There is a novel by John Masefield called ODTAA. Its title stands for ‘One Damn Thing After Another’. This would be a good title for a biography of George Gascoigne. Despite having a fine crop of literary firsts to his name (the first Italian-style comedy in English, one of the very first versions of a Greek tragedy in English, and one of the earliest systematic discussions of English metre), he was one of the unluckiest English poets. As he once complained: ‘the taste of miserie,/Hath bene alwayes full bitter in his bit.’ He started well enough, proceeding from a Bedfordshire gentry family to Gray’s Inn. In 1561 he contrived to marry a rich widow who was unfortunately already married to someone else (she apparently believed the earlier marriage was not legal). Legal struggles and fisticuffs with his rival ensued, and eventually Gascoigne was imprisoned for debt in Bedford jail in 1570. In an effort to improve his fortunes he joined Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1572, and spent the next couple of years shuttling between England and the Low Countries. Several battles later, most of which were disasters, he was suspected by both the Dutch and English of having treacherously surrendered to the Spanish during the defence of Leiden in 1574.
Next, Gascoigne sought to make his mark in the world and at Court by writing. In 1575 he composed an entertainment for the Queen on her visit to Kenilworth. What should have been his finest hour became a debacle: in his eagerness to please his patron the Earl of Leicester, who was paying for the entertainment, he composed a masque (‘Zabeta’) which appears to have urged the Queen to marry her favourite so explicitly that it could not be performed. On the Queen’s return from hunting she was greeted instead by Gascoigne ‘clad like a savage man, all in Ivie’. As a sign of his submission to her, he broke his ‘tree’ (presumably a leafy staff) with such vigour that the top end went flying through the air and narrowly missed her horse. The sensible beast shied. Despite the Queen’s gracious cry of ‘No hurt, no hurt,’ Gascoigne’s career as a courtly poet never took flight after that moment. His translation of Hemetes the Hermit (entertainments which the Queen had enjoyed at Woodstock) contains a portrait of George Gascoigne the Courtly Poet: laurels hover over his head as he kneels to present a volume to the Queen herself. He died in 1577, never having made that fanciful picture a reality.
A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres was printed in 1573, while Gascoigne was busily moving to and fro between England and Holland, and was one of his many attempts to make his name. It is a volume of remarkable range. No English writer before Gascoigne had printed poems, plays and prose narrative together in one volume, and no earlier English poet had adopted so many aliases within a single volume. And yet Gascoigne has never been ushered into the English canon to frolic with his master Chaucer, or to exchange sage and serious conversation with Spenser and Sidney and Shakespeare, despite his having taught so much to his successors. After his death he was praised often, but often guardedly. So E.K. in the notes to Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender of 1579 called him ‘the very chefe of our late rymers’, implying by ‘rhymer’ that he didn’t quite deserve the laudatory term ‘poet’. By the mid-1590s, Sir John Davies, a newer, smarter sort of Inns of Court man, identified a taste for Gascoigne with a love of the passé. Twentieth-century critics sometimes praised him highly: Yvor Winters described ‘Gascoignes wodmanship’ as ‘a poem unsurpassed in the century except by a few of the Sonnets of Shakespeare’ (don’t you just love that ‘a few’? Those were the days). Latterly, Gascoigne’s ingenious uses of multiple narrators have made a number of critics take notice. But in the days when a canon of English authors existed, he was never securely included in it.
Part of the reason for this is that Gascoigne did not produce the blinding line or the sumptuous phrase for T.S. Eliot to home in on. No ‘bracelets of bright hair about the bone’ here. Indeed, his one poem in Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book of English Verse contains the exquisitely execrable lines ‘And popt a question for the nonce,/To beate my braynes about’. He certainly has moments far better than this. ‘Gascoigne’s Lullaby’ is as good a set of octosyllabic lines as you will find in the 16th century: ‘Sing lullabie, as women doe,/Wherewith they bring their babes to rest,/And lullabie can I sing to/As womanly as can the best.’ The bulk of his output consists of long lines – many of which he wrote fast, and some of which he composed quite literally on the hoof – which do not draw attention to themselves, but which with a low-key artistry make the main point of the line coincide with its metrical and rhetorical emphasis. He is one of the first 16th-century poets to do this instinctively, and even his weakest writing creates the impression of the steady gravity for which Winters and his followers rightly praised him. His two plays have a colloquial vigour, and his Supposes (translated from Ariosto) is a rather hearty prototype for the confusions of identity which run through Shakespearean comedy. It is perhaps symptomatic of the way Gascoigne has not quite got there, though, that at the climactic moment of revelation of true identities in his play, no one says they see ‘a natural perspective, that is and is not’, as Orsino does at the end of Twelfth Night. Instead a character says: ‘I thinke he be drunken.’ In Jocasta (a version via an Italian intermediary of Euripides’ Phoenissae) the sections by Gascoigne have far more energy than those by his collaborator Francis Kinwelmersh. Eteocles drives out his brother Polyneices with ‘And now good sir, get you out of these walles,/Unlesse you meane to buy abode with bloude.’ Here, as often in Gascoigne’s verse, obtrusive alliteration flirts with flatness.
A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres appeared six years before The Shepheardes Calender and about a decade before Sidney composed Astrophel and Stella. As a result of its timing, literary histories have often consigned it to what C.S. Lewis memorably and damnably called ‘the drab age’. Sidney and Spenser did two important things to English poetry, neither of which would help the reputation of Gascoigne. The first was to create a critical climate in which (ideally at least) every single line of a poem should be sharp, both metrically smooth and rhetorically pointed. Gascoigne, who at times wrote rubble to fill in feet, immediately seemed to belong to a different age. The second was to introduce a controlled and programmatically over-determined relationship between poems and their personae. Sidney ducks and dives behind the figure of Astrophel, creating readerly fascination with every move; in The Shepheardes Calendar (anonymously printed, with hints as to its author’s identity) the figure of Colin Clout stands for an ideal poet and at the same time for the work’s own particular poet, Edmund Spenser, while E.K., the volume’s annotator, adds to the mystery of who exactly wrote it and why.
It is here that Gascoigne’s influence is crucial, but his achievement partial. The bewildering range of aliases used in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres includes, among fictional authors and personae, the Green Knight, a non-existent author of Italian novelle called Bartello, Marmaduke Marblestone (my favourite, adopted for an epitaph on a Captain Boucher), and an anonymous figure called ‘the Reporter’. The poems and prose narrative are prefaced by exchanges between a fictional editor called G.T., his fictional friend H.W., and a fictional printer called A.B. All of these are almost certainly invented by the poet to distance himself and his name from any stigma attaching to printing the works included in the volume (many of which are about courtly amours, or courtly amours gone wrong). Gascoigne also spawned these personae in order to make his readers muse on the relationship between fictionalised events and the actual circumstances which might have given rise to them. In the tasty headnotes to the sequence of poems called ‘The Devises of Sundrie Gentlemen’ (the ‘Sundrie Gentlemen’ are all Gascoigne) the editor sets the scene which gave rise to each poem, often drawing on what he claims to be personal knowledge of its imagined author. This gives a circumstantial thickness to the poems, while carefully denying the readers of the volume the pleasure of naming and possibly shaming their author and addressees. These prefatory notes build on the formula of the descriptive title which was added to poems in the courtly anthology known as Tottel’s Miscellany – a mid-Tudor bestseller. The titles aim to create a readerly perspective akin to that generated by the finest courtly writing of the 1580s and 1590s, in which fictions are given enough of a grounding in what look like facts to arouse eager curiosity in their readers, but are not supported by enough detail to make it clear who they refer to or what events gave rise to them.
A proto-poet of the 1590s, then? A precedent for the apparent intertangling of real life and fiction in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, even? Not quite. The project of pseudo-anonymous publication goes a little wrong because Gascoigne hybridises the courtly anthology with a view to making a name for himself. The ‘Devises of Sundrie Gentlemen’ ends with a group of poems billed as Gascoigne’s, which are called things like ‘Gascoignes good nyghte’ and ‘Gascoignes Recantation’. This group preserves the fiction of an editorial presence, but shifts the register of the collection towards moralism. ‘Gascoigns Anatomie’, the first of the group, introduces an ageing poet with ‘wan and wrinckled cheeks, wel washt with waves of wo’, as though the achievement of the volume rests finally and heavily on the mature physical presence of its author. ‘Gascoignes wodmanship’, probably his best and certainly his most famous poem, ruefully turns a bad afternoon’s hunting with Lord Grey into a lament that the poet has always missed the mark. These poems suggest that Gascoigne was attempting to align his authorial voice with a mode of learned, rueful and reflective wisdom. That sits uneasily beside his other aim, which was to use the vogue for the courtly anthology to give his work a lustre of elusive plurality, as though the poet had wanted his readers to ask: ‘Who needs Wyatt and Surrey and Vaux when Gascoigne can blend all their voices into one? And what’s more be a sober moralist too.’
He failed in this ambition. And the main reason Gascoigne’s Hundreth Sundrie Flowres has been so unlucky is that the book itself is a confused production. Even its physical form seems to be the product of uncertainty. Much of its prefatory matter is buried in the middle after the plays, leaving many scholars with the impression that Gascoigne (or his printers) changed his mind halfway through about the order of the volume and what it should include. The volume is odd too because it seeks to appeal to so many different kinds of audience. Gascoigne wanted his poems to win him favour and material support, but he never finally decided what kind of support he should be seeking, or from whom. So he includes poems dedicated to Lord Grey, amorous sonnets, moralised autobiographies, and plays which were designed to appeal to the smart young things who frequented the Inns of Court, for whom classical learning, jokes about cuckolds’ horns, and serious discussion of the dangers of an unresolved succession were alike meat and drink. The result is a book that gives off too many signals on too many jarring frequencies quite to get a message across on any of them.
The best and most substantial work in the volume is The Adventures of Master F.J. This is a prose narrative – some have called it a proto-novel, although its closest generic associations are with the Italian novelle of Cinthio and Bandello. It tells how a young man called F.J. visits a castle and falls in love with a woman (whom Gascoigne belatedly reveals is married) called Elinor. They begin their courtship by exchanging ambiguous and semi-anonymous letters. From verses ‘privily lost’ in Elinor’s chamber, passion grows to the point where she takes to her bed with a nose-bleed (which was, as Pigman’s excellent notes show, a symptom of passion). F.J. then intermingles prayers for her health, quack-doctoring, and whispers of flattery in an attempt to cure her. F.J. and Elinor eventually couple on the floor of a gallery, after he has stolen through the castle at night wearing nothing but his nightgown and his ‘naked sword’ (cue much ribald by-play). F.J. almost immediately becomes suspicious of his mistress’s manifest affection for her secretary, who returns after a period of absence with ‘his pens much sharpened’ (cue more ribald by-play). During another nocturnal assignation F.J. rapes his mistress in jealous rage. He then cannot quite understand why her attitude cools. The whole affair is punctuated and in part inspired by lyric poems written (purportedly) by F.J., either to his mistress or to express (variously) his delight and sufferings. These poems are frequently introduced by comments from the fictional narrator of the volume, G.T., which often suggest that they are not in fact the work of F.J., or that they are actually translations (‘I have heard F.J. saye, that he borowed th’inventiun of an Italian’). Gascoigne, like many Elizabethan poets who attempted to establish their courtly credentials, insists on a virtual identification between indirectness of expression and intensity of passion: so (and it is one of the best jokes in the work) when F.J. is at the peak of his pleasure, glorying in his possession of Elinor, he writes a string of love poems. But G.T. apologises that he has been unable to obtain them: the lover ‘being charged with inexprimable joyes’ is ‘enjoyned both by dutie and discretion to kepe the same covert’. The height of courtly passion is epitomised by perfect secrecy. And the representation within the work of passion as a secret tallies exactly with the pretence which frames it, that the whole narrative was a secret passed from F.J. to G.T. and from G.T. to H.W. and then mischievously passed from H.W. to the printer A.B.; for a ‘minde being fraught with delightes … having once disclosed them to any other, strayghtway we loose the hidden treasure of the same.’
A printed work purporting to derive from a private manuscript, F.J. was the centrepiece of Gascoigne’s attempt to create fictions which seemed to be connected with actual networks of people and their conduct. G.T. several times insists that this is a coterie work directed in manuscript to a tiny inner circle of observers. He does this immediately before he describes F.J. having his way with Elinor on the floor of the gallery: ‘Were it not that I knowe to whom I write, I would the more beware what I write.’ The work creates a particularly powerful illusion of reality as a result: even its areas of darkness, such as F.J.’s missing poems of courtship, contribute to the impression of its documentary authenticity as a record of inexpressible, unpublishable secrets. A fiction, after all, would have made up the missing poems too. It also stages itself as a work of massive indiscretion, as a secret affair which has stolen into print, and which has reached an audience for whom it was never intended.
F.J. has rightly been regarded of late as Gascoigne’s finest work. But it was playing a dangerous game. F.J. remarks of an exemplary tale which he is told by his adviser Dame Frances: ‘You seeme to affirme, that it was don in deed of late, and not far hence.’ Apparently early readers of F.J. made the same inference, with the result that the first version was considered libellous. In 1575 a second edition of A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres appeared, renamed The Poesies of George Gascoigne Esquire. The poems in it are divided, with anxious moralism, into ‘Flowers’ and ‘Herbs’ (which are virtuous) and ‘Weeds’ (which supposedly tell young wags what not to do). The revised edition is prefixed by a set of introductory epistles to a variety of different audiences (‘reverende divines’, ‘al yong Gentlemen’ and ‘Readers generally’), once again splitting Gascoigne’s readership into several groups. The epistle ‘To the Reverend Divines’ states that F.J. was believed to have been ‘written to the scandalizing of some worthie personages’. The revised Adventures of Master F.J. is recast as unequivocally a fiction, The Pleasant Fable of Ferdinando Jeronimi and Leonora de Valasco. The flavoursome initials of the original version are replaced by names which could not conceivably have anything to do with any members of the English gentry, and the editorial intrusions of G.T., which had added to the sense of documentary record, are consistently excised. Nonetheless, copies of the revised edition of 1575 were ‘called in’ by the censor (libel or immorality are the most likely grounds for this, although we cannot be sure since the records of the Stationers’ Company from 1571-76 are lost).
Some of the later poems in the 1575 edition contain highly particular biographical detail – that Gascoigne in Holland experienced fighting in a ‘rolling trench’, the early modern equivalent of a tank; that he was suspected of treachery as a result of a letter he received from a lady while he was at Delft – but these details are usually subordinated to, and for most modern readers awkwardly combined with, attempts to allegorise or moralise them. Gascoigne’s account of his experiences in Holland in ‘Dulce Bellum Inexpertis’ is partly designed to illustrate the theme that war is sweet to those who have not tried it. It is also partly designed to present George Gascoigne as a reformed prodigal: ‘These fruites (I say) in wicked warres I found.’ And so to the orthodoxy of a work set in a distant land, about named Italians, he added the orthodoxy of repentance. Both were indicative of the anxiety that he experienced after the hostile reception of the 1573 volume.
It is almost impossible not to view Gascoigne’s work in the light of the fictions which were written over the twenty or so years after 1573. For Gascoigne faced, and was perhaps the first English author to seek to resolve, the same problems as his successors: how do you give resonance to poems in print without either exposing their biographical foundations or translating the life of the poet into simple moral exempla? How do you accommodate the conflicting needs of many different kinds of audience? Gascoigne will never be read as widely as his later Elizabethan successors because he never quite managed to develop a mode of writing which absorbed and addressed a number of distinct positions at once, or which managed to look as though it might have been about himself without directly and flatly revealing its biographical origins. What he does show, however, is the range of pressures and interpretative problems to which the works of his successors were such a brilliant response. That is no small claim to fame. He felt the forces which made English Renaissance literature happen.
This edition is the best piece of luck Gascoigne has had in the four hundred and fifty years since his birth. The gritty and learned introduction does a splendid job of piecing together evidence about his life. It builds on the archival graft done by C.T. Prouty in his biography of 1942, while pruning Prouty’s many speculative outgrowths. Pigman uses his carefully assembled timetable of Gascoigne’s movements in 1572-73 to address the most difficult question about A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres: how far was Gascoigne involved in the printing of the volume? And how far do its many peculiarities (one poem omitted, a partially finished poem at its end, signs of uncertainty about whether or not it should include the dramatic works) reflect what Gascoigne wanted from it? Pigman makes a strong case for the view that Gascoigne was actively involved early on in the book’s production, and that he decided to include the plays in it rather late in the day. This would explain the strange disposition of prefatory matter. By the end of the process of publication Gascoigne was probably not present to oversee the printing of the fragmentary ‘Dan Bartholomew of Bath’ (the manuscript of which, he later claimed in one of his friskier fantasies about how texts shrink and grow, was carried away by the wind). Pigman’s is the most convincing solution so far to this classic bibliographical conundrum, and many have tackled it.
His notes too are rich and loamy. Few readers could wish to know more about the word ‘discourse’ than is provided by the glorious note on Gascoigne’s use of the word in the full title to F.J. (A Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F.J.). Pigman shows it suggests the action is factual, and so prompts Gascoigne’s readers to find the real F.J. in a Fred Jones near them. The note on the bizarre belief that falcons would keep themselves warm at night by clasping a lark to their bosom is another one of many that show a gratifyingly peculiar learning. There are few moments when a trip to the back of the book does not explain what is going on at the front. Pigman may have fallen for Gascoigne’s habitual trick of tempting readers to impute factual origins to his verse when he assumes that the complaints composed in the voice of women were ‘written for a particular person’. Ventriloquism was surely his stock-in-trade. But here, almost spotless, is almost anything a reader of Gascoigne could desire to know, in what must be one of the best editions of an early modern text produced in the last decade. Gascoigne needs and deserves a major critical re-evaluation. Knowing his luck, even this splendid edition might not be enough to bring that about.