The Poetry of Gascoigne Critical Essays

George Gascoigne

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

From the time A Hundred Sundrie Flowres Bound up in One Small Posie was published in 1573, until the twentieth century, most readers have taken the prefatory letters to the volume at face value and believed that George Gascoigne was responsible for only a few of the works included; but now G. T. Prouty has proved beyond doubt that Gascoigne was responsible for all of them. This unquestioning acceptance in Gascoigne’s time was fortunate for him: when the volume first came out, he was in Holland fighting for his country, and he was not the only one blamed in the severe attack on the work. Yet, in 1575, when Gascoigne had had time to go over the volume and revise it somewhat, he brought out a new edition in which he acknowledged authorship of the previous volume, openly repented what he had done, and vowed that he would write in the future only works which would have a definite positive influence on the nation. Then he showed how he had revised the volume and how even it could be used for a good purpose. He was equally unsuccessful in this attempt at revision, but he continued to pursue a career in writing. Since the A Hundred Sundrie Flowres and Posies contain essentially the same material, they may be considered together.

The volumes can be broken down into three main groups: the drama, the fiction, and the poetry. In the drama section are two plays translated into English—the Greek tragedy Jocasta, by Euripides, and the Italian comedy, I Suppositi, by Ariosto. The fictional section contains “The Adventures of Master F. J.”; in the later edition this work is considerably revised and is called a translation of a work by an unknown Italian writer, Bartello. In still a later work, Gascoigne reveals that he himself is Bartello.

Gascoigne used another method of division in Posies. He divided his material into sections which he called “Flowres, Hearbes, and Weedes.” He justifies this classification by saying, “I terme some Floures, bycause being indeed invented upon a verie light occasion, they had yet in them some rare invention and Methode before not commonly used.” The herbs are “more profitable than pleasant,” and in this section he includes I Suppositi and Jocasta. The value of the “Weedes” may be questionable, but none is “so vile or stinking but that it hath in it some vertue if it be rightly handled.” As one might expect, it is in this section that Gascoigne places “The Adventures of Master F. J.”

Various poems are scattered throughout Gascoigne’s three sections. The first poem is typical of the age in the way it is “The Anatomye of a Lover.” This poem is typical of the age in the way in catalogues the physical features of the lover, not the loved one. Starting at the top of the head with “unkempt lockes” and progressing down through the body all the way to the feet, Gascoigne shows what happens to one snared by love. The poem is so typical that a certain humorous tone creeps in and hints that Gascoigne is actually parodying the conceit instead of copying it. This tone of humor continues in the next poem, “The Arraignment of a Lover.” Love was a stable topic during this Elizabethan period, and Gascoigne used it over and over in his poems. These titles are typical: “The Passion of a Lover,” “The Divorce of a Lover,” “The Lamentation of a Lover,” and “The Lullabie of a Lover.”

A paraphrase of “The Lullabie of a Lover” might go like this: As women sing to quiet the child, so do I sing, for I have many children to quiet. First, silence my youth for I am now an aging man. Next, rest my eyes; I have wandered too much for pleasures of the flesh. Third, let my passion rest and be ruled by reason for a change. Fourth, let my little “Robin” rest and let “lust relent.” Thus may my whole body rest. Now that pleasures are past, welcome pain.

“The Lamentation of a Lover” follows the same general theme. Gascoigne is saying that once he enjoyed many pleasures, but since he is no longer able to enjoy them, his sadness is double because he knows what once was and can no longer be.

One of the longer poems in “Flowers” is “Dan Bartholmew of Bathe,” a verse narrative. This poem is actually a linking together of verses written at various times by putting them in a narrative framework, rather than a group of verses written in chronological order. The poem did not appear in its completed form in A Hundred Sundrie Flowres. Because of its concern with a single love affair, some consider the poem to be a forerunner of the sonnet sequence. The story is of Dan Bartholmew and his love for Ferenda Natura. Not until he is middle-aged does the hero fall in love, but when he does, his passion is so great that even when his love proves faithless he cannot forget her. The only way he can soothe his torment is by telling his sad story. In the end, Ferenda writes a letter in her own blood, begging forgiveness, which Bartholmew quickly grants, even though he suspects his beloved Ferenda will soon be searching for a new lover.

Another long poem appearing in the “Flowers” section of Posies is “The Frutes of Warre,” which has the subtitle “Dulce Bellum Inexpertis.” In it is found in verse form the story of Gascoigne’s war experiences in Holland. His discussion of the nature of war can be summed up in his definition of war: “I say that warre is even the scourge of God,/Tormenting such as dwell in princelie plight.”

After the “Flowers” comes a section of “Herbs.” First in this section are the translated plays, and after these are some eighteen short poems on such various subjects as reconciliation, friendship, virtue, and, of course, love. In “Gascoigne’s Woodmanship,” the poet is reviewing the various events in his life for his patron, Lord Grey of Wilton. In the form of dialogue, Gascoigne answers the question of why he always misses the mark with his bow, by showing that he has always missed the mark; he has missed as student, lawyer, courtier, and soldier:

For proofe he beares the note of follienow,Who shotte sometimes to hit Philoso-phie,And aske you why?Next that, he shot to be a man of lawe,Yet in the end, he proved but a dawe,From thence he shotte to catch a courtlygrace,And thought even there to wield theworld at will,But now behold what marke the mandoth find,He shootes to be a souldier in his age,

Thus he has failed in each attempt, yet he still has hopes of being a successful professional writer.

Still more short poems appear in the section called “Weeds,” including “The Frute of Fetters,” “The Greene Knights Farewell to Fansie,” and “The Praise of Phillip Sparrowe.” This last poem shows the Gascoigne must have known John Skelton. One stanza should be sufficient to show the similarities:

And yet beside all this good sportMy Phillip can both sing and daunce:With new found toyes of sundry sort,My Phillip can both pricke andpraunce:As if you saye but fend cut phippe,Lord how the peat will turne andskippe.

After witnessing the acceptance, or rather, the refusal of acceptance of the revised Posies,...

(The entire section is 3258 words.)