The Green Knight: The Life and Work of the Poet George Gascoigne

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the remarkable achievements of the greatest Elizabethan poet nobody reads

George Gascoigne wrote the first original poem in blank verse, the first prose comedy, and arguably the first English novel. He wrote the first treatise on prosody (the study of versification) in English. He was also the author of the first major sonnet sequence in English; he, not Sir Philip Sidney, should get that credit. The twentieth-century critic Yvor Winters considered George Gascoigne to be one of the six or seven greatest lyric poets of the entire sixteenth century. But who was George Gascoigne? Given this roll-call of achievements, why do so few people know his name?

George Gascoigne was born at some point in the 1530s (biographies range anywhere from 1530 to 1539 in giving his year of birth) in the small village of Cardington, not far from Bedford. After studying at Cambridge, Gascoigne entered Gray’s Inn, and was in the procession for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 (standing in for his father, who was too ill to attend). Gascoigne subsequently became an MP for Bedfordshire. While practising law at Gray’s Inn, he wrote Supposes, based on a comedy by Ariosto, which is ‘probably’ (as Michael Schmidt notes cautiously in his The Lives Of The Poets) the first English prose comedy. Supposes would go on to influence Shakespeare, providing him with the subplot for The Taming of the Shrew. Also while at Gray’s Inn, Gascoigne made an English translation of an Italian version of Jocasta, a play by the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides. Gascoigne’s became the first classical Greek play to appear on the English stage in an English translation.

Unfortunately, as Schmidt notes, Gascoigne also had a talent for spending money, and he soon went through much of his allowance and was disinherited by his wealthy father, Sir John Gascoigne. In 1561, Gascoigne made a shrewd marriage to a rich widow, Elizabeth Breton (whose son by her first marriage, oddly enough, would also become a playwright, Nicholas Breton). He continued to struggle with money, however, and didn’t have a lot of luck: he fled to Holland, was imprisoned by the Spanish, and unauthorised versions of his poems were published. He swiftly put out an authorised version, with the snappy title A Hundreth Sundry Flowres bound up in one small Poesie. Gathered partely (by translation) in the fyne outlandish Gardins of Euripides, Ovid, Petrarch, Ariosto and others; and partly by Invention out of our owne fruitefull Orchardes in Englande, Yelding Sundrie Savours of tragical, comical and moral discourse, bothe pleasaunt and profitable, to the well-smelling noses of learned readers.

That was in 1573; it contained the first example of a linked sonnet sequence in English, a clever idea whereby the last line of the preceding sonnet forms the first line of the next. Gascoigne’s sonnet sequence predates Sidney’s by several years (Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella was probably composed in around 1581-2). Also in 1573, Gascoigne published A Discourse of the Adventures of Master FJ, which has a claim to being the first English novel (although I’d argue that William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, a remarkable comic ‘novel’ from the 1550s which I discuss in The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, should get that honour).

Then, in 1576, Gascoigne wrote The Steele Glass, which scored another notable first in being the first use of blank verse (a form invented by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey), for an original piece of (non-dramatic) writing. It’s also possible that Gascoigne’s Complaint of Philomene, which also dates from 1576, invented the vogue for Ovidian narrative poems which Shakespeare would later tap into with his Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in the 1590s.

Gascoigne died in 1577, with, in Schmidt’s words, ‘as many “firsts” to his credit in poetry as Christopher Columbus does in geography.’ Yet Schmidt goes on to note that Gascoigne, in his ‘The Green Knight’s Farewell to Fancy’, considered himself a failure in everything he’d attempted. He’d certainly run through a dizzying number of careers in his forty-odd years on the planet: poet, playwright, ‘novelist’, MP, soldier, courtier, and farmer. Some might argue that suggests a jack of all trades. Others would say it makes Gascoigne the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’. The Gascoigne we get in his writings – he refers to himself as ‘Gascoigne’ repeatedly and created a semi-fictional persona, the Green Knight, for himself – is a sort of fabricated version of reality, much like the comedian Stewart Lee’s stage persona in his stand-up routines.

Certainly, he was well-regarded during the Renaissance: Schmidt calls him the best-known writer of his day. What happened? Why is he now no more than a footnote in literary history, a poet whom barely anyone reads, and who most people have never even heard of? Many of Gascoigne’s claims to fame – writing the first original English sonnet sequence (Anne Locke’s sonnets from 1560 were earlier, but were Biblical translations), writing the first ‘novel’ in English – are credited to Sir Philip Sidney, who remains much more famous. Even those who came earlier – Sir Thomas Wyatt, and the Earl of Surrey – are accorded more space in the Tudor literary pantheon. Why is the name George Gascoigne not celebrated or recognised as these other names are?

One reason which both Schmidt and Roger Pooley (one of Gascoigne’s editors) cite is Gascoigne’s timing: he is viewed as a transitional writer between those early trailblazers (Wyatt wrote the first sonnets in English, Surrey invented blank verse and modified the Italian sonnet to create the English sonnet form) and the later writers, such as Sidney and Shakespeare, who capitalised on Gascoigne’s developments and took them to new heights. And yet when we actually read Gascoigne, we don’t find a mediocre or cack-handed poet whose work has not stood the test of time. Indeed, some of his poems sound as though they could have been written in the last century or so, rather than nearly half a millennium ago:

First lullaby my youthful years;
It is now time to go to bed,
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven within my head.
With lullaby, then, youth be still;
With lullaby content thy will;
Since courage quails and comes behind,
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.

One could imagine a belated Romantic, a Christina Rossetti or perhaps a follower of Tennyson, producing something like this in the late Victorian era, or even at the beginning of the previous century. To write in such a plain way in the Elizabethan age really is unusual. The above example is quoted by Schmidt, who also draws our attention to Gascoigne’s plain style: where his contemporaries liked to adopt a refined, courtly, affected diction (although a slightly later poet like Sidney sought to cut through that), Gascoigne wrote, in his own words, ‘like a sot’, i.e. a drunkard. Consider this sonnet:

You must not wonder, though you think it strange,
To see me hold my louring head so low,
And that mine eyes take no delight to range
About the gleams which on your face do grow.
The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom ’ticèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
The scorchèd fly, which once hath ’scaped the flame,
Will hardly come to play again with fire,
Whereby I learn that grievous is the game
Which follows fancy dazzled by desire:
So that I wink or else hold down my head,
Because your blazing eyes my bale have bred.

Although the odd word stands out as belonging to an earlier age (‘’ticèd’, ‘feedeth’, ‘scorchèd’, ‘bale’), for the most part this is an extremely modern poem when set aside many similar sonnets from the 1570s – and, indeed, from a good deal afterwards. Elsewhere, Gascoigne is similarly direct, even brusque:

‘And if I did, what then?
Are you aggriev’d therefore?
The sea hath fish for every man,
And what would you have more?’

Thus did my mistress once,
Amaze my mind with doubt;
And popp’d a question for the nonce
To beat my brains about.

Whereto I thus replied:
‘Each fisherman can wish
That all the seas at every tide
Were his alone to fish.

‘And so did I (in vain)
But since it may not be,
Let such fish there as find the gain,
And leave the loss for me.

‘And with such luck and loss
I will content myself,
Till tides of turning time may toss
Such fishers on the shelf.

‘And when they stick on sands,
That every man may see,
Then will I laugh and clap my hands,
As they do now at me.’

Sexual jealousy had been covered by previous Tudor poets, notably Sir Thomas Wyatt, but never had an English poet addressed it in quite such a no-frills, down-to-earth manner.

Roger Pooley wrote a very good detailed introduction to Gascoigne’s work in one of the few editions of his writings out there, The Green Knight, pictured above. (And even that’s now long out of print; try finding an affordable second-hand copy online. I managed to pick up my copy for just under a tenner from a second-hand bookseller.) Pooley is also fair-minded and level-headed when appraising the importance of Gascoigne’s contribution to English literature: he finds the claim that Gascoigne’s A Discourse of the Adventures of Master FJ is the first English novel unpersuasive, and acknowledges the varied quality of Gascoigne’s numerous productions. But when George Gascoigne is good, he is often strikingly good, and seeking out his work is well worth the effort. Pooley’s selection remains the best edition out there; it’s high time it was reprinted, or perhaps even time for a new edition.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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