Elegies on Arbella Stuart, Sir Thomas Overbury, and Sir Walter Ralegh
The deaths of three prominent political prisoners in the 1610s (Lady Arbella Stuart, Sir Thomas Overbury, and Sir Walter Ralegh) prompted an outpouring of funeral elegies. In these poems, the conventions of the genre confront the exceptional circumstances of death. The normal elegiac process is disrupted and poets struggle to lament publicly the deaths of perceived threats to the state. This chapter considers how elegists embraced the opportunity to reflect upon the political situation that led to imprisonment or execution. While often acknowledging the dead as guilty of ambition or indiscretion, but rarely of the treason which was the actual grounds for imprisonment or death, these poems obliquely point to the culpability of others, most often the King or his councillors and favourites. These elegies also reflect the self-consciousness of a tradition of Tower imprisonment and the poetry emerging from it that reaches back to the execution of the Earl of Essex in 1601. Overall, the funeral elegies produced in response to these deaths of the mid- to late 1610s achieved a richness of self-reflection and public probing of the political situation generally unseen in previous poems.
Based upon a wide reading of funeral elegies of the period 1603 to 1640, this book approaches the genre in a new way, first, by focusing on the dead individual and his or her immediate context, and secondly, by exploring how elegists move far beyond lament, commemoration, and consolation. With a daring unruliness, of both form and matter, these poems use the death as an opportunity for ethical reflection, political comment, and even satire. Under the power of grief, the poems digress into sharp criticism of individuals, the broader culture, centres of power and other institutions, and even the world itself. Each chapter focuses on the funeral elegies prompted by the death of one person or a group of similarly situated figures. The book explores a wide variety of elegies and offers roughly equal attention to print-based poems and those solely manuscript-circulated at the time. In the process, it explores the developing norms of the genre and its relationship to other commemorative forms, including the epitaph, funeral sermon, and funeral monument. It considers how the circumstances of a death challenge poets to adapt the rhetorical resources of the genre to unusual situations: the death of political prisoners or of a much-resented royal favourite, or death by suicide. In particular, the book focuses on the contentious funeral elegies that emerged during the intense political controversies of the 1620s. The study proceeds largely by using the terminology and understanding of genres/norms that were part of these texts themselves or their immediate reception.
William Douglas’ funeral elegy on the Second Earl of Lothian
This chapter explores the suicide of Robert Kerr, Second Earl of Lothian, and the elegiac response to it by William Douglas of Tofts. His long, extraordinary poem is the only English elegy from the period in which a death by suicide is commemorated without correction or judgement. In fact, the poem goes further by offering a defence of suicide based largely upon classical arguments and examples. The poem and its context are rendered all the more complex by the mysteries surrounding Lothian's death: there were rumours that murder, not suicide, was the cause of death, and a few years later two Scottish women were convicted of witchcraft in relationship to it. Furthermore, some suggested that William Douglas was not only the close friend of Lothian but also his wife’s lover. That the poem comes down to us in a single manuscript copy that was in fact edited and added to by Sir James Turner decades later adds further complications to an already sensational situation.
This short chapter departs from the earlier ones by considering scattered instances of a specific recurring trope: that the ‘distraction’ of elegiac grief might extend to matters of religious conviction. In particular, it explores how Protestant poets present themselves as slipping into heterodoxy (spiritual rebellion, doubt, or despair) during the distraction of grief. These elegists evoke a slide into distinctly Catholic patterns of thought and language regarding the dead – ones that were rejected by orthodox Protestantism.
This chapter considers a selection of the many early Stuart funeral elegies on scholars and churchmen. While such might seem to enjoy quiet lives unripe for contentious elegies, a significant number nevertheless provoked daringly intense poetic reflections. Printed university-based collections were especially common, but some poets maligned these for their generic praise and predictable laments of the loss as experienced by the community of church or college. They sought more ambitious and at times contentious elegies. In some cases these deaths prompted lament over the state of the church (a pattern best known in the St Peter section of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’); in others, like those on Sir Henry Savile, the theology or scholarship of the deceased made them notorious or divisive in both life and death; and in some cases the deceased’s memory became contested, as with the 1620 death of John King, Bishop of London, whose elegists were compelled to defend his Protestant orthodoxy against Roman Catholic claims of a deathbed conversion.
The first half of this chapter surveys the period’s funeral elegies on women, the circumstances of composition and circulation, the influential norms established by John Donne, the outrageous elegies on women by Francis Beaumont, the use of funeral elegies on women for satiric detraction, and the general patterns of elegiac commemoration of female virtue. The second half turns to the elegies on two particular elite women of the 1630s: Venetia Digby and Elizabeth, Countess of Huntingdon. As sexual virtue was central to many elegies on women, some cases, like that of Venetia Digby, required a defensive posture to challenge persistent rumours about the deceased. Lady Huntingdon, renowned as a patron, was commemorated by a number of elegists, of whom the most significant were Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, and Thomas Pestell. Explicitly acknowledging the influence of Donne and Beaumont, Pestell is notable for the way in which his patronage-seeking poems go beyond the celebration of female virtue to the satirizing of a range of vices and follies. They are also marked by a strong sense of elegiac inheritance descending from John Donne and Francis Beaumont.
Funeral elegies of the early Stuart period are often marked by moments of ‘distraction’ prompted by sorrow, and they venture into the realm of detraction as the poet turns against all that which lies beyond the dead figure who is at the heart of the elegy. While the funeral elegy in general was a copious and digressive form, exceptional deaths pressed elegists to stretch the usual rhetoric of grief and commemoration. The significance of these elements emerges through a wide reading of the period’s funeral elegies, in both manuscript and print, and by poets ranging from the canonical to the anonymous. The book also stands apart from earlier studies in its greater focus upon the subjects of funeral elegies (rather than the poets), and how the particular circumstances of death and the immediate contexts (political, religious, and social) affected the poetic response. Individual deaths are understood in relation to each other and other prominent events of the time. While the book covers the period 1603 to 1640, the 1620s stand out as a tumultuous decade in which the genre most fully engaged in matters of political controversy and satire. Many genres engage in such contentious matters, but the funeral elegy is exceptional because of the exactness with which it can be dated: nearly all were written within a few weeks of the death.
This chapter explores funeral elegies on English military figures who died in the 1620s, a decade of significant military failures, in conflicts with Spain and France (the Isle of Rhé, 1627), and in the struggle against Imperial forces in the Thirty Years War. The chapter recalls the elegies that marked the death of Sir Philip Sidney a generation earlier, which served as a touchstone for how the genre developed in subsequent decades. While praising the heroic dead, the 1620s funeral elegies reflect deep unhappiness with British foreign policy in general and with specific military and political leadership, especially that of the Duke of Buckingham. The deceased stand as models against which the living can be criticized, and these funeral elegies constitute a probing consideration of the conduct of the war effort. The chapter considers a manuscript sequence of poems on the death of the Earl of Southampton in late 1624 that culminates in a harsh diatribe against the failures of England’s Dutch allies, as do elegies on the death of the Earl of Oxford the next year, and an elegy on the preacher Thomas Scott, who in 1626 was mysteriously assassinated in Utrecht by an English soldier.
The death of Prince Henry in 1612 elicited the greatest number of funeral elegies for a single death in the period 1603 to 1640, and this chapter considers a limited group of these that presented a note of discord or doubt in the midst of general public sorrow. In some cases, this discord reflected the potentially competitive nature of commemoration, whether competition among poets or with other memorial forms. In particular, the chapter focuses on Arthur Gorges’ use of a dialogic form to question the certainty of those elegists who saw Prince Henry’s death as the loss of future national greatness, and on how John Davies of Hereford’s The Muses Teares boldly raises troubling questions about the relationship between King James and his dead son. Finally, the chapter considers how these elegies on the Prince continued to influence the genre in general, and how his death remained a touchstone for later notable deaths.