Category Archives: Poetry

Poetry Vice

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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Italy Love Poetry Shakespeare

The Episode of the Two Unhappy Lovers

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet sometime in the 1590s, dramatising an Italian story already familiar in Elizabethan England. The original author was the Italian poet Luigi Da Porto (1485 -1529), who wrote the story at his villa near Vicenza. Da Porto’s Istoria novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (‘Newly discovered story of two noble lovers’, 1524) was immediately popular when it was first published, and at least five versions of his book were published in Italy and France over the next thirty years. Da Porto’s novel arrived in England in the 1560s, via translations by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and William Painter in 1567. It is widely accepted that Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was the primary source used by Shakespeare. In the introduction to his novel, Da Porto dedicates the story to ‘the most beautiful and graceful Lady Lucina Savorgnano’. This dedication reveals both the inspiration behind the now legendary story of the star-crossed lovers, and Da Porto’s own rather poignant and romantic attachment to Lucina herself:
After informing you some days ago that I wished to narrate a touching incident which happened at Verona, and, having heard the same story many times, the writing thereof seemed to be a debt of honour which I owe to you, not only that I should remain faithful to my word, but, being myself very unfortunate in my love affairs, the episode of the two unhappy lovers, of which this novel is full, does in a great measure resemble mine. And I dedicate this story to you all the more willingly, because you are acknowledged among the beautiful, the most beautiful, besides being the most prudent, and in reading it you will clearly perceive what great risks and what rash deeds lovers will commit in the name of love, and in some cases their follies lead them even to death itself. And I address myself all the more willingly to you because I have determined that this venture shall be my last, and after writing this for your sake, my literary work in this kind of art will cease.
And as you are esteemed the harbor of all my worth and every virtue, I pray you to shelter this frail bark of my brain. Although loaded with much ignorance, it has been impelled by love, and having hitherto navigated the less profound seas of poverty, and that she may now on reaching you be placed in more skillful hands and under a brighter star, steer on the same sea and with helm, oars and sails unhampered, achor herself firmly on your hospitable shores. Therefore, my lady, receive it in the spirit in which it was conceived. Peruse it carefully not only for its subject, which in my judgement is a most pitiful one, but also for the close bond of consanguinity and sweet friendship which exists between yourself and the author who now addresses you.
Frontispiece of Giulietta e Romeo (1530)
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