Little apology, it is to be hoped, is needed for a volume of the nature of the present. The author of the poems here for the first time collected was a man of considerable note among his contemporaries, and deserves his place in the history of our literature not less for his connection with other men of letters than for the merit of his own poetic work. The major portion of this was never published in his own lifetime; hence he has failed to obtain the recognition which was his due. The flattering mention of him by Walton could not perpetuate his memory in the absence of a definite body of work with which it might be associated; and Basse's name, unknown to Thomas Warton when he published The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst in 1761, was known probably to a very limited number indeed when Malone, in 1790, printed the Elegy on Shakespeare in his edition of that poet, and referred Bathurst's commendatory verses to "a volume of MS. poems by Basse entitled Polyhymnia in the collection of Richard Slater, Esq." Joseph Hunter's useful notice of him in the first volume of his MS. Chorus Vatum, 1838, was never printed. In the early months of 1850, however, a correspondence was carried on in Notes and Queries between Mr. J. P. Collier, Dr. Rimbault, and the Rev. Thomas Corser, which demonstrated the identity of William Basse, the author of Great Brittaines Sunnes-set, with the author of the Polyhymnia. Further details were given by Mr. Corser, who then possessed one of the Polyhymnia MSS., in his Collectanea Anglo-Poetica, 1860, and by Mr. Collier in his Bibliographical and Critical Account, 1865. Collier had already printed another early production of Basse, Sword and Buckler, among his Illustrations of Early English Popular Literature, 1864; but he maintained it to be the work of an earlier writer, possibly the poet's father. In 1869 he obtained access to and was allowed to print, for the first time, the MS. of Basse's most important, achievement, The Pastorals and other Workes, which, heralded by a long letter in the Atheneum of November 6, 1869, appeared in his series of Miscellaneous Tracts of the time of Elizabeth and James I., with a brief introduction by himself (1870). It is somewhat strange that the interest he had already evinced did not lead him to issue a complete edition of the poet. In his default it has fallen to my lot to gather up the threads thus dropped, and carry to a conclusion the work that he and others began. In the interim, unfortunately, the MS. of the Polyhymnia has disappeared — swallowed, I suppose, by some voracious collection, and buried for another long series of years from the view of students and the public. The considerable fragments quoted from it in the articles just enumerated have, however, been carefully reproduced, and an attempt has been made to explain the variation in the two MSS. of the work which formerly existed. Besides this I have been able, I think, by internal evidence, to establish Basse's claim to Sword and Buckler; I have procured the disinterment of another important work of his of the same date, the Three Pastoral Elegies, a unique copy of which, long buried in the Winchester College Library, has by the kindness of the librarian furnished the text for the present edition; I have examined everything else with which, so far as I know, Basse has been credited; and I have carefully revised the text of the whole body of his genuine work, written brief introductions to each poem, and endeavoured to supply in the notes an explanation of all allusions and doubtful passages. A full list of editions, and such authorities as exist, is given at pp. xliv to xlvii. It remains to preface the poems and notes with such brief account of the man himself as may be drawn from his works and other sources, and to attempt some estimate of his worth as a poet.
An editor may perhaps congratulate himself that the materials for a life of William Basse are more than usually scanty: his attention is less likely to be distracted by the merits or demerits of a character from an impartial weighing of the poems themselves. Such evidence as exists is chiefly internal, derived from the contents, titles, or dedications of his poems. In 1602 appeared two works from his pen, Sword and Buckler, or Serving Man's Defence, which he professes (see page 7) to be "first that ere I writ," and Three Pastoral Elegies of Anander, Anetor, and Muridella. Neither of these would ask a very large share of constructive ability for their production; but the metrical skill, control over language, and sense of fitness that they evince can hardly have belonged to one much less than twenty years of age. On the other hand, the author describes himself, in the former work, as not having hitherto attained a higher position than that of a page (stanza 73). He is possibly only writing character; but if the statement really applies to himself, his age in 1602 can hardly have been more than eighteen. We shall probably be right, then, in fixing the date of his birth about 1583.
A passage in the Fourth Eclogue, commencing "For in yon Towne that doeth with cities sort" (see p. 203), affords some presumption that Basse was born and went to school at Northampton. A note in the margin of the MS. identifies "yon Towne" with that place; and though "our towne," further down, may mean Thame as the abode of Willy and Watty alike, it seems more natural to refer it to Northampton, which is to be contrasted with Oxford. Basse is described by Anthony a Wood in 1636 as "of Moreton, near Thame in Oxfordshire, sometime a retainer to the Lord Wenman of Thame Park" (Athen. Oxon., ed. Bliss, iv. 222). Now the first Lady Wenman was a daughter of Sir George Fermor of Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, a lady of much learning and some literary achievement. It is possible that her attention had at some time been drawn to William Basse as a promising young scholar at the Northampton Free Grammar School; and that on the occasion of her marriage with Sir R. Wenman, which probably took place shortly after he received knighthood in 1596, the boy accompanied her to Thame Park in the capacity of a page.
The Eclogue continues:
Young Meredic, as he was freind to me,
So freinded by my greatest freind was he:
And there on Baliols and their bounty fed.
Are we to conclude from this that Basse, as well as his friend Meredic, was at Balliol, and was assisted there by the liberality of Sir Richard Wenman? If so, it must have been in a purely private capacity, for Sir Richard's name is not amongst those of the benefactors of the college. The passage just quoted about Oxford and the general tone of his verse no less than an occasional Latinism and abundant allusions to classical mythology, especially to the Metamorphoses of Ovid, afford a strong presumption that Basse was an University man; but his name is not found on the register of those who matriculated between 1567 and 1610. His interest in Oxford, however, is clear enough, whether it was derived from actual membership of the University or merely from residence in its neighbourhood. In 1613 he wrote some verses on the consecration of the Chapel of Wadham College (founded in that year), which were included in the unpublished volume Polyhymnia; and he must have numbered many Oxford men amongst his acquaintance, for instance, Ralph Bathurst (note, p. 167), Clement Barksdale (notes, pp. 224 and 319), and William Browne, the poet of Britannia's Pastorals (note, p. 101), for the Second Book of which he wrote some commendatory verses. From the peculiar position these verses occupy in the folio edition of 1616, between those of George Wither and Ben Jonson, the three being printed quite apart from those of other contributors, we may almost infer some tie of closer acquaintance between the four poets. Wither's muse (and Jonson's) is celebrated in the second song of this Second Book, and abounds, in its turn, with compliments to the shepherd—
Who wonnes by Tavy on the Western plaine.
(Shep. Hunt., Ecl. 3.)
Ben Jonson, in his lines prefixed to the First Folio Shakespeare, pointedly alludes to Basse's elegy on the poet (note, p. 114), an elegy not printed before 1631 though a version exists in an MS. collection in William Browne's handwriting. No allusion to Wither occurs in Basse's work; but we have in the second Eclogue of the Shepheard's Hunting (1615) Wither's boast,
But, though I say 't, the noblest Nymph of Thame
Hath graced my verse unto my greater fame;—
and I am disposed to think that Basse is intended by the "Willie" of Wither's fourth Eclogue, who is chidden for not singing pastorals as he was wont, and who makes answer that, the merit of his verse having been in some quarters disallowed, he prefers to—
keepe my skill in store
Till I've scene some Winters more.
Wither followed Basse in an elaborate poem on the death of Prince Henry, and certain parts of the former's description of "Faire-Virtue, the mistress of Philarete," as well as the general tone of that poem, strongly suggest, to me, the Three Pastoral Elegies.
In speaking of Basse's circle of friends we must not pass over the words in which, in the third Elegie, he alludes to Spenser — words so precise and express as to amount to more than a mere profession of discipleship like that of Sir John Davies, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, William Browne, and others, and almost to imply a personal relation between the famous and the unknown poet. Basse was, according to this passage—
His deare young boy, and yet of yeares inow
To leade his willing heard along the plaine;
I on his pipe did learne this singing vaine.
And oh, (well mote he now take rest therfore,)
How oft in pray'r, and song he pray'd and sung,
That I (as had himselfe full long before,)
Mought live a happy shepheard and a young;
And many vowes, and many wishes more,
When he his Pipe into my bosome flung,
And said, though Collin ne're shall be surpast,
Be, while thou liv'st, as like him as thou maist.
(See p. 73 and the stanza following on p. 74.)
Beyond this reference, however, repeated at the outset of the Elegies and in the dedication of the Pastorals, there is no evidence of any connection between them, unless we regard as such Basse's acquaintance with the Countess of Pembroke (see below), to whom Spenser might have been the means of introducing him.
Basse seems to have continued to live at Thame Park, where he was doubtless early exempted from personal service and left free to haunt the library and cultivate his literary faculty, his patron's claim being held to be satisfied by the occasional offering of a poem or sonnet to some guest or member of his family, of which the contents-table of the Polyhymnia affords several instances. Among those with whom he was thus brought into contact, and whom he flattered or honoured by the address of a poem, were Lady Penelope Dynham, his patron's daughter, whom he must have known as a child; Lord Knollys of Caversham House; the owner of Wytham House; Viscountess Falkland, wife of the Irish Lord Deputy, and mother of the great Falkland who fell at Newbury; lastly, the famous Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney.
She appears several times in Basse's Eclogues under the name of "Poemenarcha " (see note, p. 182), and from his language in Eclogue 2 it would seem that he had received some special notice or gift from her. Connection with the Wenmans implied connection also with their relatives the Norreys, another great Oxfordshire family, whose seat of Rycote lay within a few miles of Thame Park. The Polyhymnia volume is dedicated (1653 circ.) to Bridget, Countess of Lindsey, the then owner of Rycote, to whose grandfather, Sir Francis Norreys, the opening poem is addressed. It is interesting as containing a depreciatory reference to the author's personal appearance, the only hint we have on the subject:
In playne (my honour'd Lord) I was not borne
Audacious vowes or forraigne legs to use;
Nature denyed my outside to adorne,
And I of art to learne outsides refuse.
Yet haveing of them both enough to scorne
Silence and vulgar prayse, this humble Muse
And her meane favourite at your command
Chose in this kinde to kisse your noble hand (p. 154).
Probably Basse was as much at home in the Rycote library as in that at Thame Park (see introductory note to Polyhymnia, p. 140); and at one or both did much of that classical reading the evidence of which appears in his works. The first poem after those of 1602 of whose date we have any certain indication is the long narrative poem Urania, which, as being dedicated to Prince Henry, must have been written before his death in November, 1612. That event was lamented by Basse in a somewhat constrained elegy, Great Brittaines Sunnes-set, which appeared in the following year, with two closing stanzas referring to the nuptials of the Princess Elizabeth with the Elector Palatine. Probably, too, the verses to Sir Francis Beaumont, if Basse's, were written before the former's death in 1616. His best known effort, the Elegy on Shakespeare, may also have been written in that year, and must be earlier than Ben Jonson's allusion to it in the First Folio, 1623.
But Basse was no mere hermit or literary recluse. His poems exhibit him as actively interested in the life of the countryside, with eyes for what occupied or amused country-folk, both rich and poor. The age, indeed, of intense poetic realization of landscape, or of microscopic moralizing on flower or tree, had not yet dawned; though among the poems collected in the Polyhymnia was one on a rainbow and another on a flood. But in the homely current of a country life as it affected ordinary human beings, Basse felt, I believe, a peculiar zest. His sheep and cattle are not mere poetic adjuncts to an eclogue; he describes a goat (Ecl. 6) with all a shepherd's pride and detail, and its wasting sickness when wounded by a wolf with a veterinary's knowledge. He has a close acquaintance with farming affairs; a familiarity with trees and plants and their medicinal properties (see Ecll. 6, 9, &c.); while his interest in sport is evident from the number of poems he devotes to such subjects. In 1618 he was the Pindar chosen to celebrate Captain Dover's Cotswold Games; and from some lines quoted by Collier out of one of the poems in the Polyhymnia—
Lo but too ofte of man and horse, when young,
The naked heele and hammered hoofe I sung, etc. (p. 162)—
we may gather that his favourite subjects at one time were those connected with sport, though his later muse abandoned them for worthier themes. Among his efforts in this kind were The Hunter's Song; the poem on a footrace between two Irishmen; and, last but not least, The Angler's Song, written perhaps later than the rest, and of peculiar interest as the link that connects him with one other literary friend, old Izaak Walton to wit, at whose request the song was "made," and in whose Compleat Angler it makes its appearance with a warmly appreciative notice by the author (see passage quoted p. 123).
The mention of these songs leads naturally to that of Basse's claim to a technical knowledge of music, suggested by Collier (Notes and Queries for Jan. 26, 1850, Series I., p. 200), who appeals to Dr. Rimbault for confirmation. Dr. Rimbault, however, replying on Feb. 23rd, though he gives details about the tune to which The Hunter's Song was set, a tune which seems to have become quite popular as Basse's Career, and about the music to Tom of Bedlam in Playford's Choice Ayres, etc., of 1675, refrains from giving, any support to the suggestion of his musicianship. Nor does Mr. Corser, replying on March 9th, though he inclines to the same view, advance anything in its support beyond a verse about Calliope in the Second Part of the "Youth in the Boat"—
A Muse to whom in former dayes
I was extreamly bound,
When I did sing in Musiques prayse
And Voyces heav'nly sound—
and a passage in the life of Walton prefixed to Sir Nicholas H. Nicolas' edition of the Angler, p. cxx., "He (Walton) appears to have been fond of poetry and music ... and was intimate with Basse, an eminent composer, in whose science he took great interest" — a passage in all probability merely grounded on that in the Angler itself (where Basse is said to have "made the choice Songs of the Hunter in his Carrere and of Tom of Bedlam, and many others of note"), which need not imply, any more than the verse about Calliope necessarily implies, that Basse himself composed. Dr. Rimbault, indeed, expressly says that the air of one of these songs, Tom of Bedlam, was composed, by one John Cooper. Corser speaks of "a distant recollection of having seen other pieces in some of our early musical works, composed by Basse;" but Dr. Rimbault's silence on the point is significant. And though the closing lines of Basse's poem in the Annalia Dubrensia (p. 111) might possibly be urged in support of his claim, they too may just as well apply to music composed by someone else; while another passage at p. 190, st. 3, is not distinguishable from the usual pastoral language. In a word, while of course it is perfectly possible that the claim is just, I contend that there is no sufficient external proof, nor in Basse's own works can I recall a single passage which distinctly implies a technical knowledge.
His acquaintance with the deeper harmonies of life rests an better evidence. The Thame Parish Register records the baptism of an Elizabeth Basse, Nov. 20, 1625; the burial of "Jane the daughter of Wm. Basse," Sept. 10, 1634; the marriage of Richard Furt (?) and Dorothy (?) Basse, July 24, 1637, "by banns;" and on Sept. 23, 1637, the burial of "Helinor the wife of William Basse." From another entry there seems to have been a Thomas Basse also living in the town or neighbourhood, and the first and third of those here quoted may refer to his family; but about those where William Basse is mentioned there can hardly be any doubt. It was probably on the occasion of his marriage, and by Sir Richard's bounty, that Basse acquired a domicile of his own at Moreton, within a mile or so of Thame Park. But his domestic relations find no place in his poetry, unless the slight allusion in Eclogue 7 be quoted to the contrary. The complaint, however, in the First Eclogue of Laurinella's disdain may possibly be more than a poetical imitation of Spenser; and, since the lover is encouraged to hope, may perhaps refer to the lady who afterwards became his wife.
Roughly speaking, the Pastorals belong to the later, the Polyhymnia to the earlier portion of his life, though in either case there seem to be exceptions. There is a presumption that the Fifth Eclogue, which laments Poemenarcha's departure, was written in or about 1616, the actual year of the Countess of Pembroke's journey to Spa; and that the Second was written some time before that date. The Fourth, which laments the untimely death of the two college friends, is also probably among the earlier ones. A certain similarity of tone in the Third and Sixth suggests that they were written about the same time, and after Basse's establishment at Moreton; indeed, the Third includes an acrostic on "Sir Richard Wenman, Lord Viscount Wenman," which, though professedly composed in the poet's younger and delightfull dayes," cannot itself have been written before 1628, when Sir Richard was made an Irish peer. At the same time the Third, and probably the Seventh also, must be written before his death in 1640; for the first of them regards him throughout as still living, and the Second, though it quotes lines written, in a time "long forepast," on the occasion of his patron's second marriage, yet dates probably before the lady's death in 1629. From the language of this Seventh Eclogue we must conclude that Basse was present at the wedding, which is evidently held in London. The two remaining ones — Eight and Nine — are evidently written after 1640; and probably, like the Metamorphosis, after the close of the war (see note on Apologie to Clio, p. 172).
The war and the troubled times that followed it were no doubt responsible for the poet's long delay in putting forth the volume containing the better part of his work. From the dedication to Sir R. Wenman it is clear that he intended issuing at least the Pastorals before 1640. Even then he could speak of his muse as having had "halfe an ages sleepe," and excuse his delay on the ground of self-criticism. (See p. 171.) Bathurst's lines, given at p. 167, which allude to the age of the poems and their author, were written in 1651, as we learn from their heading in Warton's Life and Remains; so that a fresh delay of two years or more must have ensued before Basse actually took steps to carry out his purpose. It is possible that straitened circumstances may have prevented his doing so earlier (see Ecl. 8, p. 242). The Civil War, bringing in its train the death and impoverishment of many of his friends, must inevitably have curtailed his own resources. It is curious and rather pathetic that, after all his patient filing and selection and all these renewed delays, neither this work nor the Polyhymnia were ever actually published; but so it was. In the absence of certain information on the point, the most probable inference is that death was responsible for the omission. The Thame Register, which might have helped us here, is silent. A break in the entries occurs at the year 1653 with the following notice: "From November, 1653, to May, 1657, the order was they should be Registerd in the Cole (?) Book;" but no such book survives, and among the entries from May, 1657, when the register proper is resumed, to March, 1661-2, Basse's name does not occur. It seems probable that he died in the interim. If my conjecture of 1583 as the year of his birth be correct, he had already in 1653 reached the allotted human term. It was on December 16, 1653, that Cromwell was made Protector by the Instrument of Government. The following year witnessed a good deal of authorized interference with the holders of livings, and the ultimate disappearance of the interim register may possibly be connected with such. In any case the troubled state of the times, altogether unfavourable to purely literary performance, would sufficiently account for the nonpublication of Basse's work, especially if he were no longer living to press the matter to a conclusion. No monument or headstone that can be identified as his survives, either in the old burying-ground of the abbey, adjoining the chapel at Thame Park, in the Chapel itself, built before the dissolution of the monasteries and restored in 1836, or in the churchyard of Thame Parish Church. At Moreton, where he lived, was neither church nor burying-ground at all. Nor is his name decipherable on any of the stones at Rycote. The nature of his end, therefore, remains shrouded in the same obscurity as his birth; but there can be little doubt that the year was 1653. Now at last his life's chief work, kept in hand through year after year, pored over again and again in patient revision, persevered in still amid the fading prospect of any reception for it, — now at last it is finished, ready, corrected for the press; and then, on the very eve of its production, when the lonely and aged poet is looking to find in its public recognition some solace for the loss of wife, of child, of patron, and of friends—
Comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. — But not the praise!
The poetic force that passed away with William Basse, if in no point it can claim equal kinship with the great manifestations that were contemporary with it, was yet one of much variety and abundant interest. To judge from its earliest products, Sword and Buckler and the Three Pastoral Elegies, it had been exercised for some time before these results of it were given to the world. Both of them display a fluency and facility that never deserted the author; but it would be a mistake to consider them, in estimating his talent, apart from each other. The first is a mere piece of special pleading, with so little of the properly poetical about it, and such slight resemblance to any other of Basse's writings, that Collier's doubts about his authorship of it are easily intelligible. Had it been put forth alone those doubts would be even better grounded. But, as I hope to have shown in the notes, there are phrases and uses which sufficiently establish Basse's claim; and the marked avoidance of poetic diction or sentiment is no doubt due to a perception that such would be out of keeping with the subject. It was in fact little more than a pamphlet in verse, a mere bid for popularity, intended to form his introduction to the larger public. In it he could exhibit his vocabulary and command of rhyme; in the Three Pastoral Elegies, published at or about the same time, though by a different publisher, he could follow the conventional custom, and put his apprehension of youthful passion into the mouths of the ardent shepherds, the coy and dainty damsels, to which the educated folk were better accustomed. The impression derived from either work is that of ease and fluency rather than inspiration or power. The poetic imagination, however, is far from wanting in the Elegies; and it appears even more distinctly in Urania, the next perhaps of his surviving works on which he was employed, a poem which for its easy grace, interest, and originality may possibly be considered his best achievement. Basse represents himself as the follower of Spenser; and though it is impossible not to feel that the genius and temper of the two men were widely different, his verse affords evidence enough of a careful study of his master's manner, and succeeds not seldom in the Pastorals in reproducing something of the magic of his melody. But in Urania, as in the Youth in the Boat, and the Metamorphosis of the Walnut Tree, we see Basse in a style that is certainly not Spenser's. This easy narrative, shot through with a vein of half-humorous moralizing that never strikes the reader as tedious, recalls, better perhaps than any contemporary work, the style of Spenser's one great predecessor, Chaucer. It was not a common trait in Basse's day, this gift of story-telling, and his exhibition of it strengthens the probability of his acquaintance with William Browne, the student of both Chaucer and Occleve. No allusion to Chaucer, no direct evidence of a study of him even, beyond his later adoption of his stanza, occurs in Basse's work; yet the share he possessed of Chaucer's special faculty is possibly his most distinguishing mark among contemporary poets.
The directions, however, which his Muse chiefly followed were those of sport and eulogy. The former class of subject occupied him most in youth; and if the lines quoted by Collier (see p. 162) be sincere, the poet afterwards somewhat regretted the time spent upon it. The Hunter's Song, indeed, exhibits a rough vigour and some expressions which mark it as the work of a poet, but none of these sporting themes exhibit Basse at his best. To his efforts in the other department the contents-table of the Polyhymnia is witness. These were more or less necessitated by his position as Sir Richard Wenman's client; but one of them at least, the sonnet to Lady Falkland (p. 155), affords a pleasing example of what he could do in this direction. The Elegy on Shakespeare, too (p. 113), more voluntary perhaps and therefore more sincere, happily combines warmth of feeling with dignity of expression, and quite merits the distinction it has obtained of preserving the poet's memory from complete oblivion. But in most cases they are not specially happy. The Great Brittaines Sunnes-set (p. 87), the most elaborate of his compositions in this kind, is but a frigid performance. It is always a performance. Basse hampered himself at the outset by the unwise choice or creation of a special stanza, ending in two Alexandrines with rhymed hemistichs, in which it would have been always difficult to succeed; and he shows, moreover, in this poem the influence of that extravagant taste for conceits that marks and mars the work of Donne and others his successors. The actual images he employs are not always unhappy; but there is a constant strain after simile and antithesis, in which the sense of harmony or of point and finish is lost in our feeling of the unreality of the likeness or of the opposition (see especially stanzas 8, 10, 15). Notwithstanding these defects some of the stanzas, eg., 10 and 11, are striking; though there is hardly one but in one or two lines falls below the level of the rest. The following stanza (14) may serve as an example both of the elaboration of which I have spoken, and, in the first six lines, of the metrical skill and ear for variety which Basse may certainly claim:
Like a high Pyramis, in all his towers
Finish'd this morning, and laid prostrate soone;
Like as if Night's blacke and incestuous howers
Should force Apollo's beauty before noone;
Like as some strange change in the heav'nly powers
Should in hir full quench the refulgent Moone:
So He his daies, his light, and his life (here) expir'd;
New-built, most Sunlike, bright Full Man, and most admir'd.
But of the miscellaneous poems sufficient has been said in the notes on each. All of them are more or less pleasing; none particularly stimulating. Had he written nothing more, he would scarce have deserved preservation; but simultaneously with these Basse was at work upon the series of The Pastorals, work to which it is evident he intended to give the fullest benefit of delay and self-criticism. Before 1640 he tells us that they had had "half an ages sleepe;" and from the Apologie to Clio (st. 11), though he calls them (st. 5) "eldest issues of my slender quill," we may perhaps infer that some which were originally included had, in 1653, been suppressed. I have already stated my belief that Basse is the "Willy" with whom Wither remonstrates in The Shepheard's Hunting for his silence after a successful debut as a singer. Basse himself has no hesitation in testifying to the reputation his previous songs had won amongst his shepherd mates (see Ecl. 1, line 2; Ecl. 7, p. 233; Ecl. 9, p. 244); and a stanza from the Apologie, commencing "For many elder Shepheards, and more such," confirms Bathurst's assertion of the length of time that he had kept the Pastorals in hand. If he exhibits a Miltonic consciousness of merit, he also practises a Miltonic delay, due partly, no doubt, like Milton's, to circumstances, but partly also to a principle of strict self-criticism—
And were I not an English workeman right,
That never thought his worke enough well done,
These sooner had unto your noble sight
Been off'red by the all beholding Sun.
Pardon the bashfull Shepheard: (Dedication.)
—and to the same effect are the lines in Ecl. 7, p. 229, and the deprecatory opening of Ecl. 9. The original plan contemplated an eclogue for each day of the week; to the delay in publication we owe the addition of Eclogues 8 and 9, which bear evidence of being written quite late, and are certainly among the best.
It is by his Pastorals, no doubt, that he wished to be judged; and it is to these that we shall be safest in looking to determine his quality as a poet. They may be regarded as in some measure an extension of the eulogy on which he had already been engaged. Some share of it, at any rate, enters into six out of these nine compositions; but refined, elaborated, and infused with a moral sentiment, a didactic purpose, that raises them much above the level of mere panegyric. Indeed, they are not directly eulogistic at all; their purpose is professedly moral, the celebration of a series of virtues, and the eulogy is only adventitious. Composed avowedly on Spenser's model, it is natural to compare them with those in the Shepheards' Calender — a comparison on which Basse may more easily venture when it is remembered that the Calender was Spenser's earliest, while the Pastorals were Basse's most mature work. They cannot of course claim the interest that belonged to an original departure in English poetry. They follow its example in idealizing, in clothing everything in conventional pastoral language; and yet not so that realities are not more apparent through the disguise. In Spenser there is far more of mere imitation or translation of other writers — of Marot, Theocritus, Bion, or Virgil. Little in Basse is directly imitated from Spenser. The first Eclogue, a love-plaint, strongly recalls Spenser's first in its opening and in a sentiment here and there; the lament for Meredic and Brianoled recalls that for Dido (Ecl. 11); the complaint in Eclogues 8 and 9 of the little favour shown to poetry recalls a similar complaint by Cuddie in Spenser's tenth. But Basse expressly disclaims (Ecl. 6, p. 224) all purpose of satire; and we look in vain for allegoric treatment of questions or rivalries of the day, such as we get in four at least of Spenser's eclogues. The personal or biographical element, however, is much clearer. Spenser's allusions to Leicester or Grindal are somewhat disguised, and we only know from other sources the reason of the recurring and lonely mention of Kent. In the Pastorals we are left in no doubt as to the poet's locality or connections. The beech-covered downs of the Chiltern Hills, the crystal fords and windings of Thame and Isis, London, Shirburn, Ditton, Gravesend, Cotswold, etc., all figure in the poems; and though none of the Wenmans appear by name, the reference to them in certain stanzas is quite clear. Apart from this we have the strongest air of reality about several matters introduced — the lament of Ecl. 4; the departure of Poemenarcha for Belgium, Ecl. 5; the loss of the goat and of some manuscript in Ecl. 6; the wedding of Lord Wenman, Ecl. 7; the loneliness and depression of Ecl. 8. And this reality extends even to the pastoral environment of the whole. For Basse's shepherds talk with a knowledge of farming, of cattle, of medicinal herbs, of trees and plants, that shows their author to he availing himself of stores of personal information gathered through years of observant country life, and gives his eclogues a real, if a simple and homely, interest.
As a metrist, indeed — in variety of forms, that is — Basse cannot endure the comparison with his model. It will be seen that the Pastorals, like almost all his other work, are written throughout (with the exception of the canzonets in Eclogues 1 and 5) in decasyllabic measures. His favourite metres, at first, are the six-line stanza of Spenser's 1st and 12th Eclogues, in which Sword and Buckler and Urania are written, and the eight-line stanza of Boccaccio, rhyming abababcc, used in Spenser's Virgil's Gnat and Muiopotmos, which is the metre of the Three Elegies and of Eclogues 1 and 2. In Eclogues 8 and 9 he uses a system of rhymes interlaced, with excellent effect; in Eclogue 5, and, part of 9, stanzas of ten and of nine lines, respectively; and, in Eclogues 3, 4, 6 and 7, the couplet. Spenser had employed the latter in his Mother Hubberd's Tale, and it had been freely used, of course, by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Basse's use of it resembles that of his predecessors; for in his time "Mr. Waller" had not yet "showed," or was only then showing "us to conclude the Sense most commonly in distiches." His latest metre was also one that Spenser borrowed from Chaucer, the stanza in fact known as "rhyme royal," in which both the Metamorphosis and the Apologie are written. It is remarkable that he never makes use of the metre whose creation is one of Spenser's chief glories. Perhaps, after his experiment with the double Alexandrine in Great Brittaines Sunnes-set, he conceived a dislike to its use at all; at any rate, in the 9th Eclogue, he prefers to construct a nine-line stanza of his own by an added repetition of the first two rhymes in Chaucer's. His only instance of a trochaic metre is in the two canzonets in Eclogues 1 and 5 — trochaic four-foot catalectic, the first in sestets rhyming ababab, the second in quatrains rhyming abab; and he never allows himself the mixture of trochaic, or rather dactylic, with iambic movement that appears in Spenser's 2nd and 5th Eclogues, and scarce ever the liberty the latter sometimes takes to vary the accent of words. In Spenser's case this is no doubt part of the "pastoral rudeness" "E. K." pleads for him; Basse prefers to be always smooth, but purchases smoothness sometimes at the cost of laboured inversions to which his master could never have consented. Basse had an excellent ear; and if he never gives us a resounding, he seldom passes an unmelodious line. Allied with this liberty in inversions — a liberty exercised least, perhaps, in Urania — are the occasional licences he allows himself in syntax; among which may be mentioned the omission of the verb "to be" in any of its parts, and the occasional ellipse of personal pronouns, of the relative as subject, and of the preposition in prepositional verbs, eg., "arrive" for "arrive at," "aspire" for "aspire to." These are due no doubt, part, to classical influence.
In one point he is a considerable offender — the matter of rhyme. For the most part he prefers what are called "hard," i.e., perfect, rhymes. His departures from this rule are not merely instances of less perfect rhymes, such as "feast" with "guest," or "ever" with "giver" — not a means intentionally adopted to relieve the ear from a monotony of perfect correspondence, but a shameless toleration of rhymes which have little more than the barest assonance one with another. In Eclogue 5 "stolne" is made to rhyme with "owne;" in Urania, ii. 37, "thirst" with "lust;" in Elegy II., "looke" with "troupe," and "say" with "boy;" but these are trifles compared with the rhyming of "am" with "man" in Elegy I., p. 48; of "Ceres" (as a monosyllable) with "theirs" in Elegy II., p. 53; of the disregard of an "s," as where "forlorne" rhymes with "adornes" in Eclogues 5 and 2, or its omission in order to make the rhyme good, as in "God know" (Elegy II., p. 58), "sun that shine" (Elegy III., p. 79), or the spelling of "whither" as "whother" to make it rhyme with "another" (Elegy III., p. 78). It is in his earlier work, however, that such instances are chiefly found.
In diction Basse is generally simple and straightforward. He uses fewer archaic words than Spenser; fewer, I think, than are used by other followers of Spenser; Browne and John Davies, for instance. We miss the golden felicities of phrase, the magic of expression by aid of which so often Elizabethan thought "breaks out a rose;" but his language is always adequate, moving at a sufficient general elevation above that of prose, and boasting its special beauties here and there (eg., the "shady shiver" of beech and sycamore, Elegy II., p. 49; Urania, iii., stt. 16, 17, and the opening of iv.; "Why what is Time? the eldest and most gray | Of all the starres," etc., Ecl. 5, p. 212, and the passage beginning "How great a strength hath gastly death — " in Ecl. 4, p. 202, etc.).
His strength is seldom seen so much in a phrase as in the general air. The following is no bad example of him. Colliden has been lamenting, from a religious point of view, the poetical habit of attributing to heathen deities the functions properly attaching to the one Creator. Hobbinoll replies:
Shepheard, I am full glad it was my fate
To meet thee so, a swaine of such good lore:
For I had thought, as I was taught to-fore,
That Pan was God of shepheards and of sheep;
That Phoebus of the sun the bridle bore,
And Cynthia sway'd the season when we sleep,
And that another deity, old and hoare,
They Neptune call'd, govern'd the ocean deep;
That of the feilds Dame Flora had the keep,
And them in all their painted 'parrell clad;
And that the valley flat, the mountains steep,
And all things else their severall deity had. (Ecl. 9.)
Like William Browne, Basse is what Mr. Saintsbury would call a "belated Elizabethan." It may be that his genius is more discursive and didactic than lyric; it may be that he rather lacks both fire and pathos, and that his sense of feminine charm (as visible in Urania, in his portraiture of Muridella, or in the first Eclogue) never rises to the intoxication of genuine passion; yet his is the rich realization of material beauty, the occasional melancholy, the wealth of classical allusion of his great predecessors. The Pastorals, as a whole, have the echo of the "spacious times;" the elegiac duet between Watty and Willy is thoroughly charming; and he can boast one lyric at least, that contained in the fifth Eclogue (p. 215), which for graceful and restrained simplicity, in spite of a conceit or two, is, I think, well worthy of its great descent.
Not that Basse has not much in common, however, with those who were more strictly his contemporaries. The conceits and excess of antithesis already mentioned belong to him as one of the "metaphysical" poets; he has the occasional pensiveness of Herrick; while by the sobriety, the dignity, and (latest) the piety of his verse he stretches hands to the Puritan that underlay the Renaissance in the work of Milton. Unlike many of his fellows he has left us no expressly sacred compositions; but his two closing Eclogues exhibit a strongly religious tone, the development of a moralizing vein that was present in his verse from the very first. His earlier work kept the tendency in due subordination; but the addition, probably at a late date, of a tedious moral allegory to Urania, and the conclusion of the poem on the Walnut Tree in a similar fashion, are felt to be superfluous and a mistake. In the Pastorals, however, whose purpose is professedly moral, this element is not out of place; we welcome the casual aphorisms, such as—
Continuance is the life of all well-doing (Ecl. 7)
(cf. the second stanza of Eclogue 2; and Urania, iv.—
Sore is the wrong that makes an honest heart
Almost repent the goodnesse of desert)—
and the set passages in which he enforces some special virtue or other of which he is treating, for instance, those on Patience in Ecl. 6, p. 225, beginning "Of neither stone nor steele. . . ," or these from Ecl. 3 on Contentment—
Content, that truely makes a lowly state,
And shuns aspiring as a dangerous mate;
Content, that bounds each minde within her owne,
Makes want to weale and woe to want unknowne,
That, by perswading men to feare to rise,
Advances them, and teaching to despise
Riches enriches men: happy content,
The bodies safeguard and soules ornament,
Detaines me, gentle shepheard, in this playne
As I with me my gentle sheepe detaine: . . .
Contentment is a guift proceeding forth
Of inward grace and not of outward worth.
This, that of fortune's baser seed doth grow,
After her baser kinde, doth ebbe and flow
As fortune ebs and flowes: it is not found
On cedars tops, nor dig'd from underground:
It is a jewel lost by being sought
With too much travell, found by seeking naught
But what it truely ownes: it is the grace
Of greatnes, greatnes of inferiour place:
Tis double freedom to condition free;
Tis sorrows ease, and thraldom's libertie;
Delighting not extreames, but middle part,
It dwelles in neither head nor heeles, but heart.
The lines just quoted are typical of the man and his work. Of no overmastering genius, exhibiting more artistic sense than creative originality, his poetry is pervaded throughout by a cheery, healthy tone. Basse lies, indeed, rather apart, as if in some quiet backwater of the stream of literature, with something about him of the balance and evenness that belongs to the slack rather than to the flow or ebb of a great impulse; and the quality of his verse is very happily hit off by Bathurst, when he says it—
neither creeps, nor soars beyond our reach.
Yet in spite of this balance and self-restraint, in spite of his self-criticism and allegiance to his art, it seems to me doubtful whether Basse ever entered thoroughly into possession of his own powers. Judging from his skilful treatment of a difficult theme as in Urania, or an unpromising one as in the Metamorphosis, from the Hunter's Song, and from Eclogue 7, his real bent lay in the direction of narrative. Too much of his time and energy was frittered away on eulogies to noble personages; and though his Eclogues possess a sincerity, a chastened grace and charm that distinguishes them favourably from the Shepherd's Hunting of Wither, for instance, or the Shepherd's Pipe of Browne, it is doubtful whether in adopting the pastoral form Basse was not limiting his genius' proper scope for the sake of following an artificial fashion. In his verses to Browne he repeats with approval the old dictum about "nascitur, non fit," and there is plenty of evidence that he regarded himself as possessed of his fair share of the native faculty; yet his work shows more accomplishment than genius, and his freest things are his earliest. I think he was cramped. I regard him as a man of considerable original power, too much overlaid with respect for convention and the example of others to make itself felt, or issue in really great work.
But, judged by his achievement and not by his potentialities, Basse surely deserves his place in our literature. Is it not time the veil that has hung over him so long should be lifted, that his claim should be recognized and his due niche allotted him in the great temple of English letters? Thame House still stands, a Georgian building for the most part, though some of its rooms formed part of that of which Basse was once so accomplished and kindly an inmate; but the name and work of the poet is wellnigh as forgotten a monument as the ruins of Rycote hard by. It is natural to indulge the hope that the present endeavour to "copy fair what Time hath blurred" may do something to revive an interest in this neglected garden of an honest, a simple, an unambitious, yet not ungraced nor ungifted Muse. Let the words in which Basse once pleaded for the memory of his dead friend, plead now for himself:
And though the frame of mortall flesh doe dye,
Let's give the immortal minde her memory.
Wee cannot keepe alive what perish will:
What death cannot, let not our silence kill.