William Alabaster 1568-1640
English poet, playwright, and essayist.
Alabaster is best remembered for his sequence of devotional sonnets, which anticipate the works of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne and George Herbert. Written during the late Elizabethan age, these sonnets often employ the stylistic elements of paradox and extended metaphor which characterize the poems of these later writers. A Cambridge scholar and cleric who converted from the Anglican church to Catholicism and back twice, Alabaster also wrote Latin verse, drama, and theological works. Since the rediscovery of his works, critical interest in Alabaster has been primarily historical, though some have examined his style as well.
Born in 1568 to a Protestant family in Hadleigh, Suffolk, Alabaster grew up studying classical languages. In 1584, partly through the influence of his uncle, he was elected a Queen's Scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge. While there he made a promising start to his literary career, beginning Elisaeis (composed c. 1588), an unfinished verse epic in Latin on the career of Elizabeth I. Alabaster presented a copy of the first volume of the poem to the queen, and Edmund Spenser highly extolled the work in his Colin Clout's come Home Again: “Who lives that can match that heroic song / Which he hath of that mighty Princess made? / … / No braver Poem can be under Sun.” Alabaster received a B.A. from Cambridge in 1588 and an M.A. in 1591; five years later he became chaplain to the Earl of Essex. His theological career, newly begun, took a drastically different route in 1597, when Alabaster converted to Roman Catholicism. He sent a letter to the Earl of Essex containing “Seven Motives” for his conversion, but the government intercepted this correspondence. Alabaster was arrested and taken to London, where for the most part he was treated gently. A number of Anglican authorities urged him to recant, but he refused. Alabaster escaped from his unguarded confinement, making his way to the English College in Rome. He probably finished the majority of his devotional sonnets before he escaped to the continent. While attempting to return to England in 1599, he was captured at La Rochelle, France, and taken to the Tower of London, where he began to cooperate with the authorities, giving them information about Catholic plots. Soon after his release in 1603, Alabaster was again arrested for engaging in pro-Catholic teachings and writings, and he was held for two years. He then moved to Belgium, where he wrote his first essay in mystical theology, but he soon became disillusioned with the Catholic institutions of the Inquisition and the Jesuits. After being imprisoned by the Inquisition, released, then imprisoned by the Dutch government, Alabaster declared his intention to return to the Protestant church and was handed over to English authorities. While being confined at the house of the Dean of St. Paul's, however, he repented and re-declared his Catholic faith. Little is known about the next few years of Alabaster's life, but three years later he had once again converted to the Church of England and found himself in favor with King James. In 1618 Alabaster married Katherine Fludd and settled into a life of study and writing about mystical theology, as well as continuing to write epigrams and elegies, until his death in London on April 28, 1640.
Alabaster is best known for the neo-Latin works he completed while still at Cambridge. The first of these, Elisaeis, is an epic about Elizabeth I originally intended to be twelve books in length. The extant volume shows a preoccupation with stylistic experimentation as well as the use of extended rhetorical speeches. However, Alabaster published only the first book—concerning Elizabeth's early difficulties during the reign of Mary I—before he became a Catholic and lost motivation to pursue the anti-Catholic project. Also while at Cambridge, Alabaster wrote Roxana, an adaptation of an Italian tragedy written by Luigi Groto concerning the ghost of a murdered king seeking revenge upon his nephew. The play, featuring allegorized figures such as Death and Jealousy, includes many rhetorical speeches and epigrams, recalling Elisaeis. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1597, Alabaster began work on a sequence of devotional sonnets in English that later editors have titled Divine Meditations. These sonnets, save one, were not published in Alabaster's lifetime, but were circulated in manuscript form. The wit and subtle argument of these poems, as well as their frequent use of extended conceits, have earned Alabaster his modern reputation as an important precursor to the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century.
Alabaster's reputation among his contemporaries rests solely on his Latin verse—Samuel Johnson considered the Latin verse of Roxana among the best created in England. Alabaster's devotional sonnets were not known until Bertram Dobell published several in 1903. It was at this point that Alabaster was first recognized as a proto-metaphysical poet, and only after G. M. Story and Helen Gardner's 1959 edition of Divine Meditations did he begin to receive much critical attention. Since then, critical interest has been divided between Alabaster's early Latin works and his English poetry. The interest in the neo-Latin texts is largely scholarly and uses these works as examples of period academic literature. Alabaster's devotional poetry has attracted a more diverse attention—critics such as George Klawitter have analyzed the style and language of the sonnets, while Ceri Sullivan and others have discussed their thematic content. While Alabaster is noted as a talented Latin poet and an important predecessor to the later Metaphysical movement in poetry, his career also illustrates the religious and political divisions of his time.
*Elisaeis (poetry) c. 1588
Roxana (play) c. 1592
Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi (prose) 1607
De Bestia Apocalyptica (prose) 1621
Ecce sponsus venit (prose) 1633
Spiraculum tubarum sive fons spiritualium expositionum ex aequivocis Pentaglotti significationibus (prose) 1633
The Sonnets of William Alabaster [edited by G. M. Story and Helen Gardner] (poetry) 1959
Unpublished Works by William Alabaster (1568-1640) [edited by Dana F. Sutton] (poetry) 1997
*Only the first book of this projected twelve-volume work survives. Alabaster reported that a second book was completed, but it was apparently destroyed.
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SOURCE: Dobell, Bertram. “The Sonnets of William Alabaster.” The Athenaeum, no. 3974 (26 December 1903): 856-58.
[In the following essay, Dobell announces his recovery of Alabaster's sonnet series and discusses the nature of the works.]
Considering what an amount of study and research has been devoted to the literary history of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it might be thought that no fresh discoveries of any importance were likely to be made in so well-explored a field. Nevertheless I have been so fortunate myself in the recovery of unknown or only imperfectly known treasure-trove of those periods, that I am convinced that this is by no means the case. Much, I am sure, remains to be discovered, and only requires to be searched for with half the diligence which has been devoted to the search, in Egypt and elsewhere, for the remains of classical antiquity. Who would have imagined that within a brief period it would be possible to discover the unknown works of three considerable poets, whose names, whatever the verdict ultimately passed upon them may be, cannot henceforth be omitted in any general survey of English literature? Of one of these poets—Thomas Traherne—I need not speak here. Of the other two it must be allowed that they are not so absolutely unknown to readers of the present day as Traherne was, since their names at least are to be found in the Dictionary of...
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SOURCE: Story, G. M. “William Alabaster and the Devotional Tradition.” In The Sonnets of William Alabaster, edited by G. M. Story and Helen Gardner, pp. xxiii-xxxvi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
[In the following excerpt from the introduction to the definitive publication of Alabaster's sonnets, Story overviews the sequence within the tradition of devotional poetry and highlights its distinctive elements.]
Not the least interesting paradox of Alabaster's eminently paradoxical verse is that its special quality comes from the fusion of an old and widespread devotional tradition with the new poetic temper of the last decade of the sixteenth century. His Divine Meditations are an early document for the study of the new school of poets (the ‘metaphysical’ Donne and his followers) which arose in the closing years of the Elizabethan era, and at the same time they lay bare that continuing tradition which is such a pronounced feature of the devotional literature of medieval and Renaissance England.
The continuity of devotional literature in England down to the seventeenth century is easy to over-emphasize. But in spite of the revolutionary temper of the sixteenth century, the persistence of the devotional tradition throughout the period is striking. It is to be found not so much in a continuing poetic tradition as in the religious spirit itself, and in the literature of...
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SOURCE: Binns, J. W. “Seneca and Neo-Latin Tragedy in England.” In Seneca, edited by C. D. N. Costa, pp. 205-34. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1974.
[In the following excerpt from his essay on three neo-Latin tragedies from the Elizabethan age, Binns determines the influence of Seneca upon Alabaster's Roxana.]
A large number of Renaissance plays which were written in Latin survive today from all the countries of Europe.1 In England, the plays which are extant from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries form an interesting by-way of the Elizabethan drama.2 A number of tragedies in particular remain, which, cast in Senecan mould, constitute an aspect of Seneca's influence which has been little discussed. The extent of Seneca's influence on the popular drama of the Elizabethan age continues to be debated.3
On the Latin drama of the age, the drama written by educated men, who were often members of the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, the extent of Seneca's influence is less open to doubt. Seneca, as the only surviving ancient writer of Latin tragedy, would be familiar to any cultivated man of the times with an interest in literature, especially in view of the pre-eminent position which tragedy then occupied among the literary genres. The plays of Seneca were almost certainly on the syllabus at Westminster School,4...
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SOURCE: Donaldson-Evans, Lance K. “Two Baroque Devotional Poets: La Ceppéde and Alabaster.” Comparative Literature Studies 12, no. 1 (March 1975): 21-31.
[In the following essay, Donaldson-Evans compares Alabaster's sonnets to those of the French poet La Ceppéde in order to suggest similarities in devotional poetry across Europe.]
The rediscovery and ensuing re-evaluation of the devotional poetry of the baroque period has been one of the literary phenomena of the twentieth century. It is as though literary critics and readers alike have felt an intellectual and emotional kinship with the political, religious, and social upheavals which shook Europe after the Renaissance. In spite of L. P. Hartley's observation that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,”1 one is tempted to speculate that the twentieth-century reader has seen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a prefiguration of the turmoil of his own era and that he has found solace in the attempts of the devotional poets to come to grips with a world apparently gone awry. Whatever the explanation may be, devotional poetry has been the object of much critical attention in our time so that many poets whose work had been all but forgotten, have now found their rightful place in the official canon of European literature.
In England, the Metaphysical poets have received...
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SOURCE: Klawitter, George. “Craft and Purpose in Alabaster's Incarnation Sonnets.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 15-16, no. 3-1 (1983-4): 60-66.
[In the following essay, Klawitter provides a focused analysis of the fifteen of Alabaster's sonnets on the Incarnation of Christ.]
In An Apology for Poetry, Sidney divides verse into three kinds, none of which precisely describes the kind of religious verse which began to appear in the decades after his death. His first category, “they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God,” refers to poets praising the Divinity, like “David in his Psalms,” but the category cannot accommodate a religious poem like Herbert's “The Priesthood.”1 Nor can Sidney's second group, the philosophical poems, account for a genre of verse that blends theology with lyricism. A poem purely theological might be cataloged with group two, a group which Sidney hints might not be poetry at all (“let grammarians dispute” the laurels of Lucretius and Lucan), but it cannot rest comfortably there next to the rhetoric of De Rerum Natura if it sings with the elegance of Herbert's lines. Sidney's third category, which seems to embrace everything left over (“Heroic, Lyric, Tragic, Comic, Satiric, Iambic, Elegiac, Pastoral”), cannot accommodate didactic religious verse unless we imagine a separate grouping for it among his...
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SOURCE: Caro, Robert B. “William Alabaster: Rhetor, Meditator, Devotional Poet—II: Alabaster's Meditative Sonnets.” Recusant History 19, no. 2 (October 1988): 155-70.
[In the following essay, Caro examines the style of Alabaster's meditative sonnets and demonstrates how they anticipate subsequent developments in the rhetorical and meditative traditions.]
As we approach Alabaster's sonnets1 our expectation is enhanced not by the promise of poetic greatness but by the prospect of exploring pure instances of the kind of poetry born in the convergence of rhetoric and meditation. We will focus first on a sequence of sonnets remarkable for their rhetorical techniques; then we will consider a group of sonnets each of which has meditation as its subject. In all the poems, however, it will be apparent that Alabaster as poet is simultaneously rhetor and meditator.
In the corpus of Alabaster's sonnets there is a sequence of fifteen poems on the Incarnation (nos. ‘53’-‘67’) which reflect a convergence of rhetoric and meditation similar to that which we have seen in Wright's discourse on love. Just as Wright offered his discourse as an example of amplification, so too Alabaster conceives his sonnet sequence as a project in rhetorical invention. Both are concerned to stir up affections in their own hearts, and so they engage in dialogue with their inner selves or in...
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SOURCE: Richmond-Garza, Elizabeth M. “‘She Never Recovered Her Senses’: Roxana and Dramatic Representations of Women at Oxbridge in the Elizabethan Age.” In Sex and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Texts: The Latin Tradition, edited by Barbara K. Gold, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter, pp. 223-46. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Richmond-Garza highlights the thematic treatment of the woman and the Oriental in Elizabethan academic plays such as Alabaster's Roxana.]
Neoclassical theories of tragedy privilege the plays of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their careful observations of neo-Aristotelian decorum in language, characterization, and staging. Certainly the praise accorded to John Dryden's experiments in the forms of classical tragedy has been quite substantial, and yet the earlier plays on the same theme often suffer from a scholarly love of restraint and measured heroic elegance. Even, as in the case of the Neo-Latin academic tragedy of Roxana, when Dryden merely revised the work of an earlier playwright, it is his later neoclassically purified version that will be remembered. If in 1642 the London Puritan City Council was able finally to achieve its goals of closing the doors of the dangerously entropic and vital Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Carolean stages, although only briefly, its conservative legacy perhaps...
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SOURCE: Sullivan, Ceri. “Penitence in 1590s Weeping Texts.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 57, no. 5 (April 2000): 31-47.
[In the following excerpt, Sullivan studies the style and function of penitence in Alabaster's devotional sonnets in relation to other late Elizabethan writers.]
When without tears I look on Christ, I see Only a story of some passion … But if I look through tears Christ smiles on me … And from his side the blood doth spin, whereon My heart, my mouth, mine eyes still sucking be.(1)
Penitential writing such as William Alabaster's is opaque to the fastidious modern gaze in the literalism of its cannibal images, its depth of self-abasement, its spurts and tides of blood, sweat and tears—however these may be cauterized with conceits. The sparse critical commentary that has been devoted to the literature of repentance in sixteenth-century England tends to follow the lead given by G. R. Hibbard when he damned Thomas Nashe's Christs Teares Over Jerusalem as ‘a monument of bad taste, literary tactlessness and unremitting over-elaboration, for which it is not easy to find a parallel’.2
Nevertheless, in the 1590s over a dozen texts, which were frequently reissued, wept over the sins of the nation and their author. This essay examines five such works: penitential sonnets and narrative poems by Alabaster, Robert Southwell, and Henry Constable,...
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Guiney, Louise Imogen. “William Alabaster.” In Recusant Poets, Vol. 1, pp. 335-346. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1939.
Provides an introductory overview of the poet's religious life.
Story, G. M. “Biographical Sketch.” In the General Introduction to The Sonnets of William Alabaster, edited by G. M. Story and Helen Gardner, pp. xi-xxii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Places Alabaster in his literary and political context.
Coldewey, John C. “William Alabaster's Roxana: Some Textual Considerations.” In Acta conventus neo-latini bononiensis, edited by R. J. Schoeck, pp. 413-419. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies, 1985.
Examines the textual history of Roxana.
Ottenhoff, John H. “The Shadow and the Real: Typology and the Religious Sonnet.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 15-16, no. 3-1 (winter 1984): 43-59.
Provides a brief and focused analysis of several sonnets from Divine Meditations
Additional coverage of Alabaster's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 134; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to...
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