Nicholas Breton Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

After 1600, the attention of Nicholas Breton (BREHT-uhn) turned to prose essays, dialogues, and fiction, including proverb collections and character sketches. Auspicante Jehova: Maries Exercise (1597) and Divine Considerations of the Soule (1608) are devotional treatises; such works as Wits Private Wealth (1607) and Crossing of Proverbs (1616) collect proverbs and other practical advice; and Wits Trenchmour: Or, A Conference Between a Scholler and Angler (1597) and The Figure of Foure (1597) discourse on daily life, including angling and other country pleasures. Breton’s dialogues of youth and age, country and city, traveler and stay-at-home include A Dialogue Full of Pithe and Pleasure (1603), The Wil of Wit, Wits Will or Wils Wit (1597), and An Olde Mans Lesson and a Young Mans Love (1605). The vogue for travelers’ tales appears not only in the dialogues but also in prose tales such as Wonders Worth the Hearing (1602) and A Mad World, My Masters (1603), while contemporary events are addressed in A Murmurer (1607), on the occasion of the Gunpowder Plot. Breton’s romantic fiction, The Strange Fortune of Two Excellent Princes (1600) and Grimellos Fortunes (1604), frequently contains lyrics within the narrative, including the frequently anthologized “I would thou wert not fair, or I were wise.” Always highly popular in London’s booming pamphlet market, Breton was particularly successful with the epistolary A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters, a much-reprinted series begun around 1603. His modern reputation as a prose writer depends chiefly on his contributions to the prose character, as in his Characters upon Essaies, Morall and Divine (1615), The Good and the Badde (1616), and especially Fantasticks (1626), containing characterizations of love, money, the seasons, the holidays, the times of day, and the months of the year. Many of the aforementioned titles (those without dates) may be found in Alexander B. Grosart’s informative volumes on The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton (1879). Breton’s prose works were immensely successful best sellers.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

One of the first English authors to earn a living entirely by writing, Nicholas Breton spent fifty years producing literary works that encompass the height of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Jacobean period. A transitional figure, he provides a link between two related but highly contradictory sensibilities. Working in the major poetic categories of moral allegory in the style of Edmund Spenser, of lyric and pastoral in the Arcadian mode, of devotional meditation akin to that of Robert Southwell, and of popular verse satire, Breton bridges the gap between traditional and progressive, literary and colloquial, in a controlled and assured presentation that appears almost classical in its decorum. He treats the major topics of human and divine love, moral virtue, holiness and spiritual experience, honor and humility, court and country, the real versus the ideal social world, and the emotions of exultation and melancholy, integration and alienation. His settings in the Arcadian bowers of Renaissance pastoral prefigure Marvellian gardens, while his perception of the freshness and vigor of rural life, coupled with the depth and complexity of urban experience, helps to form the modern apprehension of the change in cultural values characteristic of early commercial capitalism. His conception of contemporary psychology of humors and the melancholy stance connects classical and medieval typology to the humorous characters of Ben Jonson and the seventeenth century dramatists, embodying the tension between traditional humanism and the new commercial ethic.

Always a popular writer with a keen sense of self-presentation and audience awareness, Breton employed a Renaissance poetic that looks forward to Metaphysical paradox. With careful prosody, simple diction, clear thought, and accessibleimagery, he writes a consistently craftsmanlike verse that, as C. S. Lewis has noted in his definitive English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1944), escapes the confines of the drab, undergoing gradual “aurification” into the golden. As one of the first such poets, and one with so long and distinguished a record of successful publication, Breton helped establish the poetics of the high Renaissance. Perhaps because of a lingering bias against the “popular” writer, or perhaps simply because of the extreme rarity of his surviving books, Breton has not always been accorded the attention he merits in literary histories and anthologies, an omission that still waits to be remedied.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Atkinson, Colin B., and Jo B. Atkinson. “Four Prayer Books Addressed to Women During the Reign of Elizabeth I.” Huntington Library Quarterly 60, no. 4 (1999): 407-423. Discusses the changes in the place of women in religious thought and practice throughout the sixteenth century. Examines Breton’s A Handfull of Holesome Hearbes and Auspicante Jehova, as well as two other prayer books.

Bullen, Arthur Henry. Elizabethans. 1924. Reprint. Great Neck, N.Y.: Core Collection Books, 1978. Bullen sketches the life and work of ten English authors of the Elizabethan period. He repeats the sketchy details known about Breton’s life, then shows how the prolific author fits into his historical context.

Garnett, Richard, and Edmund Grosse. English Literature: An Illustrated Record. 2d ed. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1935. Garnett and Grosse include a substantial essay on Breton and place him in the context of English literary history. This is an older study but a valuable one. Suitable for all levels.

Kunitz, Stanley, and Howard Haycraft, eds. British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Wilson, 1952. Provides a short biographical entry that seems to be based on the information provided in Sir Sidney Lee’s article. Points out that Breton’s literary influences come from the medieval period and not from his English Renaissance contemporaries. Breton was thought to have been a little too prolific. His only works of any distinction are his pastoral poems.

Lee, Sidney. “Nicholas Breton.” In The Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. Vol. 2. Reprint. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1922. This essay is the most interesting and detailed article about the life of Breton. Lee describes why Breton’s birth and death dates are in doubt and insinuates that the poet had an affair with his patroness, Mary Sidney, the countess of Pembroke. Provides a detailed primary biography along with the whereabouts of Breton’s few remaining first editions.

Tannenbaum, Samuel Aaron, and Dorothy R. Tannenbaum. Nicholas Breton: A Concise Bibliography. New York: S. A. Tannenbaum, 1947. Breton has been almost completely ignored by scholars over the last three centuries. The Tannenbaums have published one of the only sources of any kind available on this Elizabethan poet. It is immensely valuable for the serious Breton student.