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alabaster’s english century poems

William Alabaster lived at least two lives: he is known to us both as a recusant poet of the Elizabethan era and as an eccentric but avowedly Anglican chaplain to King James I.* His vacillation between his country’s religion and that of Rome is summed up in the fact that he is the only English poet to be imprisoned both by officers of Queen Elizabeth* and by ministers of the Inquisition.

Alabaster’s early life reads much like biographies of other budding young literary figures of his day. The oldest of six children born to a firmly Protestant merchant family on 27 January 1567/8 at Hadleigh Suffolk, he was guided and supported by his uncle John Still, master of Trinity College and later bishop of Bath and Wells. By 1584 he was elected a Queen’s Scholar to Trinity and between 1588 and 1592 wrote in Latin an unfinished epic for Queen Elizabeth called Elisaeis and a tragedy, Roxana .

In 1596 Alabaster was engaged to be married and had made the conventional steps toward wealth and preferment by accepting the post of chaplain to Robert Devereux, earl of Essex. By Michaelmas of this same year, however, he began to experience feelings of inner turmoil that would both disrupt and characterize the rest of his life. He speaks in his autobiography of feeling “a greater tendernes of harte towardes Christes Crosse and Passion than the protestants weare wont to feele” and also describes having “sweet visions or apprehensions in [his] sleepe.” At Easter 1597, Alabaster debated privately with Father Thomas Wright, who was being held in “light” confinement at Westminster. After reading from a copy of A Refutation of Sundry Reprehensions (a defense of the Rheims version of the New Testament), Alabaster reports, “I lept up from the place where I satt, and saide to my self ‘Now I am a Catholique’ and then fell down upon my knees and thanked God most hartely.’

Following this sudden conversion, Alabaster returned to Trinity and spent several months studying controversial theological writings and likely began writing his religious poems. As though to provoke his own capture, he wrote Seven Motives , about his conversion, and sent it to Essex in London, where it soon came into the hands of authorities, who then had him arrested. Intense but futile efforts were made by John Still and others to make the young man recant. By February 1597/8 he was deprived of Anglican orders. In April he escaped and took refuge with the Jesuit John Gerard, and in September he sailed to the Continent and was enrolled at the English College in Rome. By midsummer 1599 he returned to England, intending “to give [his] life.” He sought a public debate and was, by August, a prisoner at the Tower, where he remained until 1601, when he was removed to Framingham Castle, Suffolk, and kept prisoner for two years.

With the accession of James I in 1603, Alabaster was pardoned, but by 1606 he had fallen into new controversy and was imprisoned at the King’s Bench in London. Though insistently Catholic, Alabaster proposed serving as a government spy against Catholic emigrés. He spent the next several years at Douay and Brussels, where he wrote Apparatus in Revelation Jesu Christi , which was not well received in Rome. In 1609 he returned to the English College in Rome, where, perhaps involved in some intrigue against his rector, Robert Persons, he was called before the Inquisition. In July he was imprisoned in Amsterdam, and by 1610 he had recanted and declared that he would live and die a Catholic. By 1613, however, this same Alabaster was again a Protestant, back in England, and in the service of King James. In 1614 John Donne* remarked, perhaps with a tinge of envy, that “Mr. Alabaster hath got of the King the Deans best Living worth above £300, which the Dean had good hope to have held a while” ( Letters , 1651, 168). When he married in 1618, Alabaster became stepfather to the physician and alchemist Robert Fludd. He devoted his middle and declining years to mystical theology, kept acquaintance with Ben Jonson,* and died in April 1637.


Though William Alabaster may have written the conventional century of sonnets, only seventy-seven have survived. His essential innovation as an English poet is to have combined for the very first time three disparate ingredients: the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, religious devotional verse, and “metaphysical” poetry. Others before Alabaster had crafted religious devotional verse into otherwise conventional English sonnet cycles, but they had not shaped their sonnets out of peculiarly argued metaphors (tears, insects, spheres, vines, conduits and a full range of scriptural props), which would come to be called “metaphysical” conceits. Such conceits, though a conventional part of medieval mysticism, were, in sixteenth-century England, unique to Robert Southwell,* and in sonnet form unique to Alabaster.

Recognizing the first appearance of the metaphysical conceit in English poetry in the poems of Southwell and Alabaster is to acknowledge its essentially Catholic origins and qualities and hence the continuity of devotional verse in England from its medieval origins to the seventeenth century. Though no references are made to Alabaster’s sonnets by seventeenth-century poets, I think it apparent that they were well acquainted with his work. Before Donne’s* “I am a little world made cunningly,” for example, was Alabaster’s “My soul a world is by contraction,/The heavens therein is my internal sense,/Moved by my will as an intelligence.” Before Crashaw’s meditations upon physical ingredients in Scriptures were Alabaster’s meditations upon the sponge and Crown. Before the personal outcries of Herbert’s poems was Alabaster’s “Lord, I have left all and myself behind,/My state, my hopes, my strength, and present ease.’

The uneven quality of Alabaster’s poems may be attributed in part to the difficult circumstances under which they were composed, though admittedly others composed better poetry under worse circumstances. At its worst, Alabaster’s poetry drowns in its piety. At its best—that is, when the poetic vigor is sustained for a full fourteen lines without collapsing into a characteristically weak sestet or deplorable final couplet—it demonstrates not just the potential artistic beauty to be derived from Christian meditation but the poetic versatility of the sonnet in English.


The first literary praise afforded William Alabaster comes from none other than Edmund Spenser* in Colin Clout Comes Home Againe , who proclaims “And there is Alabaster throughly taught,/In all his skill, though knowen yet to few, / Yet were he knowne to Cynthia as he ought, his Eliseïs would be redde anew./Who liues that can match that heroick song?” (l. 400). Though the echo of “Who knows not Colin Clout?” in this hyperbolic rhetorical question may veil a not-so-subtle reference to Colin’s own heroic song, Spenser clearly admired Alabaster’s Latin work. Likewise, Samuel Johnson observed that Alabaster’s Roxana contained the best Latin verse by an English writer before John Milton.

During the seventeenth century Alabaster’s Latin poems continue to receive mention. If seventeenth-century poets emulated Alabaster’s metaphysical style, they did so without singing his praises. A few of his poems found their way into books in the nineteenth century, but he has remained “knowen…tofew.” Alabaster’s place as a Tudor poet was secured by two events in the twentieth century. The first was the publishing of The Sonnets of William Alabaster by G. M. Story and Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1959), which made his English works finally accessible as well as furnished readers with biographical context and some fundamental critical apparatus. Second, Louis Martz’s inclusion of selected Alabaster sonnets in his anthology of metaphysical poets, English Seventeenth-Century Verse (1963), assured that any serious study of the “metaphysical” poets would properly begin in the sixteenth century. As an innovator in the sonnet tradition and a harbinger of what came to be called metaphysical poetry, Alabaster may be described as a minor English poet with a uniquely major contribution.


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