William Alabaster Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Alabaster 1568-1640

English poet, playwright, and essayist.

Alabaster is best remembered for his sequence of devotional sonnets, which anticipate the works of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne and George Herbert. Written during the late Elizabethan age, these sonnets often employ the stylistic elements of paradox and extended metaphor which characterize the poems of these later writers. A Cambridge scholar and cleric who converted from the Anglican church to Catholicism and back twice, Alabaster also wrote Latin verse, drama, and theological works. Since the rediscovery of his works, critical interest in Alabaster has been primarily historical, though some have examined his style as well.

Biographical Information

Born in 1568 to a Protestant family in Hadleigh, Suffolk, Alabaster grew up studying classical languages. In 1584, partly through the influence of his uncle, he was elected a Queen's Scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge. While there he made a promising start to his literary career, beginning Elisaeis (composed c. 1588), an unfinished verse epic in Latin on the career of Elizabeth I. Alabaster presented a copy of the first volume of the poem to the queen, and Edmund Spenser highly extolled the work in his Colin Clout's come Home Again: “Who lives that can match that heroic song / Which he hath of that mighty Princess made? / … / No braver Poem can be under Sun.” Alabaster received a B.A. from Cambridge in 1588 and an M.A. in 1591; five years later he became chaplain to the Earl of Essex. His theological career, newly begun, took a drastically different route in 1597, when Alabaster converted to Roman Catholicism. He sent a letter to the Earl of Essex containing “Seven Motives” for his conversion, but the government intercepted this correspondence. Alabaster was arrested and taken to London, where for the most part he was treated gently. A number of Anglican authorities urged him to recant, but he refused. Alabaster escaped from his unguarded confinement, making his way to the English College in Rome. He probably finished the majority of his devotional sonnets before he escaped to the continent. While attempting to return to England in 1599, he was captured at La Rochelle, France, and taken to the Tower of London, where he began to cooperate with the authorities, giving them information about Catholic plots. Soon after his release in 1603, Alabaster was again arrested for engaging in pro-Catholic teachings and writings, and he was held for two years. He then moved to Belgium, where he wrote his first essay in mystical theology, but he soon became disillusioned with the Catholic institutions of the Inquisition and the Jesuits. After being imprisoned by the Inquisition, released, then imprisoned by the Dutch government, Alabaster declared his intention to return to the Protestant church and was handed over to English authorities. While being confined at the house of the Dean of St. Paul's, however, he repented and re-declared his Catholic faith. Little is known about the next few years of Alabaster's life, but three years later he had once again converted to the Church of England and found himself in favor with King James. In 1618 Alabaster married Katherine Fludd and settled into a life of study and writing about mystical theology, as well as continuing to write epigrams and elegies, until his death in London on April 28, 1640.

Major Works

Alabaster is best known for the neo-Latin works he completed while still at Cambridge. The first of these, Elisaeis, is an epic about Elizabeth I originally intended to be twelve books in length. The extant volume shows a preoccupation with stylistic experimentation as well as the use of extended rhetorical speeches. However, Alabaster published only the first book—concerning Elizabeth's early difficulties during the reign of Mary I—before he became a Catholic and lost motivation to pursue the anti-Catholic project. Also while at Cambridge, Alabaster wrote Roxana, an adaptation of an Italian tragedy written by Luigi Groto concerning the ghost of a murdered king seeking revenge upon his nephew. The play, featuring allegorized figures such as Death and Jealousy, includes many rhetorical speeches and epigrams, recalling Elisaeis. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1597, Alabaster began work on a sequence of devotional sonnets in English that later editors have titled Divine Meditations. These sonnets, save one, were not published in Alabaster's lifetime, but were circulated in manuscript form. The wit and subtle argument of these poems, as well as their frequent use of extended conceits, have earned Alabaster his modern reputation as an important precursor to the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century.

Critical Reception

Alabaster's reputation among his contemporaries rests solely on his Latin verse—Samuel Johnson considered the Latin verse of Roxana among the best created in England. Alabaster's devotional sonnets were not known until Bertram Dobell published several in 1903. It was at this point that Alabaster was first recognized as a proto-metaphysical poet, and only after G. M. Story and Helen Gardner's 1959 edition of Divine Meditations did he begin to receive much critical attention. Since then, critical interest has been divided between Alabaster's early Latin works and his English poetry. The interest in the neo-Latin texts is largely scholarly and uses these works as examples of period academic literature. Alabaster's devotional poetry has attracted a more diverse attention—critics such as George Klawitter have analyzed the style and language of the sonnets, while Ceri Sullivan and others have discussed their thematic content. While Alabaster is noted as a talented Latin poet and an important predecessor to the later Metaphysical movement in poetry, his career also illustrates the religious and political divisions of his time.