William Browne of Tavistock

A. H. Bullen, Introduction in Browne, Poetical Works, ed. Goodwin (1893) 1:xv-xxxiv.

WILLIAM BROWNE was a modest unassuming spirit, but he flushed with honest pride when he reflected on the worthiness of his native Devonshire. In the Third Song of the Second Book of Britannia's Pastorals, he writes:—

Show me who can so many crystal rills,
Such sweet-cloth'd vallies or aspiring hills;
Such wood-ground, pastures, quarries, wealthy mines;
Such rocks in whom the diamond fairly shines.

If for beauty and fertility Devonshire might be matched, yet where could be found such another race of sea-ruling men as Grenville, Davis, Gilbert, Drake, Hawkins, and

thousands more
That by their power made the Devonian shore
Mock the proud Tagus?

He sadly contrasted the stirring days of Elizabeth with the pusillanimous reign of James I. In a passage of striking picturesqueness, he describes how the old ships that had repelled the Armada, and had harassed the Spaniard on every sea, now lay rotting in harbour:

And on their masts, where oft the ship-boy stood,
Or silver trumpet charm'd the brackish flood,
Some wearied crow is set.

Once these ships had sailed into the Devon ports laden with the harvests snatched from Spain, but now

Upon their hatches, where half-pikes were borne,
In every chink rise stems of bearded corn:
Mocking our idle times that so have wrought us,
Or putting us in mind what once they brought us.

It is pleasant to know that the old poet who sang so heartily the praises of Devon is yet beloved on the banks of the Tavy and the Plym.

Tavistock was Browne's native place, and he was born not later than 1591. No record of his baptism is extant, as the Tavistock registers do not begin before 1640. He was a son of Thomas Browne of Tavistock, who is supposed by Prince (Worthies of Devon) to have belonged to the knightly family of the Brownes of Browne's Ilash in the parish of Langtree, near Great Torrington, Devonshire, a branch of the Brownes of Betchworth Castle in Surrey.

From Tavistock Grammar-school he passed "about the beginning of the reign of James I." (Wood's Fasti) to Exeter College, Oxford. Leaving the University without a degree, he entered Clifford's Inn, whence he migrated in November 1611 to the Inner Temple. On 18th April, 1615, a William Browne was appointed pursuivant to the Court of Wards and Liveries; but we cannot be confident that it was the poet who received the appointment, for there were two other William Brownes at the Inner Temple — one from Chichester, and one from Walcott, Northants (Students of the Inner Temple, 1571-1625, pp. 32, 57).

Browne was twice married. His first wife appears to have died in 1614. Among his miscellaneous poems in Lansdowne MS. 777 (first printed by Brydges) is the following epitaph:

May! be thou never grac'd with birds that sing,
Nor Flora's pride!
In thee all flowers and roses spring,
Mine only died.

The letters "MS" may well stand for "Maritae Suae." In the same collection is an undated epitaph "On his Wife"; it is immediately preceded by "My own Epitaph," which is subscribed "Wm. Browne, 1614." His second wife was Timothy, daughter of Sir Thomas Eversfield, Kt., of Denne in the parish of Horsham, Sussex. The series of Sonnets (II, 217-225) headed "Caelia" was evidently addressed to this lady. From the epistle beginning "Dear soul, the time is come and we must part" (II, 228-9) it may be gathered that the engagement was protracted,—

Seven summers now are fully spent and gone,
Since first I lov'd, lov'd you, and you alone,

Browne's friend Michael Drayton wooed a lady for thirty years, and the marriage never took place after all. Browne began to pay his addresses to Miss Eversfield in 1615 (see An Epistle, II, 234-6); and at length, after thirteen years' courtship, they were married at Horsham on 24th December, 1628. Two sons were born of the marriage, but died in infancy. Sir Thomas Eversfield, in his will proved on 25th October, 1616, wished his three unmarried daughters — Timothy, Joyce, and Bridget — to have such portions as his wife should think fit to be raised out of his lease of Tilgate, and he named one thousand marks apiece as being a suitable sum. Lady Eversfield appears to have paid Timothy's dowry in full, as her will (made in October 1640) concludes with this emphatic declaration: — "I owe my son Browne not one farthing of my daughter's portion for use nor yet principal."

Browne dedicated the First Book of Britannia's Pastorals, n.d. [1613], and The Shepherd's Pipe, 1614, to Lord Zouch, who had been President of Wales, and was afterwards (1615) Warden of the Cinque Ports. Selden contributed laudatory verses in Greek, Latin, and English; Michael Drayton, Christopher Brooke, and others added their commendations. The Second Book of Britannia's Pastorals, 1616, was dedicated to that famous patron of poets, himself a poet, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. Among those who prefixed complimentary verses were John Davies of Hereford, George Wither, and Ben Jonson. One of the contributors, John Morgan of the Inner Temple, delicately expressed the hope that Browne would receive some tangible token of the Earl's esteem:—

And may thy early strains affect the ear
Of that rare Lord, who judge and guerdon can
The richer gifts which do advantage man.

Browne owed much to the Herberts; and his monument of gratitude — the noble epitaph on "Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother" — will endure to the end of time.

At the beginning of 1624 Browne returned to Exeter College as tutor to Hon. Robert Dormer, afterwards Earl of Carnarvon. The Matriculation Book contains the entry — "30 April 1624, William Browne, son of Thomas Browne, gentleman, of Tavistock, matriculated, age 33." On 25th August of the same year he obtained permission to be created Master of Arts, and the degree was conferred on 16th November. In the public register of the University he was styled "vir omni humana literarum et bonarum artium cognitione instructus." By the members of his college he was held in high admiration. Beloe possessed a copy of the 1625 edition of Britannia's Pastorals, containing MS. commendatory poems, evidently written to accompany the Third Book (circ. 1635), which was prepared for publication, but was left unpublished. These poems in almost every instance bear the signatures of members of Exeter College; their merit is slender, but they testify strongly to the affectionate esteem which Browne had won for himself. Sometimes we find his name coupled with the name of his dear friend Michael Drayton. In 1629 Samuel Austin, a Cornishman who had been educated at Exeter College, dedicated a sacred poem, "Urania," to "my ever-honoured friends, those most refined wits and favourers of most exquisite learning, Mr. M. Drayton, Mr. Will. Browne, and my most ingenious kinsman, Mr. Andrew Pollexfen." Young Abraham Holland, a son of Philemon Holland, addressed a copy of verses (preserved in Ashmole MS. 36) to "my honest father Mr. Michael Drayton and my new yet loved friend Mr. Will. Browne."

Anthony a Wood states that, after acting as tutor to Robert Dormer, Browne was received into the family of the Herberts at Wilton, where "he got wealth and purchased an estate." Browne may have been temporarily in the service of the Herberts (as Samuel Daniel had been in earlier days), but it is hard to believe the latter part of Wood's statement. He seems to have acquired in some way a modest competence, which secured him immunity from the troubles that weighed so heavily on men of letters. In Surrey, round Betchworth and Dorking, his family had been long established. He married in 1628, as we have seen, a knight's daughter at Horsham, who brought him a portion. With the patronage of the Herberts and the Dormers, and with such money as he received with his wife, he was able to "rub on," though he may not have "got wealth and purchased an estate." After his second marriage he appears to have settled in the neighbourhood of Dorking. In Ashmole MS. 830 is preserved the following letter (first printed by Mr. Hazlitt), which he addressed in November, 1640, to Sir Benjamin Rudyard:—


Sir, — I beseech you to pardon my interposing your most serious affairs with the remembrance of my service. The cause requires it, and every man who knows I have the honour to be known by you would think me stupid in not congratulating what every one thinks he hath a share in. I mean your late speech in Parliament, wherein they believe the spirit which inspired the Reformation and the genius which dictated the Magna Charta possessed you. In my poor cell and sequestration from all business, I bless God and pray for more such members in the Commonwealth; and could you but bear (as it is pity but you should) what I do, it would add some years to your honoured hairs. Believe it, Sir, you have given such a maintenance to that repute which your former deportment had begotten that it will need no other livelihood than a chronicle, which I hope our ensuing age will not see it want for. I have now done. 'Tis Sunday night: when I have prayed for my honoured lord the Lord Chamberlain, my good lord and master the Earl of Carnarvon, and for you and your good proceedings, I hope I shall wake with the same thoughts again, and be ever

Your most obliged servant,


Dorking, Nov. 29, 1640.

The speech to which the letter refers was delivered before the Long Parliament early in November. It dealt freely with the subject of public grievances, urging that evil counsellors should be removed from the King.

William Browne died in or before 1645. Administration of his estate was granted (in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury) to his widow, Timothy Browne, on 6th November, 1645. In the Act he is described as "late of Dorking, in the county of Surrey, Esquire." There is no trace of his death or burial in the Dorking register, and the Horsham register has been searched in vain. It is possible that he was buried at Tavistock. The Tavistock register, under date 27th March, 1643, has an entry — "William Browne was buried." No portrait of the poet is known. Prince says that he had a great mind in a little body, — a conventional expression.

The bulk of William Browne's poetry was composed in youth and early manhood. He states that the First Book of Britannia's Pastorals was written before he had reached his twentieth year:—

O how, methinks, the imps of Mneme bring
Dews of invention from the sacred spring!
Here could I spend that spring of poesy
Which not twice ten suns have bestow'd on me.

The story of the Pastorals, if story there be, is naught; it would be a hopeless task to attempt to give an intelligible summary of the adventures of Celand, Marina, and the others. But the dallying diffuseness of the poem constitutes no small part of its charm. Horace Walpole threw out the suggestion that somebody should issue a series of "Lounging Books" — books that one can take up, without fatigue, at odd moments. I fear that his nice critical judgment would not have included William Browne in the series; but to the lovers of our old poets Britannia's Pastorals will always be a favourite lounging book. They know that, at whatever page they open, they have not far to travel before they find entertainment. In the Third Song of the Second Book there is a description of a delightful grove, perfumed with "odoriferous buds and herbs of price," where fruits hang in gallant clusters from the trees, and birds tune their notes to the music of running water; so fair a pleasaunce

that you are fain
Where last you walk'd to turn and walk again.

A generous reader might apply that description to Browne's poetry; he might urge that the breezes which blew down those leafy alleys and over those trim parterres were not more grateful than the fragrance exhaled from the Pastorals, that the brooks and birds babble and twitter in the printed page not less blithely than in that western Paradise.

What so pleasant as to read of May-games, true-love knots, and shepherds piping in the shade? of pixies and fairy-circles? of rustic bridals and junketings? of angling, hunting the squirrel, nut-gathering? Of such-like subjects William Browne treats, singing like the shepherd in the Arcadia as though he would never grow old. He was a happy poet. It was his good fortune to grow up among wholesome surroundings, whose gracious influences sank into his spirit. He loved the hills and dales round Tavistock, and lovingly described them in his verse. Frequently he indulges in descriptions of sunrise and sunset; they leave no vivid impression, but charm the reader by their quiet beauty. It cannot be denied that his fondness for simple, homely images sometimes led him into sheer fatuity; and candid admirers must also admit that, despite his study of simplicity, he could not refrain from hunting (as the manner was) after far-fetched outrageous conceits.

Browne had nothing of that restless energy which inspired the old dramatists; he was all for pastoral contentment. Assuredly he was not a great poet, but he was a true poet, and a modest. In the Fourth Song of the Second Book he tells of the pleasure that he took in writing his poetry, and manfully declares that his free-born Muse shall never stoop to servile flattery. He cultivated poetry for its own sake, and not for what it might bring of advantage or reward:

In this case I, as oft as I will choose,
Hug sweet content by my retired Muse,
And in a study find as much to please
As others in the greatest palaces.

Sidney and Spenser, whom he regarded as his masters, he held in highest veneration. Among his friends were Ben Jonson, Chapman ("the learned shepherd of fair Hitchin hill"), "well-languaged Daniel," Christopher Brooke, John Davies of Hereford, and Wither. In the Second Song of the Second Book he passes these poets in review, and eulogizes each in turn. The praise that he bestowed on contemporary poets was by them amply repaid; and with poets of a later age Browne has found favour. In Mr. Huth's library is preserved a copy of the folio edition of Britannia's Pastoral's, containing MS. annotations stated to be in the handwriting of Milton (who may possibly have taken some hints for Comus from Browne's Inner Temple Masque). Henry Vaughan, in his praises of the river Usk, borrowed from the Second Song of the First Book of the Pastorals. Keats, who chose a motto from the Pastorals for one of his early poems, was much under Browne's influence at the beginning of his glorious career, but quickly passed to regions of fancy far removed from the ken of the earlier poet. Mrs. Browning did not omit to introduce Browne in her Vision of the poets.

Browne was not only a poet, but a scholar and antiquary, — the friend of Selden. At the beginning of the Pastorals he refers (in a marginal note) to an MS. copy of William of Malmesbury "in the hands of my learned friend M. Selden." In The Shepherd's Pipe he printed from MS. a poem of Hoccleve, and announced "As this shall please, I may be drawn to publish the rest of his works, being all perfect in my hands." Seemingly the public of those days had no anxiety to see Hoccleve's works collected: the project fell through. A curious passage occurs in Nathaniel Carpenter's Geography delineated forth in two Bookes, 1625 (pp. 263-4): — "Many inferiour faculties are yet left, wherein our Devon hath displaied her abilities as well as in the former, as in Philosophers, Historians, Oratours and Poets, the blazoning of whom to the life, especially the last, I had rather leave to my worthy friend Mr. W. Browne, who, as hee hath already honoured his countrie in his elegant and sweet Pastoralls, so questionles will easily bee intreated a little farther to grace it by drawing out the line of his Poeticke Auncesters, beginning in Josephus Iscanus and ending in himselfe." Probably Carpenter threw out this suggestion at a venture, for there is no evidence to show that Browne had any intention of collecting materials for Lives of the Poets of Devonshire.

The Two Books of Pastorals, the Eclogues in The Shepherd's Pipe, and some contributions to the 1614 edition of England's Helicon, contain all the poetry that Browne published. He left in MS. a Third Book of Pastorals, the Inner Temple Masque, and some miscellaneous poems. Among the miscellaneous pieces are the excellent bacchanalian song "Now that the spring hath filled our veins," and the ballad "Lydford journey." Browne lived in an age of song-writing, and at times he could sing with the best. Some charming songs, notably, "Shall I tell you whom I love? and "Venus by Adonis' side," are scattered through the Pastorals, and there are good lyrical passages in the Masque.

In 1647 appeared a translation from the French of M. Le Roy, Sieur de Gomberville, — The History of Polexander. Done into English by William Browne, Gent. For the Right Honourable Philip, Earle of Pembroke and Montgomery, &c. London, printed by Tho: Harper for Thomas Walkley, fol. It is to be noted that Walkley was the publisher of the 1620 edition of The Shepherd's Pipe. The translation (a holiday task of slender interest) was issued without dedication or preface. Probably the translator may be identified with the author of the Pastorals, for we hear of no other William Browne who was connected with the Pembroke family. A copy of the French original is in the library at Wilton, but not of the English translation.

Whether his be the translation or not, the poet was dead when Polexander appeared. His early years were passed in the delightful town of Tavistock; he spent much time at Wilton, the home of the Herberts; and he died in, or near, Dorking. Tavistock, — Wilton, — Dorking. Surely few poets have had a more tranquil journey to the Elysian Fields.

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