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.
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.
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.
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.