Henry Wotton Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Henry Wotton 1568-1639

English poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, epistler, and translator.

Although primarily a diplomat, Henry Wotton also was an accomplished writer. His works include treatises on politics, religion, history, and architecture; several highly regarded and frequently anthologized poems; and hundreds of informative and entertaining letters. Proficient in a number of languages, Wotton produced several works in Latin and translated a collection of stories, Le Printemps D'Yver, from French to English. Among Wotton's friends and admirers were some of the leading writers and intellectuals of the day, including Isaac Casaubon, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and George Herbert. He was a lifelong friend of John Donne. His letters to his personal acquaintances and his official diplomatic dispatches are noted for their witty and astute observations on seventeenth-century social and political life. Logan Pearsall Smith, the modern editor of Wotton's correspondence, hailed him as “the best letter-writer of his time—the first Englishman whose correspondence deserves to be read for its literary quality, apart from its historical interest.” While his poetic output was slight, his poems are considered skillful, polished, and, in the case of “You meaner Beauties of the Night” especially, among the most popular verses of Wotton's era.

Biographical Information

Wotton was born in 1568, in Bocton-Hall, Kent, the son of Thomas Wotton and his second wife, Eleanor. He was the youngest child, having an elder sister and several half-siblings from his father's first marriage. Wotton was educated at the Winchester School before entering Oxford University, where he became friends with poet John Donne. Wotton earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1588, then spent the next several years traveling around Europe on an annuity left by his father. This travel experience was intended to prepare Wotton for a career in public service, as he was to learn languages and about politics first-hand. Among his sojourns on the Continent was a 1592-93 stay in Sienna, where he came into contact with prominent Italian intellectuals. When Wotton returned to England in 1594, he became a secretary and agent for the Earl of Essex, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. During the five years Wotton was in Essex's employ, he traveled with him on a number of state-related expeditions, including the disastrous expedition to Ireland in 1599. By this time Wotton had already begun to write poetry that was privately circulated. Just before Essex's downfall a short time later, Wotton left his service and spent some time in Florence before returning to England. In 1603 Wotton was knighted by James I and named ambassador to Venice; between this point and 1624 he would serve several terms in the post, as well as those of special ambassador to Holland and to Vienna. While he was living in Italy Wotton also acted as the agent for George Villers, the Duke of Buckingham, overseeing the purchase of paintings and manuscripts for him. When Wotton returned to England in the mid-1620s, Buckingham garnered Wotton a position as provost of Eton College. Wotton held this post until his death in 1639.

Major Works

Wotton's best-known works are his poems, which were written in a variety of forms and genres, including odes and reflections, as well as political, religious, and love poems. Many were written to celebrate particular occasions. The popularity of Wotton's verses can be seen in the large number of manuscript copies of them written into miscellanies, the unauthorized printing of several poems, the musical accompaniment composed for some of them, and the numerous imitations and adaptations of several pieces. One poem, “'Tis not a coate of gray, or Shepheards life” (c. 1598), was composed as part of a series of verse letters exchanged with Donne concerning the nature of happiness. Another poem on the same subject, “The Character of a Happy Life” (c. 1612), reflects on what the poet deems necessary to live a moral life amid the temptations of the court. Well-circulated in Wotton's time, it was repeatedly copied and imitated, and was one of the poems that was set to music. Evidence suggests that “You meaner Beauties of the Night” (c. 1619), Wotton's tribute to Elizabeth Stuart, the Queen of Bohemia and the daughter of James I, was even more popular. More than ninety print and manuscript copies survive from the seventeenth century, and at least ten adaptations and six musical versions exist. Notable among Wotton's poems on political subjects are Ad regem è Scotia reducem Henrici Wottonij plausus et vota (1633; A Panegyrick of King Charles; being Observations upon the Inclination, Life and Government of Our Soveraign Lord the King), celebrating Charles I upon his return from his coronation in Scotland, and “Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place” (c. 1616), concerning the fall from favor of Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. The latter poem, with its consideration of the precariousness of court life, was adapted by several later writers to apply to the situations of various disgraced courtiers.

Wotton's prose works, like his poems, are significant for the influence they had on subsequent writers. The Elements of Architecture (1624), Wotton's compendium of notable opinions on architecture, is believed to have influenced several poems by Andrew Marvell. In addition, A Courtlie controuersie of Cupids Cautels (1578), Wotton's translation of Jacque D'Yver's Le Printemps D'Yver, was a probable source for Robert Greene's novel Mamillia.

Critical Reception

Although the canon of Wotton's works was established shortly after his death by the publication of the Reliquiæ Wottonianæ (1651), edited by his friend and biographer, Izaac Walton, the great number of pirated, copied, and adapted versions of his works has given rise to a substantial amount of textual and bibliographic scholarship. Critics such as J. B. Leishman, C. F. Main, and Ted-Larry Pebworth have analyzed the disparate versions of “You Meaner Beauties of the Night,” “Character of a Happy Life,” “Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place,” and other poems in an effort to establish, as far as possible, true authorial versions. Other critics, including John S. Weld, Frederick Hard, and M. R. Pitman, have investigated the influence of Wotton's prose works on Marvell, Greene, and other writers. Pebworth and Claude J. Summers have examined “'Tis not a coate of gray, or Shepheards life” as part of the series of verse letters between Wotton and Donne, noting that Wotton “emerges as the controlling moral force and the teacher” in the exchange. Wotton's correspondence has been studied by Logan Pearsall Smith, who found the letters “remarkable for their wit, their beauty of phrase, and the impress of [Wotton's] kindly and meditative nature.”