Nicholas Breton’s earliest published works introduce the theme of love and its loss, a concern that perhaps dominates all his verse. In the role of a self-deprecating journeyman poet trying his wings in “small handfuls” of flowers or herbs, sentiments “trussed up,” “floorishes,” or “toyes,” Breton addresses courtly—that is, fanciful—love in a landscape peppered with gardens, dream visions, and the familiar courtly personifications of desire versus disdain. Fancy, the spirit of courtly love, keeps a school and a fort manned with allegorical figures and rustic types, where the young poet-lover receives an education in the ways of the court and courtliness. Banished into rural obscurity, he must struggle for reinstatement, a trial by which he learns to distrust “fansy fonde,” affected courtliness, and infatuation, and to practice the important Bretonian virtue of patience—the long suffering of undeserved slights in an atmosphere of pervasive, although vague, dissatisfaction, at the close of which he abruptly rejects all and turns his thoughts to eschatology. Although slight in themselves, and hopelessly old-fashioned in the style of Gascoigne and the older generation, these early works do establish the persona of the speaker, the themes of love and the ethical-religious life, and the pastoral mode for the mature works to come.
Of these mature works, surely the best-known are Breton’s many lyrics, published in the popular verse anthologies. These lyrics are in the Petrarchan vein and the pastoral mode; to them Breton owes his reputation as a poet of “sweetness and purity,” of a great sensitivity for nature and rural life. The earliest lyrics in Brittons Bowre of Delights, although conventional in imagery and plodding in meter, still possess a simple, musical appeal, whether celebrating ideal courtly love or complaining against love and fortune. One of Breton’s favorite devices is foretelling doomsday in a series of unlikely perfections never found in the world, such as when “Words shall be deeds, and men shall be divine.” In these poems and those in The Phoenix Nest, Breton introduces his pastoral lady, Phyllis, or Phillida, and the “silly shepherd” poet, whose vulnerable expressiveness permits the restorative working of the idyll, as well as his familiar setting of the garden with its herbal and rustic lore, such as in “A Strange Description of a Rare Garden-plot,” where all the herbs are “weeds of wo,” allegorical flowers.
The well-known “Phillida and Coridon,” or “In the merry moneth of May,” shows the naïve pastoral ideal in its dialogue, which begins in courtly coquetry (“He would loue, and she would not”) but quickly moves into a pastoral world of frankness and good nature, and thus to lovers’ oaths, “with kisses sweet concluded.” The poem ends with a pastoral apotheosis in which Phillida becomes “Lady of the May,” the queen of love, and that emotion, so long “abused” and “deluded” by courtly affection, is set right. This ideal world is darkened in “A sweete Pastorall,” or “Good Muse rock me asleepe,” by loss of love, the wreck of the shepherd’s flock, and the silencing of the birds. In The Arbor of Amorous Devices, the lady has become even more ideal, perhaps in keeping with the growing influence of Mary Sidney, more wise and “rich” in accomplishments, and more associated with virtue (Phillis) as opposed to the erotic Venus, whose Amor she blinds in “A Pastoral” (“On a hill there grows a flower”).
Ultimately human love is rejected in favor of the divine. In Sonnet 3 of The Passionate Shepheard, Breton celebrates the advent of “wise” over foolish love and castigates “Lust the excremente of love.” For the shepherd Bonerto, ideal love becomes the means of restoring faith and reason to a world darkened by age, death, and care; he says to his Aglaia, “I hate the world, but for they [thy] love.” In this late collection of perhaps earlier verses, the shepherd and his lady live in the country of Minerva, or wisdom. In simple Marvellian couplets, they celebrate the pastoral ideal, free from dissimulation and conflict, which is the blight of the urban world. Breton’s pastoral lyric attempts to re-create the Elizabethan Arcadia in a context that looks forward to Augustan gardens.
Among all of Breton’s lyrics, perhaps the single most perfect is “A Sweet Lullabie,” a simple, expressive treatment of the Bretonian topics of faithlessness and patience in an abandoned woman’s song to her child, “Thy fathers shame, thy mothers griefe.” Although it is crying, the infant is mercifully unaware of life’s more sorrowful realities and the difficulties ensured by its uncertain legitimacy. The “Poor soule that thinkes no creature harme” is an eloquent contrast to an unfeeling world. As the baby is comforted by the song, the mother begins to hope that the child’s charms can restore innocence and rightness to the world, securing the grace of both God and its “father false.” The poem ends with the mother’s wish that upon her death the child may vindicate her reputation, “Tell how by love she purchast blame,” and appeal to its father’s “gentle heart”—for although “His sugred words that me betrayde,” he is yet of a “noble mind.” This leads to a reversed ending in which the child laughs while the mother weeps, asking that it be shielded...
(The entire section is 2240 words.)