Thomas Sackville Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Thomas Sackville’s other contribution to English literature was the play performed first before a select audience at the Inner Temple (where Sackville was a young student of the law) on January 6, 1561, and then before Queen Elizabeth on January 18, “with grett tryumphe” according to one observer. The title pages of two of the three editions printed in the sixteenth century describe the drama as the joint work of two fellow students, Sackville and Thomas Norton, yet the extent of Norton’s contribution is disputed. Because the play was the first in England to use the elements of dramatic blank verse, the regular form of tragedy, and a subject from English chronicle history, its importance in literary history is assured. Moreover, the play is characteristic of the concerns of Sackville’s two poems and of his long public life: In language, structure, and theme, it focuses on the political evils caused by an insecure succession. Both Norton and Sackville were involved in parliamentary debate on the issue of Queen Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry, which was for the majority of the years of her reign a topic of deep national concern.

One other work of Sackville is known, a prefatory sonnet commending Thomas Hoby’s The Book of the Courtier, a 1561 translation of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528). A recent survey of the evidence (by Allan H. Orrick in Notes and Queries, January, 1956) has concluded that there is no substance to the tradition that Sackville wrote a number of sonnets and other short poems now lost. Sackville had completed his few writings in belles letters by early 1561, when he was twenty-five or twenty-six years old and had already embarked on his entirely absorbing, important career. In addition to his literary writings, interesting letters and documents concerning public affairs have survived.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Thomas Sackville’s literary contemporaries, among them Joshua Sylvester, Thomas Campion, and George Turberville, praised his poetry highly. (Turberville would not himself try, he claimed, to compete with Sackville in the high style of epic.) In a dedicatory sonnet to The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), Edmund Spenser acknowledged that Sackville was “much more fit (were leasure to the same)” than he to write Elizabeth’s praises. Again, among the portraits of the courtiers of his day in Spenser’s Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), that of Aetion was probably meant to represent Sackville: “A gentler shepherd may no where be found:/ Whose Muse full of high thoughts invention,/ Doth like himselfe heroically sound.” Certainly Sackville’s high birth and important career encouraged such commendations. As Spenser’s lines suggest, Sackville’s contemporaries also recognized that his literary achievement mirrored that of his life.

A Mirror for Magistrates, a composite work which records the fall from power of figures in English history, made an important statement on matters of national import, first bringing into prominence the great Tudor investigation of issues of responsible government seen against a background of problems of recent history, familiar to modern readers in the history plays of William Shakespeare. Sackville’s contribution has been recognized as outstanding by readers from his day to the present. Indeed, a false tradition soon developed, making Sackville responsible for the planning and inception of the whole project. Sackville’s “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham” and especially the artful “Induction” were recognized as first achieving a poetic style appropriate for a national epic. Indeed, Sackville was an important influence on Spenser in The Faerie Queene.

Sackville has thus held an honored if minor position in literary history. His reputation was enhanced by the view (until recently the common one) that between Geoffrey Chaucer and Spenser, English poetry experienced an uninspired, dull period—lightened only by Sackville himself. This judgment is now seen as exaggerated. Still, it points to Sackville’s early, transitional achievement in approaching the “golden” style of the New Poetry of the high Elizabethan era.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Berlin, Normand. Thomas Sackville. New York: Twayne, 1974. This study, part of Twayne’s English Authors series, is among the most readable on Sackville’s work and life and includes some fine criticism.

Campbell, Lily B., ed. The Mirror for Magistrates. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960. An excellent text of the poems, with a lengthy and equally excellent introduction to the works.

Cauthen, Irby B., Jr., ed. Introduction to Gorboduc: Or, Ferrex and Porrex, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. Although brief, the introduction to the play offers approximately twenty pages describing the lives of the authors and the political atmosphere of the times, and provides textual criticism of the play.

Ruoff, James E., ed. Crowell’s Handbook of Elizabethan and Stuart Literature. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. Listed under Gorboduc and A Mirror for Magistrates, one finds concise plot summary, critical synopses, and bibliography. The handbook still proves invaluable for students of Renaissance literature.

Swart, J. Thomas Sackville: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Poetry. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977. Examines poetry in sixteenth century England and the place of Sackville in that tradition.

Zim, Rivakah. “Dialogue and Discretion: Thomas Sackville, Catherine de Medici, and the Anjou Marriage Proposal 1571.” Historical Journal 40, no. 2 (June, 1997): 287-310. Sackville’s previously unpublished letters of his secret interview with Catherine de Medici concerning the 1571 Anjou marriage proposal exploit the actuality of dramatic dialogue beyond the normal use of diplomatic correspondence.

_______. “Religion and the Political Counsellor: Thomas Sackville (1536-1608).” English Historical Review 122, no. 498 (September, 2007): 892-918. Although this article investigates the religious views of Sackville, it does deal with his writings and provides invaluable background information.