1874 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Churchyard

William Minto, in Characteristics of English Poets (1874) 207-08.



Much tamer in every way than Gascoigne was this other soldier and poet, yet he is an interesting man, if for no other reason than that he saw the wonderful growth of the Elizabethan literature from its beginnings to its maturity. He lived for some two years in the service of the Earl of Surrey, contributed to Tottel's Miscellany and to the Mirror for Magistrates, and survived to issue several books contemporaneously with the plays of Shakespeare. He began life as a gay gallant or "royster" at the Court of Henry VIII., and he saw the accession of James I. Though his poetry is of small account, his life was eventful and interesting. In the war with Scotland under Edward VI. he was taken prisoner; being ransomed, he returned to Court, found himself forgotten and neglected, and turned his face, swearing, "as long as he his five wits had, to come in Court no more." He courted a widow, who shamelessly told him he had too little money for her: whereupon, in the rage of his disappointment, he broke his lute, burnt his books and MSS., and went abroad to the Emperor as a soldier of fortune.

He served in Mary's wars with France in the last year of her reign; was taken prisoner; became very popular among the cultivated French, and rewarded their courtesy by cleverly escaping to England. He lived through the whole of the reign of Elizabeth, engaging in various warlike adventures, for which he seems to have received very poor recompense, and making some effort to live by his pen. His chief writings, besides the stories of Lord Mowbray and Shore's Wife in the Mirror for Magistrates, were extracts from his own experience — Churchyard's Chips, 1565; Churchyard's Choice, 1579; Churchyard's Charge, "a light bundle of lively discourses," 1580; Churchyard's Challenge, 1593; and Churchyard's Charity, "a musical consort of heavenly harmony," 1595. In these works he appears as a garrulous, gossiping old fellow, fond of reciting his own exploits, and overflowing with good advice and general goodwill-on easy confidential terms with the public. So far as his works afford indications, he was tolerably happy in his old age. There would seem to have been a change in his circumstances between 1565 and 1580. In 1565 he narrated his own life in most lugubrious Mirror for Magistrates strain, under the title of A tragical discourse of the unhappy man's life. In 1578 he translated Ovid De Tristibus. But in 1580 he gave another version of his life in dancing ballad couplets as "a story translated out of French," dwelling with particular gusto on his powers of amusing and gaining the friendship of his enemies during his periods of captivity in Scotland and France. He kept on writing with great activity till the very last, publishing no less than thirty-five works during the last twenty-five years of his long life. Such was the Nestor of the Elizabethan heroes.