1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Churchyard

Isaac D'Israeli, from Calamities of Authors (1812); Works (1881) 26-28.



THOMAS CHURCHYARD, a poet of the age of Elizabeth, one of those unfortunate men who have written poetry all their days, and lived a long life to complete the misfortune. He courted numerous patrons, who valued the poetry, while they left the poet to his own miserable contemplations. In a long catalogue of his works, which this poet has himself given, he adds a few memoranda, as he proceeds, a little ludicrous, but very melancholy. He wrote a book which he could never afterwards recover from one of his patrons, and adds, "all which book was in as good verse as ever I made; an honourable knight dwelling in the Black Friers can witness the same, because I read it unto him." Another accorded him the same remuneration — on which he adds, "An infinite number of other songs and sonnets given where they cannot be recovered, nor purchase any favour when they are craved." Still, however, he announced, Twelve long Tales for Christmas, dedicated to twelve honourable lords. Well might Churchyard write his own sad life, under the title of The Tragical Discourse of the Haplesse Man's Life.

It will not be easy to parallel this pathetic description of the wretched age of a poor neglected poet mourning over a youth vainly spent.

High time it is to haste my carcase hence:
Youth stole away and felt no kind of joy,
And age he left in travail ever since;
The wanton days that made me nice and coy
Were but a dream, a shadow, and a toy—
I look in glass, and, find my cheeks so lean
That every hour I do but wish me dead;
Now back bends down, and forwards falls the head,
And hollow eyes in wrinkled brow doth shroud.
As though two stars were creeping under cloud.

The lips wax cold, and look both pale and thin,
The teeth fall out as nutts forsook the shell,
The bare bald head but shows where hair hath been,
The lively joints wax weary, stiff, and still,
The ready tongue now falters in his tale;
The courage quails as strength decays and goes....

The thatcher hath a cottage poor you see:
The shepherd knows where he shall sleep at night;
The daily drudge from cares can quiet be:
Thus fortune sends some rest to every wight;
And I was born to house and land by right....

Well, ere my breath my body do forsake
My spirit I bequeath to God above;
My books, my scrawls, and songs that I did make,
I leave with friends that freely did me love....

Now, friends, shake hands, I must be gone, my boys!
Our mirth takes end, our triumph all is done;
Our tickling talk, our sports and merry toys
Do glide away like shadow of the sun.
Another comes when I my race have run,
Shall pass the time with you in better plight,
And find good cause of greater things to write.

Yet Churchyard was no contemptible bard; he composed a national poem, The Worthiness of Wales, which has been reprinted, and will be still dear to his "Fatherland," as the Hollanders expressively denote their natal spot. He wrote in The Mirrour of Magistrates, the Life of Wolsey, which has parts of great dignity; and The Life of Jane Shore, which was much noticed in his day, for a severe critic of the times writes:

Hath not Shore's wife, although a light-skirt she,
Given him a chaste, long, lasting memorie?

Churchyard, and the miseries of his poetical life, are alluded to by Spenser. He is old Palemon in Colin Clout's come Home again. Spenser is supposed to describe this laborious writer for half a century, whose melancholy pipe, in his old age, may make the reader "rew:"

Yet he himself may rewed be more right,
That sung so long untill quite hoarse he grew.

His epitaph, preserved by Camden, is extremely instructive to all poets, could epitaphs instruct them:—

Poverty and poetry his tomb doth inclose;
Wherefore, good neighbours, be merry in prose.

It appears also by a confession of Tom Nash, that an author would then, pressed by the "res angusta domi," when "the bottom of his purse was turned upward," submit to compose pieces for gentlemen who aspired to authorship. He tells us on some occasion, that he was then in the country composing poetry for some country squire; — and says, "I am faine to let my plow stand still in the midst of a furrow, to follow these Senior Fantasticos, to whose amorous villanellas I prostitute my pen," and this, too, "twice or thrice, in a month;" and he complains that it is "poverty which alone maketh me so unconstant to my determined studies, trudging from place to place to and fro, and prosecuting the means to keep me from idlenesse." An author was then much like a vagrant.