Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798

Even a cursory examination of the poet’s background will suffice to show that Henry King’s art is very much a reflection of the life that produced it. Born in 1592, King was the eldest of five sons of John King, scion of an aristocratic family and renowned Anglican divine and...

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Even a cursory examination of the poet’s background will suffice to show that Henry King’s art is very much a reflection of the life that produced it. Born in 1592, King was the eldest of five sons of John King, scion of an aristocratic family and renowned Anglican divine and eventual bishop of London. Since John King intended each of his sons to enter the ministry, Henry received an education befitting a man of learning. As a youngster, he attended the Westminster School, where Jonson, among many other notables, had studied, and where, as part of his classical training, he became practiced in the techniques of versification. After he left Westminster, he proceeded to Oxford, where he took his B.A. degree in 1611, his M.A. in 1614, and his B.D. and D.D. in 1625.

The oldest son of an influential clergyman, King came into contact as a child and young man with some of the most distinguished churchmen and courtiers of the time, among whom was Donne. Donne was a good friend of John King and, according to Donne’s early biographer, Izaak Walton, grew to be no less fond of Henry. In 1616, as a young student of divinity, King was named to the clerical office of Prebendary of St. Paul’s Church, where several years later, Donne would become dean. Their relationship remained close, and shortly before his death in 1631, Donne made King his legal executor. King’s final service for Donne came in the form of the funeral elegy he composed, “Upon the Death of my ever Desired friend Dr. Donne Deane of Pauls.”

From the example of his father, from his formal education, and, not improbably, from his acquaintance with Donne would emerge the intellectual cast of mind and the religious and political propensities that would permanently shape King’s life, his career, and, no less so, his poetry. From all that is known of it, King’s life appears to have been a genuinely religious one, predicated on a belief that God’s ordinances were embodied in two temporal institutions: the Church and the Crown. Thus, religious orthodoxy and political conservatism were the mainstays of his thought and colored almost everything he wrote. No personal loss—not even the death of his young wife in 1624—could overturn his religious convictions, and although in his verse he acknowledges the pain of loss most frankly, as he does in the celebrated elegy he wrote for his wife, “The Exequy,” his affirmation of the triumph of the immortal soul over death is nonetheless assured.

Nor did the tribulations of the civil tumult weaken his adherence to either Church or monarch, despite the considerable privations his loyalty cost him. In 1643, a victory of the forces representing the Parliamentary and Puritan factions over the Royalist army led to the ejection of King from the bishopric of Chichester to which he had been elevated only a year before. Stripped of almost all his property and personal papers, King existed on rather modest means—apparently not without some harassment—for the next seventeen years, until, with the Restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II, King returned to his church in Chichester. In the years immediately following his ejection, King wrote his most staunchly partisan and pro-Royalist verse, culminating in by far his longest and most passionate pieces, the elegies written just after the execution of Charles I in 1648, “A Deepe Groane, fetch’d at the Funerall of that incomparable and Glorious Monarch,” and “An elegy upon the most Incomparable King Charls the First.”

As strong as King’s personal convictions were, his best verse is curiously undogmatic. The depth of King’s learning and belief manifests itself not in a welter of information to be presented as absolute truth, but in a self-assured spirit of inquiry. If King shares anything with Donne, it is the pleasure he takes in exploring an idea through the play of language and metaphor. Like Donne, King seems often to be probing, discovering the essential likenesses in things that have ostensibly little in common, between an emotional state or religious point, for example, and the physical properties of the universe. Thus, when King takes a position on an issue, he does not presume its correctness but demonstrates it carefully and seriously, yet imaginatively. It is the depth of both his convictions and intelligence that leaves the reader with the sense of having shared or worked through with the poet the experience he presents in his verse. King’s poetic corpus may be relatively small, but a survey of his poems gives one the impression of having learned a good deal about their author precisely because King shows so much, not only of what he thinks, but how he thinks as well.

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