Thomas Sackville Sackville, Thomas - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Sackville 1536-1608

English poet and playwright.

Sackville is famous for two poems and a play, nearly all that remains of a literary career cut short by his decision to devote his energies to government service. However small Sackville's artistic output may be, scholars recognize him to be a key figure in literary history, especially for the play he wrote with Thomas Norton, Gorboduc (1661). Although critics disagree about the play's political message and final merit, few contest its long list of literary firsts: the first neoclassical English tragedy, the earliest surviving English drama written in blank verse, the first English play to precede each of its five acts with dumb shows, and the first play that was the subject of pronounced literary criticism in England. The two poems by Sackville that were included in William Baldwin's 1563 edition of A Mirror for Magistrates, “Induction” and “The Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham,” are commonly recognized as the best in the collection. “Induction” especially has continued to garner critical attention, both for its combination of classical and medieval influences and for its motif of winter landscapes that inspired countless imitations, most notably by Edmund Spenser in the opening eclogue of his The Shepheardes Calender.

Biographical Information

Sackville was born in Buckhurst, Sussex, into an aristocratic family that had gained distinction through generations of service to British royalty. Sackville's father was the cousin of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. At age fifteen, Sackville probably began his academic career at Oxford University. In 1555, he became a member of the Inner Temple, an exclusive law school where he prepared for a parliamentary career and where he met fellow student Thomas Norton. In 1558, Sackville was elected to Parliament, beginning what would become a life-long career in government. Late in 1561, the play he authored with Norton, Gorboduc, was staged for the first time. From 1563 to 1567, Sackville toured Italy and France. In 1567, he was knighted Lord Buckhurst and was elevated to the House of Lords. For the rest of his career, he held a variety of prominent government posts, serving as a diplomat to France, the Low Countries, and Spain, and as the Lord High Treasurer who in 1601 ordered the execution of the Earl of Essex for treason. Sackville's dedication to the Crown was repeatedly rewarded. In 1589, he was made a Knight of the Garter; in 1591, he was named chancellor of Oxford University; and in 1605, King James I bestowed on him the title Earl of Dorset. In 1608, Sackville died while engaged in his official duties at the Council Table.

Major Works

The date of composition of Sackville's extant poetry remains a matter of conjecture. His two most famous poems, “Induction” and “The Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham,” were probably written between 1554 and 1557, although they were not published until 1563, when William Baldwin, editor of A Mirror for Magistrates, made revisions to his 1559 edition, which had been censored for drawing attention to the misdeeds of royal figures from the recent past. Sackville's “Induction” was designed to establish the tone for A Mirror for Magistrates as an anthology of tragic poems intended to influence contemporary royalty and government officials to act properly by showing from historical example how vice was punished, if not in this life then in the afterlife. Sackville's “Induction,” written in rhyme-royal pentameter, begins with the poet musing in a bleak winter landscape. He meets Sorrow, who takes him to the underworld to encounter Henry, the Duke of Buckingham. Seventy-six stanzas in length, “Induction” then moves directly into “The Complaint of Henry,” which recounts the tragic fall of Henry, who was guilty of trying to overthrow his royal master, Richard III. Sackville's and Norton's tragedy, Gorboduc, was first staged for the Inner Temple in December 1561; the following month it was performed for Queen Elizabeth I. Written in blank verse and deeply influenced by both the classical tragedies of Seneca and medieval English morality plays, Gorboduc tells the story of two princes, Ferrex and Porrex, who are driven to civil war after their father, King Gorboduc, divides his kingdom between them. Although the play did not enjoy a long stage life, it has remained the subject of intense critical analysis for its political theme and the fact that it was the earliest five-act tragedy written in English.

Critical Reception

Critics are unanimous in their praise of Sackville's “Induction” and “Complaint of Henry” as the best poetry in Baldwin's A Mirror for Magistrates. They also agree that Sackville's “Induction” was responsible for establishing winter landscapes as a motif expressing mutability, a device that would be imitated and expanded upon by numerous English poets. More general assessments of Sackville's two poems have ranged considerably, however. Edmund Spenser, who modeled his “January” eclogue on the opening stanzas of Sackville's “Induction,” lauded Sackville's poem as “golden verses.” Alexander Pope argued that Sackville's two poems represented the greatest English poetry written between the times of Chaucer and Spenser, a sentiment repeated by many critics. Nevertheless, at least one prominent scholar, Jacobus Swart, has challenged this evaluation, arguing that Sackville's poetic reputation is greatly overrated and that his two famous poems lack the sustained excellence or originality with which they are commonly credited. A number of critics have focused on Sackville's sparing use of metaphor, his allusions to classical and medieval sources, and his depiction of Henry as a sympathetic figure, a device that influenced the characterization of tragic protagonists in later English drama. Sackville's only other known surviving poetry are a sonnet composed in 1561 for Thomas Hoby's translation of Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier and a recently discovered poem, “Sacvyle's Olde Age.” The latter work suggests that Sackville wrote additional poetry before denouncing it as youthful folly.

Critical analysis of Gorboduc has tended to focus less on the play's literary merit than on issues relating to its composition, principle influences, and underlying theme. Scholars concerned with the compositional history of Gorboduc have attempted to determine which of the five acts Sackville wrote and which should be attributed to Norton. Discussions about the play's influences have divided critics between those who stress the influence of Seneca and those who find that English dramatic traditions were at least as important in shaping the work. Finally, while the majority of critics agree that Gorboduc should be read as a message to the unmarried Queen Elizabeth urging her to establish a line of succession for the political stability of the country, there remain many alternate explanations that challenge this interpretation. Praise for Gorboduc is not altogether lacking. Alexander Pope held it in high regard, and Sir Philip Sidney lauded its language. Perhaps most importantly, few would disagree that the play exercised considerable influence on the portrayal of tragic figures on the English stage.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Gorboduc [Ferrex and Porrex with Thomas Norton] (play) 1561

“Sonnet” (poetry) 1561

“Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham” (poetry) 1563

“Induction” (poetry) 1563

“Sacvyle's Olde Age” (poetry) 1989

Fitzroy Pyle (essay date July 1938)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pyle, Fitzroy. “Thomas Sackville and A Mirror for Magistrates.Review of English Studies 14 (July 1938): 315-21.

[In the following essay, Pyle attempts to date the composition of “Induction” and “Complaint” and goes on to discuss William Baldwin's role in editing the two poems included in The Mirror for Magistrates.]

Thomas Sackville is one of the great might-have-beens of literature. He appears to have written nothing after the age of twenty-four and comparatively little before that; yet not alone was he the outstanding poet of the age in which he was writing, but it is generally agreed that “his contributions to the Mirror for...

(The entire section is 2578 words.)

Howard Baker (essay date 1939)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Baker, Howard. “Gorboduc: Some Fundamental Problems in the Early Dramatic Tradition.” In Induction to Tragedy: A Study in a Development of Form in Gorbudoc, The Spanish Tragedy, and Titus Andronicus, pp. 9-47. New York: Russell & Russell, 1939.

[In the following excerpt, Baker argues that the ongoing critical debate about the themes and philosophy of Gorboduc can best be resolved by considering the lives and literary concerns of the play's two authors, Sackville and Thomas Norton.]

Gorboduc has been more than usually subject to the vicissitudes of opinion. Composed in 1561 by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton and...

(The entire section is 8572 words.)

Jacobus Swart (essay date 1949)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Swart, Jacobus. “Sackville's Achievement.” In Thomas Sackville: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Poetry, pp. 121-35. Groningen, Batavia: J. B. Wolters' Uitgeversmaatschappij, 1949.

[In the following essay, Swart argues that Sackville's small body of poetry and one play were not as important or original as literary historians have argued.]

We have examined Sackville's life and character, and found him a man whom it would have been a privilege to know. Determined, a bit of an autocrat perhaps, but a diplomat full of high purpose, with a wide range of interests and most capable withal. As a young man, quite incidentally, this great statesman produced two pieces of...

(The entire section is 5970 words.)

Donald Davie (essay date April 1954)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davie, Donald. “Sixteenth-Century Poetry and the Common Reader: The Case of Thomas Sackville.” Criticism 4 (April 1954): 117-27.

[In the following essay, Davie argues that although it may be difficult for the modern reader to appreciate Sackville's poetry, if one considers Elizabethan tastes the poet deserves the critical praise he received.]

In fact of course he is a very uncommon reader indeed. He may even be extinct, and in a strict sense perhaps he never existed. But if he does not exist it is necessary to invent him; or if he has become extinct it is essential to pretend that he has not. For without him criticism must die. He is the reader that every...

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Wolfgang Clemen (essay date 1955)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Clemen, Wolfgang. “Gorboduc.” In English Tragedy Before Shakespeare: The Development of Dramatic Speech, translated by T. S. Dorsch, pp. 56-74. London: Methuen & Co., 1961.

[In the following essay, originally published in German in 1955, Clemen examines the rhetorical style and thematic purpose of Gorboduc.]

The history of rhetorical tragedy in England opens with Gorboduc. In this play the genre Drama has assumed a very strange garb; it is so stiff in movement and so full of elaborate set speeches that it is difficult for us nowadays to appreciate it as drama at all. Yet Gorboduc exerted an unusually powerful influence on...

(The entire section is 7169 words.)

R. G. Howarth (essay date March 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Howarth, R. G. “Thomas Sackville and A Mirror for Magistrates.English Studies in Africa 6, no. 1 (March 1963): 77-99.

[In the following essay, Howarth provides an account of Sackville's life and then considers his poetic contributions to A Mirror for Magistrates, which the critic argues were the most influential in the entire collection.]

Thomas Sackville was born in 1536, at Buckhurst, Sussex. His father was Sir Richard Sackville, a cousin of Anne Boleyn, described by Roger Ascham as “a lover of learning and all learned men; wise in all doings; courteous to all persons, showing spite to none, doing good to many.” He held important...

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Jeannine Bohlmeyer (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bohlmeyer, Jeannine. “Mythology in Sackville's ‘Induction’ and ‘Complaint.’” Costerus 2 (1972): 9-23.

[In the following essay, Bohlmeyer argues that although Sackville borrowed heavily from classical and medieval sources to fashion his “Induction” and “Complaint,” the poems were truly original and the greatest expressions of tragedy found in A Mirror for Magistrates.]

Classical mythology has been and occasionally still is a fertile field in which English literature flowers easily. Some of the flowers are decorative and showy and fast-fading; some are sturdy hybrids grafting the ancient tradition and a later creative imagination into a plant...

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Alan T. Bradford (essay date winter 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bradford, Alan T. “Mirrors of Mutability: Winter Landscapes in Tudor Poetry.” English Literary Renaissance 4 (winter 1974): 3-39.

[In the following excerpt, Bradford argues that Sackville's “Induction” was the most influential Tudor poem to use images of winter landscapes to express the human condition.]

Descriptions of winter are common in sixteenth-century English poetry, and they almost always function as metaphorical mirrors of the speaker's state of mind; at the same time, the winter landscape is invariably emblematic of that aspect of the human condition that so preoccupied the Renaissance imagination: mutability. Such descriptions apply the...

(The entire section is 3752 words.)

Normand Berlin (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Berlin, Normand. “Thomas Sackville and Elizabethan Tragedy.” In Thomas Sackville, pp. 120-27. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Berlin contends that Sackville should be remembered for more than his authorship of the first English tragedy, arguing that his blank verse and poetic characterizations of tragic figures were instrumental in the subsequent tragedies of more prominent playwrights, including William Shakespeare.]

Thomas Sackville is the victim of “the most perfect conspiracy of approval,” to use T. S. Eliot's phrase in his notorious essay about Ben Jonson. Praised for having written the best poem between Chaucer and...

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Rivkah Zim (essay date June 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Zim, Rivkah. “Dialogue and Discretion: Thomas Sackville, Catherine de Medici and the Anjou Marriage Proposal 1571.” Historical Journal 40, no. 2 (June 1997): 287-310.

[In the following essay, Zim argues that Sackville's official correspondence to Queen Elizabeth and Thomas Heneage, composed while he was a diplomat in France, can be read as filled with carefully crafted rhetoric meant to influence decisions on royal succession and thus may be regarded as political literature in much the way that Gorboduc has been.]

For most of his distinguished career as a statesman Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (later first earl of Dorset) was also known as a poet...

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Greg Walker (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Walker, Greg. “Strategies of Courtship: The Marital Politics of Gorboduc.” In The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama, pp. 196-21. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Walker argues that the earliest stage performances of Gorboduc before royal audiences show that, despite the play's more universal appeal, its foremost intention was to influence Queen Elizabeth to marry Robert Dudley.]

While Queen Mary readily conformed to male expectations, taking a husband and tempering her sovereignty in the political arena with wifely subservience in the domestic sphere, Elizabeth I resolutely did not....

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Jacqueline Vanhoutte (essay date spring 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Community, Authority and the Motherland in Sackville and Norton's Gorboduc.Studies in English Literature 40, no. 2 (spring 2000): 227-39.

[In the following essay, Vanhoutte focuses on themes of community, nationhood, and royal maternal responsibility that Sackville and Norton developed in Gorboduc to try to convince Queen Elizabeth that England's political stability required her to marry.]

Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's Gorboduc (1561-62) has elicited critical interest mainly because it is the first blank-verse tragedy in English and because it engages the politically delicate matter of the Elizabethan...

(The entire section is 5780 words.)

Mike Pincombe (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pincombe, Mike. “Sackville Tragicus: A Case of Poetic Identity.” In Sixteenth-Century Identities, edited by A. J. Piesse, pp. 112-32. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Pincombe analyzes “Complaint” in order to show that Sackville's goal was to become a serious writer of tragedy.]

To the general reader, Thomas Sackville presents a very curious case of poetic identity. By that I mean that he is is more or less identical with Thomas Norton, with whom he wrote the ‘first English tragedy’: Gorboduc (first printed 1565). Few casual readers of this play (if there are any) can tell the two poets...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Zim, Rivkah, and M. B. Parkes. “‘Sacvyles Olde Age’: A Newly Discovered Poem by Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, Earl of Dorset (c. 1536-1608).” Review of English Studies 40, no. 157 (February 1989): 1-25.

Discusses Sackville's poetic artistry in a recently discovered poem, “Sacvyle's Olde Age.”

Additional coverage of Sackville’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 62 and 132; Discovering Authors Modules—Dramatists Module; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to English Literature Ed. 2....

(The entire section is 83 words.)