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Greville, Fulke (1554–1628) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

greville’s life edition published

Fulke Greville’s long life encompassed the reigns of both Queen Elizabeth* and King James.* Born to a wealthy Warwickshire family in 1554, five years before Elizabeth ascended the throne, he died at the hands of a knife-wielding servant some seventy-four years later, in the third year of the reign of Charles I. His longevity was nowhere more impressive than in the realm of politics, where a decade-long exile from James’ government ended in 1614 with his being made chancellor and undertreasurer of the Exchequer, an appointment that began a late, second career in public service. He wrote steadily all his life but avoided the stigma of print: nothing save a few poems and a pirated edition of his Mustapha was published in his lifetime. He superintended the publication of an incomplete version of Sidney’s* Arcadia (Ponsonby’s 1590 edition) only after he learned that a bookseller had applied to the London censors for permission to do the same.

Greville’s life exemplifies the virtues of being second-best. Growing up in the shadow of his illustrious friend Sidney, with whom he shared a birth year, a grammar school education at Shrewsbury, and, according to Giordano Bruno’s* Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante (1584), “interior and exterior perfections,” Greville entered the service of the queen’s court in the mid-1570s as a follower of Sidney’s uncle, Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester. The queen considered Leicester’s Protestant politics extreme and consequently kept a tight leash on his faction, which meant that advancement for Greville and his peers would be slow and painstaking. There is little doubt that Greville occasionally chafed at the queen’s restraints. But unlike Sidney, whose visceral impatience at the queen’s caution may have led indirectly to his quixotic death on the battlefield at Zutphen, Greville learned to adapt himself to political necessity. Moving steadily up the ladder of Elizabeth’s government, he occupied a number of smaller offices before finally being made treasurer of the navy in 1598, the position he held at the queen’s death in 1603. That he still held the office despite his close association with the treasonous earl of Essex suggests the extent of Elizabeth’s confidence in both his ability and loyalty.

Robert Cecil was disinclined to be so generous toward members of the Essex circle and, when James acceded to the throne, made short work of Greville’s political ambitions by forcing him to give up his position as treasurer of the navy; Greville retained his Welsh offices—granted him in 1590—only after paying the king’s new appointee to those offices some £500. The Greville family had always been particularly acquisitive where Warwickshire property was concerned, and in 1604 Fulke succeeded where his father had failed by securing from the Crown a grant of the dilapidated Warwick Castle. To this castle Greville retired for the next decade, which time he spent working on both his estate and his writing. In the early years of his exile he attempted to ingratiate himself with Cecil, plying him with entertainments and flattery in hopes of resuming his public life, but to no avail. His energies were more fruitful on the home front. By 1614, when Greville’s political career was resuscitated, Warwick Castle and its grounds had become a remarkable showplace, and Greville’s writing included an additional thirty sonnets in the Caelica cycle, revisions of the plays Alaham and Mustapha , and the so-called Life of Sir Philip Sidney .

Cecil’s death in 1612 made it possible at long last for Greville to insinuate himself in James’ court, and he did so with considerable success, gaining the chancellorship of the Exchequer in 1614. Greville held that post for the next seven years, during which time he sat on a variety of councils and commissions that were integral, if not decisive, to the functioning of the government. Pressured to retire from office in 1621 because of a weakening physical condition, Greville was given a barony as compensation. For the next few years he continued to be a presence at court, exerting subtle pressure against the pro-Spanish tendencies in James government. Serving briefly as a privy councillor under Charles I, Greville suffered an illness in August 1625 that further diminished his public life. He was fatally stabbed three years later by a servant, Ralph Hayward. Though Hayward’s motives will probably never be known, it has been plausibly suggested that he felt he had been shortchanged in Greville’s will.


In 1934, T. S. Eliot lamented the fact that “Fulke Greville has never received quite his due.” Within five years of Eliot’s making that statement, however, the situation showed signs of changing, for 1939 was the year that Geoffrey Bullough published his two-volume Poems and Dramas of Fulke Greville , and Ivor Winters began to articulate the terms of taste through which Greville’s talent, he hoped, could be seen to rival Shakespeare’s, Jonson’s,* and Donne’s.* The early 1970s marked an even more impressive watershed in Greville studies with the publication of biographies by R. A. Rebholz and Joan Rees and a book-length study of Greville’s lyric poetry by Richard Waswo. These came on the heels of G. A. Wilkes’ 1965 edition of A Treatise of Monarchy and A Treatise of Religion , works not included in Bullough’s collection, and Thom Gunn’s edition of Caelica , published in 1968.

Though Greville’s literary stock has not—to most minds at least—been raised by this scholarly attention to the level of Donne’s or Jonson’s, his talents are more likely than ever to be judged on something like their own terms. That likelihood we owe primarily to Ivor Winters, who, in articles first published in Poetry in 1939 (later revised and published as Chapter 1 of Forms of Discovery ), described a seam of sixteenth-century poetic temperament—a temperament shared, according to Winters, by Wyatt* and Gascoigne* especially—marked by restraint of feeling and economy of expression, virtues antithetical to the more flamboyant Petrarchan school. Winters considered many of the Caelica lyrics to be perfect examples of what he dubbed “the plain style,” and his essays made it possible to see Greville’s intellectual density and rhetorical spareness as a feat rather than failure of talent. His “density,” at least, had frequently been remarked in other, less flattering terms: Charles Lamb famously wished to resuscitate both Greville and Thomas Browne in order “to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom,” and in his edition of The Life of Sidney , Nowell Smith inadvertently described what every enthusiastic interpreter of Greville must, at least part of the time, possess when he spoke of his own “zest even in tracking his meaning through his devious syntax.”

As for Greville’s cropped rhetoric, Richard Waswo’s study exposes a wider range of styles in Caelica than either Winters or his student, Douglas Peterson, cared to admit. He concedes that Greville tended to prefer the plain to the ornate, but he grounds that concession in a historical account of the moral and religious beliefs that instructed Greville in this tendency. Prominent among those beliefs was a strong sense of both the depravity of human beings and their implacable desire to orchestrate their own remission. Greville’s compressed language was, among other things, a stay against such a desire, an ascetic’s attempt to speak the words of unaccommodated man.

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