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Fletcher, Giles, The Elder (1546–1611) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

licia fletcher’s sonnet love

Giles Fletcher was born in November 1546, the second son to Richard Fletcher, who, four years later, was ordained in the Church of England. In 1561 Giles entered Eton College, where we see his young promise in the eleven Latin epigrams included in the collection of verses presented to the queen upon her visit. In 1565 Fletcher entered King’s College, where he would stay for the next sixteen years. His academic career served as a fitting prelude to his later political posts. He received acclaim as a scholar, the customary progression of degrees, and the accompanying preferments. Along the way to becoming dean of arts and earning his doctor of civil laws degree, Fletcher served his college as lecturer of Greek, deputy orator, steward, and bursar and took part in, but avoided the lasting bruises of, religious controversies. All the while he dabbled in poetry seriously enough to contribute the customary Latin verses to commendatory collections. So—albeit in more powerful circles and with higher stakes and more severe consequences—would go the rest of Fletcher’s professional life. A man of commanding intellect, political astuteness, and able diplomacy, he served his queen in a rich variety of ways, finding himself never far from a controversy, either officiating others’ disputes or rescuing himself from his own, and amid it all he wrote a sonnet cycle worthy enough to keep his small place in a crowded canon of Tudor poets.

Fletcher left Cambridge in 1581 and was married, by his father, to Joan Sheafe. His eldest son, Phineas, was born in 1582, and in that same year Giles was made chancellor of the diocese of Sussex. In 1584 he was elected to Parliament and in 1585 was recommended by the queen and confirmed as the remembrancer of the city of London, an office he would hold until 1605. His duties included writing letters for the city and making copies of all letters sent to, and received by, the city, as well as attending upon the mayor and the aldermen for any variety of services or messages they might require. Fletcher likely subsisted at this time under the patronage of Sir Thomas Randolph and Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1586 he traveled to Scotland with Randolph as part of the negotiating team from Elizabeth* to James VI.* In the same year he traveled as a special agent of the queen to partake in messy trade negotiations with the senate of Hamburg. He returned, having secured a successful treaty, and in 1588 was sent by Elizabeth to Russia, where, after being received coldly, he withstood slights patiently and returned with the best treaty for the English since 1569.

In the autumn of 1590 Fletcher turned his attention to literary endeavors, intending to write a Latin history of the queen’s time. However, failing to gain the patronage of Lord Burghley for this work, Fletcher turned to revising and expanding Of the Rus Commonwealth , which he published in 1591. In 1593 his Licia or Poems of Love was published anonymously “where unto is added the Rising to the Crowne of Richard the third.” If there can be found any calm in Fletcher’s life after leaving Cambridge, it would be these few years during which his English poetry, for which he is remembered, was produced. In the year 1596 any calm soon vanished when his brother Richard died, leaving behind eight children and a £1,400 debt to the queen. Fletcher took his brother’s children into his own household, though he had nine children of his own by now. After persistent appeals he managed in 1597 to have his brother’s debt discharged, though arguments over the estate would persist in future years in the form of suits against Giles from Richard’s eldest son, Nathaniel.

In 1600 Cambridge University granted Fletcher a ten-year lease of Ringwood Parsonage, and if he did not yet yearn to retreat to his quieter days as a lecturer of Greek, the events of the next year would certainly spur such longing. The earl of Essex had become Fletcher’s patron in 1596, and this support nearly proved his ruin after the Essex Rebellion in February 1601. Fletcher himself, though protesting his innocence, was brought in for questioning and held in custody for over a month. In 1605 he resigned his post of remembrancer. The final extant letter from him in 1609 indicates that he had never recouped financially and was still enduring the consequences of the crimes of his former patron. Giles Fletcher died on 11 March 1611 and is recalled in his eldest son’s Eclogs as “Thelgon, poorest, but the worthiest swain,/That ever grac’t unworthy povertie!’’

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

When one weighs Fletcher’s political service, particularly the successful trade agreements that he negotiated, with his relatively meager literary output, it seems clear that his most significant, if not lasting, contributions to his age were non-poetical.   It is characteristic of the Tudor era that one of its most astute international political negotiators would likewise have some traffic with the Muses. Giles Fletcher’s works include a significant amount of Latin verse, most of which was published during his Cambridge years: Of the Rus Commonwealth , “the most important book on Russia by an Englishmen in the sixteenth century” (Berry, 149); The Rising To the Crowne of Richard the third. Written by him selfe , a novel idea, but an unfortunately dull poem; and Licia , a cycle of fiftytwo sonnets, an ode, a dialogue, three elegies, and one longer poem. Upon Licia Fletcher’s literary reputation rests.

A work of unabashed imitation, Licia sports both learning and wit. Each sonnet owes something to the Latin poetry of Italian or French writers, to Watson or Daniel* or Sidney,* or to some combination of some or all of these sources. Fletcher is interested not in literal translations of his Continental sources, but in innovative adaptations. While Cupid makes a cameo appearance in every Elizabethan sonnet cycle, in Licia he is a central figure. No mere motif or convention, he is the energy and player in a number of the sonnets, with the interesting effect of deflecting attention away from both Licia and the poems’ narrator and placing it upon Love him/itself.

Sidneyesque in his layering of narrative ironies, Fletcher produces in sonnet 33 the ultimate self-consuming artifact. Licia, the poet’s invention, scolds the sonnet, “False Scrawle, untrue thou art,/To faine those sighes, that no where can be found,” condemning it to the very fire with which the poet says he burns: “Thus at her word we ashes both became.” Such inherent and only loosely veiled commentary upon the art of Love and the art of art in Licia holds, I believe, the central interest for contemporary readers.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Interestingly, the words of Giles Fletcher that have garnered the most attention from literary critics over the years come not from his poetry, but from his brief introductory remarks to his sonnets dated 4 September 1593. Here, in much witty and postured defense of this idle enterprise, he observes at the very height of the sonnet-writing tradition what critics long afterward continue to preach: “[A] man may write of love, and not bee in love, as well as of husbandrie, and not goe to plough.” Addressing the question of whether Fletcher’s poetry might record an actual love affair, C. S. Lewis proclaims, “What he actually does is to poke fun at critics who ask such irrelevant questions” ( Oxford History of English Literature , Cambridge, 1944, 493). More recently, Thomas Roche in his study Petrarch and English Sonnet Cycles ( AMS , 1989) cautions, “We ignore at our peril the enigmatic statements of Giles Fletcher in the preface to his Licia ” (335). Limiting the metaphorical possibilities to “the boy-meets-girl syn-drome,” Roche argues, is not something Fletcher and his contemporaries had any interest in doing.

Fletcher’s chief patron in the twentieth century—and perhaps since the death of Phineas Fletcher—is Lloyd E. Berry, who published five Latin poems by Fletcher in 1961 and whose 1964 edition, The English Works of Giles Fletcher the Elder , offers access to the texts, a thorough biography, excellent introductory material, and elaborate explanatory notes. While Berry’s edition cannot rescue Fletcher’s “Richard III” from the obscurity I feel it well deserves, it does allow modern readers access to Licia , which has earned some attention despite its damnation by faint praise from Lewis: “There is some feeling for nature in Licia , and some graceful fancy: no pathos and no exaltation” (494). While they do not champion the pathos and exaltation of Licia , both Prescott (1978) and Røstvig (1991) bring more recent and more elaborate observations to bear upon Fletcher’s poems.

[back] Fletcher, Benjamin(1890–1949) - Labor activist, From Laborer to Longshoreman to Activist, Helps to Found Multiracial Labor Group, Chronology

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