Gabriel Harvey

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Gabriel Harvey 1550?-1631

English poet, essayist, and critic.

A brilliant scholar who exemplified the depth and breadth of Renaissance learning, Harvey has been judged perhaps too exclusively by the brilliant invectives directed against him by the writer Thomas Nashe, with whom he engaged in a famous “war of words” in the 1590s. Because of his apparently grating personality and nonconformist views, Harvey's career as an academic was fraught with controversy, and he was forced to retire at an early age. He was satirized and mocked by writers such as Nashe and undergraduates at Cambridge where he taught, but Harvey also had distinguished friends who supported his work. Edmund Spenser, a onetime student, was influenced by Harvey's views, and Sir Philip Sidney held the scholar in high esteem. Today Harvey is remembered as a Latinist and also for the marginalia in the more than three thousand volumes in his personal library. His personal notes offer commentaries from the point of view of an Elizabethan critic on a variety of literary and scientific issues, offer insights into contemporary critical views, reveal his own personality, and raise interesting questions about methods and the nature of reading.

Biographical Information

Harvey was born around 1550 (some accounts put his year of birth as early as 1545) in Saffron Walden in Essex. His father, John Harvey, was a prosperous rope maker, and Harvey grew up in middle-class surroundings. He received a traditional education that emphasized Latin and grammar, and at a very young age showed signs of great academic ability. He attended Christ's College, Cambridge, and received a B.A. in 1566. In 1570 Harvey was elected a fellow of Pembroke Hall, where he befriended Spenser and was probably his tutor. The two became intimate associates, and the poet remembered the scholar in his sonnet “Harvey, the happy above happiest men,” celebrated him as “Hobbinol” in The Shepheardes Calender, (1579) and corresponded with him on poetic topics. Harvey's vanity, pedantry, and social ineptitude made him an unpopular figure at Cambridge, and in 1573 he was blocked from taking his M.A. degree because of his supposed arrogance, unsociability, and tendency to dissent from accepted opinions. He ultimately received his degree, and in 1574 was made Professor in Rhetoric. But despite his successes at Cambridge—he was a gifted teacher, was elected to several other fellowships, and wrote a number of impressive works—his time there was marred by further controversies, largely because of his egotism and uncompromising personality. His social awkwardness and pedantry were mercilessly satirized in the Latin play Pedantius, which was performed by students at Cambridge in 1581. After a brilliant but troubled scholarly career—mainly concerned with rhetoric, the ideas of the French philosopher Peter Ramus, and Latin poetry—in the mid-1580s Harvey turned his interests towards the law. In the early 1590s he was drawn into a war of words with the writers Robert Greene and Nashe, which was halted in 1599 by official decree. Having been thwarted in his attempts to become master of Trinity Hall at Cambridge, in 1593 Harvey retired to his home town. He lived there in relative obscurity, earning his living by providing legal and medical advice. He continued his studies, annotating books in his vast library of 3,500 volumes, until his death in 1631.

Major Works

During his years as an academic Harvey produced a variety of works on different subjects, both in Latin and English. His first printed piece was probably a commendatory poem in Latin introducing the works of his friend George Gascoigne in 1575. That same year he also published Ode natalitia, a poetic tribute to Ramus, whose philosophy he had embraced. In 1577 he published three of his university rhetoric orations in Rhetor and Ciceronianus, which promote Ramist pedagogy. One of Harvey's supporters at Cambridge was Sir Thomas Smith, whom he commemorated in a series of...

(The entire section is 1,343 words.)