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dyer’s poems spenser verse

Edward Dyer was born sometime in October 1543, in the manor of Weston, Somerset. His father, Thomas Dyer, having risen as a “gentleman steward” in Henry VIII’s household and gaining estates in Somerset after the dissolution of the monasteries, named his first son and heir in honor of Prince Edward. It is important to remember what this fact says about Dyer’s age, for Dyer—perhaps the most talented English poet between Surrey* and Spenser*—would forge a living link between the era of Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) and the generation of poets responsible for the golden verse of the 1580s and 1590s. Dyer studied at Oxford (probably at Broadgates Hall) without taking a degree and after 1561 traveled on the Continent, returning to England in 1564 upon his father’s death. He soon became a courtier in the service of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and by 1570 had so risen in Elizabeth’s eyes that he was granted the stewardship of Woodstock. During the next few years, however, he fell into disfavor with the queen, and in a letter of 1572 giving advice to Christopher Hatton he paints a moving portrait of what it was to be a courtier under that most peevish of monarchs. In September 1575, still lacking Elizabeth’s* good graces, Dyer engineered an encounter with the queen during the celebrated entertainments at Woodstock; perched in an oak with an instrument, Dyer sang a trenchant complaint, since titled “The Song in the Oak” (“The man whose thoughts against him do conspire”). Successful in restoring him to Elizabeth’s favor, this incident suggests a hopeful, risk-taking aspect of Dyer’s character and would be only the first of many schemes through which Dyer would seek the wherewithal—real and symbolic alike—necessary to sustain the life of an Elizabethan courtier. In the next decade Dyer would be a frequent guest at Leicester House, solidifying friendships with Philip Sidney,* Fulke Greville,* and Edmund Spenser, writers whose literary creations often advanced the Protestant politics of the Leicester faction. Spenser and Gabriel Harvey* would refer (perhaps only half-seriously) to this literary circle as the “Areopagus,” after the Athenian council of elders. As the oldest by a decade, Dyer must have had something like a senior and leading voice in this group. He may appear, in fact, as “Cuddie” in Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) and as “Coridens” in the manuscript of Sidney’s Arcadia . These names have struck some scholars as, respectively, abbreviations and anagrams of various forms of “Cousin Dier.”

Dyer joined Sidney and Spenser in experimenting with quantitative, rhymeless verse in English—precisely the kind of failed speculative endeavor in poetry that later marked Dyer’s financial affairs. Indeed, during this period in the later 1570s Dyer began his feverish promotion of Martin Frobisher’s expeditions to find a Northwest Passage. After it became clear to him that this scheme would not produce the wealth he needed to meet his mounting debts, Dyer pleaded with Burghley and the queen to grant him a patent of “concealment,” that is, the right to search out illegitimate and lapsed titles to land of which, after paying the Crown a certain sum, he would assume ownership. After extensive pleading, Dyer was granted this right in 1588, though with disappointingly limited scope. Like all the schemes Dyer subscribed to, this one repaid neither the labor nor hope he invested in it. Then Dyer came, with many others, under the spell of Edward Kelley, the alchemical confidence-man associated with John Dee.* For some years Kelley had tantalized various European leaders with his promises of converting base matter to gold. Journeying as government agent to woo Kelley from the court of Rudolph II in Prague, Dyer ironically experienced a form of success when, after being placed under house arrest by that monarch, Elizabeth quickly interceded on his behalf; failing to bring home Kelley—whom neither Dyer, Burghley, nor Elizabeth apparently suspected of charlatanism—Dyer simultaneously escaped future embarrassment, displayed his dedication to Elizabeth, and earned a show of her concern.

Yet this trip to the Continent had not been Dyer’s first serious travel. A youthful tour had given him a familiarity with the Continent that stood him in good stead during diplomatic missions not only to Bohemia but to the prince of Orange, the court of Denmark, and throughout the Low Countries. Dyer also served as knight of the shire for Somerset in the Parliaments of 1589 and 1593 and, in 1596, saw nominal reward for his longtime allegiance by being knighted and made chancellor of the Order of the Garter.

With the passing of Elizabeth, Dyer’s standing at court dissolved. He died in London in 1607 at the age of sixty-four, having lived under five English monarchs and having associated with the most preeminent writers and nobles of the Elizabethan era. His death went unnoticed. Dyer never married, and what little remained of his estate after his debts were settled was left to his sister Margaret; one of his brother’s descendants would later complain to John Aubrey that Dyer had squandered the family fortune.


Although Dyer published none of his verse, many of his poems appeared in such miscellanies as The Phoenix Nest (1593), England’s Helicon (1600), and A Poetical Rhapsody (1602). While we now believe only a dozen poems can be safely assumed his, nearly as many more were associated with his name during and after his lifetime. A later, spurious attribution to his pen was the prose pamphlet The Praise of Nothing by “E. D.” (1585), ascribed to him in the nineteenth century, perhaps the high tide of attribution of works to him. Following Ralph Sargent’s critical biography in 1935, however, the corpus of Dyer’s works has steadily contracted. Steven May publishes definitive versions of Dyer’s poems in The Elizabethan Courtier Poets . One poem that May doubts is Dyer’s is “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,” a lyric that enjoyed immense popularity during the early modern era as well as later. May demonstrates that it is more likely that this poem was written by the earl of Oxford. One could add to May’s already convincing argument the observation made by Paul McLane that the sentiments of this lyric run counter to Dyer’s philosophy in other poems. Among Dyer’s best poems are “I would it were not as it is,” “Prometheus when first from heaven high,” “The lowest trees have tops,” and “Bewailing his exile he singeth thus” (“He that his mirth hath lost”), an elegy widely imitated and responded to (by Greville,* Robert Southwell,* and King James,* among others). A poet’s poet, Dyer’s works were almost invariably couched as complaint; woeful and bittersweet, they resemble the efforts of Ralegh* and Greville, though lacking the sharp cynicism of the former and the cool profundity of the latter. Dyer’s favorite subject is his own mindset, and he sees the world through its melancholic filter. Sargent points out that all Dyer’s verse reads as easily today as it must have in his own time, so clear and direct was his diction. Dyer’s persistent use of native English words, in fact, may have influenced Spenser’s poetic vocabulary—although the effect is entirely different.


Dyer was lauded by all who knew his verse—especially in the 1580s, when his poems enjoyed greatest attention from his younger contemporaries. As late as the second half of the 1590s, however, a verse-loving admirer at Cambridge would record Dyer’s “Fancy Farewell” in the company of like extracts from Shakespeare’s* Venus and Adonis and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella . Besides Sidney, Spenser, and Harvey,* writers like Thomas Nashe,* Geoffrey Whitney, George Puttenham,* and Francis Meres praised Dyer’s works, the last two his skill in elegy. Lacking a collection of his poems, however, writers in the next generation such as Edmund Bolton and William Drummond would be forced to confess that they had seen little of his work. Since Dyer’s lifetime, his poems have been mentioned primarily in studies of Sidney and Spenser.

Dymally, Mervyn M.(1926–) - Politician, civil rights activist, Entry into California Politics, Elected Lieutenant Governor, Chronology [next] [back] Dwight, Edward(1933–) - Chronology, Transferred to Germany, Becomes a Sculptor

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