Fulke Greville: a somber poet of the Golden Elizabethan era

Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, was born into a rich noble family on the 3rd of October 1554 at Beauchamp Court, Warwickshire, England.  He was the only son of Sir Fulke Greville and Anne Neville, the daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland.  Fulke was de jure 13th Baron Latimer and 5th Baron Willoughby de Broke, known before 1621 as Sir Fulke Greville.

What is important about this man?  How is he remembered today?  Fulke Greville possessed an unusual personality that was a fusion of political and administrative skills with talents in poetry, though in the strict Calvinist style.  Fulke was an Elizabethan poet and dramatist, whom Elizabeth I treasured so much that when Fulke wanted to join Sir Robert Dudley’s army in the Netherlands, the queen categorically prohibited him from doing so.  Nonetheless, Greville served for a short time in Normandy in the 1590s under King Henry III of Navarre in the French Wars of Religion, already after the assassination of King Henri III of France, the last Valois French monarch.

Portrait of Fulke Greville by Edmund Lodge

As a statesman, Fulk served 4 terms in England’s Parliament in the House of Commons during the reigns of both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, Mary Stuart’s son.  Fulk acted as a capable administrator for the English Crown working on the positions of Treasurer of the Navy, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Commissioner of the Treasury.  After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, with the accession of James I, Greville lost the office of the Treasurer of the Royal Navy in 1599 thanks to the intrigues of Robert Cecil, who was William Cecil’s son and political heir.  Having retired to his Warwick Castle, Greville launched a program of renovation that transformed the old military fortress into a palace of pleasure encircled by gorgeous gardens.  Later, in 1614, Grenville resumed government service to King James as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Privy Councilor.  At last, Fulke was rewarded for his services in 1621: Greville was elevated to Baron Brooke, becoming peer of the realm.  At any point in his life, Grenville had a lot of things to do.

Portrait of Sir Philip Sidney, unknown artist

Nowadays, Greville is best known as someone who was at the center of the literary elites in Tudor period and during King James I’s reign.  Greville and his friends – Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Edward Dyer – were members of the ‘Areopagus’ – the literary society which was dedicated to the reformation of English poetry and advocated the introduction of classical metres into English verse.  Greville’s own poetry was tinged in somber hues, presenting to the reader dark, pensive, and distinctly Calvinist views on art, literature, beauty, philosophy, nature, and world in general.  Grenville and Philip Sidney had both entered the court of Elizabeth I in 1575, and since then, they entertained the queen with their verses and dramatic performances from time to time.  Elizabeth treasured her court poets who symbolized the Golden English Renaissance.

Sidney’s death in 1586 from his wounds in a battle with the Spaniards near Zutphen shrouded Greville into a pall of impenetrable gloom.  Despite his mourning for the deceased friend, Greville became his literary executor and ensured that the revised edition of the Old Arcadia‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,’ commonly known as the Arcadia – was published.  It was a long prose pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney written in the end of the 16th century.  Greville also became Sidney’s biographer.  As for his own works, Greville composed verses in the so-called ‘native plain style’ that differed from that of Wyatt, Surrey, Gascoigne, Vaux, and Raleigh, in a way that Fulke’s creations were more somber.  Greville believed that the poets’ ‘superficially charming graces’ obscured many important poetic traditions and meanings in poetry and prose.  Greville’s poetry exhibits a pessimistic outlook on the possibility of literary and political reform, as well as a great awareness of the contradictions that lie at heart of all human endeavors.

An excerpt from one of Grenville’s poems ‘A Treatie of Human Learning’ is given below.

The mind of man is this world’s dimension,

And knowledge is the measure of the mind;

And as the mind, in her vast comprehension,

Contains more worlds than all the world can find:

So knowledge doth itself far more extend,

Than all the minds of men can comprehend.

 

A climbing height it is without a head;

Depth without bottom, way without an end;

A circle with no line environèd;

Not comprehended, all it comprehends;

Worth infinite, yet satisfies no mind,

‘Till it that infinite of the Godhead find.

We contemplate quite a dark picture of the world painted by the artist in his poem.  Grenville believed in the abilities of human mind and knowledge, thinking that there are many things people don’t comprehend yet.  His mind was also unsatisfied with what he saw around himself despite the Golden Age of English culture, perhaps searching for something that people could not realize back then.  That is why Greville is viewed as the English Renaissance poet prone to didacticism.  At the same time, Greville’s lyric cycle ‘Caelica’ demonstrates the progress of his style and views on love from sensual to spiritual form of this feeling.  This cycle is perhaps less dark than his other poems, but it is still full of philosophical sense and also prioritizes the divine love over all forms of earthly love.  The transition from earthly love is completed in the farewell to Cupid (part of Caelica), which is followed by poems of a more speculative and philosophical nature.

Caelica’s cycle of verses begins on a positive note and glorifies the poet’s Muse or lady love.

Love, the delight of all well-thinking minds;

Delight, the fruit of virtue dearly lov’d;

Virtue, the highest good, that reason finds;

Reason, the fire wherein men’s thoughts be prov’d;

Are from the world by Nature’s power bereft

And in one creature, for her glory, left.

 

Beauty, her cover is, the eye’s true pleasure;

In honor’s fame she lives, the ear’s sweet music;

Excess of wonder grows from her true measure;

Her worth is passion’s wound, and passion’s physic;

From her true heart, clear springs of wisdom flow,

Which, imag’d in her words and deeds, men know.

 

Time fain would stay, that she might never leave her;

Place doth rejoice, that she must needs contain her;

Death craves of Heaven, that she may not bereave her;

The Heavens know their own, and do maintain her:

Delight, Love, Reason, Virtue let it be,

To set all women light, but only she.

We observe Greville’s use of the romantic quandary and gradual transition to his favorite philosophical concepts imbedded into the concept of love in this poem of Celica’s cycle:

Mankind, whose lives from hour to hour decay,

Lest sudden change himself should make him fear,

For if his black head instantly waxed grey,

Do you not think man would himself forswear?

 

Caelica, who overnight spake, with her eyes,

‘My love complains, that it can love no more,’

Showing me shame, that languisheth and dies,

Tyrannis’d by love, it tyrannis’d before;

If on the next day Cynthia change and leave,

Would you trust your eyes, since her eyes deceive?

Warwick Castle on River Avon, England

Fulke Greville is less known than many other Elizabethan poets.  At first when you look at the poetry of artists who worked during the Elizabethan era, you might miss his talent because of the abundance of the easy rhymes and conventional attractiveness of Elizabethan poetry, while Greville’s works were philosophical, more thoughtful, more original, and darker.  Moreover, unlike successful writers such as William Shakespeare who relied on his fame, Greville’s approach to literature was bipolar – he preferred anonymity.  Only a few of his poems, including 4 from the cycle ‘Caelica’, escaped into the work in his lifetime and were set to music by composers.

In 1609, his drama ‘The Tragedy of Mustapha’ was printed without Greville’s authorization.  It examined the political situation in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the rise and fall of empires, and the narration line is centered on the execution of Prince Mustapha, son and heir apparent to Suleiman the Magnificent, supposedly following a plot orchestrated by Suleiman’s favorite wife – Roxolana.  Grenville died on the 30th of September 1628 at the hands of his own servant, Ralph Haywood, who is believed to have murdered the poet in vengeance as Ralph was left out of his master’s will.  Shortly thereafter, the publication of Greville’s writings revealed another facet of this versatile artist, which established his reputation as a distinctive literary figure of the era.  Lord Brooke, who never married, left no natural heirs, and his senior Brooke barony was inherited by his cousin and adopted son, Robert Greville.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville