A friendly warning: this isn’t a brief post. It goes on for quite some time… sorry about that.
Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, lived from 1554 to his murder in 1628. He was therefore an approximate contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616), Marlowe (1564-1593), Jonson (1572-1637), Donne (1572-1631), Sidney (1554-1586), Spenser (1552-1599), Chapman (1559-1634), and half a dozen other giants of English poetry and letters.
Greville is, probably deservedly, rather less known than any of these. To be honest, until recently, I’d never heard of him. And yet, when some time ago I was making my way through an anthology of English verse, it was Greville who, amid this stellar era, caught my attention: not because of any obvious genius, but in a way because of the exact opposite – amid the easy rhymes and conventional attractiveness of the many flowers of late Elizabethan poetry, Greville sticks out like a thorn bush.
Fulke Greville was a wealthy man, from a noble family, holding lucrative government sinecures. He spent most of his life at court, where he was a trusted advisor to Queen Elizabeth, who valued him for his level-headed, cynical honesty, his intelligence, and his reliability. After a series of diplomatic postings abroad, she appointed him Treasurer of the Navy; he was dismissed from the post and the court on the queen’s death, but a decade later returned, and served James I as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Commissioner of the Treasury.
Alongside his political career, Greville was well-known for his literary interests – he was Sidney’s best friend, an acquaintance of Spenser, and a member of all the era’s literary groupings and societies, as well as a patron of young writers and scholars. In the 17th century, he was thought to have been at some time the employer or patron of both Shakespeare and Jonson, and possibly also Marlowe; although this is not independently confirmable, it is also very plausible, particularly as regards Shakespeare – not only was Greville a rich supporter of the arts, but he was Shakespeare’s countryman, being born less than ten miles from Stratford, which he knew well*, and indeed was MP for Warwickshire, making him surely one of the first sources of aid a young Stratford playwright would have turned to. In any case, his high reputation is clear – one scholar, for example, encouraging another to accept a position with Greville, describes him as “a man of wisdom, sharp judgement, sublime learning and the most urbane manners, and who is loved by men of letters because of his renowned abilities as much as he loves them.”
[*Greville’s house was on the banks of the Avon, and his heraldic crest was a swan; put the two together and surely someone’s created a conspiracy theory?]
But while Greville was clearly an important part of the English literary culture of the era, his own (surviving) literary output is relatively small. His best-known work is in prose, a biography of Sidney, and there are also a number of prose letters; in poetry, his greatest efforts were expended on a series of long, philosophical essays-in-verse – on honour, on war, on education, on religion and on the monarchy. In addition, for his close friends, he wrote at least three plays in verse – what would later be called ‘closet dramas’.
None of these things are works are represented in this collection. Rather than being a true ‘selection’ of Greville’s poetry, a disparate bringing together of various works, these “Selected Poems” in fact comprise a single, unbroken work: Greville’s Caelica, a cycle of poetry probably composed over many years, possibly beginning in the 1580s.
If writers like Shakespeare and Jonson relied on popular success and fame, Greville’s approach to literature was quite the opposite, actively courting anonymity. A few poems, including four from Caelica escaped into the wild in his lifetime to be set to music by prominent composers (two of the Caelica poems were set by Dowland); one of the closet dramas (which came with strict instructions that they should not be performed in public, but only among friends) was leaked, and printed without Greville’s permission. Everything else he wrote was published only posthumously; two of the essays-in-verse (on religion and the monarchy) were considered too inflammatory to print, and only saw publication four decades later, in the more relaxed days of the Restoration. Even worse befell one of the plays, Antony and Cleopatra, which Greville himself tore up and consigned to the flames. As a result, much is unknown about Greville’s work – its intentions, its exact chronology. It is assumed on stylistic and thematic grounds that the poems were written more or less in the order they are now known, over the course of several decades, but this is not certain, and there may have been some rearrangement by Greville later on – there were certainly revisions over many years (the texts found in the early songs, for instance, have been revised by the time of their publication as poems). Indeed, from the supposed origin in the 1580s to a surviving manuscript written by a scribe in, it is thought, 1619, but subsequently emended by Greville himself at some point in the 1620s, some of these poems may have been undergoing revisions for up to nearly half a century.
This edition is, apparently, effectively a replacement for the influential but then-out-of-print previous Caelica edition (which I think may now be back in print?), edited by Thom Gunn, who cautions us (second-hand, via his successor’s foreword) that even the best Elizabethan poets did not in general pursue originality – what they chose to say was almost as rigidly conventional as how they said it; and indeed, that conventionality is a constant companion throughout the course of Caelica. And yet, there is something different about Greville, something off, something, probably intentionally, wrong; and, as a result, convention wars with idiosyncracy in his poems.
Words used to describe Greville’s poetry include “frozen”, “rigid”, “inward”, “unusually serious”, “difficult”, “close-textured”, “sinewy and demanding”, and “sober”, along with “irreducibly complex”. Charles Lamb, who described his style as “cabalistical”, commented that (speaking of Greville and Thomas Browne), “their writings are riddles, and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom.” Greville is described as having been a man of both intellect and great learning – and naturally cautious and suspicious. The editor of this collection (Neil Powell) places him in a flattering context, calling him the synthesis of the two traditions of English Renaissance poetry: of the plain, human voice of Gascoigne, with the refinement of Wyatt. I’ll be more direct: if most poets set out to express clear thoughts in elegant ways, Greville at times appears to set out to express obscure thoughts as awkwardly as possible. Although some of his poems are crystal clear, many reviewers have despairingly alluded to the ‘mysterious’ quality of others. In the case of one poem, even the editor here has thrown their hands in the air in frustration, admitting that they find the syntax “baffling”, the meaning unclear, and the punctuation consequently best left in its eccentric original state. George Saintsbury’s A Short History of English Literature, in 1898, explained perhaps, and pithily, both why Greville’s works have never appealed to the popular tastes, and why there is something outstanding, something maybe even unparalleled to be found in them: Greville’s works, we’re told “exhibit this characteristic of laboured remoteness as do hardly any other things in English“.
An even better, one-word, summary of Greville’s style, however, is given to us by Powell in his foreword: “gnarled”. Greville’s poetry is bloody-mindedly, fascinatingly, magnetically gnarled.
Caelica is, at least in theory, a cycle of 109 love poems (with no individual names but for their numbers), from Greville, the devoted suitor, to his beloved, Caelica. Or possibly Myra. Or sometimes Cynthia. Or Cala. She changes names sometimes even within a single poem. Helpfully, there isn’t even a consensus on how many poems there are, with different editions varying between 108 and 110 (there are a couple of poems that may or may not be included, there’s one poem that may or may not be split into two parts (and may be split in different places in different editions), and for added confusion some editions gave the same number to two different poems, so that the first published edition has 110 poems, but numbered from 1-109. Nothing is easy with Greville). The naming/numbering I use here is the numbering of this Carcanet edition, but is shared with the influential edition by Bullough and most editions since (but may not match the numbering found in online resources).
When we begin Caelica’s cycle, we may at first be reassured. Here’s “I”:
Love, the delight of all well-thinking minds;
Delight, the fruit of virtue dearly lov’d;
Virtue, the highest good, that reason finds;
Reason, the fire wherein men’s thoughts be prov’d;
Are from the world by Nature’s power bereft
And in one creature, for her glory, left.
Beauty, her cover is, the eye’s true pleasure;
In honour’s fame she lives, the ear’s sweet music;
Excess of wonder grows from her true measure;
Her worth is passion’s wound, and passion’s physic;
From her true heart, clear springs of wisdom flow,
Which, imag’d in her words and deeds, men know.
Time fain would stay, that she might never leave her;
Place doth rejoice, that she must needs contain her;
Death craves of Heaven, that she may not bereave her;
The Heavens know their own, and do maintain her:
Delight, Love, Reason, Virtue let it be,
To set all women light, but only she.
This, we might think, is indeed fairly conventional. Lots of nice Elizabethan words in there, and a woman placed so high on a pedestal that she’s effectively a goddess. Sure, there are some oddities to give it character. Isn’t that a rather… obsessive… re-iteration of ‘her’ in the last stanza? Isn’t it, we might wonder, a little unusual to depict the abstract concept of location as a woman, rejoicing at having another woman, Caelica, inside her? But not to worry, we might think. This is perfectly ordinary love poetry…
…until we come to “II”, where we see the seeds of the real Greville just beginning to show themselves:
Fair dog, which so my heart dost tear asunder,
That my life’s blood, my bowels overfloweth,
Alas, what wicked rage conceal’st thou under
These sweet enticing joys, thy forehead showeth?
Me, whom the light-wing’d God of long hath chased,
Thou hast attained, thou gav’st that fatal wound,
Which my soul’s peaceful innocence hath rased,
And reason to her servant humour bound.
Kill therefore in the end, and end my anguish;
Give me my death, methinks even time upbraideth
A fulness of the woes, wherein I languish:
Or if thou wilt I live, then pity pleadeth
Help out of thee, since Nature hath revealed,
That with thy tongue thy bitings may be healed.
…well, that was unexpected. Calling your beloved a dog? Accusing her of concealing her true rage? Talking about bowels overflowing with blood? The core of the poem obeys convention – the heartsick suitor longs for death (or his beloved’s tongue) to save him from unbearable anguishes. But Greville’s approach to this already somewhat disturbing trope is even more unsettling. [Greville in this poem, incidentally, can be assumed to be a species of vermin – dogs were used for many sorts of hunting, but it was only vermin that they were allowed to actually kill themselves].
On the technical side: note how, of 14 lines, 10 employ caesuras, and three run on without final commas (a fourth probably should but doesn’t); the editor, Powell, refers to Greville’s “uniquely halting” rhythms. He is constantly discomforting the reader, now pulling back, now rushing on, as though trying to force the reader to pay close attention, and not simply to glide over his words. As we go through some of his poems in this review, the reader may also notice how unusually reliant Greville is on feminine rhymes, as here, and sometimes, particularly in the later poems, even on triple rhymes; again this serves both to distinguish Greville from the vast majority of English poets, and also to keep the reader constantly off-balance, the rhythm slipping one more step under the reader’s foot just when she thinks she has found a place to pause.
Another thing that proves particularly interesting is the confusing thought at the beginning of the second paragraph: that love, in the form of Cupid (‘the light-wing’d God’), has been chasing Greville, but that it is Myra who has caught him. This duality of beloved and of love itself in the form of Cupid is apparently a concept Greville borrowed from his friend, Sidney, and from about ten pages in it becomes dominant for a large stretch of this cycle. Rather than address his poems to his supremely beautiful beloved woman, Greville instead spends much of his time talking about, and even directly to, Cupid, referred to as “the boy”, or Greville’s “playfellow”; it seems at times as though the poet is more in love with his “boy” than with his woman (“who worships Cupid,” we are told, “adores a boy”).
It’s unavoidable at this point to observable out the homoeroticism in this conceit, which at times seems quite undisguised; and we may bring in at this point the biographical issue of Greville’s devotion to Sidney. Greville’s own epitaph reads: “Folk Grevill / Servant to Queene Elizabeth / Conceller to King James / and Friend to Sir Philip Sidney”. That’s an unusual priority for one’s death-statement. Greville, we may note, never married, and is not known to have had any children (although, in fairness, he was spoken of as regularly courting women – as always in this era, the explicitness of ‘courting’ is left to the imagination). It may further be observed that in 109 poems, there is virtually no physical description of “Caelica”, and several of his poems refer to the shame that would be incurred if their relationship were known, or the fear of publicity and the desire for secrecy. The cynical or dirty-minded reader may also note Greville’s equation of loving Cupid with “kissing the rod” as… somwhat suggestive. The notion of Cupid as “playfellow” and even schoolmate is particularly evocative of Greville’s relationship with Sidney: the two boys went to the same school, starting the same day; Greville’s first observable presence in history survives in one of Sidney’s old school exercise books, in which somebody has written, rather sweetly, “Fulke Greville is a good boy”. From that point on until Sidney’s death, the two were inseparable – Sidney, speaking of himself, Greville, and a third friend, Edward Dyer (also a respected poet) as being “one mind in three bodies”. In particular, Greville appears to have adulated and imitated Sidney continually – Caelica itself was begun in imitation of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (which contains 108 sonnets, equal to the number of poems in Greville’s own manuscript of Caelica).
And yet, to cast the image of Cupid as merely some duplicitous mode of speech to conceal possible homosexuality seems to do the poet a disservice – while I’m sure scholars must have explored the issue of the nature of Greville’s feelings for Sidney, I don’t think Greville is ever as straightforward as such a mere cypher-reading suggests. More interesting, I think, is Cupid as psychological device: the poet seems often to be far more in love with love than he is with the beloved – appropriate enough for a poet as intensely introspective as Greville. And yet, as is often the case with Greville, it seems incautious to try to ascribe a single, coherent ‘message’ to these poems and to this trope – the dominant impression Greville conveys to me is not of a man preaching, but of a man struggling, wrestling out loud with themes he may or may not be conscious of himself. Everywhere, there are changes, distortions, and inversions. Consider for example the use made of the Cupid imagery in “XXV”:
Cupid, my pretty boy, leave off thy crying,
Thou shalt have bells or apples; be not peevish;
Kiss me sweet lad; beshrew her for denying;
Such rude denials do make children thievish.
Did reason say that boys must be restrained?
What was it, tell: hath cruel honour chidden?
Or would they have thee from sweet Myra weaned?
Are her fair breasts made dainty to be hidden?
Tell me (sweet boy), doth Myra’s beauty threaten?
Must you say grace when you would be a-playing?
Doth she cause thee make faults, to make thee beaten?
Is beauty’s pride in innocents’ betraying?
Give me a bow, let me thy quiver borrow,
And she shall play the child with love, or sorrow.
Here, Cupid takes the role of Greville’s lover, complete with appeals for a kiss – but the confusions go beyond that. Greville is consoling Cupid in the way he might console a heartsick suitor to a woman – Myra becomes the beloved of Cupid, not of Greville, and yet also Cupid’s mother, whether innocent (an anonymous “they” wean him from her) or sinister (goading her “child” into errors in order to punish him), yet in both senses still taking the place assigned in poetry of the era to the idolised beloved. And yet, in the end, Greville takes up the bow and arrows, taking the place of Cupid-as-bringer-of-love, in order to reduce Myra to the role of Cupid-as-“child”. As is the case with a great many of Greville’s poems, the more the reader thinks about his words, the more complicated they seem to become – almost every line here invites an essay.
[To return for one moment to the easy, if subversive, idea that Greville may be writing for Sidney, rather than for a woman, I’ve actually seen floated by scholars an even more subversive idea: that it’s actually “Greville”, the narrator, who is really Sidney, not Caelica – apparently, several of the more specific poems seem to echo incidents and relationships in Sidney’s life. This may be coincidence, or this may be really weird…]
By this point in the cycle, however, a dramatic change has taken place. Early on, Myra’s place in the poet’s worldview is clear: in “VII”, for instance, we are warned that “The world, that all contains, is ever moving”, and we are treated to a meditation on change and transiency, ending with the reassurance that “Only like fate sweet Myra never changes” (though it’s a reassurance tempered, in momento mori fashion, by the foreboding that she “in her eyes the doom of all change carries”). Myra provides the poet with a constant star in a changing world (the editor in his foreword notes of this early poem, “what is slightly unnerving about Greville’s poem is the sense that he is actually thinking” – tropes like this are commonplace in Elizabethan poetry, but Greville is unusual in, as we shall go on to see, taking them very seriously). As late as “XVIII”, Greville’s suspicions are directed at himself: “I offer wrong to my beloved saint / I scorn, I change, I falsify my love / Absence and time have made my homage faint, / with Cupid I do everywhere remove” (and let’s pause a moment to note the oddity of framing the poet’s devotion to Cupid (i.e. to love) as the cause of his failing devotion to his beloved…).
But everything changes with one of the poet’s most sincere, straightforward, and personal poems (and one of his best known), “XXII”:
I with whose colours Myra dress’d her head,
I, that wore posies of her own hand-making,
I, that mine own name in the chimneys read
By Myra finely wrought ere I was waking:
Must I look on, in hope time coming may
With change bring back my turn again to play?
I, that on Sunday at the church-stile found
A garland sweet, with true-love knots in flowers,
Which I to wear about my arm was bound,
That each of us might know that all was ours:
Must I now lead an idle life in wishes?
And follow Cupid for his loaves, and fishes?
I, that did wear the ring her mother left,
I, for whose love she gloried to be blamed,
I, with whose eyes her eyes comitted theft,
I, who did make her blush when I was named;
Must I lose ring, flowers, blush, theft and go naked,
Watching with sighs till dead love be awaked?
I, that when drowsie Argus fell asleep,
Like jealousy o’erwatched with desire,
Was even warned modesty to keep,
While her breath speaking kindled Nature’s fire:
Must I look on a-cold, while others warm them?
Do Vulcan’s brothers in such fine nets arm them?
Was it for this that I might Myra see,
Washing the water with her beauties, white?
Yet would she never write her love to me;
Thinks wit of change while thoughts are in delight?
Mad girls must safely love, as they may leave,
No man can print a kiss, lines may deceive.
It’s one of the few poems in the cycle that seems to bear the personal touch as regards the love affair – along with perhaps “XL”, on Caelica’s aging:
The nurse-life wheat within his green husk growing,
Flatters our hope, and tickles our desire,
Nature’s true riches in sweet beauties showing,
Which set all hearts, with labour’s love, on fire.
No less fair is the wheat, when golden ear
Shows unto hope the joys of near enjoying:
Fair and sweet is the bud, more sweet and fair
The rose, which proves that time is not destroying.
Caelica, your youth, the morning of delight,
Enaml’d o’er with beauties white and red,
All sense and thoughts did to belief invite,
That love and glory there are brought to bed;
And your ripe year’s love noon, he goes no higher,
Turns all the spirits of man into desire.
Another moment of specificity occurs in “LVIII”, in which an aging Caelica apparently decides to shave off her hair, seemingly in order to wear a wig (although it may be that a hat is intended – we’re a long time before the advent of the ubiquitous male wig, but I don’t know about the history of optional wigs for older women).
But as for the poet’s lament in “XXII”, it is of course not age but a more sinister change that Greville grieves: the inconstancy of woman. At first, his response is internal – with Myra having abandoned him, he laments his inability to forget her, and to forget love (for all that the cycle begins with poems insisting that his love does not require her own) – but it isn’t long before his thoughts begin to fixate on the iniquities of women; and yet, it is hard not to wonder if his real topic is something else entirely. Time and again, poems that purport to be ‘romantic’, albeit bitterly so, and that do indeed end with the beloved, begin with very different themes. In “XXIX”, we start with “Faction, that ever dwells / In courts where wit excels”; in “XXX”, we begin with the rise of the barracks emperors and the decay of Roman civic virtue – “Rome, while thy senate governors did choose, / Your soldiers flourish’d, citizens were free […] But after thy proud legions gave thee laws, / That their bought voices empire did bestow, / Worthiness no more was of election cause, / Authority her owners did not know.” To be sure, the poet pivots daintily into accusing his girlfriend’s friends of being bad influences on her, but that’s an unusual way to begin a love poem. Likewise, when we read – let us remember! – a chancellor of the exchequer discussing, in “XXXVI”, “women’s prince-like weaknesses”, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s really talking about women, or about princes (particular when he is the servant of a prince who is also a woman) – similarly in “XLVIX”, in which we’re told of “Princes we comprehend, and can delight, / We praise them for the good they never had”. Sure, that poem ends with a pro forma request that Caelica kiss him, but by this stage it feels more like an excuse than his true motivation.
And yet again, to simply write off many of these middle-cycle poems as coded political dissertations (particularly given the poet’s uncoded, full-length epic-poetical political dissertations outside of this cycle), seems to be doing Greville an injustice. Yes, he was a political man, in a political age, and politics is rarely far from his thoughts, but surely his real theme is something deeper, something more general. It is change itself that is his theme – change, that for Greville in general (with the odd exception, as in the positive “XL” recited above), is almost synonymous with decay. Greville’s use of the specific romantic quandary as emblematic of a broader and darker meditation on impermanence is particularly clear in “XLVIII”:
Mankind, whose lives from hour to hour decay,
Lest sudden change himself should make him fear,
For if his black head instantly waxed grey,
Do you not think man would himself forswear?
Caelica, who overnight spake, with her eyes,
‘My love complains, that it can love no more,’
Showing me shame, that languisheth and dies,
Tyrannis’d by love, it tyrannis’d before;
If on the next day Cynthia change and leave,
Would you trust your eyes, since her eyes deceive?
It is surely no coincidence that in this poem on the pain of change, and in particularly of his lover’s inconstancy, the beloved’s own name changes in the course of a single stanza.
[And let’s take a moment now to consider those names. “Cynthia” seems clear enough at first, that’s a normal name. Except – it’s a name for Artemis, the moon goddess (who merges with Diana, the huntress). This is appropriate enough for the “fair dog” theme of “II”, in which the beloved has indeed hunted Greville down – and yet, it seems rather suspicious that in a cycle of poems revolving around inconstancy, the beloved should have a name so closely associated with the ever-changing Moon (even though the name is introduced into this cycle before the first visible ‘betrayal’). Then there’s “Caelica”, meaning simply “celestial one”; suspicious critics have, however, juxtaposed this against Sidney’s great belove, “Stella” (‘star’), and observed that where Sidney names his love for a single star, Greville names his for the immense, and greatly varied, heavens themselves. “Myra”, meanwhile is, surprisingly, a name actually invented by Greville for these poems, with no obvious meaning. One theory is that it is simply an anagram of ‘Mary’, perhaps the name of a real woman with whom he had some relationship; perhaps it is, but suspicious minds, placing it alongside ‘Caelica’, may note how it calls to mind ‘myria-’, “ten thousand” or metaphorically a vast number. At the very least, the names Greville chooses seem to connote an internal multiplicity and variability; some may even think they are indicators that “Myra” never was a single woman in the first place. (“Cala”, which appears only once, seems even more mysterious)]
We should also take a moment to note that, here, we have one of the core toxicities of romance in this era: Cynthia’s betrayal of Greville is not a conflict in her words, but a conflict between her actions and the, very, suspiciously, specific words that she “spake, with her eyes”. It is impossible to pin down exactly the nature of the betrayal that echoes through the cycle – indeed, it appears to develop from the single loss of favour we saw back in “XXII” to a pattern of repeated betrayals, or indeed betrayals by different women (just as one woman goes by many names, even within one poem, so too it may be that these names describe multiple women in Greville’s life, if indeed they describe anyone at al) – but a repeated theme is the over-analysed glance or gesture that, the poet assures us, promises the woman’s undying love for him, cruelly and inconstantly betrayed by, you know, what she actually says and does. In that light, it’s tantalising how little Greville actually tells us – we may suspect that it’s his own eyesight that’s at fault, and that he’s a creepy stalker guy, but he never makes clear what is truly said or done, or what has transpired beyond the narrow context of an individual poem, and so never gives up quite enough evidence for us to condemn him, particularly as we begin to suspect he may be intentionally seeking to make the case against himself.
Eyes, incidentally, are a constant presence in these poems. They see, and they are seen, they speak and they hear; they are transported, extracted from faces and given to others. Cupid, who vividly “heads his shafts in women’s faces” (i.e. shoots women in the face), often seems an ocular parasite, as he is said to live within people’s eyeballs, or to wander from eye to eye.
At this stage in the cycle, in any case, as Caelica’s betrayals become more frequent, Greville becomes more bitter, and with his bitterness comes a more direct mode of speech. Where once, Myra rested pure and pristine on a pedestal, in “XXXVIII” we get a rather coarser analysis of their relationship:
Caelica, I overnight was finely used,
Lodged in the midst of paradise, your heart:
Kind thoughts had charge, I might not be refused,
Of every fruit and flower I had part.
But curious knowledge, blown with busy flame,
The sweetest fruits had down in shadows hidden,
And for it found mine eyes had seen the same
I from my paradise was straight forbidden.
Where that cur, Rumour, runs in every place,
Barking with Care, begotten out of Fear,
And Honour, tender of Disgrace,
Stands Seraphin to see I come not there;
While that fine soil, which all these joys did yield,
By broken fence is prov’d a common field.
Nor is it just Caelica. Greville’s first reaction to Myra’s change of mind back in “XXII” was the rather odd “XXIII”, in which Merlin, as a child, comments on the frequency of unexpected-paternal-event illegitimacy, and this theme of the constant inconstancy of woman become more explicit and widespread as we reach the middle stretches of the cycle. In “XXXI”, for example, we have a sustained discussion on thieves: “For thieves, whose riches rest in other’s wealth, / Whose rents are spoils, and others’ thrift their gain, / When they grow bankrupts in the art of stealth, / Booties to their old fellows they remain”. The moral? As soon as a man gets married, Cupid sets out to make him a cuckold. Thanks, Cupid. That theme is at its strongest in “L”, a risque ballad that, while bitter and arguably misogynistic, is frankly a breath of fresh air in its directness and simplicity, after all that coded glancing. Here, a middle-class man’s wife “mistakes her bed”, as we’re told women often (accidentally!) do, and ends up sleeping with a lord, who really loves her breasts and her stomach, and asks her who they belong to. She says they belong to him, of course – all of her belongs to him, except her backside, which is the only part of her that her husband owns. Her husband, “Scoggin” overhears this (let’s not ask how or why?), and enthusiastically buys her new clothes – in which her breasts and stomach are covered by canvas, while her backside is adorned with fine silk. He doesn’t know about lordly fashion, he explains to his friends, so he’s left the rest of her for her noble boyfriend to decorate. “If husbands now should only deck their own”, Greville concludes, “Silk would make many by their backs be known.” The poem, as well as being an unusual experiment – a brief narrative ballad, in a cycle of condensed and obscure sonnets, a glimpse of daily, ordinary life in a cycle of refined court poetry – encapsulates a certain attitude of both defiance and resignation. Scoggin cannot keep his wife from straying, so he makes a joke of it and tells the world, boldly advertising his limited power in the medium of silk.
And yet still, Greville’s disaffection goes deeper than a cynicism about the sanctity of marriage. “XLI”, for example, gives voice to a despair underlying the romantic anguish: “Alas poor soul, think you to master love, / With constant faith; do you hope true devotion / Can stay that god-head, which lived but to move, / And turn men’s hearts, like vanes, with outward motion?” And that despair in the face of the inconstant world finds its fullest expression (so far) in “XLIV”:
The Golden Age was when the world was young,
Nature so rich, as earth did need no sowing,
Malice not known, the serpents had not stung,
Wit was but sweet affection’s overflowing.
Desire was free, and beauty’s first-begotten;
Beauty then neither net, nor made by art,
Words out of thoughts brough forth, and not forgotten
The laws were inward that did rule the heart.
The Brazen Age is now when earth is worn,
Beauty grown sick, nature corrupt and nought,
Pleasure untimely dead as soon as born,
Both words and kindness strangers to our thoughts:
If now this changing world do change her head,
Caelica, what have her new lords for to boast?
The old lord knows desire is poorly fed,
And sorrows not a wavering province lost,
Since in the gilt age Saturn rul’d alone,
And in this painted, planets every one.
The idea of contrasting the current fallen age with a bygone arcadia is, of course, a widespread trope in poetry of this era (and even more so in the century to follow). But for most poets, the strategy here would be to evoke the golden age to support their thesis about, or appeal to, their beloved; here, the very mention of Caelica’s “name” seems like an afterthought, and instead the reader’s suspicion is likely to be that the entire conceit of the love poem is only an excuse, Caelica’s infidelity only supporting evidence in a wider thesis about society, or about the world entire.
But strikingly, Greville does not, at least at this stage, rest in his despair. Instead, his sentiments move on, and the cynical “L” is followed by a flurry of poems reasserting his devotion, his love for the sublime Cynthia, and his willingness to compete for her favour. “LI” reassures us (despite all the philosophical rumination to the contrary that has gone before), “Caelica, you know I do not change”; “LII” casts off cynicism robustly, from its opening line, “Away with these self-loving lads, / Whom Cupid’s arrow never glads” through its religious devotions (“My songs they be of Cynthia’s praise, / I wear her rings on holy days, / In every tree I write her name”) to its bold acceptance of challenge: “For many run, but one must win.”
[On which note: a musical interlude is order! That’s the great John Dowland’s (admittedly rather dull) setting of (an earlier version) of “LII”; song lyrics in this era were generally unattributed, and Greville may have seen giving poems to composers like John Dowland and Michael Cavendish as a way to share his work, and witness the reception to it, without having to violate his anonymity.]
In a way, we seem now to have returned to the beginning, to courtly, humble adorations. But not quite: there is a greater knowledge now of loss, of danger. Greville is no longer a boy entering naively into the lists of love, but a man fully-armed, experienced, full-knowing the pain of a fall, yet determined not to surrender. There is a carpe diem feeling to these poems, made most explicit (in more ways than one) in “LVI”, in which Greville, spurred by desire to “take arms in Cynthia’s name”, goes to Caelica’s bedroom in the middle of the night (it’s a long, narrative poem, so I’ll just extract a few plot-critical moments):
Fury’s wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard’s heir
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
Therewithal I heard a sound,
Made of all the parts of love,
Which did sense delight and wound;
Planets with such music move.
Surely I Apollo am,
Yonder is the glorious maid
Which men do Aurora name,
Who for pride she hath in me
Blushing forth desire and fear,
While she would have no man see
I stepp’d forth to touch the sky
I a god by Cupid dreams,
Cynthia who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams;
Leaving hollow banks behind
There stand I like Men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace:
He that lets his Cynthia lie,
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away
None can well behold with eyes,
But what underneath him lies.
Greville is usually a poet of the moment (in that he advances his broader philosophical aims primarily through consideration of specific moments of life), and the constant classical/mythological allusions of this poem, in which he compares himself to both Apollo and Mars, are unusual for him (though not unique). The idea of an extended narrative poem, not divided into stanzas, is also an oddity for him, although from “L” onward these experiments in form do become more common*. In another way, however, the poem is very representative, in its juxtaposition of the earthy and practical – Cynthia is lying naked on a bed, what should he do about it? – with airy analogies (there’s a full eight lines on how incredible it is to see Cynthia naked, which requires allusions to four different deities) and moral theorising. Here, the parable is unusually clear: seize the day. If you see a naked woman, have sex with her immediately before she can run away.
[Of course, the broader context of this is, as always, left, perhaps intentionally, vague. The reader charitable to Greville can make charitable assumptions. He goes to Cynthia’s room because she has earlier invited him. She is visibly “naked on a bed of play” and making a “a sound made of all the parts of love” while “blushing forth desire” because she’s enjoying herself while waiting, or as a display for him. Alas, for some reason she changes her mind at the last moment, because he hesitates long enough to let her have second thoughts – perhaps she misinterprets his hesitation as disgust. On the other hand, of course, the reader hostile to Greville can make the opposite assumptions. He spontaneously breaks into Cynthia’s bedroom without invitation and watches her sleeping. Her “sound” is just, well, anything – this is an era in which breathing, being unconscious, and explicitly claiming not to be consenting are all considered legitimate and recognised forms of seduction. She wakes, blushes with fear and shame, and manages to run out of the room before he has time to rape her. There is no obvious indication in the text which of these two scenarios (or anywhere in between) we’re meant to hypothesise, and of course considerable cultural context has been lost in the intervening centuries. Some of the text was lost as well, quite literally – for centuries, the poem was printed without a huge chunk of the lines, including the lines that describe Caelica’s blushing and sound-making, making the encounter seem even more one-sided.]
[*Caelica is often described as a sonnet sequence; it isn’t. Most of the poems are not sonnets, and in particular the sonnets are clustered in the first half. It’s not hard to see the course of Greville’s development as a poet here: at first inspired into the art in emulation of his friend, Sidney, he begins by imitating, to some extent, Sidney’s own practice, reliant on sonnets (indeed, some early poems in Caelica overtly reference or answer poems in Sidney’s Stella; but with Sidney dead, and Greville increasingly comfortable and ambitious in his craft, he increasingly bends form to his will – truncated sonnets, extended sonnets, ballads, dramatic couplets, etc. On the other hand, this may reflect tone rather than ability – the earlier poems, more embedded within the conventions of their era, tend to be more regular in form, while the more exploratory, ruminatory poems later on become more sui generis.]
This carpe diem sentiment, in a more abstract form, is expressed again in “LIX”, but here it has become darker, the emphasis turning to threats and fears. “Whoever sails near to Bermuda’s coast,” it tells us, “Goes hard aboard a monarchy of fear, / Where all desires but life’s desires are lost / For wealth and fame put off their glories there.” In theory the poem is optimistic – just as “For who will seek the wealth of western sun, / Oft by Bermuda’s miseries must run”, so too the pains of love are justified, because “Who Caelica’s chaste heart then seeks to move, / Must joy to suffer all the woes of love”. And yet the emphasis on this ‘monarchy of fear’, the ‘poison-like’ influence of the island, this ‘empire of confused passion’, seems to be set a tone that is not only dark, but uneasy. We begin to see love not only as a quest, but also as an infection, a sickness that cannot be escaped from: “Yet this fair heaven, that yields this soul-despair, / weans not the heart from his sweet god, Affection”.
The darker tone runs through all this next tranche of poems, which are noteworthy in how focused they are on Caelica, not simply as a topic but as an unseen interlocutor – almost ranting in their obsessive addresses to her, like a dumped 21st century boy sending unwanted, unread e-mails to the object of his stalking. “LVII” begins: “Caelica, you blame me that I suffer not / Absence with joy, authority with ease: / Caelica, what powers can nature’s inside blot?” In “LX”, we start with “Caelica, you said, I do obscurely live, / Strange to my friends, with strangers ever in suspect”; in LXI it’s “Caelica, while you do swear you love me best, / And ever loved only me, / I feel that all powers are oppress’d / By love, and love by destiny.” “LXIV” complains, “Caelica, when I did see you every day, / I saw so many worths so well united,” while “LXV” starts with “Caelica, when I was from your presence bound, / At first good-will both sorrow’ and repined”, and “LXVI” goes with “Caelica, you (whose requests commandments be) / Advise me to delight my mind with books”. Finally, “LXXII” begins: “Caelica, you that excel in flesh and wit”… after which, Caelica will never again be directly addressed.
But if these poems deal primarily with the details of the (purported) relationship between Greville and (the posited) Caelica, there is also a broader sense that, just as bitterness gave way to a desparate grasping of the moment, so too that flimsy optimism is giving way to despair, and even further disillusionment. In this regard, I can’t help but recite three poems entire. The first is “LXII”, in which Greville, sixty poems into his cycle of love poems, contemptuously discards love, before moving on to all other mortal ambitions in turn:
Who worships Cupid doth adore a boy;
Boys earnest are at first in their delight,
But for a new, soon leave their dearest toy,
And out of mind, as soon as out of sight,
Their joys be dallyings and their wealth is play,
They cry to have, and cry to cast away.
Mars is an idol, and man’s lust, his sky;
Whereby his glories still are full of wounds,
Who worships him, their fame goes far and nigh,
But still of ruin and distress it sounds.
Yet cannot all be won, and who doth live,
Must room to neighbours and succession give.
Those Mercurists that upon humours work,
And so make other’s skill, and power their own,
Are like the climates, which far Northward lurk,
And through long winters must reap what is sown;
Or like the masons, whose arts building well,
Yet leaves the house for other men to dwell.
Mercury, Cupid, Mars, they be no gods,
But human idols, built up by desire,
Fruit of our boughs, whence heaven maketh rods,
And babies too, for child-thoughts that aspire:
Who sees their glories, one the earth must pry;
Who seeks true glory must look to the sky.
To lament the limitations of love is not inherently out of keeping for a love-poet. But Greville goes further – in dismissing the roles of lover, warmaker and statesman, Greville is dismissing the whole of his era’s assumptions about what a man should strive to be (assumptions that his beloved Sidney did more than almost any man of his era to fulfill, and assumptions to which Greville himself appears to have ascribed earlier in his life). This is, indeed, not so much mere despair as outright renunciation.
In that renunciation, there is no place, even a negative one, for Caelica. But we encounter her again, for one of the last times, in “LXVI”, not as an object of adoration, but, in a more mature way, as a giver of lifestyle advice and as someone with whom to quarrel over ideas. If “LXII” seemed to renounce conventional aspirations, “LXVI” goes further in its growing contempt for the human world as a whole:
Caelica, you (whose requests commandments be)
Advise me to delight my mind in books,
The glass where art doth to posterity
Show nature naked unto him that looks,
Enriching us, shortening the ways of wit
Which with experience else dear buyeth it.
Caelica, if I obey not, but dispute,
Think it is darkness, which seeks out a light,
And to presumption do not it impute,
If I forsake this way of infinite;
Books be of men, men but in clouds do see,
Of whose embracements centaurs gotten be.
I have for books, above my head the skies;
Under me, earth; about me air and sea:
The truth for light, and reason for mine eyes,
Honour for guide, and nature for my way.
With change of times, laws, humours, manners, right;
Each in their diverse workings infinite.
Which powers from that we feel, conceive, or do,
Raise in our senses thorough joy, or smarts,
All forms, the good or ill can bring us to,
More lively far, than dead books or arts;
Which at the second hand deliver forth,
Of few men’s heads, strange rules for all men’s worth.
False antidotes for vicious ignorance,
Whole causes are within, and so their cure,
Error corrupting nature, not mischance,
For how can that be wise which is not pure?
So that man being but hypocrisy,
What can his arts but beams of folly be?
Let him then first set straight his inward spirit,
That his affections in the serving rooms,
May follow reason, not confound her light,
And make her subject to inferior dooms;
For till the inward moulds be truly plac’d
All is made crooked that in them we cast.
But when the heart, eyes’ light grow pure together,
And so vie in the way to be forgot,
Which threw man from creation, who knows whither?
Then this strange building which the flesh knows not,
Revives a new-form’d image in man’s mind,
Where arts reveal’d are miracles defin’d.
What then need half-fast helps of erring wit,
Methods, or books of vain humanity,
Which dazzle truth, by representing it,
And so entail clouds to posterity?
Since outward wisdom springs from truth within,
Which all men feel, or hear, before they sin.
Here, Greville’s two modes, as conventional suitor and as gnarled introspector, meld into one poem: we begin in a relatively simple world, and move progressively into more imagistically, syntactically, philosophically and poetically awkward, convoluted territory. The day-seizing sentiment recurs here, no longer in the service of ambition – even his love for Caelica he is now willing to jeopardise with (albeit it delicate) contradiction, and for the rest of human society he shows no love at all – but as a replacement for it; seizing the day becomes appreciating the moment, the wonders of simplicity and nature. As the poem goes on, the poet – and the reader! – seems to forget all about Caelica, not out of disdain but from distraction, as the poem moves the poet from obedience to the “commandments” of one deity, in the direction of obedience to those of another. But for all the poem’s loss of interest in Caelica, and scorn for mankind’s follies, this remains an essentially hopeful poem: Greville has found direction in his life, a programme of self-reform. There’s a determination here; indeed, he seems to have more of a sense of direction in his life in this poem than in almost any that have gone before. He is, at least in theory, in a position of power: all he must do is “set straight his inward spirit”.
[A brief biographical and disorienting note: while the Greville of his poems dismisses books, and all other products of human art and learning, preferring the wonders of nature, the real Greville, the one who wrote the poems, not only read extensively himself (he was said to be one of the most learned men in England), but even employed multiple research assistants – some in Cambridge to gather relevant texts for him, and others in his entourage to summarise texts, argue theoretical points and peer-review his own writings – the essays in verse in particular are apparently the result of intense academic study. I recently came across, indeed, a somewhat different – still cautious but far more enthusiastic – theory on the value of human knowledge, expressed by Greville in one of his essays in verse:
The mind of man is this world’s dimension,
And knowledge is the measure of the mind;
And as the mind, in her vast comprehension,
Contains more worlds than all the world can find:
So knowledge doth itself far more extend
Than all the minds of men can comprehend.
Greville too, I think, doth more extend than at least my own mind can comprehend. As I’ve found repeatedly, every time you actually find something out about Greville, you have to reassess your assumptions, as the Greville he presents in his poems is not the Greville of the external world; which makes the reader’s dislike of the Greville in the poems, and his obvious deficiencies, particularly suspect…]
But it doesn’t last long. Cue “LXIX”:
When all this All doth pass from age to age,
And revolution in a circle turn,
The heavenly justice doth appear like rage,
The caves do roar, the very seas do burn,
Glory grows dark, the sun becomes a night,
And makes this great world feel a greater might.
When love doth change his seat from heart to heart,
And worth about the wheel of fortune goes,
Grace is diseas’d, desert seems overthwart,
Vows are forlorn, and truth does credit lose,
Chance then gives law, desire must be wise,
Ad look more ways than one, or lose her eyes.
My age of joy is past, of woes begun,
Absence my presence is, strangeness my grace,
With them that walk against me, is my sun:
The wheel is turn’d, I hold the lowest place,
What can be good to me since my love is,
To do me harm, content to do amiss?
[“Absence my presence is, strangeness my grace” – now there’s a line to describe Greville…]
In a cycle with may invocations of pagan gods, Greville’s own God has to this point made few appearances, and his arrival here feels less like the entrance of a personal, theological deity, and more like a Jovian incarnation of the destructive power of the world – the world that, as has been the case throughout these poems, changes everything. But if the earliest evocations of change – cast against the permanent majesty and purity of Caelica – seemed stylised and affected, the entrance of God here to darken the sun and burn the very seas seems authentically felt, a shiver not merely of melancholy but of dread through the poet’s spine, and the onset of a deep depression. Seizing the day is all very well, until the night falls…
[it’s worth pointing out, of course, that even in his retirement, Greville’s annual income was the equivalent, compared to household prices, of about £1m today; his relative economic status in society would have been similar to that of someone with a £25m annual income today. What’s more, in an era of limited medicine, he still reached the age of 74 without any catastrophic medical burdens. “Ages of woe” are relative.]
Greville’s night brings, inevitably, further introspection. If he had any hopes remaining for love, he seems to set them aside; in “LXXI”, he addresses, for once, not the stylised ‘Cupid’, but simply ‘love’: “Love, I did send you forth enamell’d fair / with hope”, he laments – “[…] And do you now return lean with despair? / Wounded by rivals’ war, scorched with jealousy?” – and we end the poem with something both of despair and of determination, as love replies to him: “Let me no longer follow womenkind, / Where change doth use all shapes of tyranny; / And I no more will stir this earthly dust / Wherein I lose my name, to take on lust”. In “LXXIII”, we have the voice of Myra herself, to her ‘Myraphill’ (Greville), explaining herself in terms that allow Greville to still express his loss and anger, but that are written with surprisingly little bitterness. Myra was, we’re told, simply young and naive: she couldn’t imagine her affections changing, but “This was but earnest youth’s simplicity, / To fathom nature within passion’s wit, / Which thinks her earnestness eternity”; but in the end, once Greville is ‘banished’, nature takes its course and she moves on, as “Nature and love, no vacuum can endure”.
It feels as though expressing Myra’s side of the affair openly [at least the idealised one – note that Myra’s lack of constancy after Greville’s banishment comes long, long after her ‘original’ betrayal back in “XXII”] may be a necessary part of Greville, very gradually, letting go of his obsessions and his grievances. If this is so, perhaps even more necessary is an honest accounting of the origin of his own feelings, and his own dysfunctions, and we get a glimpse of that in the lengthy “LXXIV” – finally admitting things that were clear to the (modern) reader long ago, and doing so by revisiting a past moment and dividing himself into an “I” that observes the scene and a “Philocell” that takes part in it:
In her eyes he pity saw,
His love did to pity draw:
But love found when it came there,
Pity was transformed to fear:
Then he thought that in her face,
He saw love, and promis’d grace.
Love call his love to appear,
But as soon as it came near,
Her love to her bosom fled,
Under honour’s burdens dead.
Honour in love’s stead took place,
To grace shame, with love’s disgrace;
But like drops thrown on the fire,
Shame’s restraints inflam’d desire:
Desire looks, and in her eyes,
The image of itself espies,
Whence he takes self-pity’s motions
To be Cynthia’s own devotions;
And resolves fear is a liar,
Thinking she bids speak desire,
But true love that fears, and dare
Offend itself with pleasing care,
So divers ways his heart doth move,
That his tongue cannot speak of love.
And there it is: if she ever loved him, it was confused, and mixed together with pity, fear and shame; perhaps she might have loved him, but he said nothing. Notably, this is the only poem in which the three main forms of the beloved appear: first Caelica is seen, beautiful by the narrator (“Sadly clad for sorrow’s glory, / Making joy, glad to be sorry”); then Cynthia is in the above dance of eyes and suppositions; and finally, in the penultimate line of the poem, we are told simple, baldly, “Myra leaves him”.
Perhaps that’s as far as Greville can go with so flimsy a mask. So for the coup de grace, he puts on a sturdier one and delivers the longest poem in the cycle: a six-and-a-half page (in this edition) little epic, in rhyming couplets, of fair Caelica and her adoring shepherd Philocell. Caelica is given a remarkable, and remarkably Grevillian, introductory paean: “Caelica her skin was fair, / Dainty auburn was her hair; / Her hair Nature dyed brown, / To become the mourning gown / Of hope’s death which to her eyes, / Offers thoughts for sacrifice.” [seriously, so Greville – the way that it begins conventional to the point of being twee, like a folk song, and then suddenly veers abruptly into the deepest seriousness, while the rhythm goes from mechanical, to grinding, to wrenching caesura and realignment…] Much of the poem takes the form of Philocell’s poems to Caelica, which clearly intentionally evoke, or even directly paraphrase, memorable lines from the earlier poems in the cycle, while Greville sadly pokes fun at the youth’s naive simplicity in wooing and blind faith in love. Philocell’s (i.e. Greville’s) poems are dismissed as simply what “His despair taught fear thus speak”, while Caelica grows increasingly scornful, until she bursts out with an astonishing monologue, Greville’s tragic capstone to the puzzle of loss posed long ago by “XXII”, when Myra first left him, and the rarely-heard voice of the Elizabethan women on the other end of all these weighty, suffocating poems of adoration (albeit, inevitably, as imagined here by a man):
‘Philocell, far from me get you,
Men are false, we cannot let you;
Humble, and yet full of pride
Earnest, and not to be denied;
Now us, for not loving, blaming,
Now us, for too much, defaming:
Though I let you posies bear,
Wherein my name cyph’red were
For I bid you in the tree,
Cypher down your name by me:
For the bracelet pearl-like white,
Which you stole from me by night,
I content was you should carry
Lest that you should longer tarry,
Think you that you might encroach,
To set kindness more abroach?
Think you me in friendship tied,
So that nothing be denied?
Do you think that I must live,
Bound to that which you will give?
Philocell, I say, depart,
Blot my love out of your heart,
Cut my name out of the tree,
Bear not memory of me.
My delight is all my care,
All laws else despised are,
I will never rumour move,
At least for one I do not love.’
Greville, however, is not convinced. He continues to maintain that Caelica did once love her Philocell – she speaks like this to hurt him, and to end his love for her, and he rebukes womankind, gently, for their cruelty and injustice in this respect. As for his own feels, despite all this, he redoubles his affirmations: no pain or ill-treatment will ever end his love, for:
Love tears reason’s law in sunder,
Love, is god, let reason wonder.
What, it seems, is now laid to rest, however, is the pursuit – he will always love his Caelica, but he no longer has hope that she still, or may again, love him. It seems appropriate, for a poet who, way back in the saccherine “IV”, promised “For I have vow’d in strangest fashion, / To love, and never seek compassion”; it’s a promise he made in the heat of romantic oratory, and clearly did not truly mean, as he spent the following seventy poems demanding, yearning for, and/or lamenting the absence of requition. But now, at least, he makes good on that vow – after “LXXV”, Caelica, in all her guises, is never again mentioned.
With Caelica at last abandoned, where can Greville’s thoughts and poetry turn? Well, when he’s feeling well, politics provides one outlet – although of course for Greville, politics and romance are two sides of the same disquiet, the same abhorrence of decay. Even in his love poems, political imagery abounds; even in his politics, the echoes of love can be heard. Where once the poet lamented the fickleness of lovers, now he laments the fickleness of kings. This is particularly evident in “LXXVII”, where he begins with “The heathen gods finite in power” and moves to the final stanzas to their earthly analogues, in a striking condemnation of modern monarchs, those “engines of omnipotence” – a defence of mediaeval constitutional rule in the face of the growing absolutism of the early modern period:
Our modern tyrants, by more gross ascent,
Although they found distinction in the state
Of church, law, custom, people’s government,
Mediums (at least) to give excess a rate,
Yet fatally have tried to change this frame,
And make will law, man’s wholesome laws but name.
For when power once hath trod this path of might,
And found how place advantageously extended
Wanes, or confoundeth all inferiors’ right
With thin lines hardly seen, but never ended;
It straight drowns in this gulf of vast affections,
Faith, truth, worth, law, all popular protections.
The political theme also extends to criticism of organised religion, and together these themes reoccur until the end of the sequence – in “XC”, for example, he contrasts the lawless tyranny of the Turks with Christian constitutionalism and its own frailty: “Our Christian freedom is, we have a law, / Which even the heathen think no power should wrest; / Yet it proves crooked as power lists to draw / The rage or grace that lurks in princes’ breasts”. Particularly interesting is “CVIII”, which asks why warlike states ‘have honour, and breed men of better fame’, given that war is sinful – he answers that “peace is a quiet nurse / Of idleness, and idleness the field, / Where wit and power change all seeds to the worse”; in addition, he reassures those considering any crimes against humanity that “to great actions time so friendly is, / As o’er the means (albeit the means be ill) / It casts forgetfulness”. The best of these poems, formally, is “LXXXI” in which romantic adoration is transmogrified into awed, unusually pristine and straightforward, adulation of (the presumably by now departed) Elizabeth. Indeed, it’s probably closer to a pure, conventional love-poem than anything Greville was able to dedicate to his own beloved:
Under a throne I saw a virgin sit,
The red, and white rose quarter’d in her face;
Star of the North, and for true guards to it,
Princes, church, states, all pointing out her grace
The homage done her was not born of wit,
Wisdom admir’d, zeal took ambition’s place,
State in her eyes taught order how to fit,
And fix confusion’s unobserving race.
Fortune can here claim nothing truly great,
But that this princely creature is her seat.
“CI”, by contrast, suggests that his views of her successor are less positive, in its fourth stanza:
But states grow old, when princes turn away
From honour, to take pleasure for their ends;
For that a large is, this a narrow way,
That wins a world, and this a few dark friends;
The one improving worthiness spreads far,
Under the other good things prisoners are.
In truth, however, the later poems are much more concerned with Greville’s personal journey into darkness, and this is nowhere more stark than in the short and brutal poem that immediately follows this Elizabethan icon, “LXXXII”:
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.
If that seems morbid, however, it’s nothing at all compared to the frankly extraordinary, in every way, “LXXXIII”. It’s a huge block of text – in this edition effectively three whole pages blackened in rhyming couplets, not (as in the longer-in-line-count ballad of Caelica and Philocell quoted above) in tetrameter, but in weighty, alternating hexameter and heptameter, making the poem stand out immediately from all the others in the cycle. In it, Greville launches into full-on clinical depression, in a way that mirrors, yet far surpasses, his earlier poetic affectations of “anguish” (indeed, it shows his contempt now for those he who “plays with his complaints”). It sees him “fall’n down into the dark despaired war of sprites”, without even the slightest hope, relief or comfort. He is he…
Whose love is lost, whose hopes are fled, whose fears for ever be.
Yet not those happy fears which show desire her death
Teaching with use a peace in woe, and in despair a faith:
No, no, my fears kill not, but make uncured wounds,
Where joy and peace do issue out, and only pain abounds.
Unpossible are help, reward and hope to me,
Yet while unpossible they are, they easy seem to be.
Most easy seems remorse, despair and death to me,
Yet while they passing easy seem, unpossible they be.
So neither can I leave my hopes that do deceive,
Nor can I trust mine own despair, and nothing else receive.
My winter is within which withereth my joy;
My knowledge, seat of civil war, where friends and foes destroy,
And my desires are wheels, whereon my heart is borne,
With endless turnings of themselves, still living to be torn.
My thoughts are eagle’s food, ordained to be a prey
To worth; and being still consum’d, yet never to decay.
My memory, where once my heart laid up the store
Of help, of joy, of spirit’s wealth to multiply them more;
Is now become the tomb wherein all these slain,
My help, my joy, my spirit’s wealth all sacrificed to pain.
This is also the only poem in the cycle in which the poet actually identifies himself:
Let no man ask my name, nor what else I should be;
For Greive-Ill, pain, forlorn estate do best decipher me.
In “LXXXIII”, love (along with, we may presume, other things) has brought Greville down to rock bottom. Now, many times, he has criticised, and lamented, love’s maladies, and as we have seen he has said farewell to his Caelica, finally admitting to himself, as “LXXXIII” says, “She ever must be my desire, and never my relief”, for “She lov’d, and still she loves, but doth not still love me”. But it is only now, after reaching this abyss, that it feels as though Greville is really able to come to terms with his romantic delusions, as he bids farewell to love not once, but twice, finally wresting apart a duality that has lain poisonously near the heart of his dysfunctions: one poem is addressed to his “Cupid”, representing romance; and one to “love” itself. To Cupid, he writes (“LXXXIV”), with an old man’s hindsight and acceptance:
Farewell, sweet boy, complain not of my truth;
Thy mother lov’d thee not with more devotion;
For to thy boy’s play I gave all my youth,
Young master, I did hope for your promotion.
While some sought honours, prince’s thoughts observing,
Many woo’d fame, the child of pain and anguish,
Others judg’d inward good a chief deserving,
I, in thy wanton visions joy’d to languish.
I bow’d not to thy image for succession,
Nor bound thy brow to shoot reformed kindness,
Thy plays of hope and fear were my confession,
The spectacles to my life was thy blindness:
But Cupid now farewell, I will go play me,
With thoughts that please me less, and less betray me.
[And what other poet would write a line as beautifully, horribly ugly as “the spectacles to my life was thy blindness:” – in imagery, and syntax, and in cluttered sound, it grabs the horns of a poem of easy rhymes and hurls it over in its tracks, bringing the reader to a near-total, discombobulated stop… just in time to turn suddenly into the concluding couplet – the ungainliness of that line is no coincidence!]
And yet of love itself he still writes in “LXXXV”: “Love is the peace, whereto all thoughts do strive […] Perfection’s spirit, goddess of the mind […] Constant, because it sees no cause to vary […] A nature by no other nature known”. Greville’s search is almost at an end: in his quest to find what is constant in an inconstant world, where peace is to be found, he finds what he seeks in love… but only after he has divided out his own and other’s foolish romantic imitations of love. If constancy is to be found in love, therefore, where is love to be found? The following poem both underscores the division of ideal love and human love, and shows us the direction Greville’s thoughts will now take. “Man torn with love,” he writes, “with inward furies blasted, / Drown’d with despair, with fleshly lustings shaken” cannot blame heaven, for, just as the thunder, rain and winds that lash the earth are products of the earth, so too the passions that torment the human soul are the product of humanity:
Then man, endure thyself, those clouds will vanish;
Life is a top which whipping sorrow driveth;
Wisdom must bear what our flesh cannot banish,
The humble lead, the stubborn bootless striveth:
Or man, forsake thyself, to heaven turn thee,
Her flames enlighten nature, never burn thee.
Yes, like many poets, Greville has found God, once he has hit rock bottom. It is an interesting biographical detail that Greville was, at least outwardly, a devout Calvinist all his life; and yet it is only here, in these last poems, that that devotion breaks through into his works. Some have suggested, faced with this paradox, that Greville may have experienced some sort of “born again” episode at this point; alternatively this may simply be a deepening of his faith, or indeed only a gradual intellectual approach to something that was lying unconsidered and unarticulated at the core of his life all along (and which the attentive reader will have noted in passing). Alternatively, this may be evidence that the cycle is not a naive and chronological sequence of poems, but may have undergone editing and rearrangement by Greville to produce this coherent (if meandering) passage from the love of women to the love of God. From this point on, the poems are certainly not fixated on faith, but faith has clearly taken on an immense importance to the poet. We see this – and the Calvinist, anti-intellectual nature of that faith – clearly in “LXXXVIII” (“Man, dream no more of curious mysteries […] For God’s work are like him, all infinite; / And curious search, but crafty sin’s delight). The second stanza in particular positively quivers, seizes, with zeal, shaking apart the rhythm and the syntax of the lines, with the beautiful ugliness that is distinctly Grevillian:
The flood that did, and dreadful fire that shall,
Drown, and burn up the malice of the earth,
The divers tongues, and Babylon’s downfall,
Are nothing to the man’s renewed birth;
First, let the Law plough up thy wicked heart,
That Christ may come, and all these types depart.
[Another musical interlude! Martin Peerson, whose patron Greville was, set no fewer than 13 of Greville’s Caelica poems, in his Grave Chamber Musique cycle; unfortunately, they seem rarely to have been recorded. Peerson for some reason actually set this poem no fewer than three times; here’s one of his settings, polyphonic and through-composed. Interestingly, Peerson’s settings followed Greville’s death, but preceded the official publication of his works; it’s likely that the cycle was begun before Greville’s death, and seems to have had the poet’s approval. The relationship between the two, and Greville’s willingness to let Peerson not merely set the odd song (as he had with Cavendish and Dowland) but over a dozen works, is particularly striking in religious terms – as we are seeing the Greville of the later poems is a fiery and combative Calvinist, yet Peerson was a convicted recusant… further evidence that nothing about Greville is exactly how it may first seem]
With Calvinistic, cynical fury, Greville tears apart the institutions and values of his age. In “XCI”, he rails against “Fame, that is but good words of evil deeds, / Begotten by the harm we have, or do”, and declares “Nobility, power’s golden fetter is, / Wherewith wise kings subjection do adorn, / To make man think her heavy yoke a bliss“; in “XCII”, we have a longer discourse on nobility, saying of nobles “For be they fools, or speak they without wit, / We hold them wise, we fools bewonder it”, before concluding, “For place a coronet on whom you will, / You straight see all great in him, but his ill”.
[Biographic note: around (probably) this time, Greville was campaigning hard to receive a noble title himself, eventually being made Baron Brooke. A century later, the family’s title was upgraded to Earl Brooke, and eventually Earl of Warwick.]
But his religious faith is most powerfully expressed in two consecutive poems, “XCVIII” and “XCIX”. The first runs declares the poet to have been “Wrapped up, O Lord, in man’s degeneration”, and confesses plainly, “Lord, I have sinn’d, and mine iniquity / Deserves this hell; yet Lord deliver me.” Where once Greville still placed faith in his own power to “set straight his inward spirit”, now, in true Calvinist form, he abandons all hope of self-reform, and places his redemption squarely in the hands of God, in time for his great confession of faith in “XCIX”, perhaps his best-known poem:
Down in the depth of mine iniquity,
That ugly centre of infernal spirits;
Where each sin feels her own deformity,
In these peculiar torments she inherits,
Depriv’d of human graces, and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.
And in this fatal mirror of transgression,
Shows man as fruit of his degeneration,
The error’s ugly infinite impression,
Which bears the faithless down to desperation;
Depriv’d of human graces, and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.
In power and truth, almighty and eternal,
Which on the sin reflects strange desolation,
With glory scourging all the sprites infernal,
And uncreated hell with unprivation;
Depriv’d of human graces, and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.
For on this sp’ritual cross condemned lying,
To pains infernal by eternal doom,
I see my Saviour for the same sins dying,
And from that hell I fear’d, to free me, come;
Depriv’d of human graces, not divine,
Thus hath his death rais’d up this soul of mine.
New footing found on the foundation of faith, Greville can cast off his dysfunctions, recognising them as misplaced; in “C”, he depicts a man alone in the dark, unable to see, yet stirred by internal fears imagines he sees threats all around him – his disordered mind “…from this nothing seen, tells news of devils, / Which but expressions be of inward evils.” Perhaps, in the end, it is no coincidence that so often Greville’s complaints – of unjust loves, of unjust lords, of banishments and shames, infidelity and cruelty – have seem insubstantial and vague; perhaps, he seems to be suggesting, the problem was not with those around Greville, but with Greville himself all along.
Cynicism and religion come together in Greville’s final and most powerful rejection of human ambition, “CV”. On the surface, this poem seems to recapitulate “LXII”, yet “CV” goes deeper – where “LXII” was cynical toward socially valued ambitions (love, military glory, political status), expressed in Olympic terms, “CV” speaks directly (if sometimes obscurely!), and cuts to the heart of human desires; and where formerly Greville pitched his cynicism on incoherencies within social values, now he grounds his attack in a fundamental inadequacy, a hollowness, in godless striving, with a preacher’s zealotry:
Three things there be in man’s opinion dear,
Fame, many friends, and fortune’s dignities:
False visions all, which in our sense appear,
To sanctify desire’s idolatries.
For what is fortune, but a wat’ry glass?
Whose crystal forehead wants a steely back,
Where rain and storms bear all away that was,
Whose ship alike both depths and shallows wrack.
Fame again, which from blinding power takes light,
Both Caesar’s shadow is, and Cato’s friend,
The child of humour, not allied to right,
Living by oft exchange of winged end.
And many friends, false strength of feeble mind,
Betraying equals, as true slaves to might,
Like echoes still send voices down the wind,
But never in adversity find right.
Then man, though virtue of extremities,
The middle be, and so hath two to one,
By place and nature constant enemies,
And against both these no strength but her own,
Yet quit thou for her, friends, fame, fortune’s throne;
Devils, there many be, and Gods but one.
There is a strange duality in Greville’s works now – they seem imbued both with a hopeless tragedy, of a man who has reached the end of all hope, and yet with a fierceness, a defiance, grounded on his faith in God, a faith that has emerged when all else has been stripped away. I said before that for most of this cycle, Greville seems to be struggling with his thoughts; but in the final poems, he is free to preach. And both of these sentiments, devastation and fierceness are on full display in his final, and most overtly religious, poem, “CIX”, which swaps the old classical allusions for Biblical grandeur, and talks of a glory that rises up out of desolation:
Sion lies wastes, and thy Jerusalem,
O Lord, is fall’n to utter desolation,
Against thy prophets, and thy holy men,
The sin hath wrought a fatal combination,
Profan’d thy name, thy worship overthrown,
And made thee living Lord, a God unknown.
Thy powerful laws, thy wonders of creation,
Thy Word incarnate, glorious heaven, dark hell,
Lies shadowed under man’s degeneration,
Thy Christ still crucified for doing well,
Impiety, O Lord, sits on thy throne,
Which makes thee living light, a God unknown.
Man’s superstition hath thy truths entomb’d,
His atheism again her pomps defaceth,
That sensual unsatiable vast womb
Of thy seen Church, thy unseen Church disgraceth;
There lives no truth with them that seem thine own,
Which makes thee living Lord, a God unknown.
Yet unto thee, Lord (mirror of transgression),
We, who for earthly idols, have forsaken
Thy heavenly image (sinless pure impression)
And so in nets of vanity lie taken,
All desolate implore that to thine own,
Lord, thou no longer live a God unknown.
Yet Lord let Israel’s plagues not be eternal,
Nor sin for ever cloud thy sacred mountains,
Nor with false flames spiritual but infernal
Dry up thy mercies ever-springing fountains,
Rather, sweet Jesus, fill up time and come,
To yield the sin her everlasting doom.
Thanks to Greville’s murder, the posthumous publication of these poems, and the absence of surviving notes that might indicate the nature of Greville’s plan for the cycle (if, indeed, he had one), or even their precise date and order of composition, it is not clear whether this poem was indeed originally intended as the capstone of the cycle, or whether it is simply chance that leaves it as the final surviving poem in Caelica. Whether it was intended as such or not, however, it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate and powerful conclusion to this sweeping arc of psychological, poetic and philosophical development. [It also seems in some way fitting for a radical, Dissenting (avant la lettre) poet to end his cycle one line after the first explicit mention of Jesus]. From the superficial to the profound, the anodyne to the apocalyptic, Caelica has taken us with her author along a complex and unexpected journey, that cannot help but linger in the reader’s mind.
***It is hard to know, to be honest, what to make of Greville; striking lines mingle with obscurities and inelegancies, and, as a good Elizabethan, little is ever truly notable for its originality of thought, even if sometimes the modes of expression are unexpected. And yet, I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to this book, not only to plough on (I don’t find Greville easy to read en masse, thanks to his density, and the repetition of themes) but also to reread with greater care and attentiveness.
The editor of this edition makes the bold but perhaps not ridiculous claim that what sets Greville apart is his individuality – that he is one of only allegedly only three English Renaissance poets to succesfully impose his own character on the poetic forms of the era and create a ‘coherent and engaging’ individual personality. He sums up his foreword by saying simply that he not only admires Greville, he actually likes him.
Well, I’m not sure I can go that far. There’s a lot about Greville that is frankly not all that likeable, from the creepy, obsessive, misogynistic entitlement that was generally expected of love poetry in the era, all the way through to his uncompromising Calvinism (for all that the observant reader may find both Greville’s self-denigration as a lover and his conviction as a preacher less somewhat to be suspect). And yet, he is in his way a magnetic personality – and yes, there’s something that’s hard not to like, in his searing honesty (even when lying), his constant struggle (if not always successful) to wring new life and interest out of well-worn themes and forms, his never-flagging intellectualism (even when expressed in the service of the appearance of anti-intellectualism) that drives him to explore what other poets merely ritually invoke, his willingness to confront his own failings, in his ability to change, and in the very dry, wry undercurrent that surfaces periodically throughout his poems. I’m not sure I like him… but I do at least want to like him.
I cannot in honesty say that Caelica is essential reading. I’m sure you could all gone through your lives untroubled without reading a single stanza of this minor poet. And yet, I think that in some small way I’ve found myself richer for having taken the time to read these poems, and I don’t doubt I will return to this collection in future years.
[indeed, the fact I’ve been quite moved by these poems may be deduced from the fact I’ve not just read them all, and not just written a review, but written an absurdly long review, the longest I’ve ever written, most of which is less a review than a presentation or introduction…]
And then what can we say about this edition? Not a lot, to be honest. The intention here was quite openly simply to gt these poems back into publication, something for which the publishers (Carcanet) are to be applauded. The editor, Neil Powell, provides an entertaining and helpful foreword, which gives a few basic facts about Greville and his reputation and briefly examines a couple of the poems, but I’m not entirely sure who it’s written for: while it’s not inherently inaccessible, it seems not to be written for casual readers (it assumes, for instance, familiarity with the style of Gascoigne, which I suspect is a valid assumption for a truly tiny percentage of the reading population), and yet it’s neither critically nor biographically/historically likely to be satisfying for the serious literary reader. I felt it was, in a way, caught between two stools – although I certainly appreciated its presence. There are also some editor’s notes at the end of the book, but these are so cursory as to barely be worth being present (one-line explanations of this or that technical issue in only a handful of the 109 poems).
On the other hand, we get what we pay for. This is a small and slender collection – the entire thing is under 130 pages – which retails (in theory) for a very reasonable price. It may not be a thorough critical edition, but anyone expecting to find that between these humble covers was deluded in any case. That said, Greville is a poet for whom extensive footnotes would be very helpful, given the cultural references, semantic drift, and at times contorted syntax. Regarding his (relatively) famous XCIX, to give just one example, I’m sure at least some readers, reading “And in this fatal mirror of transgression, / Shows man as fruit of his degeneration, / The error’s ugly infinite impression, / Which bears the faithless down to desperation”, will fail at first to realise that ‘fatal mirror of transgression’ is a term referring to God, and that ‘impression’ is the subject of ‘shows’… [that is, this is a rearrangement of the sentence “and the error’s ugly infinite impression [i.e. the mark of sin impressed into the soul], which bears the faithless down to desparation [i.e. condemns them to hell (where they will be depriv’d of human and (seemingly) divine graces)], shows, in this fatal mirror of transgression [i.e. the sinner’s contemplation of God reveals], man as fruit of his degeneration [i.e. the image the sinner sees in the mirror (God) is of their own damnation]. Every element of this is understandable, but all put together… it would be helpful to have someone holding the reader’s hand! [Powell does in fact, in the notes, explain both ‘mirror’ and the syntax of ‘shows’, but it’s one of the few cases where he does this].
What we should give this edition credit for, however, is the text. Powell has done two important things here. First, he’s revisited the surviving Grevillian manuscripts discovered in Warwick Castle and used them to make corrections to the traditional texts used in, for example, Gunn’s edition (there are so many places where Greville’s meaning is less than 100% clear, small but important scribal errors have been allowed to persist much longer than in the work of other poets – just because something is weird or confusing, after all, doesn’t mean it’s not what Greville intended), and this is clearly helpful, both in clarifying some meanings and in improving the artistic authenticity of the work. If Greville is tricky, Greville filtered through scribal errors and overzealous ‘corrections’ would be even worse. And second, he’s mostly modernised the spellings – because again, Greville is hard enough without having to deal with his utterly inconsistent and archaic spelling (and I’ve seen some Greville with its original spelling, and he’s even more erratic than you’d expect from the era, happily spelling the same word two ways in one sentence). Although I think there are a few errors still – surely in CIX quoted above, “Dry up thy mercies ever-springing fountains” is a typo for “mercy’s”?
[or wait, maybe it’s not? Maybe the third and fourth lines are no longer addressing “O Lord”, but rather the fountains (as a metaphor for God), and it’s a typo for dry up thy mercies, ever-springing fountains… I don’t think so, but it’s possible, and maybe that’s what the editor thought, and why he didn’t “correct” ‘mercies’. Have I mentioned that Greville is often… less than clear?]
What Powell has NOT done, which might have been relevant to this example, is fiddle with Greville’s commas. He was tempted to, he says, but opted against it. Greville, as you may by now have noticed, was really, really keen on commas – we get commas where there should be commas, commas where there should be semicolons, commas where there should be colons, commas between syntactic units where there shouldn’t be commas, commas where the poet just happens to have paused for breath, and sometimes just commas for no apparant reason of any kind. I mean really, why on earth does “Love, is God” have a comma in it!? Madness! Removing a lot of these commas, or replacing them with other punctuation, would clear up some of the syntactic ambiguities – but is that a good thing? It’s meant to be weird and sometimes ambiguous (notably, almost everyone agrees that Caelica’s later poems are better, but it’s also the later poems that tend to be most gnarled – the gnarling is not simply the result of ineptitude, but is rather the learned and intentional choice of an increasingly confident and individual poet, and a characteristic part of his mature style). And this would also require the editor to actually be clear in his own mind, conclusively, what the intended syntax was, in terms of the rules of modern punctuation, and he himself admits that sometimes he’s not sure. Indeed, it seems pretty clear that in at least some poems there probably is no intended, grammatically sound, syntax to link together the fragmentary clauses (or at least, such a syntax requires an additional element that is not present – in some poems, there are dangling modifers that probably are intended to modify an unstated ‘I’, for example). Perhaps even more troublingly, reforming the punctuation would have the effect of minimising Greville’s “halting” rhythms – if he inserts a comma to indicate a pause, we should probably leave the comma there, in order to respect those intentions, rather than whitewash the punctuation into something more fluent and less obstreporous.
[and as a fan of commas myself…]
Regarding the edition’s choices, I suppose I am, however, a little miffed by the title: given just how slender this collection is, it would not have been unreasonable for the editor to have included even just a dozen or two extra pages for a few notable extracts from the dramas and the discursive plays; alternatively, if you’re only going to print Caelica, why not just title it “Caelica”? [sure, fewer people would have understood the title then; but if you’re publishing the poems of Fulke Greville, you’re not exactly aiming for the mass market in the first place].
Fulke Greville died, as I have said, in 1628; Caelica was published five years later. In his life, Greville took pains to avoid attention as a writer; and perhaps it’s therefore appropriate that the world co-operated with this desire even after his death. Both in his era, and for centuries after, Greville was known primarily as a statesman, not as a figure of literature. When he was spoken of in connexion to literature, it was as a patron of writers, not as a writer himself. When he was called a writer, it was his prose biography of Sidney – who, as Greville likely would have been pleased by, soared into the firmament of great English poets, indeed great Englishmen, while his old schoolfriend faded into obscurity – that was likely being mentioned, rather than his poetry. If his poetry were thought of, it was his poetic dissertations, and then more for their political and ideological insights than for their confessed-but-neglected skill. As for Caelica, she faded into the kindly, dark “night when colours all to black are cast / Distinction lost, or gone down with the light.”
Greville’s poetry was never precisely forgotten. A poem here or there lingered in the memories of literary pedants and comprehensive anthologists. He was occasionally given a place among “the lesser poets” of the language, but rarely more than that; every generation or two, an academician would dutifully put out a new edition to keep his works in print. And among all the popular indifference, the were occasional pockets of devotees – Charles Lamb, for instance (noted for his contrary tastes and love of obscurity), and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who for a while, we’re told, spent his days reading Greville and his nights taking opium – he covered Lamb’s copy of Greville with annotations, and even whole poems adapted from the original to suit contemporary tastes).
But the turning point occured with influential poet and scholar, Yves Winters, who claimed to have read every poem by every poet in English of any note, and to his surprise discovered that he ranked Greville at the very top. He extolled “three or four tragedies by Shakespeare, and […] fifteen or twenty poems by Greville” in which could be found “a concentration of meaning, a kind of somber power, which one will scarcely find matched elsewhere“; he acknowledged that “so far as the short poem is concerned there were a good many great poets, four or five of whom wrote one or more poems apiece as great as any by Greville“, but overall ranked Greville only alongside Jonson as “one of the two great masters” of the short poem in the Renaissance.
Winters spread that love of Greville to his students, many of whom became noted poets in their own right – one, Robert Pinsky, former US Poet Laureate, compared Grevile to Donne, and lauded him as “the greatest poet unknown to many readers“. Another of Winters’ student, Thom Gunn, made the greatest strides toward ending that obscurity with his 1968 selected poems, for which this edition is in effect a replacement, helping Greville’s reputation to move beyond a small clique of professional poets and into the wider public. Meanwhile, the ardour of this group seems to have in turn inspired a new (albeit still small) field of academic studies of Greville, both as poet and as man of his age.
It certainly still has a way to go. And yet, to this total layman, it certainly seems as though now is a good moment for Greville; he seems like a poet on the rise. Gunn’s edition has now apparently been reissued, and in 2018 Greville’s hometown held the world’s first Greville festival. It was I hear, to be sure, a fairly low-key event, some talks, some recitals, some music, and yet… well, that’s more than most poets get, and it feels like a sign of Greville’s growing, and deserved, visibility. Grevillemania is surely on its way! Beat the queues, get quick in line!
[another small example: there are actually little memes of “LXXXIII” on the internet now – largely I think due to the popularity of the cancer memoir When Breath Becomes Air, the title of which is obviously a paraphrase of Greville’s poem. Again, it’s a small thing – but sixty years ago there would not, and virtually could not, have been a book named for a one-stanza poem by Greville.]
Caelica is a diverse and thoroughly worthwile cycle of knotted, troublesome, gnarled, magnetically individual poems from a fascinating and evolving poet who undoubtedly deserves to be better known than he is. Some of the poems are perhaps, as Winters admitted, “flawed”, but few are uninteresting; and while some of the poems may not yield to sense or feeling at first glance, they’re poems that reward the effort of familiarity, that digest slowly, like dissoluble rock-salts.
If you have any interest in Renaissance English poetry, in the evolution of love poetry (and, in particular, the early English sonnet), in the Elizabethan mindset, in political poetry, in religious devotion, religious poetry and the early Calvinist traditions that would later develop into Puritanism and Dissent, or if you’re simply looking for an interesting poet who steers a fascinating course between alienating ‘experiment’ and stultifying ‘convention’, then you should probably read Fulke Greville’s Caelica.
Should you read this edition? Not having read the others, I couldn’t say. If you find something with more critical (and explanatory) material included, that might be worth it – but I don’t know if that’s available, at least in a form accessible to the casual reader. This volume does at least have the advantage of some improvements in the texts, which will help the reader out compared to earlier editions, so it might be worth checking the forewords and ‘notes on the text’s of any other edition you find, to check that they are similarly updated. Personally, I found this (pleasantly light, and pleasantly cheap) edition a fantastic companion, and one which I have no doubt I shall reopen many, many times in the years to come.