1680 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696; ed. Clark (1898) 1:204-09.



Sir William Davenant, knight, Poet Laureate, was borne [about a the end of February — vide A. Wood's Antiq. Oxon. — baptized 3 of March A.D. 1605|6 in ... street in the city of Oxford at the Crowne taverne.

His father was John Davenant, a vintner there, a very grave and discreet citizen: his mother was a very beautifull woman, and of a very good witt, and of conversation extremely agreeable. They had three sons, viz. 1, Robert, 2, William; and 3, Nicholas (an attorney): and two handsome daughters, one married to Gabriel Bridges (B.D., fellow of C. C. Coll., beneficed in the Vale of White Horse), another to Dr. [William] Sherburne (minister of Pembridge in Hereford, and a canon of that church).

Mr. William Shakespeare was wont to goe into Warwickshire once a yeare, and did commonly in his journey lye at this house in Oxon. where he was exceedingly respected. [I have heard parson Robert [Davenant] say that Mr. W. Shakespeare haz given him a hundred kisses.] Now Sir William would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glasse of wine with his most intimate friends — e.g. Sam. Butler (author of Hudibras), &c. — say, that it seemed to him that he writt with the very spirit that Shakespeare, and seemd contented enough to be thought his son. (He would tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report.)

He went to schoole at Oxon to Mr. Sylvester (Charles Whear, filius Degorii W., was his schoolefellowe), but I feare he was drawne from schoole before he was ripe enough.

He was preferred to the first dutches of Richmond to wayte on her as a page. I remember he told me, she sent him to a famous apothecary for some Unicornes-horne, which he was resolved to try with a spider which he incircled in it, but without the expected successe; the spider would goe over, and thorough and thorough, unconcerned.

He was next a servant (as I remember, a page also) to Sir Fulke Grevil lord Brookes, with whom he lived to his death, which was that a servant of his (that had long wayted on him and his lordship had often told him that he would doe something for him, but did not but still putt him off with delayes) as he was trussing up his lord's pointes comeinge from stoole (for then their breeches were fastned to the doubletts with points — then came in hookes and eies — which not to have fastened was in my boy-hood a great crime) stabbed him. This was at the same time that the duke of Buckingham was stabbed by Felton, and the great noise and report of the duke's, Sir William told me, quite drowned this of his lord's, that 'twas scarce taken notice of. This Sir Fulke G. was a good witt, and had been a good poet in his youth. He wrote a poeme in folio which he printed not till he was old, and then, (as Sir W. said) with too much judgment and refining, spoyld it, which was at first a delicate thing.

He writt a play or playes, and verses, which he did with so much sweetnesse and grace, that by it he got the love and friendship of his two Mecaenasses, Mr. Endymion Porter, and Mr. Henry Jermyn (since earl of St. Albans), to whom he has dedicated his poem called Madegascar. Sir John Suckling also was his great and intimate friend.

After the death of Ben Johnson he was made in his place Poet Laureat.

He gott a terrible clap of a black handsome wench that lay in Axe-yard, Westminster, whom he thought on when he speakes of Dalga in Gondibert, which cost him his nose, with which unlucky mischance many witts were to[o] cruelly bold: e.g. Sir John Menis, Sir John Denham, &c.

In 1641, when the troubles began, he was faine to fly into France, and at Canterbury he was seised on by the mayor — vide Sir John Menis' verses—

For Will had in his face the flawes
And markes received in countrey's cause:
They flew on him like lyons passant,
And tore his nose as much as was on't,
And call'd him superstitious groome,
And Popish Dog, and Cur of Rome.
... 'Twas surely the first time
That Will's religion was a crime.

In the civill warres in England he was in the army of William, marquess of Newcastle (since duke), where he was generall of the ordinance. I have heard his brother Robert say, for that service there was owing to him by King Charles the First 10000. During that warre, 'twas his hap to have two aldermen of Yorke his prisoners, who were something stubborne, and would not give the ransome ordered by the councell of warr. Sir William used them civilly, and treated them in his tent, and sate them at the upper end of his table a la mode de France, and having donne so a good while to his chardge, told them (privately and friendly) that he was not able to keepe so chargeable guests, and bad them take an opportunity to escape, which they did; but having been gon a little way they considered with themselves that in gratitude they ought to goe back and give Sir William their thankes; which they did, but it was like to have been to their great danger of being taken by the soldiers; but they happened to gett safe to Yorke.

The King's party being overcome, Sir William Davenant (who received the honour of knighthood from the duke of Newcastle by commission) went into France; resided chiefly in Paris where the Prince of Wales then was. He then began to write his romance in verse, called Gondibert, and had not writt above the first booke, but being very fond of it, prints it (before a quarter finished), with an epistle of his to Mr. Thomas Hobbes and Mr. Hobbes' excellent epistle to him printed before it. The courtiers with the Prince of Wales could never be at quiet about this piece, which was the occasion of a very witty but satericall little booke of verses in 8vo. about 4 sheetes, writt by George, duke of Buckes, Sir John Denham, etc.

That thou forsak'st thy sleepe, thy diet,
And which is more then that, our quiet.

This last word Mr. Hobs told me was the occasion of their writing.

Here he layd an ingeniose designe to carry a considerable number of artificers (chiefly weavers) from hence to Virginia; and by Mary the queen-mother's meanes, he got favour from the king of France to goe into the prisons and pick and choose. So when the poor dammed wretches understood what the designe was, the[y] cryed "uno ore" — "Tout tisseran!" i.e. We are all weavers! Will. < took > 36, as I remember, if not more, and shipped them; and as he was in his voyage towards Virginia, he and his "tisseran" were all taken by the shippes then belonging to the Parliament of England. The slaves I suppose they sold, but Sir William was brought prisoner to England. Whither he was first a prisoner at Caresbroke-castle in the Isle of Wight, or at the Tower of London, I have forgott: he was a prisoner at both. His Gondibert, 4to, was finished at Caresbroke-castle. He expected no mercy from the Parliament, and had no hopes of escaping < with > his life. It pleased God that the two aldermen of Yorke aforesayd hearing that he was taken and brought to London to be tryed for his life, which they understood was in extreme danger, they were touch[ed] with so much generosity and goodnes, as, upon their owne accounts and meer motion, to try what they could to save Sir William's life who had been so civill to them and a meanes to save theirs, to come to London: and acquainting the Parliament with it, upon their petition, etc., Sir William's life was saved.

Being freed from imprisonment, (because playes, scil. Tragedies and Comoedies, were in those Presbyterian times scandalous) he contrives to set-up an Opera stylo recilativo, wherein serjeant Maynard and severall citizens were engagers. It began at Rutland-house, in Charter-house-yard; next, (scil. anno ...) at the Cock-pitt in Drury-lane, where were acted very well stylo recitativo, Sir Francis Drake's and the Siege of Rhodes (1st and 2d part). It did affect the eie and eare extremely. This first brought scenes in fashion in England; before, at playes, was only a hanging.

Anno Domini 1660 was the happy restauration of his majestie Charles II. Then was Sir Wm. made .............; and the Tennis court in Little Lincolnes-Inne fielde was turn'd into a play-house for the duke of Yorke's players, where Sir William had lodgeings, and where he dyed, April the [7th] 166[8].

I was at his funerall. He had a coffin of walnutt-tree; Sir John Denham sayd 'twas the finest coffin that ever he sawe. His body was carried in a herse from the play-house to Westminster-Abbey, where, at the great west dore, he was received by the sing[ing] men and choristers, who sang the service of the church ("I am the Resurrection, &c.") to his grave, which is in the south crosse aisle, on which, on a paving stone of marble, is writt, in imitation of that on Ben Johnson, "O rare Sir Will. Davenant."

His first lady was Dr. .. 's daughter, physitian, .... by whom he had a very beautifull and ingeniose son that dyed above 20 yeares since. His 2d lady was the daughter of ... by whom he had severall children: I sawe some very young ones at the funerall. His eldest is Charles Davenant, LL.Dr., who inherits his father's beauty and phancy. He practises at Doctors Commons. He writt a play called Circe, which haz taken very well.

Sir William hath writt about 25 (quaere) playes; the romance called Gondibert; and a little poeme called Madagascar.

His private opinion was that Religion at last, — e.g. a hundred yeares hence, — would come to settlement, and that in a kind of ingeniose Quakerisme.

That sweet swan of Isis, Sir William Davenant, dyed the seaventh day of April last, and lyes buried amongst the poets in Westminster abbey, by his antagonist, Mr. Thomas May, whose inscription of whose marble was taken away by order since the king came in.

Sir William was Poet Laureat; and Mr. John Dryden hath his place. But me thought it had been proper that a laurell should have been sett on his coffin — which was not donne.

He hath writt above 20 playes; besides his Gondibert and Madagascar.