George Gascoigne

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In addition to his masques and plays, George Gascoigne wrote in a number of genres in verse and prose. Whatever the genre, his style is generally direct, lucid, and idiomatic. Several of his works were the first of their kind in English literature.

Gascoigne’s later moralistic writings, however, lack interest for most students of literature. In prose, these works include The Droomme of Doomes Day (1576) and A Delicate Diet, for Daintiemouthde Droonkardes (1576), and, in rhyme royal, The Grief of Joye (1576).

Two expository works in prose have special importance. Gascoigne’s eyewitness account The Spoyle of Antwerpe (1576), originally written as a government report, is perhaps the best journalistic writing of the Elizabethan “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse,” included in The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire (1575), is the earliest extant treatise on poetry in the English language.

Also included in that collection, and of even greater interest, is the prose narrative The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. (1573), revised and reissued as The Pleasant Fable of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco (1575). With lyric poems spaced throughout the prose, the experimental narrative tells the story of a young man’s disillusioning love affair with a more experienced woman who is also having adulterous relations with her male secretary. The narrative, lacking in event, nevertheless deals slyly, often humorously, with courtly love conventions as they might apply in real life.

Gascoigne’s best original compositions are his poems, numbering more than one hundred. Among the longer poems, two deserve to be singled out, for they share the skepticism toward life and society that is characteristic of much of his best writing: The part of The Fruites of Warre (1575) dealing with his own military experiences is lively reading, while The Steele Glas, a Satyre (1576) uses the device of a mirror to expose what the poet saw as the decline of social and moral responsibility in the Elizabethan world.

Gascoigne’s finest poems, however, are to be found among the shorter poems in various forms published in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie (1573), later revised as The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire. Some of this volume’s poems that are preferred by critics are “The Lullabie of a Lover,” in which an aging lover sings to sleep his fading powers; “Gascoigne’s Woodmanship,” in which the poet likens his bad marksmanship to his other failures in life; and “The Praise of Phillip Sparrowe,” a light celebration of the poet’s pet bird. These and other of the poems may still delight and instruct a reader.

Achievements

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George Gascoigne died in 1577, when a new generation of writers such as John Lyly, Sir Philip Sidney, and Edmund Spenser were beginning an outburst of literary creativity that lasted from 1578 to the start of the Commonwealth period in 1642. Comparison of Gascoigne’s works to the great literature that followed shortly afterward causes Gascoigne to be considered, and perhaps correctly, a minor writer, but his literary achievements won recognition during his own time and strongly influenced the development of English poetry and drama. At least some of his pieces may still be read with enjoyment.

That Gascoigne achieved stature as a writer during his own time is shown by his dealings between 1572 and 1577 with some of the great nobility. He seems to have enjoyed at least some patronage from Lord Grey of Wilton, later a patron to Spenser. Recognition of his ability is implied by Gascoigne’s having been asked by the family of Viscount Montague to provide the masque for the Montague-Dormer wedding, and even...

(This entire section contains 564 words.)

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more by his being chosen by the earl of Leicester to provide entertainment for the queen’s visit to Kenilworth. The poet’s appointment to government service very likely resulted from favorable notice by the queen herself.

Modern scholars continue to be interested in Gascoigne primarily because of his contributions to the development of English poetry and drama. During his lifetime, serious English writers, confronted by native and foreign traditions that differed radically, experimented in order to discover the means by which literature might best be created in the vernacular. “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse,” a pioneer work in literary criticism, provides insight both into the state of poetics at the time and into Gascoigne’s own aims and methods. Consistent with his literary theory, most of his poetry uses plain English words directly and lucidly, maintaining in poetry a native English tradition bridging the gap between Sir Thomas Wyatt and such later poets as John Donne and Ben Jonson. In addition, The Steele Glas, a Satyre has historical interest both because it may be the first satire of the era and because it was the first original poem in English written in blank verse.

Literary historians have long recognized the importance of Gascoigne’s contributions to the development of Elizabethan drama. As an example of the prodigal-son play, The Glasse of Governement has some historical interest but exercised little influence on later plays. Of greater significance was Jocasta, which was produced in 1566 and which Gascoigne, in collaboration with Francis Kinwelmershe, had translated from Lodovico Dolce’s Giocasta (wr. 1549, an adaptation of a Latin translation of Euripides’ Phoinissai, c. 410 b.c.e.; The Phoenician Women, 1781). Jocasta was the first Greek tragedy produced on the English stage, though the text was not translated directly from the Greek. Using blank verse, a five-act structure, and dumb shows before each act, the tragedy reinforced the tendency toward the classical mode in tragedy established in 1561 by the production of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc, also at the Inns of Court. Supposes, Gascoigne’s translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s I suppositi of 1509, exercised an even greater influence on English drama: It not only provided William Shakespeare the Bianca subplot in The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594) but also helped to establish prose as the medium for comic drama and introduced Italian comedy to the English stage.

Other literary forms

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The first two volumes of the poetry of George Gascoigne (GAS-koyn) also contain many of his most popular prose works. Among these is “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse” (1575, also found in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie), an important work of literary criticism that is said to be the first of its kind in the English language. Also found in the early volumes are a number of full-length plays, all types never before presented in English, as well as some interesting masques and royal entertainments.

Gascoigne also experimented with fictional and nonfictional narrative. One of these works, The Spoyle of Antwerpe (1576), is a rare example for the times of detailed and honest journalistic reporting about the war. The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. (1573; revised as The Pleasant Fable of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco, 1575) is a work of prose fiction that has received considerable attention from scholars and critics. Also among these works are several long didactic prose pieces that are moralistic in tone.

Achievements

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George Gascoigne tried his hand at many forms of literature, with an innovator’s quick eye for literary forms not used before in England or in English. Writing as a gifted amateur at the court of Queen Elizabeth and turning near the end of his life toward writing as a profession, Gascoigne presented a notable list of first achievements. He wrote the first work of English literary criticism and presented in England the first ancient Greek tragedy and the first translation from Italian prose comedy. His verse satire The Steele Glas, a Satyre, itself an important early example of social satire, was the first English poem (not including translations) that employed nondramatic blank verse.

Gascoigne was also innovative in narrative modes, presenting in The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. what many call the first work of prose fiction in English. For a time he was followed by a school of imitators, including George Whetstone and Nicholas Breton. Gascoigne seldom brought his work to a fine polish, however, and this lack of finish together with an archaic style in diction and meter have produced a modern assessment that his works are valuable merely for their innovative literary attempts, rather than their actual achievements.

This opinion has undergone some revaluation. Later critics have stressed Gascoigne’s serious commitment to moral themes, his patriotic determination to form a distinctively English practice in poetry (analogous to the contemporary French movement sponsored by the poets of the Pléiade), and his verve for realistic detail and psychologically valid observation of human nature. Gascoigne is a transitional figure whose work helped to extend English poetic resources and so led to the “flowering” of the New Poetry of the 1580’s and 1590’s. This fact was recognized to some extent by his own age: The preface to Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender of 1579 refers to Gascoigne as “the very chief of our late rymers.” In addition, Gascoigne offers many Elizabethan poetic “voices,” selecting his own preferred emphases among the range of options in style and convention available to poets during the Tudor period from Sir Thomas Wyatt through John Donne (Gascoigne presents interesting points of comparison with both of these poets). A reassessment suggests a moral poetry of strength, verve, and self-perception; an amatory and social poetry of frankness, witty playfulness, and realism; an adroit and sensitive portrayal of first- and third-person personas; and a commitment throughout to extend the formal and linguistic resources of the English poetic medium.

Bibliography

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Bowman, Silvia E. George Gascoigne. New York: Twayne, 1972. A fascinating and informative survey, with specific comparisons of Gascoigne and Petrarch and a discussion of The Steele Glas as satire. “The Love Lyrics,” The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J., and Gascoigne’s three plays are also discussed. Supplemented by a chronology, notes, a select bibliography, and an index.

Hughes, Felicity A. “Gascoigne’s Poses.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 1-19. Questions the claim that in The Posies Gascoigne corrected his writings in conformity with the wishes of censors who found his writing offensive. Gascoigne did not succumb to the pressure. His “revised” edition of 1575 is no cleaner than the first edition, and it represents an attempt to brazen it out with the censors rather than placate them.

Johnson, Ronald C. George Gascoigne. New York: Twayne, 1972. An ample discussion of Petrarch and Gascoigne precedes separate chapters on the love lyrics and the other poems. The Steele Glas is discussed for its satire, The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. for its variety of narrative devices, and the three plays for their relationship to dramatic traditions. Includes a brief biography and a short annotated bibliography.

Orr, David. Italian Renaissance Drama in England Before 1625: The Influence of Erudita Tragedy, Comedy, and Pastoral on Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970. Compliments Gascoigne’s skill in Supposes and finds the two plots neatly joined together, with “racy and readable prose.” Recognizes the play’s popularity and comments on Shakespeare’s use of the comedy. Sees Gascoigne’s tragedy Jocasta as neither skillful nor popular.

Prior, Roger. “Gascoigne’s Posies as a Shakespearian Source.” Notes and Queries 47, no. 4 (December, 2000): 444-449. Gascoigne wrote a masque to celebrate the 1572 double wedding of a son and daughter of Anthony Browne, first Viscount Montague, and two children of Sir William Dormer. Prior draws many parallels between this masque, published in Gascoigne’s collection The Posies and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Sanders, Norman, et al. The Revels History of Drama in English, 1500-1576. Vol. 2. New York: Methuen, 1980. Of value to beginning students of Gascoigne. Considers three plays in connection with other English and continental plays in the dramatic traditions that they represent. Discusses The Glasse of Government, for example, in the section on prodigal son plays. Contains compliments to Gascoigne’s verse, a record of performances, and a valuable index.

Schelling, Felix E. The Life and Writings of George Gascoigne. 1893. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967. A very useful survey of Gascoigne’s life and work and an excellent source of biographical information. Supplemented by a bibliography, an index, and an appendix which contains four previously—to 1967—not printed poems.

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