Introducing Thomas Sackville
"To know Thomas Sackville—to know his two poems and one play—is to know where Elizabethan tragedy came from and where it was going."
(Normand Berlin, 1974)
"The overused term “Renaissance man” once had specific validity, signifying the zeal, energy, and virtu of an era as well as designating those scholars, statesmen, and poets of one of histories most glorious and adventuresome periods, especially in Great Britain. Virtu represented a concept of doing many things well, of strength and excellence and of an appreciation for the arts equally matched by martial capabilities. What today is thought of as “virtue” was, at its root meaning, that for which the complete courtier strove. Such was the Englishman Thomas Sackville, first earl of Dorset."
(Wayne Narey, 2004)
Thomas Sackville (1536 – 1608) was one of the leading statesmen of his time and the greatest poet of his generation. As a statesman Sackville led a compelling life on the world stage, participating in nearly all the key events of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. Queen Elizabeth loved her “judicious, yet witty and delightful” second cousin (his father Sir Richard Sackville was a first cousin of her mother Anne Boleyn), and showered favors upon him throughout most of her reign. She made Sackville the Baron of Buckhurst in 1567, a Privy Councilor in 1586, and a Knight of the Garter in 1589. After her lifelong friend Lord Burghley died in 1598, she selected Sackville as the new Lord Treasurer in 1599. King James retained Sackville as Lord Treasurer after he ascended the throne in 1603, and elevated him to the earldom as the Earl of Dorset in 1604.
Sackville died peacefully in his seventy-second year on April 19, 1608 while conducting business at King James’s council table. “Perhaps it may not be too much to affirm of him,” wrote
the historian Edmund Lodge of Sackville in 1825, “that he
possessed, together with the brightest genius, and an understanding abundantly solid and useful, the highest honor, the strictest integrity, and the most undoubted loyalty, that could be found among the great public men of his time.”
Sackville did have his measure of human shortcomings. Although he dearly loved his wife Cecily of fifty-three years, with whom he had seven children, he apparently strayed from
his marriage vows and had an illegitimate child. He nearly squandered his father’s estate when he was young through his overly extravagant lifestyle. He spoke at too great length, and as he grew older he became rather irascible when people crossed his will. He occasionally used his influence to benefit his family or friends. Yet he was a man of extraordinary generosity, humanity, passion, patriotism, moral seriousness, and greatness of spirit.
As a poet Sackville is now remembered for composing a handful of innovative works by his mid-twenties that paved the way to the flowering of the late Elizabethan drama. He is often described as the most important English poet between Chaucer and Spenser despite his (seemingly) small body of work. The poet and literary critic Edmund Gosse described Sackville in 1901 as“a great poetic genius, born out of his due time,” whose early Elizabethan poetry was graced by a “vivid modern note clashing astonishingly with the droning and mumbling of its fellows.” In 1938, the critic Fitzroy Pyle called him “one of the great might-have-beens of literature.”
It might seem that Sackville’s youthful interests in the law and politics were opposed to his interest in poetry, but actually these pursuits were linked.As a student at the Inns of Court in the late 1550s and 1560s, Sackville belonged to a large and influential community of writers who launched England’s literary renaissance. These men turned to poetry, and particularly to the drama, as a way to engage with the great minds of the past, hone their rhetorical skills, reflect on the important themes of history and philosophy, explore political and moral issues, and comment on contemporary affairs.
When the early Elizabethan poets Richard Baldwin and George Ferrers brought out a second edition of their popular
anthology of stories from English history, the 1563 Mirror for
Magistrates, they added two narrative poems by their friend Thomas Sackville: Induction and The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham. Sackville intended for Induction to frame the stories he intended to tell from English history, but the poem itself is the story of a psychological journey. It
relates how Sackville met the Goddess of Sorrow one day while walking about in the frost-ruined winter fields, and accompanied her to hell. Concerning the poem’s groundbreaking poetic significance, the literary critic
George Saintsbury wrote in 1898 that “hardly a single stanza, certainly no single page can be read by a poetically-minded reader without his being well aware that an entirely new music is sounding in his ears.”
Sackville was a versatile poet who enjoyed experimenting in a variety of genres. His known poetic works lead in startlingly different literary directions, all important and interesting.
Although his Induction and Complaint are linked poems, Sackville gave each a distinct style, atmosphere, and set of thematic concerns. Complaint established many of the key elements of the late Elizabethan drama: the vile but
sympathetic villain, messages from a ghost, corrupt scheming to gain the throne, the fickleness of fortune, introspective soliloquies, revenge themes, and learned philosophical and historical digressions.
Sackville also co-authored the 1561 play Gorboduc with his friend Thomas Norton. Though it suffers in comparison to the
plays that began appearing on the Elizabethan stage some twenty-five years later, Gorboduc was so influential that it it marked “a new epoch; there is no clearer division in the whole of English literature,” in the words of T. S. Eliot.The play introduced two major innovations to the Elizabethan drama: the dramatic use of blank verse poetry (unrhymed poetry with a fixed number of syllables per line), and the deliberate revival of the Greek and Roman dramatic traditions. Sackville and Norton did not intend to publish Gorboduc, since to do so would have violated the aristocratic stigma of print, but a literary pirate printed it in 1565 against their wishes while Sackville was returning from Italy after a colorful tour that included a stint in a Roman jail (precipitated by a financial embarrassment), two meetings with the pope, and rogue diplomacy on behalf of the Roman Catholic church.
Scholars’ longstanding assumption that Sackville abandoned poetry in his youth was proved incorrect in the 1980s, when the lost poem Sacvyle’s Olde Age was found by chance in the midst of a book of manor house accounting records. Sacvyle’s Olde Age establishes that Sackville devoted himself to poetry at least until he neared the age of forty, then viewed as a traditional passage into old age. Literary scholars have tended to portray Sackville as a serious and solemn man,
viewing him through the lens of his political accomplishments, but in Sacvyle’s Olde Age he describes his youth as one devoted to ‘pleasures,’ ‘pastime and play,’ ‘delights,’ and ‘disport and mirth.’ Far from being an ascetic, by his own account he wrote many a ‘lusty ditty’ and enjoyed feasting his eyes on the heavenly beauties of the Elizabethan court.
To tread a fine line between the Elizabethan aristocracy’s expectations for how an aging Baron should behave and his own desire to be a poet, Sackville declared in the concluding
lines of Sacvyle’s Olde Age that he intended to set aside secular poetry in favor of devotional poetry—a far more
respectable pursuit in the eyes of his peers. However, Sackville’s resolution didn’t last. He had returned to writing “frivolous” poetry by the early 1580s, when he translated John Lyly’s comic novel Euphues and some of Samuel Daniel’s romantic poems into Italian. Although the translations were lost, their existence is known because the Italian philosopher
Giordano Bruno praised Sackville’s translations in a letter while visiting the English court between 1583 and 1585. Intriguingly, the works by Lyly and Daniel which Sackville translated were seminal influences on Shakespeare’s poetry, and scholars have long suspected that the Bard was acquainted with Bruno’s philosophical ideas.
Sackville was highly admired as a poet by his contemporaries. In 1576 the poet George Turberville wrote about a dream vision in which the Muse of Tragedy came to him to hail Sackville, Lord Buckhurst as the best poet in England. The Muse explained that when Sackville was a baby, all nine muses had gathered around his cradle to bestow their gifts
I none dislike, I fancy some,
But yet of all the rest,
Sans envy, let my verdite pass,
Lord Buckhurst is the best.
We all that lady muses are,
Who be in number nine,
With one accord did bless this babe,
Each said – This imp is mine.
Yet by the late 1580s Sackville was viewed as an aging lion of poetry whose best writing years were behind him. In Arte of English Poesie (1589), the anonymous author, presumed to be George Puttenham, glancingly praised Sackville for the excellent tragedies of his youth, and in an already quoted dedicatory sonnet in The Faerie Queene (1590), Edmund Spenser mentioned that Sackville no longer had much leisure
time to devote to poetry. Because Spenser holds a high place in the pantheon of English poets, his assessment of Sackville’s poetic ability is worth reiterating. He paid gracious tribute to Sackville’s “golden verse,” “lofty numbers,” and “heroic style,” and even asked Sackville to use his “dainty pen” to file the “gross defaults” of The Faerie Queene, the product of a “baser wit.” It is significant that Spenser, who lived until 1599, never paid open tribute to William Shakespeare although he was prone to generously complimenting his poetic contemporaries in print.
While there is no direct evidence that Sackville was active as a poet in 1590, in 1602 the poet Thomas Campion praised Sackville’s “public and private” poems which “so divinely crowned” his fame. Tellingly, shortly after Sackville died
the writer Joshua Sylvester dedicated part of his 1608 translation of Guillaume Du Bartas’s The Divine Weeks to Sackville’s memory. The dedication was accompanied by a Latin anagram and an English poem which together identify
Sackville as a concealed poet. The anagram includes the phrase “Sacris Musis Celo Devotus,” which can be translated as “secretly devoted to the sacred muses” or “I conceal out of love for the sacred muses.” (Chapter 64 explores the
significance of Du Bartas’s dedication to Sackville at greater length.)
This brief introduction to Sackville’s life and poetry shows that he was a poet of very high ability who may have been the major hidden poet of Shakespeare’s time. However, for the connections that can be drawn between Sackville’s life and poetry and Shakespeare’s works, see this book’s sequel, Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper. Leaving aside Sackville for the moment, let’s return to the literary scene in London, circa 1590.
Portrait of Thomas Sackville, attributed to John De Critz the