Henry Wotton Essay - Critical Essays

Wotton, Henry


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.”

Principal Works

A Courtlie controuersie of Cupids Cautels: Conteyning fiue Tragicall Histories, very pithie, pleasant, pitiful, and profitable: Discoursed vppon wyth argumentes of Loue, by three Gentlemen and two Gentlewomen, entermedled with diuers delicate Sonets and Rithmes, exceeding delightfull to refresh the yrksomnesse of tedious tyme. Translated out of French as neare as our English phrase will permit [translator; from Le Printemps D'Yver by Jacque D'Yer] (short stories) 1578

The Elements of Architecture, Collected from the Best Authors and Examples (nonfiction) 1624

Ad regem è Scotia reducem Henrici Wottonij plausus et vota [A Panegyrick of King Charles; being Observations upon the Inclination, Life and Government of Our Soveraign Lord the King] (nonfiction) 1633

A Parallel betweene Robert Late Earle of Essex, and George Late Duke of Buckingham (nonfiction) 1641

A Short View of the Life and Death of George Villers, Duke of Buckingham (nonfiction) 1642

Reliquiæ Wottonianæ. Or, a Collection of Lives, Letters, Poems: with Characters of Sundry Personages: And other Incomparable Pieces of Language and Art. By the curious Pensil of the Ever Memorable Sr Henry Wotton, Kt, Late Provost of Eton Colledg (collected works) 1651; revised editions 1654, 1672, 1685

The State of Christendom; or, A Most Exact and Curious Discovery of Many Secret Passages, and Hidden Mysteries of the Times (nonfiction) 1657

Poems by Sir Henry Wotton (poetry) 1843


Izaak Walton (essay date 1651)

SOURCE: Walton, Izaak. “The Life of Sir Henry Wotton, Late Provost of Eaton College.” In The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert & Robert Sanderson, pp. 93-151. Oxford: Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press, 1927.

[In following essay, which was originally published in 1651, Walton, a friend of Wotton's, provides an overview of Wotton's life and career.]

Sir Henry Wotton (whose Life I now intend to write) was born in the Year of our Redemption 1568. in Bocton-Hall (commonly called Bocton, or Bougton-place, or Palace) in the Parish of Bocton Malherb, in the fruitful Country of Kent:...

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Logan Pearsall Smith (essay date 1907)

Smith, Logan Pearsall. Preface to The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, Vol. 1, pp. iii-xvi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.

[The following excerpt is taken from a two-volume work that was first published in 1907. The first volume offers an extensive biography of Wotton, and the second volume reprints many of his letters. Here, Smith surveys the scope of Wotton's correspondence, both personal and diplomatic, and declares him “the best letter-writer of his time.”]

Among the contemporaries of Shakespeare an interesting but little-known figure is that of the poet and ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton. It is still remembered that he was the author of two or three...

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Gilbert Coleridge (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: Coleridge, Gilbert. “Sir Henry Wotton.” The Nineteenth Century and After 94, No. 559 (September 1923): 370-78.

[In the following essay, Coleridge summarizes Wotton's life and offers commentary on his major works.]

Not many years ago the street of the Holy Well, narrow and mediæval in its aspect, ran parallel with the Strand between St. Clement Danes and St. Martin's. As everyone knows, it was swept away in a so-called improvement scheme promoted by the London County Council in its salad days, when that body wished to show what it would do for London. The scheme as a whole may have been desirable, but no exceptions were made, and thus one of the most...

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J. B. Leishman (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Leishman, J. B. “‘You Meaner Beauties of the Night’: A Study in Transmission and Transmogrification.” The Library, fourth series 26, Nos. 2-3 (September-December 1945): 99-121.

[In following essay, Leishman analyzes several versions of Wotton's “You Meaner Beauties of the Night,” arguing that changes in the poem were made as it circulated in manuscript and print, and that there was no definitive version during Wotton's lifetime.]

‘I expect Sir Henry Wotton at Dover’, wrote, on the 12th of June 1620, the reformed pirate Sir Henry Mainwaring to Lord Zouche; ‘I expect Sir Henry Wotton at Dover the latter end of this week. Being in Greenwitch...

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John S. Weld (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: Weld, John S. “Some Problems of Euphuistic Narrative: Robert Greene and Henry Wotton.” Studies in Philology 45, No. 2 (April 1948): 165-71.

[In the following essay, Weld argues that Courtlie Controuersie of Cupid's Cautels, Wotton's translation of Jacque D'Yer's Le Printemps D'Yver, is a source for Robert Greene's Mamillia, and he delineates what form this influence takes.]

Among the sources for Robert Greene's first novel, the first part of Mamillia (1580), is one which has remained unnoticed, Henry Wotton's Courtlie Controuersie of Cupid's Cautels (1578).1 The source is important because what Greene borrowed...

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C. F. Main (essay date 1955)

Main, C. F. “Wotton's ‘The Character of a Happy Life’.” The Library, fifth series 10, No. 4 (December 1955): 270-74.

[In the essay below, Main analyzes several versions of Wotton's “The Character of a Happy Life” and determines that no definitive version of the poem exists.]

Mr. J. B. Leishman's study of the transmission and transmogrification of Sir Henry Wotton's ‘You Meaner Beauties of the Night’1 suggests the possibility of subjecting Wotton's equally famous ‘Character of a Happy Life’ to a similar scrutiny. Although the history of the ‘Character’ is not nearly so complex as that of ‘You Meaner Beauties’, both poems present...

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Ted-Larry Pebworth (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “Sir Henry Wotton's ‘Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place’ and the Appropriation of Political Poetry in the Earlier Seventeenth Century.” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 71, No. 2 (April-June 1977): 151-69.

[In the essay below, Pebworth examines several versions of Wotton's “Dazel'd Thus, with Height of Place,” contending that this poem about the fall of a courtier was repeatedly appropriated and applied to various disgraced political figures.]

That the poems of Sir Henry Wotton present intriguing problems of transmission and text there is no doubt.1 Two of the sixteen poems now attributed with some...

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Ted-Larry Pebworth and Claude J. Summers (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Pebworth, Ted-Larry and Claude J. Summers. “‘Thus Friends Absent Speake’: The Exchange of Verse Letters between John Donne and Henry Wotton.” Modern Philology 81, No. 4 (May 1984): 361-77.

[In the following essay, Pebworth and Summers analyze a sequence of verse epistles between Wotton and John Donne, emphasizing the historical and biographical contexts for the letters.]

John Donne's profession of friendship as his “second religion” is well known, as is his concomitant belief that the writing of letters to a friend is “a kind of extasie, and a departure and secession and suspension of the soul, which doth then comunicate it self to two...

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Further Reading


Acton, Harold. Three Extraordinary Ambassadors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984, 64 p.

Includes a survey of Wotton's activities as a diplomat, particularly focusing on his relationship with James I. Acton also emphasizes Wotton's highly cultivated artistic taste.


Datta, Kitty. “Marvell and Wotton: A Reconsideration.” Review of English Studies 19, No. 76 (November 1968): 403-05.

Suggests that Wotton's The Elements of Architecture may have influenced several of Andrew Marvell's poems.

Hard, Frederick. “Ideas from Bacon and Wotton in...

(The entire section is 258 words.)