Gabriel Harvey Critical Essays


(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 Latin elegies Smithus (1578), which may have influenced the form of Spenser's poem “Tears of the Muses.” His Gabrielis Harueii gratulationum Valdinensium libri quatuor (1578), which, as presented to Queen Elizabeth, is a multiform work that some critics have suggested is a veiled critique of English politics.

In 1580 part of the correspondence Harvey had maintained with his friend Spenser was published as Three Proper and Wittie, Familiar Letters, with a two-letter sequel. In one of his letters Harvey is bitingly critical of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, saying that the author had allowed “Hobgoblin [to] run away with the garland from Apollo,” a judgment for which posterity has derided him. Another letter, known as the “Earthquake Letter,” is an ironic and witty satire of academia that brought Harvey more trouble from Cambridge authorities. Harvey's opinions were criticized by a number of writers, but when Greene's satirical pamphlet, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier, appeared in 1592, Harvey was outraged, particularly because it mocked his family. He responded later that year with Three letters, and Certaine Sonnets: Especially Touching Robert Greene. Thomas Nashe entered the fray in 1593, responding to Harvey's pamphlet with his own Strange News of the Intercepting of Certain Letters, in which he defended Greene and attacked Harvey. Harvey responded with Pierce's Supererogation the same year. Nashe followed with an apology of sorts, but Harvey assumed this to be another veiled attack and launched a further counterattack with A New Letter of Notable Contents in late 1593. The war between the two men thus continued until the quarrel was ended by fiat in 1599. The “Harvey-Nashe Controversy,” as it is called, is the most famous war of words in English literary history, but it is acknowledged too that it is “all about nothing.” Harvey's writings on the score are generally long, rambling invectives that unfortunately lack the humor that is present in Nashe's exchanges.

After he retired Harvey stopped publishing original works, but his continued study and remarkably wide range of interests is reflected in the marginalia beautifully written in the many books he owned. His annotations offer penetrating commentary on rhetoric, mathematics and navigation, astrology, medicine, his contemporaries, and literature. There are references to Shakespeare as well as to his friends Sidney and Spenser. Several of Harvey's unpublished works were collected in an 1884 edition entitled The Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, which contains rough drafts of the correspondence between Spenser and Harvey, letters pertaining to disputes at Cambridge, and personal communications.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Harvey was the subject of satire among writers such as Nashe and Greene as well as Cambridge undergraduates, and he had a reputation in certain circles as a humorless pedant. Many of his colleagues objected to his uncompromising opinions, which often broke with tradition. His admirers, such as Spenser and Sidney, however, viewed him one of the most noteworthy humanists of his day, a distinguished Latinist and able teacher. After his early retirement from academic life, Harvey fell out of public view, and in the centuries after his death he was viewed as the sour scholar portrayed by Nashe in his satirical pamphlets. Only in the late nineteenth century did critics begin to study his life and works in earnest. Henry Morley, one of the earliest commentators on Harvey's writings, offered a balanced overview of the scholar's life and work, but Alexander B. Grosart viewed him as little more than a curiosity of Elizabethan history. Others began to find more that was positive in Harvey than previous depictions had suggested, and in the early twentieth century several scholars began to regard Harvey's works on rhetoric as fine examples of Renaissance Latinity, investigated his influence on Spenser, and analyzed the annotations to his books. In the later part of the twentieth century his marginalia were found to be particularly interesting for the light they shed on Elizabethan critical thought as well as the perspective they offer on how a text can be or should be read. Harvey has never been widely read outside academic circles, and even today his name is known primarily to scholars of Renaissance literature. Within those circles his reputation continues to grow as a figure of considerable interest because of his promotion of the Ramist ideology and the rich testimony he offers in his marginalia to Renaissance learning.