Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

John Barclay, the son of a Scot, was born in France, died in Italy, and wrote in Latin. His last work, ARGENIS, finished only a month before his death, became immediately popular and remained so for two centuries. Seven years after its publication, it had been honored by three translations into English (the first, by Ben Jonson, in 1623, is, unfortunately, not extant), and as late as the nineteenth century it received the high praise of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Its original popularity was not entirely the result of its artistic merits, however, for it was as satire that it first caught the fancy of readers on both sides of the Channel.

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Barclay had already a reputation as a satirist, but in ARGENIS the objects of his attacks are generalized behind a screen of allegory. The story of the love of Poliarchus and Argenis is supposed to represent the wars and intrigues in France before the Concordat under Henry IV. As revealed by the CLOVIS, published in the edition of 1623, Sicily, the scene of the action, stands for France, with Argenis a personified symbol of the throne contested during the religious wars, and Poliarchus and Archombrotus representing different aspects of Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV). Meleander is Henry III; Mauritania is England; Hyanisbe, Elizabeth; and Radirobanes, the rapacious and deceitful Philip of Spain. The whole work is aimed at opponents of the monarchical system.

Although interest in the work as satire lasted only as long as the controversy over the divine right of kings remained a vital issue, ARGENIS was long praised for the grandeur of its expression, the nobility of its theme, the heroic stature of its characters. Only its historical interest remains; it stands with Honore d’Urfe’s L’ASTREE as an interesting transitional work between the Greek-influenced prose romances of the sixteenth century, on the one hand, and the interminable French romances of La Calprenede and Mademoiselle de Scudery, on the other.

A literary curiosity, ARGENIS is not truly a novel; Thomas Deloney in JACK OF NEWBERRY and other works contributed more to the development of prose fiction as a popular art form. Where Deloney looked forward, Barclay looked backward, even to the point of composing his work in the “universal language”—Latin. The 1629 translation by Sir Robert le Grys is graceful and accurate but is now very difficult to obtain. Written in long, carefully constructed sentences, ARGENIS produces an effect of grandeur and majesty seldom, if ever, encountered in modern literature. The story, despite all of the embroidery, is at times exciting, filled with violent action and passions.

ARGENIS is probably the Scottish satirist’s most famous work, although he was known in his day for his SATYRICON, a severe satire on the Jesuits and modeled on Petronius. The reader of ARGENIS and Barclay’s other writings should not look for realistic characterization or plot development. The characters are impetuous and the action often implausible; both are used freely by Barclay to help make his satirical point. The characters dance around one another in elaborate patterns, suggesting at times a baroque opera rather than a piece of realistic fiction. When the tale is romantic, it is very romantic; and when it is violent, the violence is extreme. The reader can almost visualize the story as a stage spectacle—the sets, costumes, and elaborate machinery all by Inigo Jones; but this very extravagance makes the work surprisingly enjoyable, providing the reader possesses the patience to persevere with the obscure allusions and the now forgotten political and social satire. ..FT.-The work is crowded with incident, including storms and shipwrecks, violent battles, and pirate treasure; but the motivation of the characters is not always clear. Fierce anger, friendship, and several varieties of passion all play a part in the complicated, fairy-tale-like plot. Extravagant and amazing, ARGENIS is almost unique in British literature, interesting but possessing only the charm of a museum piece.

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