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pp. 102-124

Not often enough do we think of John Donne’s life as a soldier when evaluating his poetry and sermons. He did not call much attention to his military service, nor was his military service as extensive as Churchyard’s or Gascoigne’s, but a soldier...

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Chapter 6. John Harington’s Journey Home

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pp. 125-143

John Harington writes in his epigram “Of the wars in Ireland” that war “maketh all things sweet” (ln. 4).1 He plays on the “dulce bellum inexpertis” theme derived from Erasmus and developed earlier, as we have seen, by Gascoigne, but for Harington...

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Chapter 7. Remembering Soldiers

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pp. 144-164

I began this book talking about how, for modern readers, Elizabethan England is buried under centuries of misleading assumptions about how that society was unified around its military policy. In the chapters that followed, I examined the writings of ...


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pp. 165-180

Works Cited

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pp. 181-194


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pp. 195-201

E-ISBN-13: 9780826516640
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516626
Print-ISBN-10: 0826516629

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 593222202
MUSE Marc Record: Download for English Mercuries

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Gascoigne, George, d. 1577 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • English poetry -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • War in literature.
  • Soldiers' writings, English -- History and criticism.
  • Harington, John, Sir, 1560-1612 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Jonson, Ben, -- 1573?-1637 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Churchyard, Thomas, 1520?-1604 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Donne, John, 1572-1631 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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