1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Basse

John Payne Collier, "Great-Britaines Sunnes-set" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 1:70-73.



It is singular that a man who wrote lines on the death of Shakspeare, (not however printed in the folio 1623, as Dr. Bliss erroneously states in his edit. of Wood's Ath. Oxon. iv. 222,) who put forth the above poem on the demise of Prince Henry, who contributed verses in the Annalia Dubrensia, 1636, and made a MS. collection of his poems under the title of "Polyhymnia," intending them for the press, should not have attracted more attention from bibliographers: even the title of his Great Brittaines Sunnes-set has been absurdly misquoted, and called "Summer-set," as if the island had taken to vaulting on the death of Prince Henry.

Wood informs us that Basse was "sometime a retainer to the Lord Wenman of Thame Park," Oxfordshire, and his poem, the title of which is at the head of the present article, is inscribed "to his honourable Master Sir Richard Wenman, Knight." It is merely a fragment, consisting of eight pages, but it is the whole that has been preserved: it is in what the Italians call ottava rima, only a single stanza on each page numbered 5, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14; but with the peculiarity, that the two lines which conclude the octave consist of twelve syllables each: thus, in st. 8 we read as follows, where Basse calls his Muse "young," as if he were inexperienced in poetry, though his lines are smooth enough:—

Here then run forth, then river of my woes,
In cease lesse currents of complaining verse;
Here weepe (young Muse) while elder pens compose
More solemn Rites unto his sacred Hearse:
And as when happy earth did here enclose
His heav'nly minde, his fame then Heav'n did pierce;
Now He in Heav'n doth rest, now let his Fame earth fill;
So both him then possess'd, so both possesse him still.

In fact, tolerably easy versification, with thoughts naturally becoming the subject, but without any great originality, are all we can discover in the relic before us, which terminates with this stanza:—

Like a high Pyramis, in all his towers
Finish'd this morning, and laid prostrate soone;
Like as if Nights 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 sun-like bright, ful man and most admir'd.

The preceding stanza, we are inclined to think, is about the worst of those that here remain to us. We have mentioned above that Basse collected some of his scattered pieces — apparently for the press, because they were regularly dedicated in MS. to Lady Bridget Countess of Lindsey, under the title of "Polyhymnia." This must have been late in Basse's life, as one of the poems is dated June 19, 1648, and another is addressed to Lady Falkland on her journey into Ireland. The volume was lent to us nearly forty years ago by its then owner, Mr. Heber, but it contained no production of any great merit or interest. The longest was a species of unexplained allegory, entitled "The Youth in the Boat," and what seemed its purpose was set out in the three following introductory stanzas:—

When we our young and wanton houres
Have spent in vaine delight,
To shew you how celestiall powers
At length can set us right;

How they can frame our mindes unfixt
Unto their just directions,
When waveringly we reele betwixt
Opinions or affections;

How fatall it may sometimes prove
Unto our frayle estate,
Vainely to hate what we should love,
And love what we should hate.

The sonnet to Lady Falkland on her going to Ireland is ingenious, but far below excellence: it is this:—

What happy song might my Muse take in hand,
Great Lady, to deserve your Muses care?
Or skill to hold you in this amorous land,
That held you first, and holds you still so deare?
Must needs your anchor taste another sand,
Cause you your praise are nobly loth to heare?
Be sure your praises are before you there,
How much your fame exceeds your Caracts sayle;
Nay, more than so; your selfe are every where
In worth, but where the world of worth doth fayle.
What boots it, then, to drive, or what to steere?
What doth the axle or the oars avayle,
Since whence you ride you cannot part away,
And may performe your voyage, though you stay.

This production savors more of an age of conceit than of genius, and the style is nearer the time of Charles II. than of Elizabeth. Basse seems to have been of a sporting, rather than of a sportive turn of mind, and he has several pieces of a racing character, both of bipeds and quadrupeds: one is upon a contention between two Irish footmen, who executed twenty-four miles in three minutes less than three hours. In other poems, upon horse-racing, or horse-coursing, as it was then called, he mentions the names of many favorites of that day, — Crop-ear, Friskin, Killdeer, Herring, Pegabrig, etc. He bears testimony to the pains, even then, taken with the breeding of horses:—

These prov'd themselves from Pegasus derived:
There doth the northern spur oft draw a rayne
From the fleet flanks of Barbary or Spayne,
And wilde Arabia, whose tincture dyed
Greene earth with purple staynes of bestiall pride.

Perhaps, in the second line above, we ought to read "vayne," i.e. vein, for "rayne": the handwriting was obviously that of a copyist, and not of Basse himself. The following lines, near the end, show that such had been the early subjects of his verse, of which we do not find a printed trace, and it was hardly to be expected, in what he wrote in 1613 on the death of Prince Henry:—

Lo! but too ofte of man and horse, when young,
The naked heele and hammered hoofe I sung;
Which now to heare, or reade, might please some men,
Perchance, as youthful now as I was then.

Basse's lines, headed "An Epitaph upon Shakespeare," were not printed until 1633, when they were erroneously assigned to Dr. Donne. (See Donne's Poems, 4to, 1633, p. 149.) They had then been long in circulation in MS., as by Basse, to whom they really belong; and they had the honor of being alluded to by Ben Jonson, in his noble poem, prefixed to the folio 1623, "To the Memory of my beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare." We apprehend that pieces attributed to William Bas, printed in 1602, (see Lowndes's B. M. edit. 1857, p. 126,) were not by Basse, who had spoken of his "young Muse" in 1613.