Henry Constable Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Henry Constable’s other writings were political and religious prose works. While still a Protestant, he wrote a pamphlet called A Short View of a Large Examination of Cardinall Allen His Trayterous Justification of Sir W. Stanley and Yorck (c. 1588). This was an answer to a work of 1587 in which the Roman Catholic cardinal had justified the surrender of Daventer to the Spaniards by Stanley, one of Leicester’s chief officers. Constable answered specific arguments of Allen’s work with arguments based on justice and Protestant theology. He mocked the cardinal, implying that he was a “purple whore.” He also wrote the Examen pacifique de la doctrine des Huguenots (1589, The Catholike Moderator: Or, A Moderate Examination of the Doctrine of the Protestants, 1623), published anonymously in Paris. The work was pro-Huguenot, but in it, the author pretended to be a Catholic. The work was an enlargement of a response that he wrote to another tract. Again, Constable was concerned with politics, theology, and justice, but he also indicated that he desired the union of the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Constable was soon to become a Catholic. He wrote an unpublished theological work (c. 1596) that has been lost, and another work on English affairs (c. 1597). He is presumed to be the author or coauthor of an anonymous book in defense of King James’s title in 1600, which was an answer to another work supporting Spain that was erroneously attributed to him. He also collaborated with Dr. W. Percy on a work against the Spanish and Jesuits in 1601. It is clear that Constable was deeply involved in the political and religious matters of his day. His religious interests were to affect greatly his life and his poetry, and he wrote an important group of religious sonnets after his conversion to Catholicism. As the prose works mentioned above showed his commitment to the Protestant cause, his religious sonnets showed his strong feelings for the Catholic faith.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

In his best-known work, Diana, Henry Constable wrote highly polished courtly sonnets. Some modern critics consider his undated Spiritual Sonnets, which appeared only in manuscript, to be superior to Diana in their originality and strong sense of feeling. Both his secular and his religious poems, however, were sonnets of praise. His love of argument is evident in the logical patterns of his sonnets, particularly in his use of symmetrical antitheses, often with accompanying alliteration. The openings of many of his sonnets are striking, and he made use of clever conceits, including some of the extended Metaphysical variety that are memorable. His diction was simple and unaffected, though his style was marked by considerable repetition.

Although he has come to be regarded as a minor poet, he was viewed as a major talent by his contemporaries. He was one of the earliest of Elizabethan sonnet writers and helped to create the fashion. Many of his sonnets had been written before 1591, when Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella was published. The Diana of 1592 was one of the earliest collections of sonnets. Samuel Daniel, the author of Delia (1592), may have been influenced by Constable rather than the other way around. William Shakespeare seems to have borrowed specific details from Constable, and Michael Drayton also showed Constable’s influence. Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598) praised him highly. Ben Jonson’s “An Ode” (c. 1600) listed Constable with Homer, Ovid, Petrarch, Pierre de Ronsard, and Sidney, and his name is mentioned in the company of excellent poets by Drayton and Gabriel Harvey. In the anonymous play Returne from Parnassus (c. 1600), he is spoken of as “Sweate Constable.” Edmund Bolton in the Hypercritica (1618) termed Constable “a great master in the English Tongue, nor had any Gentleman of our Nation a more pure, quick, or higher Delivery of Conceit. . . .” The contemporary poet Alexander Montgomerie wrote a Scottish version of one of his poems, and a Latin translation of another is included in the Poemata (1607) of Dousa (Filius). After his own time, he was largely unknown until the nineteenth century, when his poetry was edited by W. C. Hazlitt and was included in anthologies of Elizabethan sonnets.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Cousins, A. D. The Catholic Religious Poets from Southwell to Crashaw: A Critical History. London: Sheed and Ward, 1991. Contains a chapter on Constable and William Alabaster, which looks at Spiritual Sonnets in depth.

Fleissner, Robert F. Resolved to Love: The 1592 Edition of Henry Constable’s “Diana.” Salzburg: Institute of English and American Studies, University of Salzburg, 1980. Part of the Salzburg Studies in English Literature series, this monograph is one the few book-length studies of Constable.

Grundy, Joan. Henry Constable. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1960. A comprehensive work that includes a biographical essay, complete facsimiles of his poems, discussions about his life, poems, and texts, and evaluations of his influence and reputation. Further increasing the value of this book are its exhaustive footnotes and bibliographic entries.

Miola, Robert S. Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Contains a chapter on Catholicism in poetry that looks at the poetry of Constable, among others. Contains several poems by Constable.

Parker, Tom W. N. Proportional Form in the Sonnets of the Sidney Circle: Loving in Truth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Chapter examines the life of Constable and his poetry in Diana and Spiritual Sonnets.

Richardson, David A., ed. Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers: Second Series. Vol. 136 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. Contains a short biographical entry on Constable, along with some literary analysis.

Shell, Allison. Catholicism, Controversy, and the English Literary Imagination, 1558-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. The chapter on Elizabethan writers who were Catholic loyalists contains considerable discussion of Constable and his work.