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GEORGE GASCOIGNE (c. 1539-1577)

The following biography is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.

Within the first ten years of Elizabeth's reign a novelty was added to the drama. In 1566, George Gascoigne translated from Ariosto, for representation at Gray's Inn, the prose comedy Gli-Suppositi. This, acted under the title of The Supposes, is the first comedy written in English prose, and in plot, situation, and character, it approaches nearer than Damon and Pythias to the established type of English comedy. One great tribute to its excellence is the use made of its plot and its situations by Shakespeare: the underplot in The Taming of the Shrew is an adaptation of the plot of The Supposes, and a great many of the situations or relations between the various characters might be paralleled from Shakespeare's comedies.

George Gascoigne, "soldier and poet" as he loved to describe himself, was the most versatile writer belonging to the first half of Elizabeth's reign; and contrived to anticipate more than one of the forms of composition in which the later Elizabethans achieved their fame. Few writers can claim a more varied list of literary exploits. Besides his prose comedy, he translated from the Italian of Bandello the prose tale of Jeronimi, perhaps the first novel printed in English: wrote the mock-heroic poem of Dan Bartholomew, our first attempt to rival the mock-heroic poetry of the Italians: wrote three acts of Jocasta, the first adaptation of a Greek tragedy performed on the English stage: prepared masques for Queen Elizabeth: composed in prose a dull "tragical comedy" The Glass Government: and wrote the Steel Glass, the first extensive English satire.

His personal history is not without interest. It affords a touching example of middle-age rendered miserable by thoughtless youth. When he went up from Cambridge to the Inns of Court, a vigorous, enthusiastic young fellow, "well-born, tenderly fostered, and delicately accompanied," he was ready to join friends and companions in any excitement, animal or intellectual. One of his earliest adventures in London was a temporary imprisonment during the year 1548, on a charge of dicing and other disreputable practices. Entering into the fashion of the time, he wrote love-verses whose coarse boisterous humour was warmly resented by the graver sort when first they appeared in print. Aspiring to political distinction, he sat as a burgess for Bedford during the reign of Mary. When playwriting became the rage, he at once figured in the front of playwrights. Before this, having impaired his estate by his extravagance, and being disinherited as a prodigal son, he had sought to retrieve his fortunes by marrying a rich widow; but either the money was tied up from him for behoof of the lady's children by her former husband, or he got it into his hands and ran through it before 1572, for at that date he endeavoured to gain admission into Parliament as burgess for Midhurst, and was defeated by formal objections, which represented him as being a slanderous rhymer, a notorious ruffian, an atheist, a manslaughterer, and an extensive debtor lurking about in fear of apprehension, and seeking admission to Parliament that he might be able to defy his creditors. It may have been this last ignoble motive, if not the motive of retrieving his name by brave achievements, that induced him to cross over to Holland and seek a commission under the Prince of Orange. After his return from Holland in 1573, he made shift to live by his pen. He was now well on to fifty, harassed by debt, met on all sides with cold looks, bitterly regretful of the mad follies of his youth. During his absence, some of his questionable poesies had been printed, and were read with indignation by the guardians of public morality. Soon after his return, in 1575, he issued an edition of his works under the title of Flowers, Herbs, and Weeds. In a prefatory epistle to "reverend divines," he apologizes humbly but with some bitterness for the faults of his youth; and out of deference to them reprints his youthful effusions in a purified form, and with the self-accusing title of "weeds." There is a bitterness in all his later compositions. He often writes as if experience had taught him that he must not speak evil of dignitaries, while he chafed against the enforced restraint; in the tone of his protestations of respect, he betrayed a somewhat savage sense of the injustice done him by merciless remembrance of his misspent youth. Poor man: he might have written well if the world had gone pleasantly with him, but he was disconcerted and embittered by coldness and suspicion. Yet he was not wholly without countenance and patronage. Arthur Lord Grey of Wilton was a steady friend to him, and might have secured him preferment had he not himself fallen into disgrace. He was asked by the Earl of Leicester to help in the pageants for the entertainment of Elizabeth in the famous reception at Kenilworth. Still his poems have a consistent tinge of gloom. In the epistle dedicatory to his Steel Glass (1576), he records how he was "derided, suspected, accused, and condemned; yea, more than that, vigorously rejected when he proffered amends for his harm." The Drum of Doomsday, The View of Worldly Vanities, The Shame of Sin, The Needle's Eye, Remedies against the Bitterness of Death, A Delicate Diet for Dainty-mouthed Drunkards, The Grief of Joy, The Griefs or Discommodities of Lusty Youth, The Vanities of Beauty, The Faults of Force and Strength, The Vanities of Activities, are the significantly cheerless titles and sub-titles of his las productions. He died at Stamford towards the end of 1577.

Not that Gasgoigne was a man of first-rate genius. He never would have been anything higher than a versatile master of verse. But his energy was prodigious; and the career of such energy is always an interesting spectacle.

Some of the precepts in his Notes of Instruction in verse-making may be put in evidence regarding his qualifications as a poet. The most suggestive is his advice to young poets in search of rhyme--"When you have set down your first verse, take the last word thereof, and count over all the words of the self-same sound by order of the alphabet." Another sound practical advice is to use as few polysyllables as possible; first, because the most ancient English words are of one syllable, but also because "words of one syllable will more easily fall to be short or long as occasion requireth." Characteristic of his own clearness and vigour is his advice to study perspicuity, to abstain from Latin inversions, to be sparing of poetical licences, and to avoid commonplaces. It is remarkable, also, that he enunciates a principle which is sometimes spoken of as being of later growth--"Remember to place every word in his natural emphasis or sound--that is to say, in such wise, and with such length or shortness, elevation or depression of syllables, as it is commonly pronounced and used." He also lays down a strict rule of cæsura.

The Jocasta, an adaptation from The Phœnissæ of Euripides, contains some powerful situations, but they are lost in the mass of tedious narrative dialogue. The blank verse has every appearance of having been patched up hurriedly. One of the best passages is the interchange of defiance between Etiocles and Polynices in the presence of their mother: it would have been difficult to destroy the tragic force of such a situation.

The tale of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco is a voluptuous story of warm but fickle love, won easily and lost through exacting causeless jealousy. It was probably one item in the education of that generation of poets in the arts and ways of love: its main lesson, apart from its exquisite little windings and turnings, being that where a woman yields her whole heart she is implacably offended when she discovers that she is not trusted. In style the tale is the parent of the tales of Lyly and Greene. Its "euphuism" is not so methodical as euphuism strictly so called--the developed mannerism of Lyly: but one might quote from Gascoigne passages that contain all the elements of that mannerism. Gascoigne, however, was too robust a nature to develop this sort of figurative language into a system. After a euphuistic passage, he begins a new paragraph by saying--"to speak English."

His love-verses are not the verses of a sentimental inamorato, or impassioned lover. He woos more like Diomede than like Troilus, praising his lady's beauty with humorous ardour, and bidding her "farewell with a mischief" when she proves inconstant. Grave and reverend divines had some reason to complain of a poet who published three sonnets written upon the occasion of presenting his mistress with a copy of the Golden Ass of Apuleius. His more serious lyrics have an impetuous movement and rough fire in them that make us think of poor George as an imperfect Byron--resembly Byron as he did not a little in his life, and complaining of the same identification of himself with his heroes.

There is abundance of comic vigour and mad rollicking humour in Dan Bartholomew of Bath. It may be made another point of comparison with Byron; but its general strain bears more resemblance to Lockhart's Mad Banker of Amsterdam. The hero's courtship and deceptive triumph, his discomfiture and dolorous laments, his Last Will and Testament, his Subscription and Seal, his Farewell, and "The Reporter's" conclusion in the style of The Mirror for Magistrates, are executed with great spirit. The account of his falling in love will give an idea of this:--

"For though he had in all his learned lore
Both read good rules to bridle fantasy,
And all good authors taught him evermore
To love the mean and leave extremity;
Yet Kind hath left him such a quality,
That at the last he quite forgot his books,
And fastened fancy with the fairest looks.

For proof: when green youth leapt out of his eye,
And left him now a man of middle age,
His hap was yet with wandering looks to spy
A fair young imp of proper personage,
Eke born (as he) of honest parentage:
And truth to tell, my skill it cannot serve
To praise her beauty as it did deserve.

First of her head: the hairs were not of gold,
But of some other metal far more fine,
Whereof each crinet seemed, to behold,
Like glistering wires against the sun that shine;
And therewithal the blazing of her eyne
Was like the beams of Titan, truth to tell,
Which glads us all that in this world do dwell.

Upon her cheeks the lily and the rose
Did intermeet with equal change of hue,
And in her gifts no lack I can suppose
But that at last (alas) she was untrue:
Which flinging fault, because it is not new
Nor seldom seen in kits of Cressid's kind,
I marvel not, nor bear it much in mind.
* * *
That mouth of hers which seemed to flow with mell
In speech, in voice, in tender touch, in taste:
That dimpled chin wherein delight did dwell,
That ruddy lip wherein was pleasure placed;
Those well-shaped hands, fine arms, and slender waist,
With all the gifts which gave her any grace,
Were smiling baits which caught fond fools apace."

The Glass of Government belongs to the broken-down and disheartened period of his life. It was published in 1575. He makes calls it a tragical comedy to illustrate the rewards and punishments of virtues and vices, consecrates the title-page with a quotation from Scripture, and fills a preliminary fly-leaf with pious, patriotic, and moral saws. The prologue forbids all expectations of merry jest and vain delight, referring wanton playgoers to interludes and Italian toys, and announcing that the comedy is not a comedy in Terence's sense, but a mirror to lords and citizens, and a beacon to rash youth. The argument is the history of four young men, two of quick capacity, who become dissipated, and end their careers in shame--two of dull understanding, but steady industry, who are preferred to honourable positions. The play is saturated with good advice, the education of the young men affording opportunities for commonplace counsel and the exposition of learned precepts by exemplary parents and teachers, possessing the profoundest sense of their responsibilities. Copious citations are made from Scripture, and from Greek and Roman moralists and poets. It is virtually a moral-play, with individual names given to the abstractions, and the parasite of Latin comedy in place of the Vice of Moralities.

The Steel Glass shows poor Gascoigne sunk deep in the slough of despondency and bitterness. And in one of his smaller poems it is sad to find him thus looking back to the strength of his youth, and reflecting that strength is after all a dangerous thing, which may in the end prove to be a less bountiful gift of nature than weakness:--

"I have been strong (I thank my God therefore)
And did therein rejoice as most men did:
I leapt, I ran, I toiled and travailed sore,
My might and main did covet to be kid.
But lo: behold: my merry days amid,
One heady deed my haughty heart did break,
And since (full oft) I wished I had been weak.
The weakling he sits buzzing at his book,
Or keeps full close, and loves to live in quiet:
For lack of force he warily doth look
In every dish which may disturb his diet.
He neither fights nor runneth after riot.
But stays his steps by mean and measure too,
And longer lives than many strong men do."

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