1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir John Harington

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:149-51.



Sir JOHN HARRINGTON, born at Kelston near the city of Bath, was the son of John Harrington esquire, who was imprisoned in the Tower in the reign of Queen Mary, for holding a correspondence with the Lady Elizabeth; with whom he was in great favour after her accession to the crown, and received many testimonies of her bounty and gratitude. Sir John our author, had the honour to be her god-son, and both in respect to his father's merit, and his own, he was so happy to possess her esteem to the last. He had the rudiments of his education at Eaton; thence removing to Cambridge, he there commenced master of arts, and before he arrived at his 30th year, he favoured the world with a translation of the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto, by which he acquired some reputation. After this work, he composed four books of epigrams, which in those times were received with great applause; several of these mention another humorous piece of his called Mifacmos Metamorphosis, which for a while exposed him to her Majesty's resentment, yet he was afterwards received into favour. This (says Mrs. Cooper) is not added to the rest of his works, and therefore she supposes was only meant for a Court amusement, not the entertainment of the public, or the increase of his fame. In the reign of King James I. he was created Knight of the Bath, and presented a manuscript to Prince Henry, called a Brief View of the State of the Church of England, as it stood in Queen Elizabeth and King James's reign in the year 1608. This piece was levelled chiefly against the married bishops, and was intended only for the private use of his Highness, but was some years afterwards published by one of Sir John's grandsons, and occasioned much displeasure from the clergy, who did not fail to recollect that his conduct was of a piece with his doctrines, as he, together with Robert earl of Leicester, supported Sir Walter Raleigh in his suit to Queen Elizabeth for the manor of Banwell, belonging to the bishopric of Bath and Wells, on the presumption that the right reverend incumbent had incurred a Premunire, by marrying a second wife.

Sir John appears to he a gentleman of great pleasantry and humour; his fortune as easy, the court his element, and which is ever an advantage to an author, wit was not his business, but diversion: Tis not to be doubted, that his translation of Ariosto was published after Spenser's Fairy Queen, and yet both in language and numbers it is much inferior, as much as it is reasonable to suppose the genius of Harrington was below that of Spenser.

Mrs. Cooper remarks, that the whole poem of Orlando is a tedious medley of unnatural characters and improbable events, and that the author's patron, Cardinal Hippolito De Este, had some reason for that severe question, Where the devil, Signior Ludovico, did you pick up all these damned lies? The genius of Ariosto seems infinitely more fit for satire than heroic poetry; and some are of opinion, that had Harrington wrote nothing but epigrams, he had been more in his own way.

We cannot certainly fix the time that Sir John died, but it is reasonable to suppose that it was about the middle or rather towards the latter end of James I's reign. I shall subjoin an epigram of his as a specimen of his poetry.

IN CORNUTUM.
What curl'd pate youth is he that sitteth there,
So near thy wife, and whispers in her eare,
And takes her hand in his, and soft doth wring her,
Sliding his ring still up and down her finger?
Sir, tis a proctor, seen in both the lawes,
Retain'd by her in some important cause;
Prompt and discreet both in his speech and action,
And doth her business with great satisfaction.
And think'st thou so? a horn-plague on thy head!
Art thou so like a fool, and wittol led,
To think he doth the business of thy wife?
He doth thy business, I dare lay my life.