(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Thomas Sackville’s contributions to A Mirror for Magistrates shows a typical Elizabethan compound of classical, medieval, and “native” elements: Renaissance English literature owes its characteristic variety and vigor to a mixing of sources and styles. Deriving from medieval traditions are the complaint form of tragedy (in which the ghost of a fallen “prince” tells his life story), an interest in the vicissitudes of Fortune, imitations from Dante Alighieri, and use of dream-vision conventions. At the same time, Sackville turns to the classics, notably to Vergil, for the descent into hell as well as for much imagery and many details, and he evokes an atmosphere of classical myth and ancient history through allusion and example. He also employs artful figures of rhetoric in a manner newly stylish in contemporary Tudor letters and uses such “native” elements as archaic diction and syntax to further the effect of synthesis among diverse literary elements. The result is a dignified and serious mixing of richly traditional elements.

In the sentiments and atmosphere of his two pieces, Sackville evokes the brooding, melancholic air of Elizabethan tragedy, anticipating later Elizabethan achievements in drama. (In his exaggerated expression of extreme emotionality, he works, however, in the earlier, mid-Tudor literary style.) He includes themes and images which become popular in Elizabethan drama and lyric, praising sleep, likening life to a play, and stressing that murder will not long remain hidden. Although such conceptions have roots in medieval and classical traditions, Sackville has gathered them into one poem where they work together with cumulative effect. Finally, Sackville’s evocation of an atmosphere of woe and lamentation goes beyond the mere presenting of misery to anticipate the great Elizabethan treatments of mutability, which culminated in the mature works of Spenser.

A Mirror for Magistrates

A Mirror for Magistrates was planned as a continuation of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes (wr. 1431-1439, pb. 1494), which itself followed the model of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium (1355-1374; The Fall of Princes, 1431-1438). Sometime after 1550, a group of collaborators headed by William Baldwin undertook to write a series of tragic episodes, selecting from the English historical chronicles those figures and episodes which would fit their design. A running prose commentary discusses each verse tragedy and links them together. Mentioning the authors of many of the pieces and here and there revealing the intentions of the compilers, this commentary evokes a real as well as literary world. The authors included well-known men respected as writers in their time, public figures who had survived the many political shifts of sixteenth century England—in a word, these were men who knew by experience the political reality of the tales they told. A first version was partly printed in 1555 but was suppressed by Queen Mary’s chancellor Stephen Gardiner on suspicion of containing seditious references to contemporary conditions. Publication was made possible upon the accession of Elizabeth, in a first edition, in 1559, covering the period from Richard II to Edward IV and a second edition, 1563, presenting new tragedies primarily concerning Richard III.

Modern readers find A Mirror for Magistrates dull, didactic, and emotionally exaggerated. It was very popular in its time, however, going through a good number of editions and receiving successive versions and later imitations. Its analysis of recent political history brought to contemporary readers the latest thoughts on public issues; in addition, it provided some opportunity for the grim sport of seeking allusions to public controversies. The collection played a significant role in furthering the Tudor interpretation of history which has come to be called the Tudor Myth: A long period of destruction and disorder in the Wars of the Roses was England’s punishment for violating the divinely sanctioned order when Henry IV deposed the rightful king, Richard II; a happy resolution was recently allowed in the accession of the great Tudor rulers.

Two central convictions underlie this reading of English history. First, the ruler of “magistrate” was believed to be the vice-regent of God, governing by divine right yet still accountable to God. Second, history was seen as a means of teaching political wisdom, presenting a “mirror” which shows (in Lily B. Campbell’s words) “the pattern of conduct which had brought happiness or unhappiness to nations and to men in the past.” In adopting these views, the authors of A Mirror for Magistrates played down the medieval vision of the capricious falseness of this world’s glories, seeking instead to reveal the workings of divine justice in the affairs of men. Sackville thus presents his Duke of Buckingham as vulnerable to the uncertain charms of Fortune because of his own moral blindness and as being justly punished for his unscrupulous ambition.

The story of Sackville’s contribution to A Mirror for Magistrates is obscure in many details, which were not entirely clarified with the discovery, by Marguerite Hearsey in 1929, of an early manuscript in the author’s holograph. Generally, however, the introductory statements by Baldwin give a clear picture. When the first version was suppressed, Sackville proposed a more acceptable selection to which some new tragedies that he would write himself would be added, the whole to be prefaced by his “Induction” (introduction). This plan was not carried through, yet in the second edition (where it belonged chronologically), his “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham,” was accompanied by the “Induction” because its literary excellence demanded inclusion.


Sackville chose the rime royal stanza of pentameter lines rhyming ababbcc, common in the late Middle Ages for serious verse, for both “Induction” and “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham.” Although his strong iambics tend toward a thumping monotony, the effect is no more intrusive than in other mid-Tudor poets. Sackville also uses much alliteration; in Berlin’s estimate, nine of ten lines use this device of repetition. Although such old-fashioned...

(The entire section is 2608 words.)