Sir Richard Fanshawe Critical Essays


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Sir Richard Fanshawe’s reputation rests almost entirely on his translations, but he did write some creditable original poems, published in 1648, including “An Ode upon Occasion of His Majesty’s Proclamation in the Year 1630” (1630), “The Saint’s Encouragement” (1643), and “The Royalist” (1646). These three poems’ topicality almost consigns them to social history, though they are charming pieces, skillfully contrived. Two poems, one of advice for Prince Charles “Presented to his Highness, in the West, Ann. Dom. 1646” and “The Rose,” are among his better adaptations—translations so free as to be arguably Fanshawe’s own, although acknowledged as translations. In all these poems, one sees traits that make him a dedicated and successful translator rather than a memorable original poet. His success as translator can best be seen in The Faithful Shepherd and The Lusiad.

“An Ode upon Occasion of His Majesty’s Proclamation in the Year 1630”

In “An Ode upon Occasion of His Majesty’s Proclamation in the Year 1630,” the collegiate Fanshawe responds to a 1630 edict in which Charles I urged gentlemen to mind their rural estates and stop migrating to an overcrowded London. A survey of European countries torn by wars leads to one central image: England is like that “blest isle” to which Jove had chained the dove of peace while he fought to take over the heavens. What follows paints a picture of England’s gentlemen and beautiful ladies healthfully at home in their natural country environment. The poem, as John Buxton points out in A Tradition of Poetry (1967), is written in one of Fanshawe’s peculiar stanzaic adaptations, the Sapphic. The classical Sapphic was a quantitative stanza consisting of three eleven-syllable lines followed by one of five syllables. The Sapphic tended to stay off balance, with a concentration of long syllables near the center of the lines and the short final line heightening the impression of asymmetry. The effect resembles sprung rhythm. Fanshawe adapts Sappho by using accentual rhythm and by shortening and regularizing the lines; three tetrameters precede a dimeter. In “An Ode upon Occasion of His Majesty’s Proclamation in the Year 1630,” the tetrameters of the early stanzas are as predictably regular as the wars that plagued Europe. Only the dimeters preserve the effect of syncopated rhythm. When, however, he comes to the four stanzas imaging England as Jove’s blest isle, he “springs” the rhythm so that the most energetic and original rhythms of the poem coincide with its celebration of England’s dynamic peacefulness. As a translator, Fanshawe habitually adapted stanzaic patterns in this way, not duplicating the original but finding an appropriate English analogue.

Young Fanshawe’s metrical insights proved to be more acute, however, than his political ones. Within the decade, his country’s “White Peace” had changed to war. However, the national pride evident in his support for Charles’s proclamation remains as a crucial factor in two other original poems, “The Saint’s Encouragement” and “The Royalist.” Although both evidence the Cavalier spirit of Royalists whose king had not yet been defeated, the earlier song has a lighter tone than the latter.

“The Saint’s Encouragement”

In “The Saint’s Encouragement,” written early in the war, Fanshawe’s speaker is a Puritan “saint” addressing his fellow rebels and urging them to fight on. The poem’s nine stanzas undercut his encouraging words in heavy-handed ways. Fanshawe’s Puritan promises to maintain liberty by “prisonments and plunders,” brags of victories that were historical defeats, and indirectly indicates that Puritan fears are well founded. Fanshawe thus derides the motives the Puritans used to justify the war, but the poem shows little thematic growth. What makes it memorable are two technical devices—its meter and its refrain. Ostensibly, each eight-line stanza consists of two ballad stanzas butted together. The effect of the doubling is to rush one through alternating three- and four-stress lines at a pace no balladeer could maintain. What Fanshawe has done is re-create the helter-skelter tempo of the medieval poulter’s measure, a meter in which lines of twelve and fourteen syllables alternate in couplets. The singsong clumsiness of poulter’s measure had been mocked from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Tale of Sir Thopas” on, and thus the poem’s very meter mocks the Puritan cause. The refrain, “the clean contrary way,” enhances the fun. The rebels successively “fight for the king,” frighten cavaliers, “stand for peace and truth,” and get carried to heaven, “the clean contrary way.”

“The Royalist”

“The Saint’s Encouragement” employs techniques of ridicule that only a cavalier sure of impending victory would dare use. By 1646, however, when Fanshawe wrote “The Royalist,” the situation had changed. Four years of civil war had proven the parliamentary armies a real danger to Charles, now “distressed” and “beggared.” Fanshawe’s drinking song captures the tension with which Charles’s loyalists lived. Its four eight-line stanzas eschew the metrical jokes of the earlier war poem; iambic tetrameter lines rhyme alternately. Its singer concentrates his energy fighting off grief with bowls of potent sack: “A sorrow dares not show its face/ When we are ships and sack’s the sea.” The ship image need not be apt, only feisty. “Pox on this grief, hang wealth, let’s sing,” the speaker continues. For more than half the poem such rebellious outbursts alternate with sentimental reminders that Royalists share the poverty of their king. Gradually, the singer’s rebelliousness settles into the wistful, fantastic cast of alcoholic euphoria.

Although Fanshawe’s Royalist found reality hard to accept in 1646, the poet profited from war’s challenges. “An Ode upon Occasion of His Majesty’s Proclamation in the Year 1630” succeeds because it concentrates a naïve patriotism in one exquisite image; “The Saint’s Encouragement” succeeds because it cleverly expresses an oversimple political faith. “The Royalist,” however, succeeds precisely because it does not simplify the tensions which Charles I’s followers endured.

“Presented to His Highness” and “The Rose”

In these original poems, Fanshawe relies on popular thinking for themes and images but creates his own pattern and situation. In poems such as “Presented to His Highness”...

(The entire section is 2710 words.)