Henry Wotton 1568-1639
English poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, epistler, and translator.
Although primarily a diplomat, Henry Wotton also was an accomplished writer. His works include treatises on politics, religion, history, and architecture; several highly regarded and frequently anthologized poems; and hundreds of informative and entertaining letters. Proficient in a number of languages, Wotton produced several works in Latin and translated a collection of stories, Le Printemps D'Yver, from French to English. Among Wotton's friends and admirers were some of the leading writers and intellectuals of the day, including Isaac Casaubon, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and George Herbert. He was a lifelong friend of John Donne. His letters to his personal acquaintances and his official diplomatic dispatches are noted for their witty and astute observations on seventeenth-century social and political life. Logan Pearsall Smith, the modern editor of Wotton's correspondence, hailed him as “the best letter-writer of his time—the first Englishman whose correspondence deserves to be read for its literary quality, apart from its historical interest.” While his poetic output was slight, his poems are considered skillful, polished, and, in the case of “You meaner Beauties of the Night” especially, among the most popular verses of Wotton's era.
Wotton was born in 1568, in Bocton-Hall, Kent, the son of Thomas Wotton and his second wife, Eleanor. He was the youngest child, having an elder sister and several half-siblings from his father's first marriage. Wotton was educated at the Winchester School before entering Oxford University, where he became friends with poet John Donne. Wotton earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1588, then spent the next several years traveling around Europe on an annuity left by his father. This travel experience was intended to prepare Wotton for a career in public service, as he was to learn languages and about politics first-hand. Among his sojourns on the Continent was a 1592-93 stay in Sienna, where he came into contact with prominent Italian intellectuals. When Wotton returned to England in 1594, he became a secretary and agent for the Earl of Essex, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. During the five years Wotton was in Essex's employ, he traveled with him on a number of state-related expeditions, including the disastrous expedition to Ireland in 1599. By this time Wotton had already begun to write poetry that was privately circulated. Just before Essex's downfall a short time later, Wotton left his service and spent some time in Florence before returning to England. In 1603 Wotton was knighted by James I and named ambassador to Venice; between this point and 1624 he would serve several terms in the post, as well as those of special ambassador to Holland and to Vienna. While he was living in Italy Wotton also acted as the agent for George Villers, the Duke of Buckingham, overseeing the purchase of paintings and manuscripts for him. When Wotton returned to England in the mid-1620s, Buckingham garnered Wotton a position as provost of Eton College. Wotton held this post until his death in 1639.
Wotton's best-known works are his poems, which were written in a variety of forms and genres, including odes and reflections, as well as political, religious, and love poems. Many were written to celebrate particular occasions. The popularity of Wotton's verses can be seen in the large number of manuscript copies of them written into miscellanies, the unauthorized printing of several poems, the musical accompaniment composed for some of them, and the numerous imitations and adaptations of several pieces. One poem, “'Tis not a coate of gray, or Shepheards life” (c. 1598), was composed as part of a series of verse letters exchanged with Donne concerning the nature of happiness. Another poem on the same subject, “The Character of a Happy Life” (c. 1612), reflects on what the poet deems necessary to live a moral life amid the temptations of the court. Well-circulated in Wotton's time, it was repeatedly copied and imitated, and was one of the poems that was set to music. Evidence suggests that “You meaner Beauties of the Night” (c. 1619), Wotton's tribute to Elizabeth Stuart, the Queen of Bohemia and the daughter of James I, was even more popular. More than ninety print and manuscript copies survive from the seventeenth century, and at least ten adaptations and six musical versions exist. Notable among Wotton's poems on political subjects are Ad regem è Scotia reducem Henrici Wottonij plausus et vota (1633; A Panegyrick of King Charles; being Observations upon the Inclination, Life and Government of Our Soveraign Lord the King), celebrating Charles I upon his return from his coronation in Scotland, and “Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place” (c. 1616), concerning the fall from favor of Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. The latter poem, with its consideration of the precariousness of court life, was adapted by several later writers to apply to the situations of various disgraced courtiers.
Wotton's prose works, like his poems, are significant for the influence they had on subsequent writers. The Elements of Architecture (1624), Wotton's compendium of notable opinions on architecture, is believed to have influenced several poems by Andrew Marvell. In addition, A Courtlie controuersie of Cupids Cautels (1578), Wotton's translation of Jacque D'Yver's Le Printemps D'Yver, was a probable source for Robert Greene's novel Mamillia.
Although the canon of Wotton's works was established shortly after his death by the publication of the Reliquiæ Wottonianæ (1651), edited by his friend and biographer, Izaac Walton, the great number of pirated, copied, and adapted versions of his works has given rise to a substantial amount of textual and bibliographic scholarship. Critics such as J. B. Leishman, C. F. Main, and Ted-Larry Pebworth have analyzed the disparate versions of “You Meaner Beauties of the Night,” “Character of a Happy Life,” “Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place,” and other poems in an effort to establish, as far as possible, true authorial versions. Other critics, including John S. Weld, Frederick Hard, and M. R. Pitman, have investigated the influence of Wotton's prose works on Marvell, Greene, and other writers. Pebworth and Claude J. Summers have examined “'Tis not a coate of gray, or Shepheards life” as part of the series of verse letters between Wotton and Donne, noting that Wotton “emerges as the controlling moral force and the teacher” in the exchange. Wotton's correspondence has been studied by Logan Pearsall Smith, who found the letters “remarkable for their wit, their beauty of phrase, and the impress of [Wotton's] kindly and meditative nature.”
A Courtlie controuersie of Cupids Cautels: Conteyning fiue Tragicall Histories, very pithie, pleasant, pitiful, and profitable: Discoursed vppon wyth argumentes of Loue, by three Gentlemen and two Gentlewomen, entermedled with diuers delicate Sonets and Rithmes, exceeding delightfull to refresh the yrksomnesse of tedious tyme. Translated out of French as neare as our English phrase will permit [translator; from Le Printemps D'Yver by Jacque D'Yer] (short stories) 1578
The Elements of Architecture, Collected from the Best Authors and Examples (nonfiction) 1624
Ad regem è Scotia reducem Henrici Wottonij plausus et vota [A Panegyrick of King Charles; being Observations upon the Inclination, Life and Government of Our Soveraign Lord the King] (nonfiction) 1633
A Parallel betweene Robert Late Earle of Essex, and George Late Duke of Buckingham (nonfiction) 1641
A Short View of the Life and Death of George Villers, Duke of Buckingham (nonfiction) 1642
Reliquiæ Wottonianæ. Or, a Collection of Lives, Letters, Poems: with Characters of Sundry Personages: And other Incomparable Pieces of Language and Art. By the curious Pensil of the Ever Memorable Sr Henry Wotton, Kt, Late Provost of Eton Colledg (collected works) 1651; revised editions 1654, 1672, 1685
The State of...
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SOURCE: Walton, Izaak. “The Life of Sir Henry Wotton, Late Provost of Eaton College.” In The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert & Robert Sanderson, pp. 93-151. Oxford: Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press, 1927.
[In following essay, which was originally published in 1651, Walton, a friend of Wotton's, provides an overview of Wotton's life and career.]
Sir Henry Wotton (whose Life I now intend to write) was born in the Year of our Redemption 1568. in Bocton-Hall (commonly called Bocton, or Bougton-place, or Palace) in the Parish of Bocton Malherb, in the fruitful Country of Kent: Bocton-hall being an ancient and goodly Structure, beautifying, and being beautified by the Parish Church of Bocton Malherb adjoyning unto it; and both seated within a fair Park of the Wottons, on the Brow of such a Hill, as gives the advantage of a large Prospect, and of equal pleasure to all Beholders.
But this House and Church are not remarkable for any thing so much, as for that the memorable Family of the Wottons have so long inhabited the one, and now lye buried in the other, as appears by their many Monuments in that Church: the Wottons being a Family that hath brought forth divers Persons eminent for Wisdom and Valour; whose Heroick Acts, and Noble...
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Smith, Logan Pearsall. Preface to The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, Vol. 1, pp. iii-xvi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.
[The following excerpt is taken from a two-volume work that was first published in 1907. The first volume offers an extensive biography of Wotton, and the second volume reprints many of his letters. Here, Smith surveys the scope of Wotton's correspondence, both personal and diplomatic, and declares him “the best letter-writer of his time.”]
Among the contemporaries of Shakespeare an interesting but little-known figure is that of the poet and ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton. It is still remembered that he was the author of two or three beautiful lyrics which are to be found in every anthology; that he went as ambassador to Venice, and fell into temporary disfavour owing to a witty but indiscreet definition of his office; and that afterwards he became Provost of Eton, where he was visited by the young Milton, and where he fished with Izaak Walton, who quoted his sayings in the Compleat Angler, and wrote an exquisite portrait of his old friend. But behind the tranquil old age described by Walton lay many years of travel and participation in public affairs, much acquaintance with men, and with courts and foreign lands. The period indeed of Wotton's life covers the whole of what is known as the great age of Elizabethan literature, from the defeat of the Armada to the death of...
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SOURCE: Coleridge, Gilbert. “Sir Henry Wotton.” The Nineteenth Century and After 94, No. 559 (September 1923): 370-78.
[In the following essay, Coleridge summarizes Wotton's life and offers commentary on his major works.]
Not many years ago the street of the Holy Well, narrow and mediæval in its aspect, ran parallel with the Strand between St. Clement Danes and St. Martin's. As everyone knows, it was swept away in a so-called improvement scheme promoted by the London County Council in its salad days, when that body wished to show what it would do for London. The scheme as a whole may have been desirable, but no exceptions were made, and thus one of the most interesting thoroughfares was destroyed. Certainly Holywell Street was dark, airless and confined, but it was a street to linger in: every shop was open; no glass lay between the purchaser and the wares, which were literally sold in ‘market overt.’ Doubtless it was here that Charles Lamb bought Quarles' Emblems for ninepence, and spent many a greedy and joyous hour reading books which he longed to purchase. The alley was lined with a perennial moss-growth of volumes, of which if you took one, another filled its place, and the sweet smell of ancient paper and seasoned leather pervaded the air. At the west end, or nave, of this temple of letters you could buy the latest shilling shocker or pamphlet from Mr. Denny, whereas in the east...
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SOURCE: Leishman, J. B. “‘You Meaner Beauties of the Night’: A Study in Transmission and Transmogrification.” The Library, fourth series 26, Nos. 2-3 (September-December 1945): 99-121.
[In following essay, Leishman analyzes several versions of Wotton's “You Meaner Beauties of the Night,” arguing that changes in the poem were made as it circulated in manuscript and print, and that there was no definitive version during Wotton's lifetime.]
‘I expect Sir Henry Wotton at Dover’, wrote, on the 12th of June 1620, the reformed pirate Sir Henry Mainwaring to Lord Zouche; ‘I expect Sir Henry Wotton at Dover the latter end of this week. Being in Greenwitch Parke he made a sonnet to the Queen of Bohemia which he sent by me to the Lady Wotton; the copy I have sent your Lordship. It will be a good exercise for your lordship's two choiristers, Mr. Fooks and Mr. North, to set it to a sound.’1 The ‘sonnet’, as Mainwaring called it, one of the most beautiful and popular of seventeenth-century poems, was eventually ‘set to a sound’ by Michael Est, in whose Sixt Set of Bookes, wherein are Anthemes, &c., it rather oddly and inexplicably made its first appearance in print in 1624, four years after it had been composed, in a form which must be regarded either as very corrupt or very unrevised. A substantially similar version, but with the unmetrical omission of four words and...
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SOURCE: Weld, John S. “Some Problems of Euphuistic Narrative: Robert Greene and Henry Wotton.” Studies in Philology 45, No. 2 (April 1948): 165-71.
[In the following essay, Weld argues that Courtlie Controuersie of Cupid's Cautels, Wotton's translation of Jacque D'Yer's Le Printemps D'Yver, is a source for Robert Greene's Mamillia, and he delineates what form this influence takes.]
Among the sources for Robert Greene's first novel, the first part of Mamillia (1580), is one which has remained unnoticed, Henry Wotton's Courtlie Controuersie of Cupid's Cautels (1578).1 The source is important because what Greene borrowed and the changes he made are illustrative of his problems as a euphuistic novelist.
Wotton's book is a translation of Jacque D'Yver's Le Printemps D'Yver (1572), and for the most part it justifies the remark of the translator that it follows the original “as near as our English phrase will permit.”2 Occasionally he euphuizes the sentence structure by the use of the typical schemata, but never at the expense of departing from the literal sense of the original.3
Yver characterizes his book as an imitation of the many Italian frame-tales. He complains in his preface that France has produced no collections of novelle, and he writes to supply the lack.4 The...
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Main, C. F. “Wotton's ‘The Character of a Happy Life’.” The Library, fifth series 10, No. 4 (December 1955): 270-74.
[In the essay below, Main analyzes several versions of Wotton's “The Character of a Happy Life” and determines that no definitive version of the poem exists.]
Mr. J. B. Leishman's study of the transmission and transmogrification of Sir Henry Wotton's ‘You Meaner Beauties of the Night’1 suggests the possibility of subjecting Wotton's equally famous ‘Character of a Happy Life’ to a similar scrutiny. Although the history of the ‘Character’ is not nearly so complex as that of ‘You Meaner Beauties’, both poems present the same problems to an editor: neither was printed by the author, and both exist in a variety of versions. Faced with so many different readings, an editor may either evade his responsibilities by reproducing verbatim the text which as a whole seems best to him, or he may exercise his taste and judgement to construct what will amount in the end to an ‘eclectic’ text. I hope to demonstrate that a verbatim reproduction of any extant version does not do justice to the ‘Character’, and that even to have the poem make sense, some emendation is necessary.
Ironical circumstances attended both the penning and the first publication of the ‘Character’. When Wotton wrote it in 1612 he was, according to his...
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SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “Sir Henry Wotton's ‘Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place’ and the Appropriation of Political Poetry in the Earlier Seventeenth Century.” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 71, No. 2 (April-June 1977): 151-69.
[In the essay below, Pebworth examines several versions of Wotton's “Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place,” contending that this poem about the fall of a courtier was repeatedly appropriated and applied to various disgraced political figures.]
That the poems of Sir Henry Wotton present intriguing problems of transmission and text there is no doubt.1 Two of the sixteen poems now attributed with some certainty to him have received significant attention, J. B. Leishman having examined the confused transmission of “You Meaner Beauties of the Night” and C. F. Main having traced the manuscript history of “The Character of a Happy Life.”2 These investigations have led us to distrust the copy text previously accepted as definitive, the Reliquiœ Wottonianœ text of 1651, prepared for publication by Wotton's friend, biographer, and fishing companion Isaak Walton. Leishman discovered copies of “You Meaner Beauties” that contain stanzas not present in the Reliquiœ text and pointed out that the Scots soon appropriated the poem, eventually claiming its author to be Lord Darnley and its subject Mary Stuart. Main...
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SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry and Claude J. Summers. “‘Thus Friends Absent Speake’: The Exchange of Verse Letters between John Donne and Henry Wotton.” Modern Philology 81, No. 4 (May 1984): 361-77.
[In the following essay, Pebworth and Summers analyze a sequence of verse epistles between Wotton and John Donne, emphasizing the historical and biographical contexts for the letters.]
John Donne's profession of friendship as his “second religion” is well known, as is his concomitant belief that the writing of letters to a friend is “a kind of extasie, and a departure and secession and suspension of the soul, which doth then comunicate it self to two bodies.”1 Donne wrote to his friends in prose, of course, but he also wrote to some of them in verse, and his collected verse letters are rightly considered the first major achievement in that mode in English. An important group of Donne's verse letters consists of those to male friends, and of these, the one to Henry Wotton beginning “Sir, more then kisses, letters mingle Soules” may be the earliest fully realized Horatian moral epistle in the language. Since 1911, thanks to a discovery made by Herbert J. C. Grierson, scholars and critics have known that this letter of Donne's is directly related to a verse letter from Wotton to Donne beginning “'Tis not a coate of gray, or Shepheards life.” But owing to an error Grierson made in...
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Acton, Harold. Three Extraordinary Ambassadors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984, 64 p.
Includes a survey of Wotton's activities as a diplomat, particularly focusing on his relationship with James I. Acton also emphasizes Wotton's highly cultivated artistic taste.
Datta, Kitty. “Marvell and Wotton: A Reconsideration.” Review of English Studies 19, No. 76 (November 1968): 403-05.
Suggests that Wotton's The Elements of Architecture may have influenced several of Andrew Marvell's poems.
Hard, Frederick. “Ideas from Bacon and Wotton in William Sanderson's Graphice.” Studies in Philology 36 (January 1939): 227-34.
Describes Wotton's influence on Sanderson's work.
Kellendonk, F. G. P. “Izaak Walton and Sir Henry Wotton's Panegyrick of King Charles.” Neophilologus 61, No. 2 (April 1977): 316-21.
Discusses the publishing history of Wotton's Plausus et Vota and Izaak Walton's role in editing and translating it.
Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “New Light on Sir Henry Wotton's ‘The Character of a Happy Life’.” The Library fifth series 33, No. 3 (September 1978): 223-26.
Responds to C. F. Main's article on the provenance of Wotton's poem with...
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