Steven W. May and Alan Bryson (eds), Verse Libel in Renaissance England and Scotland
Commentary, Poems 16a–h
The author of all eight poems, Thomas Wright (c. 1561–1623) was born at York into a zealously Catholic family. At the age of sixteen he fled to the continent where he was educated in Catholic schools, became a Jesuit in 1580, and was ordained priest in 1586. He then taught at Jesuit colleges in Genoa, Milan, and Rome before being appointed in 1594 as prefect of studies at the English College in Valladolid, Spain. Wright's advocacy of toleration for English Catholics on condition of their absolute loyalty to the Crown apparently enabled him to return openly to England in June 1595. The Earl of Essex took Wright into his household, later assuring the Queen that he was 'as good a subject as any she had'.158 Wright himself addressed a personal missive to Elizabeth declaring why he had returned to his native land. He protested his desire to serve her by revealing some undefined threat that 'will ensue in few yeares' unless measures were taken 'to prevent and withstand it'. This, it turned out, was the preparation of a second Spanish armada in 1596 for the conquest of England. In return for remaining in his homeland with liberty of conscience, Wright promised to conduct himself 'without intermedlyng any way in matters of religion or estate'.159
His promise received short shrift; in October, Wright's indiscretions in defending his faith led to his house arrest under supervision of Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster and a client of Lord Treasurer Burghley. During this confinement he nevertheless managed to draft the libellous emblem verses preserved in the Lambeth Palace Library MS, all which are dated November 1595.160 Thus, despite his assurances to the Queen and the curtailment of his liberty, Wright energetically involved himself in his patron's factional dispute with the Cecils and their allies at court. The Earl's chief opponents were Lord Treasurer Burghley and his son, Sir Robert Cecil, at this time acting secretary to the Queen. Wright's overall plan was to produce a balanced emblem book with at least ten emblems in praise of Essex and his circle as well as the eight libellous emblems edited here. Each emblem (impresa) consists of three parts: the picture, a verse description or comment on it, and a motto (mot, or word), usually a Latin tag that epitomizes the intent of both picture and explanatory verses. The interpretive marginal notes are extraneous to the three-part structure of the emblems themselves, as are the two separate sets of instructions for drawing the emblems. Wright's complete book may very well have been drawn up in illustrated fair copy for the amusement of Essex and his friends, but if so it seems not to have survived. From Goodman's custody he was transferred to one prison after another until he was banished from England upon James I's accession in 1603.
Wright's connections with men of letters and his own literary career flourished during his years of English residence. The young clergyman and Latin poet William Alabaster was charged with converting Wright to Protestantism during his supervision by Dean Goodman. Instead, Wright converted Alabaster, who became a contentious promoter of the Old Religion. Wright was probably also responsible for Ben Jonson's conversion to Catholicism during the latter's imprisonment for manslaughter in the autumn of 1598. By then, Wright had completed his systematic treatise on the nature of human emotions, first published in 1601 (without the author's consent) as The Passions of the Minde in General.161 The revised, authorized edition of 1604 was prefaced with a commendatory sonnet by 'B. I.' (Ben Jonson). The first edition had included eight short poems by Wright himself, expanded to a dozen poems, mostly translations of Latin distiches, in the edition of 1604.
The identities of Wright's targets in these emblems are generally transparent, and it is noteworthy that they introduce several allegorical figures that crop up in later pro-Essex verse libels. The 'ould Asse' of 16a is clearly the Lord Treasurer, accused of wasting the goods and well-being of the 'carefull maide' (Queen Elizabeth). Burghley is also indicted in 16c and 16h. A few years later, Wright recalled the opening line of 16c, 'The Lyon's food is flesh and blood, and not a sheef of corne', as he penned a treatise on 'Clymactericall yeeres': as an example of natural appetites he noted that 'the Lyon feedeth vppon flesh, not vpon hay'.162 The scorpion of 16b probably represents Burghley's son, Sir Robert Cecil, who acquiesced to several rapprochements with Essex during the 1590s. The industrious bee would again represent Essex in the satiric and highly popular 'It was a time when silly bees could speak' (see the Introduction, p. 37 and Commentary to Poem 18). The fox of 16d is no doubt Ralegh; as he was being sworn to testify at the Earl's treason trial in 1601, Essex quipped, 'What booteth it to swear the fox'.163 The caged lion is Essex, as distinguished from the enthroned lion who represents the Queen in Poem 18. The reference to atheism in 16e also connects this emblem with Ralegh, while the description of its illustration includes both a fox and a camel, the latter beast foreshadowing Robert Cecil's surrogate in Poem 18. The eagle of 16f prefigures the application of this symbol to Essex in Poem 17. In April 1595, Lady Ann Bacon wrote to warn her son, Anthony, 'to be wary of lord Howard as of a subtile serpent'.164 Her characterization of Lord Henry Howard may have influenced his equation with the snake of Poem 16f, but the identification remains uncertain as is also the case for 'The Helish owle' (16g).
The series concludes with a prose note that the supposed author, Pasquin, awakens from the trance in which he devised them. Pasquin or Pasquil was thoroughly associated with satire during the Renaissance as alluding to Pasquil's statue in Rome on which satiric bills were posted. His trance may allude to the title of the anti-Catholic tract Pasquine in a Traunce. A Christian and learned Dialogue, translated by an unidentified W. P. from the Italian of Celio Secondo Curione. The work concerns Pasquine's account of his journeys through heaven, purgatory, and hell; it saw two editions (1566, 1584). Its attack on 'the whole packe of the Popes pedlary wares' (STC 6131, sig. A3) is typical of the satiric intent associated with Pasquil, although his attacks were not at all restricted to Catholic subjects. Pasquil is also mentioned in the title to Poem 47.
Alison Shell was the first scholar to comment on Wright's emblems in the Lambeth Palace Library manuscript: she is primarily concerned with his Latin imprese which, she argues, he offered for Essex's use in the tiltyard.165 Shell prints the first state of Poem 16a (p. 132), and interprets the libellous emblems as a collective attack on Sir Robert Cecil penned after the Earl's elaborate Accession Day show on 17 November 1595. In The Earl of Essex and Late Elizabethan Political Culture, Alexandra Gajda prints the text of Poem 16e and offers a summary survey of all of Wright's emblems in MS 652.166
158 Quoted by Theodore A. Stroud, 'Father Thomas Wright: A Test Case for Toleration', Biographical Studies, 1534–1829, 1 (1951), 196; Peter Milward, 'Wright, Thomas', ODNB.
159 BL Lansdowne MS 109, ff. 48–8v, holograph.
160 Upon reaching London, Wright voluntarily placed himself in the custody of Essex's secretary, Anthony Bacon, who annotated the emblems, 'Des Inuentions de Monsieur Wright le mois de nouembre 1595, (Lambeth Palace Library MS 652, f. 211v). For Wright's quarrel with Matthew Hutton, Archbishop of York, and subsequent dispatch to Goodman's custody see Thomas Birch, Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols. (London, 1754), 1.307, 309.
161 Theodore A. Stroud, 'Ben Jonson and Father Thomas Wright', English Literary History 14 (1947), 277–81.
162 This pseudo-medical tract, occasioned by the death of Queen Elizabeth, was appended to the 1604 and later editions of his Passions of the Minde. See the reprint, ed. Thomas O. Sloan (Urbana, IL, 1971), 7 (sig. second B2) at end.
163 Quoted by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, Sir Walter Raleigh in Life and Legend (London, 2011), 170.
164 Birch, Memoirs, 1.227.
165 Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558–1660 (Cambridge, 1999), 127–33.
166 The Earl of Essex and Late Elizabethan Political Culture (Oxford, 2012), 131–5.
The English verses occur in three states in Lambeth Palace Library MS 652: version I (f. 207), version II (ff. 210–10v), and version III (f. 212v). We designate these eight libellous fourteener couplets a–h. Each couplet was designed to accompany a different satiric emblem. Wright apparently composed a ninth satiric emblem, but only the impresa's description has survived:
- Plainte [sic] a scamaleon gapinge and write
- Qui nesui dissimulare nesui regnare.
The texts on f. 207 represent the earliest version of the poems. Revisions to these drafts generally occur in both II and III. However, the intended replacement of 'Queen' with 'wenche' in I.1.1 was changed to the more decorous 'maid' in drafts II and III. The process of revision emerges clearly at 16f.2: version I reads 'The serpent seakes to foile'. In draft II, 'serpent seekes' is crossed out, to be replaced with 'snak creepes vp', the reading of version III: 'The snake crepes vp to foyle'. Similarly, draft I, 16h.3 reads 'Yet others must needs enter in'; in II this was initially revised as 'Yet others forset to enter in'. Next, 'forset to enter in' was crossed out and replaced with 'sommond by him', the reading of draft III, 16h.3, 'Yet others summond by him'. Other 'directional' changes to draft wording occur at 16g.3 and in the Conclusion.
The instructions for drawing the emblems with their mots offer similar evidence of revision from the draft on ff. 224–24v to the revised copy on f. 212. Thus, on f. 224 the instructions for emblem 16c originally specified a 'bottell' (bale) 'of straw'. The scribe then crossed out 'bottell' and inserted 'sheafe', the reading on f. 212: 'Painte a Lyon & befor him a sheafe of straw. & write'. Emended readings on ff. 224–24v appear corrected as well among the mots on f. 212. The English mot for emblem 16g, for instance, at first began 'Let them not'. This was replaced by 'Who liste may', the reading on f. 212: 'Who list may mone she raigne alone'. Thus, the critical text combines the emblem verses with the corresponding descriptions of their emblems and accompanying mots from the copy texts on ff. 212–12v.