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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

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The most interesting of Ross’ poems appear in the manuscript collection at the Folger Library entitled “Parerga,” which are included with translations in my edition. These constitute an Elizabethan diary in verse, stretching from the 1580s (with a poem on Mary, Queen of Scots* and The Jesuit father Edmund Campion) to the new king’s arrival in 1603. Insights of well-informed witnesses are rare at this period, and I for one enjoy hearing from a contemporary about Essex and Ralegh* (the people loved one and hated the other, says Ross, but both met catastrophe: so much for popular opinion) or about the many dry eyes at Elizabeth I’s funeral. “Parerga” celebrates as leading events of the day episodes now scarcely mentioned in Tudor histories: the Battle of Nieupoort, the fall of the Hungarian city called Strigonium, the pretense of one Valentine Thomas that James hired him to murder Elizabeth, the pretense of one Sebastian to be king of Portugal. In sheer range of interest these 200 mostly short poems equal or surpass that of the best epigrammatists of the day, even John Owen, for whom Ross wrote a commendatory epigram in Owen’s 1607 collection.

Britannica, sive de Regibus Veteris Britanniae (1607; the subtitle means, “or concerning the kings of ancient Britain”) summarizes in elegiac couplets the lives of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s kings from Brutus to Cadwallader. Although thin on Arthur, the collection is valuable on several counts. It represents the common lawyer’s appropriation of an antiquity coinciding with that of the common law itself, supposedly originating at a date “time out of mind.” Accordingly, the poem on Dunwallo Mulmutius praises English law, since that king was the first lawgiver. Another theme is the hoped-for return to a unified Britain under James I, the book’s dedicatee. In a long poem on Constantine, Ross conveys an image of the ideal Erastian king in ways that would have delighted James, whom he frequently praises in “Parerga.” (Seemingly intended for print, that manuscript, too, is dedicated to James.) The only poem from Britannica included in my edition is that on the Gunpowder Plot, the 439-line “Ad Praesens Tempus Apostrophe” (Apostrophe at the Present Time), so called because the shade of Cadwallader returns to find Britain’s new king beset by worse evils than were ever known in the ruinous past. In dialogue with Cadwallader the nymph Alethia (Truth) reveals details of the scheme, depending on contemporary printed accounts of the conspiracy and trial, but partly on the author’s observations. The poem ends with a scathing rebuke of the present age, the crime being symptomatic of moral and religious disintegration: “vile id genus est hominum, cum nil sapiat nisi quaestum” (It is a worthless breed of humanity that is wise in nothing but profit-making).

The pessimism here echoes that of much poetry by Ross, disenchanted with church, court, and his own profession. This mood explains the epigraph of Britannica from Horace’s Odes (3.6): “Aetas parentum peior avis” (The age of the parents is worse than that of the grandparents). Some great doom, he felt, would soon afflict his countrymen as it had a thousand years earlier. A late poem on the western flooding of January 1607 envisions a second deluge because “quod sustenavit egenos Crapula et ebrietas, et vana superbia vastat” (Drunkenness and revelry and vain pride consume what supported the needy).

In 1592 Sir William Sackville perished during an attack on a French village as he led troops supporting Henry of Navarre. His death prompted Ross’ one long English poem, surviving in a Bodleian manuscript, “Th’Authors Teares upon the Death of Sir William Sackville.” Ross and this third son of the distinguished Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurst had entered the Inner Temple a year apart. Early in the poem are stanzas echoing Spenser’s* Ruins of Rome .

Spenser, the subject of an epigram in “Parerga,” is a frequent presence in Ross. Despite his apparent preference for the short, epigrammatic poem, Ross held a high regard for the epic style and substance. A “Poem Exhorting Poets” in “Parerga” echoes Spenser’s “October” in urging poets to celebrate the heroic deeds of Norris and Drake. Either his profession or his talents led him toward the brand of epigrammatic, topical, and occasional verse familiar in writers who belonged to the Inns of Court (“parerga” means “incidental works”), hence the linking of Ross with Robert Hayman (Lincoln’s Inn) and John Owen (Inner Temple). Ross alludes to Hayman’s verse collection Quodlibets in a “Parerga” poem of 1602, though this was unprinted until Hayman’s old age; Hayman, for his part, translates Ross’ poem to Owen from the latter’s 1607 edition.

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