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Gascoigne, George (c. 1539–1577) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

gascoigne’s critics literature life

George Gascoigne was born c. 1539 to Sir John Gascoigne and his wife, Margaret Scargell Gascoigne. The son of well-off country gentry, Gascoigne attended Cambridge and went to Grey’s Inn to study law in 1555. He stood for Parliament in 1557, but with the arrival of the new queen at court, he left Grey’s Inn for life as a courtier in 1558. During this period Gascoigne was thought to have written much of his early poetry. In addition, he translated two plays from the Italian, Jocasta and Supposes . Despite this promising beginning, young Gascoigne never reached his full promise, partly due to his litigious and squabbling nature; in fact, even his own father reportedly tried to disinherit him.

These problems were exacerbated by his marriage to Elizabeth Bacon Bretton Boyes in 1562. Although his wife had been widowed once by William Bretton— she was the mother of the writer Nicholas Bretton—she had also married a man named Edward Boyes after Bretton’s death. Unfortunately, her divorce from Boyes was evidently not legitimate, causing numerous legal and financial problems for the couple. Between the lawsuits surrounding his family and the dissipations of court life, Gascoigne was quickly on the road to bankruptcy and, over the course of ten years, retired to the country, returned to Grey’s Inn, and then finally retired to the country again. Eventually his downward spiral landed him in debtor’s prison in 1570.

Disheartened by his spectacular lack of success in law, land-ownership, and courtiership, Gascoigne thought to redeem his fortunes by soldiering in the Low Country Wars. However, as he recounts in his long poem “Dulce Bellum Inexpertis,” waging war under conditions of mismanagement and ineptitude was not really the path to riches and fame either. In 1574, when he returned from the Continent, he found out that A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres , a book of his erotic poetry and prose published a year earlier, had been censored and withdrawn. After this point, Gascoigne decided to write in the moralizing vein, and after brushing up A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres and rereleasing it as the Posies —which was also banned—he wrote several texts promoting the virtuous life, including The Steele Glas, The Complaint of Phylomene, The Glasse of Government, The Droome of Doomes day, A Delicate Diet for daintie-mouthde Droonkardes , and The Grief of Joye . Fortuitously, his worldly fortunes also took an upswing during the last few years of his life. In 1575, Gascoigne was asked to write an entertainment for the Queen’s Progress at Kenilworth and, under Burghley’s aegis, was sent to the Low Country as an observer for the court in 1576. From this mission came his description of the bloody Spanish sack of Antwerp, “The Spoyle of Antwerp,” which he published upon his return. In 1577, he died of a lingering illness while visiting a friend in Lincolnshire. Gascoigne was ultimately an unfortunate figure; in a less forgiving vein, Gabriel Harvey* described him as having “want of resolution & constancy, [which] marred his witt & undid himself.” But his real accomplishment as a precursor to the golden poets is unquestioned.


Despite the size of his literary output, Gascoigne is often ignored by critics except in passing. Part of this slighting stems from his time; he is a little too early to be considered part of the literary boom of the late sixteenth century. His “plain style,” a combination, in some estimations, of Chaucer and Petrarch, also makes him difficult to classify. However, as I stated earlier, the wide variety of his writings, as well as the representative failures of his careers, makes him an important figure for study. Yvor Winters, in a well-known critical essay, saw Gascoigne as a master of his craft who in his “Woodmanship” wrote “one of the greatest passages in English lyrical poetry” (101). Despite this high praise, current critics tend to view Gascoigne as little more than a transitional figure.

Many of Gascoigne’s critics who do treat him fully tend to take a biographical approach. Influenced mainly by C. T. Prouty’s treatment in his definitive biography of Gascoigne, this type of criticism feeds off the self-referentiality of Gascoigne’s works and his ambivalence about his successes and failures. Given Gascoigne’s status as the prototypical Renaissance failure at “self-fashioning,” his poems of remorse as well as the false lures of court life ring only too true. The large variety of Gascoigne’s experiences have lent themselves to such new historicist treatments as McCoy’s “Gascoigne’s ‘Poemata castrata’: The Wages of Courtly Success,” where he examines the cutting off of Gascoigne’s poetic authority in the service of state authority.

This type of approach also influences another current critical strain that looks at Gascoigne’s interactions with poetry, language, and the role of the poet as maker. Some critics prefer to examine Gascoigne’s classical and medieval antecedents, such as Roy T. Eriksen, who discusses the influence of Augustinian and Christian thought on the work, or Nancy Williams, who looks at the influence of classical studies on Gascoigne’s moral literature. Other critics have chosen to look at the issues of writing in Gascoigne’s work based on his own musings on rhetoric. Concerned, like other writers of his day, about the role of the literature in England, Gascoigne wrote a short essay, “Certayne Notes of Instruction,” as well as frontispieces and introductions on writerly intention and technique. Rowe and Staub have pointed out in their studies that Gascoigne’s work is very tied up with the issues of authority and the relationship of words to the truth. They both use the highly self-conscious “Adventures of Master F. J.” to explore Gascoigne’s “[concern] with reading and interpretation—with, in other words, the creation of a capable literary audience—and with the relationship between literature and empirical reality” (Rowe, 272). These critics fruitfully explore the mid-to-late sixteenth-century literary obsession with the uses, purposes, and formats of fictional literature.

Much work remains to be done on Gascoigne’s collections of prose and poetry. Given his status as one always on the periphery of success, his literature provides the perfect picture of the aspiring early modern courtier. In addition, his time on the Continent and his writings about those experiences provide a fascinating picture of the perceptions of an astute yet representative Englishman, about the developments of his day. His best works, as Winters aptly pointed out over fifty-five years ago, still await adequate attention.

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