Gabriel Harvey Essay - Critical Essays

Harvey, Gabriel


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.

Principal Works

Ode natalitia, vel opus eius, quae S. Stephani protomartyris nomine celbrata ets. In memoriam P. Rami (poetry) 1575

Gabrielis Harueii Ciceronianus, vel oratio habita Catabrigiae (lecture) 1577

Gabrielis Harueii gratulationum Valdinensium libri quatuor (poetry) 1578

Gabrielis Harueii rhetor, vel duorum dierum oratio (lecture) 1578

Gabrielis Harueii Valdinatis; Smithus, vel musarum lachrymae; pro obitu T. Smithi, equitis (poetry) 1578

*Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters [with Edmund Spenser] (correspondence) 1580

*Two Other, Very Commendable Letters of the Same Men's Writing, Both Touching the Aforesaid Artificial Versifying and Certain Other Particulars, More Lately Delivered unto the Printer [with Edmund Spenser] (correspondence) 1580

Three letters, and Certaine Sonnets: Especially Touching Robert Greene (correspondence and poetry) 1592

A New Letter of Notable Contents. With a Straunge Sonet, Intituled Gorgon (correspondence and poetry) 1593

Pierce's Supererogation or a New Prayse of the Old Asse (pamphlet) 1593

Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, A.D. 1737-1580 [edited by Edward John Long Scott] (correspondence) 1884

The Works of Gabriel Harvey, D.C.L. 3 vols. [edited by Alexander B. Grosart] (correspondence, poetry, and lectures) 1884

Gabriel Harvey's Marginalia [edited by G. C. Moore Smith] (criticism) 1913

Four Letters and Certain Sonnets [edited by G. B. Harrison] (correspondence and poetry) 1922

Ciceronianus [translated by Clarence A. Forbes] (lecture) 1945

*These two works were published together in a single volume.

†This work was republished later the same year as Foure letters, and Certaine Sonnets.


Henry Morley (essay date 1871)

SOURCE: Morley, Henry. “Gabriel Harvey.” In Clement Marot and Other Studies, Vol. 1, pp. 229-47. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1970.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1871, Morley provides an overview of Harvey's life, character, and career.]

When, in 1579, their old comrade at Pembroke Hall, Edward Kirke, prefixed to Spenser's first venture in verse, The Shepheardes' Calender, a letter to Gabriel Harvey, as its unnamed author's “special friend and fellow-poet,” he only told in prose what is shown by the Calender itself, where Harvey is enshrined as Spenser's Hobbinol. The difference is great between this Hobbinol as we may see him if we care...

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Alexander B. Grosart (essay date 1884)

SOURCE: Grosart, Alexander B. “Memorial-Introduction.” In The Works of Gabriel Harvey, D. C. L., edited by Alexander B. Grosart, pp. ix-l. New York: AMS Press, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1884 for private circulation, Grosart provides an extremely unflattering assessment of Harvey and his works, calling his efforts little more than curiosities of literature that are interesting only for the glimpses they provide into the Elizabethan period and for the background they offer on the writings of Thomas Nashe.]

In his Preface to the Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, a.d. 1573-80 (Camden Society, 1884), Mr. E. J. Long Scott, M.A.,...

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G. C. Moore Smith (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: Moore Smith, G. C. Introduction to Gabriel Harvey's Marginalia, edited by G. C. Moore Smith, pp. 1-76. Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1913.

[In the following excerpt, Moore Smith discusses Harvey's marginalia, his “war” with Thomas Nashe, and his career after the controversy.]

Harvey's marginalia give us just what we should like to have in the case of his greater contemporaries, Spenser and Marlowe and Shakespeare. They add, it is true, only a few small details to the known facts of his life; but they throw a flood of light on the books he read, and on the thoughts he cherished in secret. When they are before us we can indeed say with Dr. E....

(The entire section is 9033 words.)

H. S. Wilson (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Wilson, H. S. “Gabriel Harvey's Orations on Rhetoric.” ELH 12, no. 3 (September 1945): 167-82.

[In the following essay, Wilson offers a comparative analysis of two lectures by Harvey, Rhetor and Ciceronianus, and judges them “fine examples of polished Renaissance Latinity that compare favorably with the best Latin orations published on the continent.”]


Gabriel Harvey's three Latin orations on rhetoric, published by the well-known London printer, Henry Bynneman, in 1577 under the titles of Ciceronianus and Rhetor, afford one of the most significant clues to the rhetorical ideas and practices of the...

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Harold S. Wilson (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Wilson, Harold S. Introduction to Gabriel Harvey's Ciceronianus, translated by Clarence A. Forbes, pp. 1-34. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska, 1945.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines Harvey's Ciceronianus, describing its composition, context, contents, purpose, and style.]


Though Gabriel Harvey was not, like the poet,

A creature quite too bright and good
To be so much misunderstood,(1)

posterity has, on the whole, dealt rather harshly with him. An unwilling participant in a spectacular and amusing but highly undignified flyting with the brilliant Elizabethan journalist, Thomas Nashe,...

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Warren B. Austin (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Austin, Warren B. “Gabriel Harvey's ‘Lost’ Ode on Ramus.” Modern Language Notes 61, no. 4 (April 1946): 242-47.

[In the following essay, Austin examines Harvey's Ode Natalita, a Latin ode to Peter Ramus, and contends that this shows Harvey to be an early, enthusiastic disciple of the French philosopher.]

With the appearance of his Ode Natalitia early in 1575, Gabriel Harvey became the first Englishman to publish a work on the French humanist, philosopher, and educational reformer, Peter Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée).1

This ode in commemoration of Ramus and in praise of his system has hitherto been known only...

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Eleanor Relle (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Relle, Eleanor. “Some New Marginalia and Poems of Gabriel Harvey.” Review of English Studies 23, no. 92 (November 1972): 401-16.

[In the following essay, Relle presents an account of the marginalia in three works owned by Harvey and maintains that they shed light on the writers and books Harvey was reading, his reading habits, and his personal life and beliefs.]

At the beginning of a volume in the Old Library of Magdalene College, Cambridge1 (shelf-mark Lect 26), there are three items containing the signature and manuscript notes of Gabriel Harvey. The three are to some extent connected by subject-matter and authorship, and some of Harvey's...

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J. J. M. Tobin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Tobin, J. J. M. “Gabriel Harvey: ‘Excellent Matter of Emulation.’” Hamlet Studies 7, nos. 1-2 (summer-winter 1985): 94-100.

[In the following essay, Tobin argues that Shakespeare's Hamlet contains references to Harvey's A New Letter of Notable Contents and Pierce's Supererogation.]

Gabriel Harvey, though clearly one of the wiser sort in his admiration for Hamlet,1 was the luckless victim of Thomas Nashe's lampooning power in their celebrated pamphlet war. Shakespeare was a close student of their conflict and incorporated a considerable amount of material from Nashe's side of the conflict into the texture of a great many...

(The entire section is 3094 words.)

Anthony Grafton (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Grafton, Anthony. “‘Discitur ut agatur’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy.1” In Annotation and Its Texts, edited by Stephen A. Barney, pp. 108-29. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, originally presented at a symposium in 1988, Grafton examines the evidence of Harvey's critical reading as found in his marginalia, observing the links between reading, eloquence, and power in the social order of Tudor England.]

How did they understand Livy my grandfather my great grandfather—2

Zbigniew Herbert's question provokes and puzzles the historian of early modern...

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Anthony T. Grafton (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Grafton, Anthony T. “Gabriel Harvey's Marginalia: New Light on the Cultural History of Elizabethan England.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 52, no. 1 (autumn 1990): 21-4.

[In the following essay, Grafton argues that Harvey's handwritten commentaries offer insights into his life, the texts he read, and the history of Elizabethan England.]

In David Lodge's novel Changing Places, the frustrated Rummidge don Philip Sparrow dreams of publishing his collected examination questions. Edmund Spenser's learned and frustrated friend Gabriel Harvey may well have dreamed of publishing his collected marginal notes. His long and combative literary career...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

Kirsty Cochrane (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Cochrane, Kirsty. “A Civil Conversation of 1582: Gabriel Harvey's Reading of Guazzo.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 78 (November 1992): 1-28.

[In the following essay, Cochrane discusses Harvey's response to Stefano Guazzo's A Civil Conversation, a Renaissance work of moral philosophy, and argues that Harvey considered the work an ideal text for life in the civil service and hoped to use it to achieve his own social success.]

Gabriel Harvey (c.1546-1631), Professor of Rhetoric in Cambridge in 1575, friend of Spenser and Gascoigne, enemy of Nashe, Greene and Lyly, object of satire, industrious...

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Jon A. Quitslund (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Quitslund, Jon A. “Questionable Evidence in the Letters of 1580 between Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser.” In Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography, edited by Judith H. Anderson, Donald Cheney, and David A. Richardson, pp. 81-98. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Quitslund examines the five letters between Spenser and Harvey that were published in 1580 and questions the trustworthiness of these documents as evidence about Spenser's personal life.]

Scholars interested in the private life of Spenser, in the public career that was the context for his pursuit of fame, and in the friendships and other...

(The entire section is 9658 words.)

Kendrick W. Prewitt (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Prewitt, Kendrick W. “Gabriel Harvey and the Practice of Method.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39, no. 1 (winter 1999): 19-39.

[In the following essay, Prewitt explores Harvey's commitment to his pragmatic “Method,” based on the philosophy of Peter Ramus, despite its controversial nature and his fear that it was a liability.]

One of Gabriel Harvey's first published writings as a young scholar was the Ode Natalitia, a 1574 elegy for the French Protestant martyr and controversial logician Pierre de la Ramée (Peter Ramus). In this elegy, “Method” serves as “a heavenly virgin who directs the goddesses of the Arts” (grammar,...

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Further Reading


Adams, John Charles. “Gabriel Harvey's Ciceronianus and the Place of Peter Ramus' Dialecticae Libri Duo in the Curriculum.” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 551-69.

Discusses Harvey's theory of education and presents a reassessment of the place of Ramus's Dialectic in the curriculum at Cambridge University.

Bennett, Josephine Waters. “Spenser and Gabriel Harvey's Letter-Book.Modern Philology 29 (August 1931): 163-86.

Maintains that certain letters in Harvey's Letter-Book are not addressed to Spenser, as critics have assumed.


(The entire section is 462 words.)