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James Yates, Elizabethan Servant Poet

From: Studies in Philology
Volume 101, Number 1, Winter 2004
pp. 48-58 | 10.1353/sip.2004.0005

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James Yates, Elizabethan Servant Poet by Matthew Steggle A Lady I obey and serue With 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 Renais-sance England. This statement obviously raises a problem of defi-nition: 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 1 James Yates, ??In the Prayse of a vertuous Gentlewoman,?? The Castell of Courtesy (London, 1582), 46r.The poems are cited from the UMI microfilm of The Castell of Courtesy;the publication numbers folios, rather than pages, and this use is repeated here. 2 Mark Thornton Burnett, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture (London: Macmillan, 1997), 2; see also Michael Neill, ??Servant Obedience and Master Sins: Shakespeare and the Bonds of Service,?? chap. 1 in Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics and Society in English Renaissance Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). Yates, of course, is a useful touchstone for the literary characters discussed by Burnett and Neill, including Malvolio, Kent, and De Flores. 3 Burnett comments merely, ??Servants did not generally write or commit themselves to print,?? noting as an exception Thomas Whythorne?s Autobiography of 1576 (12). See Ann Rosalind Jones, ??Maidservants of London: Sisterhoods of Kinship and Labor,?? in Maids 48 ? 2004 The University of North Carolina Press Tseng 2003.12.16 06:37 7001 STUDIES IN PHILOLOGY / 101:1 / sheet 50 of 117 Matthew Steggle 49 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 di?cult 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 o?ers 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...



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