George Gascoigne

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The life of George Gascoigne, probably the greatest writer of the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, illustrates some of the worst and some of the best aspects of the life of the Renaissance gentleman. An elder son of prosperous parents, young Gascoigne first undertook the study of law but then chose to pursue life at court. As presented and popularized by the Italian Count Baldassare Castiglione in The Courtier (1528), the ideal courtier was to be gracious, attractive, witty, intelligent, learned, wise, and skilled in warfare and in the arts and sciences; such a servant of the king was worthy of fame and fortune. In reality, few people had the character or ability even to approach such an ideal, and the extravagance and intrigue associated with life at court were not often conducive to strength of character. Gascoigne’s adult life was characterized by legal difficulties, many of which were caused by his own financial excesses and strained personal relationships. His literary accomplishments, however, were extraordinary: He did much to prepare the way for the greater writers who followed him, and he earned a solid reputation as a lyric and satiric poet.

Relatively little is known about Gascoigne’s early life, the period before his admission to Gray’s Inn in 1555. His father, Sir John Gascoigne, had inherited a considerable estate at Cardington and had married Margaret Scargill, coheir to the estate of her father, Sir Robert Scargill of Yorkshire. Although Sir John served as a public official in his shire, legal records indicate that he and his men became violent with a neighbor over hunting rights, that Sir John was taken in adultery with a female servant, and that he could be unscrupulous in financial dealings. None of the father’s failings, however, seems to have seriously damaged the family’s fortune. The family could well afford the sort of education necessary to a young gentleman of prosperous family. Sometime between 1547 and 1555, George Gascoigne entered Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1555, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn, to study and practice law. Probably while still pursuing a legal career, Gascoigne entered Parliament on January 20, 1558, and was probably present to hear announced the death of Queen Mary and the succession of Elizabeth. As a substitute for his father, Gascoigne assisted as almoner in the coronation proceedings. Soon afterward, he gave up the idea of a law career in order to take up life at court.

Apparently sharing some of his father’s tendencies, Gascoigne seems to have spent money extravagantly and to have earned a reputation as a ruffian. In any case, he did not soon gain preferment at court, and his financial dealings led to expensive legal actions. His marriage to Elizabeth Breton Boyes, the widowed mother of later poet Nicholas Breton, did little to repair Gascoigne’s finances, though she had inherited substantial wealth from her first husband. When she married Gascoigne she was still, at least in the eyes of the law, the wife of an Edward Boyes, who had in his possession property and money belonging to Elizabeth and her children by Breton. Gascoigne became involved in even more conflict, both in and out of court. In 1562, as the legal actions multiplied, Gascoigne and Boyes and their retainers came to blows in Redcross Street in London. Probably needing to live more frugally, George and Elizabeth resided in Willington in 1563 and 1564, after which George returned to Gray’s Inn, evidently to resume legal training. During this sojourn at Gray’s Inn, however, he seems to have written much. In A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small...

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Poesie, he published five poems written on themes provided by friends from this period. Both Supposes and Jocasta were staged at Gray’s Inn in 1566. Soon, however, Gascoigne abandoned Gray’s Inn again, to try his hand at farming at Cardington during 1567-1568, the latter the year of his father’s death. Although Sir John seems on his deathbed to have considered disinheriting his elder son, George did receive a legacy, but it was not, evidently, sufficient to meet his obligations, for by April of 1570, he was in Bedford jail for debt.

At this low point in his life, Gascoigne redoubled his efforts and applied them in new ways: to win fame and fortune by volunteering to fight for William of Orange in the Low Countries and to gain patronage by exhibiting his writing in print. His military experience was disillusioning, though it provided material for his poetry, particularly The Fruites of Warre. In May, 1572, he departed from Greenwich with the first group of English volunteers but returned to England in the fall, after a disappointing campaign. His poetry at this point seems to have gained favorable notice from Lord Grey of Wilton, and Gascoigne was engaged to provide a masque for the Montague-Dormer wedding in October, 1572. He began preparing for the press A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie, which may include some lyric poems by other writers. The last material for the book was sent from the Low Countries because he departed on March 19, 1573, for a second attempt in the wars. Worse than the first campaign, his second venture at war ended with his being imprisoned for four months by the Spaniards and abandoning the soldier’s life. On his return to England in October, 1574, he discovered that A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie had created a scandal and had been seized by the authorities.

During the last three years of his life, Gascoigne did much writing, most of it repenting the sins of his earlier life. Almost immediately he began revising A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie; the revised version was published as The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire, some copies of which were also seized by the authorities. Shortly afterward, he published The Glasse of Governement, an original play, and for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth in July, 1575, he provided most of the literary tribute later published as The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle. While performing the role of Sylvanus in one of his compositions for this entertainment, Gascoigne seems to have received favorable notice from the queen.

Even as Gascoigne was winning favor, his writing continued at a brisk pace. Shortly after April, 1576, he published in a single volume The Steele Glas and The Complaynt of Phylomene. In the same year, he published The Droomme of Doomes Day, a long repentance tract; A Delicate Diet, for Daintiemouthde Droonkardes, a temperance tract very like a sermon; and The Grief of Joye, a group of elegies that he presented to the queen as a New Year’s gift. Also in 1576, he was appointed to government service by Sir Francis Walsingham and sent to Antwerp, where he witnessed and reported on the sacking of the city by the Spanish. The Spoyle of Antwerpe was originally written as a government report addressed to Lord Burleigh.

Ironically, Gascoigne did not live long enough to enjoy the success that his writing had brought him. During 1576, he had referred to his own ill health. On October 7, 1577, he died at Stamford, England.


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A common mode of discussing personal lives in medieval and Renaissance literature is the exemplum, a device whereby figures from history or literature typify human virtues or vices such as heroism, devotion, or greed. As if conditioned by a habitual way of reading experience, many lives of actual sixteenth century literary figures fulfilled a seemingly fictionalized pattern, glossed by Richard Helgerson in his book The Elizabethan Prodigals (1976). The life of George Gascoigne provides a fine example of this “pattern of prodigality,” in which youthful folly is coupled with writings in such “vain” literary forms as amatory verse. Gascoigne discusses his wasted youth and later reformation in many prefaces and poems, and although his efforts to reform were aimed at very practical financial goals, they were doubtless also sincere. Among Gascoigne’s most important poems, in fact, are introspective accounts of his poor record of worldly successes.

Gascoigne began life from a secure position in a wealthy if litigious family of landed gentry. Like many other young Elizabethan gentlemen of means, he discontinued his formal education (in law) to pursue advancement at court, where he soon exhausted his patrimony and yet found no position. In addition, his reputation was sullied by various legal disputes and by a series of troubles over the legality of his marriage in 1561, as a man in his early years, to Elizabeth Bacon Breton, a much older widow with attractive property. By 1565, with friends at court but no chance of success there, the poet began to search for a means of making a living. He renewed his legal studies at Gray’s Inn, where he spent most of his time in literary efforts; soon he had relocated in the country for an unsuccessful try at farming.

Gascoigne turned in 1571 to a new project for recouping his fortunes: He volunteered as a soldier in the Netherlands’ campaign to aid William, Prince of Orange, against the Spanish. He returned briefly in 1572 to oversee the publication of an anonymous version of his collected writings, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie. In mid-term of the same year, he was unexpectedly named a member of parliament from Midhurst (aided by the well-timed presentation of a dramatic masque at a wedding for a member of the family of Lord Montagu). In an anonymous letter, however, his creditors appealed to prevent his being seated, charging him with manslaughter, spying, and atheism, as well as with being “a common Rymer and a deviser of slaunderous Pasquelles againste divers personnes of greate callinge.” Gascoigne returned quickly to the Holland wars, where he proved to be a capable leader but found little advancement of his fortunes, and where he learned the grim realities of war, expressed effectively in his poem “Dulce Bellum Inexpertis” (“War Is Sweet to Those with No Experience of It”).

Gascoigne returned to England in 1574, to face the disastrous reception of A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie: Copies had been confiscated because of charges of libel and immorality. Gascoigne undertook an entire change in his manner of life and his career as a writer, and finally his fortunes began to turn. A cleaned-up and reorganized version of his writings, The Posies of George Gascoigne, was a success, helped by the poet’s repentant and revealing prefaces. Concurrently, he published his other serious, moralistic writings; gained important patronage; and found a promising position with William Cecil, minister to the queen. While his career was on the mend, he fell ill in 1576. He died in October, 1577, probably not quite forty years of age and, for the first time in many years, in good hopes for worldly comfort and a secure reputation as an Elizabethan writer, civil servant, and gentleman.

If the poet’s difficulties benefited him, they did so by stimulating a vein of honest introspection. In addition, they urged the poet to consciously create his literary career. Gascoigne posed successfully as an aspiring Renaissance man, a virtuoso equally skilled in arms or letters. Gascoigne is certainly not the most important or the most successful of the Elizabethan poets. The critic John Buxton has rightly observed of him that “when greatness was within his reach he allowed himself to be distracted.” However, Gascoigne is not the dull moralist and clumsy love lyricist of received literary-historical opinion. In poetic technique, he has the verve of an experimentalist and the skill of a virtuoso, although without achieving the final polish of succeeding poets. His lasting achievement, however, may rest in his sensitive but tough-minded portrayals of a series of personas, all expressing in one way or another his own effort to interpret, for himself as much as for others, a meaning for his life.