To have a shorter beard & longer witt

These snippets came about as a result of reading an account of  Ben Jonson’s involvement in the dark politics of the early 1600s.

Thomas Bastard (1565/6–1618) was an epigrammatist and Church of England clergyman. Born at Blandford, Dorset, he attended Winchester College, and then New College, Oxford. In 1588 he was admitted perpetual fellow of New College, acquiring a BA in 1590 and an MA in 1606.

In 1591, Bastard was accused of being ‘guilty of the vices belonging to poets and given to libelling’, and was forced to leave his fellowship. These ‘libels’ described in shocking detail the sexual transgressions of some of the more prominent Oxford clergymen and academics (unfortunately, on a first search, these do not appear to have survived). Fortunately for Bastard and his ‘little family’ (including a wife whom he described as ‘no great help-meet’) he secured subsequent employment from two important courtiers. Firstly, Sir Charles Blount made him one of his chaplains, and in 1592 Thomas Howard gave him the tenure of vicar of Bere Regis, and in 1606, rector of Almer in his native Dorset. Sadly however, the livings he made were small and poor, and Bastard was never able to regain his former status.

Thy beard is long: better it would thee fit,
To have a shorter beard, and longer witt.’

His literary reputation was gained as a result of a volume of 285 epigrams published in 1598 entitled Chrestoleros (‘useful’ and ‘trifling’). At the time of publication, Bastard had, according to Dudley Carleton, ‘the name of a lively wit’, but his poems were unimpressive: he ‘botches up his verse with variations, and his conceits so run upon his poverty that his wit is rather to be pitied than commended’. Indeed, Sir John Harington commented in a poem to Bastard, ‘the dusty wits of this ungratefull time, Carpe at thy booke of Epigrams, and scoffe it.’

Perhaps the high point in Bastard’s literary career occurred when the fashionable playwright John Marston quoted a couplet from one of Bastard’s epigrams at a climactic moment in his popular play The Malcontent (1604).

Bastard was apparently popular among his friends: ‘His discourses were always pleasant and facete, which made his company desired by all ingenious men’; he was a member of the circle of sophisticates (including Donne) which produced the volume of poetical tributes to Thomas Coryat called The Odcombian Banquet (1611). However, for the most part, the remainder of Bastard’s life was lived in poverty, far from the stimulation of London. In Dorset, he said his wit became ‘key-cold’, and in his final days he fell apart:

This poet and preacher being towards his latter end crazed, and thereupon brought into debt, was at length committed to the prison in Allhallows parish, in Dorchester, where dying very obscurely and in a mean condition, was buried in the churchyard belonging to the parish on 19 April 1618, leaving behind him many memorials of his wit and drollery.

Had I my wish contented I should be,
though neither rich nor better than you see,
For tis nor wealth nor honour that I crave,
But a short life, Reader, and a long grave.


Source: Finkler at the DNB

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  • November 4, 2009 - 11:00 am | Permalink

    It’s an unusual surname nevertheless. This was the first instance I’d come across it. Presumably its a derivation of French. Be interesting to check graves and see if he’s still there.

  • November 3, 2009 - 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Bere Regis is just 5 miles up the road from where I grew up. Presumably in the 16th century they were a bit less sensitive than the Victorians and didn’t see Bastard as a particularly offensive surname.

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