restricted access Epigrams of an Elizabethan Courtier. An unsigned review of The Epigrams of Sir John Harington, ed. Norman Egbert McClure
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40 ] Epigrams of an Elizabethan Courtier An unsigned review of The Epigrams of Sir John Harington, ed. Norman Egbert McClure. A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School in Partial Fulfillments of the Requirement for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1926. Pp. l + 250. The Times Literary Supplement, 1307 (17 Feb 1927) 104 These are the epigrams to which Charles Lamb referred when he said of Coleridge’s epigrams, “as good as Harington’s.”1 The reader who is led by this compliment to expect brilliant wit or neat phrase from Harington will be disappointed. Even Dr. McClure,2 who has produced the first edition of the epigrams since the seventeenth century, including some not previously printed, and has made the edition, with his introduction and notes, into a substantial thesis for his doctorate, makes no assertions of literary merit. He merely points out, as he is quite right in doing, that these epigrams are worth reprinting on account of their popularity in their own time, and because they are at least as good as any others of that time. That Lamb liked them does not prove that they are good, but it does prove that they have a strong genuine Elizabethan flavour.3 And undoubtedly they were highly admired. John Harington – there were several John Haringtons – belonged to a numerousfamilyofsomeprominenceinTudortimes.4 TheJohnHarington who wrote these epigrams was born about 1561. Queen Elizabeth was his godmother; he was educated at Eton and King’s College.5 At Cambridge he appears to have devoted himself to the study of what was considered the more frivolous literature, such as Italian poetry.6 In later life, however, he was well-read in Latin literature, especially Ovid, Virgil, Horace and Martial; as well as Rabelais, Ariosto and Petrarch. He collected plays and manuscript poems; and as a frequenter of the best society of the time was acquainted with the more courtly poets, being on specially friendly terms with Daniel.7 Harington’s life was by no means passed altogether in the precincts of the Court. He was more than once sent on official journeys to [ 41 Epigrams of an Elizabethan Courtier Ireland, was there with Essex, who knighted him, and returned with Essex.8 As courtier and public servant he was not very successful, and consequently spent many years of his life cultivating his estates in Somerset.9 His literary ventures sometimes irritated his godmother, the Queen; and did not succeed in forwarding his interests with her successor King James. His first literary attempt, the translation of Orlando Furioso,10 raised objections from the Queen on the ground of indelicacy; but when he completed it, he seems to have altered the offensive passages, for it appeared in 1591 with a dedication to the Queen.11 As this was in Ben Jonson’s opinion one of the worst translations ever made, one stanza is perhaps worth quoting, which Dr. McClure has selected as one of the best:12 The precious time that fooles mis-spend in play,    The vain attempts that never take effect, The vows that sinners make, and never pay,    The counsels wise that carelesse men neglect, The fond desires that lead us oft, astray,    The praises that with pride the heart infect,         And all we lose with folly and mis-spending,         May there be found unto this place ascending.13 His next attempt was a satire called the “Metamorphosis of Ajax,” written in the hope of attracting notice at Court. He did; but the notice came near to being a summons at law, and he had to retire again to his patrimony of Kelston.14 The Queen seems always to have thought of him impatiently as a hare-brained fellow; indeed, from some of her remarks, rather a bore; and at best smiled but sourly at his witticisms.15 He had much industry and persistence, but no success, and died at home in Somerset in 1612. And that is all there is to the life of a man who could not be called a person of much importance even in his own day. The information is given in Dr. McClure’s introduction, gathered, we should suppose, from every accessible record. The “epigram” as written by Sir John Harington, and by some of his contemporaries, is not strictly in epigrammatic form. It is in fact any short poem, usually in pentameter, but with various rhyme patterns, of which the mood is wit or satire. It is...