At the age of fifty-eight, Fulke Greville wrote to Sir John Coke his much-quoted statement: “I know the world and believe in God.” Critics have interpreted this comment as emblematic of Greville’s thought. He is described as a worldly man whose experience led him gradually to reject this world as vain; these feelings of contemptus mundi are also supposed to have led him to attack human learning as a preparation for divine revelation. C. S. Lewis has described him as having the intellectual orientation of an Existentialist, the cast of mind of Søren Kierkegaard or Blaise Pascal (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, 1954). Greville’s pessimism, however, may have been influenced by things external as well as internal. He outlived most of his contemporaries, but those who lived well into the seventeenth century shared his nostalgia for the Elizabethan court of their youth.
Greville’s own analysis of his aesthetic intentions deserves careful attention:For my own part, I found my creeping Genius more fixed upon the Images of Life, than the Images of Wit, and therefore chose not to write to them on whose foot the black Oxe had not already trod, as the Proverbe is, but to those only, that are weather-beaten in the Sea of this World, such as having lost the sight of their Gardens, and groves, study to saile on a right course among Rocks, and quicksands.
His readers, then, will be those who want instruction and who do not need to be engaged by “the images of wit.” The fiction or feigning that Sir Philip Sidney regards as the essential feature of poetry was not important to Greville. He wanted to present his ideas in restrained diction, preferring plain statement to the ornateness that was popular earlier in the sixteenth century.
It is misleading to speak of Greville’s development as a poet because, except for a pirated version of the verse drama Mustapha, none of his work appeared during his lifetime. Since the Warwick manuscripts demonstrate that he revised his poetry and prose repeatedly, it is difficult to establish a reliable system of dating. Ronald Rebholz and G. A. Wilkes have each proposed plausible chronologies for composition and revision, but it is impossible to draw final conclusions because of the complexity of the manuscript evidence. Without suggesting that Greville moved from one phase to another, it is possible to differentiate three somewhat distinct literary styles: (1) the meditative style that Greville uses in Caelica, (2) the strenuous, involuted manner of the verse dramas, which led Swinburne to compare Greville’s work to that of George Chapman, and (3) the analytical and discursive verse of his poetical treatises, poetry containing some of Greville’s most profound thoughts. Rather than viewing Greville’s literary career as a progression from Caelica to the treatises, or, conversely, as a movement from success with the lyric to failure with the philosophical poem, one should assess each of these styles in terms of its own literary objectives.
Although frequently included in discussions of the sonnet sequences that became popular in the 1590’s, Caelica might be more accurately described as a collection of short lyrics. In forty-one poems, Greville uses the English sonnet form of three quatrains...
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