Introduction: ‘Thus Much I Adventure to Deliver to You’: the Fortunes of George Gascoigne

Stephen Hamrick
Minnesota State University Moorhead

Stephen Hamrick. "Introduction: ‘Thus Much I Adventure to Deliver to You’: the Fortunes of George Gascoigne ". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.1/Special Issue 18 (May, 2008) 1.1-22<URL:>.

1.   Four hundred thirty years after his death, George Gascoigne (1534-1577) retains distinction as the foremost poet of Elizabeth’s “first reign.”  In addition to Gillian Austen's new study, numerous chapters in monographs, and a growing number of journal articles, the  Oxford edition (2000) of Gascoigne’s A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, edited by G.W. Pigman, III, and the first Gascoigne Seminar, Lincoln College, Oxford (2007), confirm the central position of Gascoigne within early Elizabethan literary culture (1)Gascoigne’s literary reputation, in fact, was so impressive that he produced a body of “disciples” and “imitators,” which Marie Axton dubs the “school of Gascoigne,” and created a posthumous Elizabethan reputation as a poet, the “bringer of order,” second only to Edmund Spenser and influential on the work of William Shakespeare and Philip Sidney (2).

2.   Gascoigne’s ground breaking contributions to English letters resulted in an extensive list of new literary forms in English.  As Laurie Shannon has written,

The list of Gascoigne’s innovations and experiments is even more impressive than the sheer volume of his work:  The Adventures of Master F.J. is one of the earliest and best instances of English prose fiction; The Supposes loosely follows Ariosto’s I suppositi to become the first English comedy of the Italian type; The Glasse of Governement brought to England the Dutch type of the prodigal-son play; the masque composed for the Montagu wedding in 1572 is one of the earliest masques we have; the satire The Steel Glas (1576) is the first nondramatic poem in blank verse in English; Jocasta is the first version of a Greek tragedy in English; The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting, with its familiar woodcuts of Elizabeth at the hunt, is the most cited of the Elizabethan hunting treatises; Gascoigne’s sonnet sequences are among the earliest in English; and, to cap this host of literary performances, he was also the first published vernacular theorist of poetic composition.(3)

  This impressive list of literary innovations or “performances” and the corresponding skill demonstrated through those works, however, have been largely overshadowed by the portrait of Gascoigne as a failed prodigal and castrated poet, two narratives that, as Gillian Austen notes below, have dominated twentieth-century critical opinions of Gascoigne.  Strangely, such an opinion is reminiscent of the unsubstantiated, but oft reprinted, and undated letter to the Privy Council, “Against Georg Gascoyn, that he ought not to be Burges” in parliament, stating, in part, that “he is a notorious Ruffiaune and especiallie noted to be bothe [sic] a Spie, an Atheist and Godlesse psonne.”  Within the last decade, however, scholars have provided what might usefully be termed a “revisionist” reading of Gascoigne’s life and work, recognizing that Gascoigne carefully crafted overlapping images of a failed, neutered, and reformed prodigal as strategic tools designed to increase his public profile and attract patronage. (4)

3.   Arguments that Gascoigne was a failed courtier and castrated poet, moreover, ignore both his return to royal service in the last year of his life and his unreformed persona in his final work, The Grief of Joye (1577), which Kevin Laam analyzes more fully below (5)Gascoigne’s direct statements to Queen Elizabeth in that text, his second New Year’s gift to her, should have embodied complete subjection to the monarch but, characteristically, failed to do so.  In his dedicatory letter to “The highe and mightie pryncesse, Elizabeth,” in fact, Gascoigne constructs an identity strikingly at odds with his stated pose as “one of her Majesties most humble and faithfull Servants” (6).  Acting simultaneously as soldier and poet, he writes, “I have presumed to employ my penn in this small worke which I call the griefe of joye. / And with greater presumption have I adventured to present the same unto youre royall and most perfect judgment.”  Gascoigne casts himself in this paratext as one who dares to adventure his life in the repeated “presumption” of presenting his work to the Queen. 

4.   Confident in his military prowess, the soldier-poet rhetorically positions Elizabeth as a temporary adversary and his “penn” characteristically becomes a weapon.  Though he asserts the unworthiness of his poetry for Elizabeth’s “heavenly eyes,” he fails to apologize clearly for his “presumption.”  Rather, Gascoigne aggressively asserts that he presents Grief “that I might make your Majestie witnesse, how the Interims and vacant howers of those daies which I spent this somer in your service have byn bestowed.”  Ever useful, Gascoigne’s “vacant howers” provide further “service” to Elizabeth and he refuses to let her ignore his efforts. More importantly, here the ostensibly dependent poet fails to bury himself in total praise of the Queen as New Year’s gift-giving practices required (7).

5.   Rather than moving on to praise Elizabeth , Gascoigne brashly advertises the inappropriateness of his actions.  Perfectly combining the martial and poetic talents affirmed in his poesy, Tam Marti quam Mercurio, (devoted “as much for Mars as for Mercury”), he claims that “the leaves of this paumphlett have passed with mee in all my perilles/ neither coulde any daies travaile so tyre mee but that the night had some conference with my restles (and yet worthles) Muze” (8).  Even as he casts his “Muze” or poetic ability as “worthles” (a claim undermined later), the imperiled poet also facetiously but strategically casts himself as an accomplished warrior able to safeguard a decidedly precious and fragile royal gift, as the terms “leaves” and “paumphlett” convey.  Gascoigne asserts the power and thus value of his poetry by paralleling the “restlessness of his “Muze” to the frenetic activity of his daily “travaile.”  As he reiterates, moreover, “Such care I had to prepare some present for youre Imperiall person / and such was myne arrogance that I assured my self, youre infinite vertues would easely be accompanied with a gracious benignity in receiving and accepting so symple a gifte.”  Accentuating his martial abilities by transitive association, Gascoigne casts Elizabeth as “youre Imperiall person,” yet again he simply states his “arrogance” without apology.  In fact, his “I assured my self” and his assumption that she would “easily” accept his gift undermine much of the humility conveyed in the judgment that he provides only a “symple” gift. 

6.   Gascoigne’s assertion that “I will never presume to publishe any thing hereafter” unless the Queen approves of the Grief of Joye, appears to willingly submit himself to Elizabeth’s potentially castrating censure yet, once again, he complicates such a reading.  He ends his dedication, asking “I right humbly beseeche youre heighnes to accept” his worthless gift “and therewithall to pardon the boldness of your servaunt who eftsones presumethe (by contemplation) to kysse your delicate and most honorable handes / and voweth willingly to purchase the continewance of your confort, by any deathe, or perill.”  Technically, Gascoigne begs Elizabeth to accept his gift and “therewithall,” or “that being done” (OED), to “pardon” him.  Brashly assuming Elizabeth’s reciprocation, Gascoigne automates royal forgiveness as a function of her simple acceptance of the gift. 

7.   Even if this rhetoric offers unquestioned humility, he undermines his subservience by once again presuming “(by contemplation) to kysse your delicate and most honorable handes.”  In “The Preface” immediately following this letter, Gascoigne again aggressively engages the Queen, commanding his muse “(that your words, her worthy wyll may pearce) / mount myned and muze, the Queene shall read your verse” (9).  Gascoigne’s ostensibly meek panegyric engages the Queen with sexual metaphors of kissing and piercing her “wyll.”  The carnal valence of “wyll” stands out here as the text disturbingly and characteristically figures his poetic ability both as a pen/penis and a sword/spear which will pierce Elizabeth, overtly blurring the line between political and erotic allegory (10).  Rather than castrated, Gascoigne aggressively asserts both agency and critical acumen through his text.

8.   In addition to ignoring such late assertions of poetic agency, arguments for a “failed” Gascoigne ignore the tangible fact that he received employment from the Crown as an agent on the Continent, precisely the kind of relatively independent employment he sought throughout his career.  The position that he received in the summer of 1576, in fact, enabled him to use his protean abilities to marked effect, carrying messages for William Cecil and Francis Walsingham.  His ability to speak multiple languages and his serious dedication to serving the crown, as implied in Grief, allowed Gascoigne to prove his mettle through that service.  On that mission, Gascoigne protected his fellow Englishmen and women during the Spanish sack of Antwerp and was praised by the governor of the English merchants for his “humanitie in this tyme of trowble;” Linda Bradley Salamon examines Gascoigne’s rehearsal of that sack below (11)

9.   Gascoigne’s vow to Elizabeth in Grief, “willingly to purchase the continewance of your confort, by any deathe, or perill,” then, was not an empty boast.  Rather, Gascoigne’s reminder that he had served Elizabeth the previous summer also reminds her that he already possess (and she approved of) the very skills he deploys in his independent critique of the Court.  As Austen discusses below, moreover, Gascoigne asserts in his final surviving work that he has been “latelye receavede into Her Majesties service,” and that he has a “hope to recover my decayede estate” through the position (12).  With a consistent authorial independence and confidence in his works presented to Elizabeth and others, it seems clear that George Gascoigne retained a distinct agency throughout his career, which requires continued reassessment of his work. 

10. Felicity Hughes and Austen have each contributed to such a reassessment of Gascoigne’s life and work.  Rejecting reductive readings, Hughes sees in Gascoigne a consummate ability to “speak as an experienced and versatile actor might speak to a professional colleague.”  Also establishing Gascoigne’s protean versatility, Austen has demonstrated that Gascoigne adopted the mask of a reformed prodigal at the beginning of his career, which further undermines the supposed distinction between Gascoigne’s early independence and supposedly late dependence (13).  Joining in the reclamation of the complex and varied work of George Gascoigne, this special issue of Early Modern Literary Studies brings together new essays from both advanced and beginning scholars that further demonstrate that Gascoigne maintained a distinct sense of agency throughout his work and, contrary to modern critical opinion, achieved marked success.

11. The following seven articles place Gascoigne and his work within relevant Elizabethan cultural and literary contexts—including court politics, inns-of-court dramatic traditions, the tradition of resistance theory, the new discourse of military autobiography, the “Black Legend,” eye-witness accounts, domestic poetic traditions, and others—pairing historicist methodologies with nuanced formal and generic analysis.  As such, the foregoing interpretive arguments constitute a sustained and rigorous focus on texts and their contexts rather than privileging overarching literary-biographical generalizations that have tended to elide Gascoigne’s role in Elizabethan literary history.  Extending beyond the traditional but often myopic critical study of his prose, the following articles examine the broad range of Gascoigne’s poetic, dramatic, courtly, martial, and visual texts from the 1560s and 1570s.  Situated within our historical moment dominated by war in Iraq and its consequences, the assembled essays, perhaps correspondingly, address Gascoigne’s honest and sometimes unflattering analysis of war, tyranny, and individual agency.

12. Austen opens the collection with a comprehensive analysis of Gascoigne’s nuanced use of self-portraits as purposeful adjuncts to his written texts. “Gascoigne,” she establishes, “is unique in creating a range of self-portraits in both print and manuscript.”  Although limited in number and public circulation, “these images,” as Austen writes, “are a crucial part of Gascoigne’s preoccupation with self-presentation as a means to manoeuvre within the system of patronage.”  Pursuing both immediate and long-term goals, Gascoigne deployed a range of visual selves tailored to each of his patrons or would-be patrons.  As Austen establishes, Gascoigne’s “characteristic inventiveness” enabled him to develop “a range of emblems and self-presentations to appeal to each of his dedicatees.”  Displaying both a “martial side” and a “courtly side,” Gascoigne also advertised “a highly developed facility with courtly, coded discourse.”  Such characteristic versatility achieved demonstrable success, as evidenced in Gascoigne’s deployment of “a co-ordinated strategy to build on his favour at court” in the last months of his life.  Austen’s exhaustive analysis of Gascoigne’s visual oeuvre recognizes the complexity of his abilities across genres, providing a necessary corrective to a critical practice that continues to ignore substantial elements within his work.

13. Allyna Ward next carefully situates Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe’s tragedy, Jocasta, within the “fragile political environment inherited from her sister Queen Mary,” demonstrating the text’s participation in the contemporary discourse of resistance theory.  “Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s Elizabethan version of Jocasta addresses the concepts of obedience to a tyrannous sovereign and the Christian duty to obey a rightful king.”  As Ward demonstrates, Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe voice the theory that a monarch becomes a tyrant when he or she places personal ambition above the public good.  Rather than a simple translation, Jocasta serves as a characteristic Inns-of-court meditation on contemporary political concerns:  for “this mention of tyranny” in the English Jocasta, “is not a point made in either Seneca or Euripides.”  Ward provides a refreshing and much needed political and historical reading of the text, which has traditionally received little attention, usually mentioned in passing as part of an overview of the development of drama in England.

14. Matthew Zarnowiecki asserts that Gascoigne’s miscellany, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, presents a strategy for recreating textual pleasure, which undermines any easy reading of the poet as castrated.   Focusing upon the “the productive confusion between bodily and textual delight” created by Gascoigne, Zarnowiecki reconsiders the conceptual heuristic of a castrata poet who nevertheless publishes poetry.  Iterations, reiterations, reworkings, and re–memberings become the poetic substance of Gascoigne’s method of avoiding “nedelesse singularitie” and thus poetic castration.  As Zarnowiecki establishes of the collection, “there is a short-lived, and ultimately futile struggle to preserve a private, personal moment of delight.  Only when that experience is transmitted, or revisited, or even reconceived, is this futility forestalled.”  Providing a sustained analysis of the aesthetic effects produced by A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, Zarnowiecki supplements traditional social contextualizations with the reconstruction of Gascoigne’s lyric method or, more precisely, readerly hermeneutic.  Deploying a critical heuristic influenced by reception theory, Zarnowiecki provides a convincing reconstruction of the process of reading Gascoigne’s resilient texts.   

15. Much as Zarnowiecki identifies Gascoigne’s critique of soldiers as, among other things, immoral opportunists, Elizabeth Heale sets Gascoigne within the context of the new genre of soldiers’ writings emerging from artists like Barnaby Rich and Thomas Churchyard.  By far the most complex example of this new mode of writing, Gascoigne’s assessment of “war as brutally violent and treacherous” also characteristically offers multiple voices and perspectives, therein preventing easy moral definitions of the soldier-writer.  “All three writers are,” according to Heale, “thus exploiting their experience as soldiers to articulate a new perspective in print, that of the middle-ranking serving soldier to tell stories that were topical, that voiced a sense of grievance and injustice, and that might also serve to promote the writer as deserving and experienced.”  As the writers in this collection reconfirm, Gascoigne’s facility in fashioning consistently multivocal texts provides him with the skills needed for such self-promotion and social analysis. 

16. Confirming his penchant for simultaneous cultural critique and self-promotion, Heale’s essay addresses the poet’s capacity to co-opt a broad range of texts and traditions.  Through “a highly complex and unsettling dramatic voice,” Gascoigne and other soldier-writers starkly critique “a new courtly breed of men who have no knowledge of war and by whom they feel marginalized and overlooked.”  As Heale demonstrates, the courtly Gascoigne characteristically positions himself between common soldiers and elite leaders, but the moral voice of the first half of the text rejects the glory-seeking “Captain Gascoigne” of the second half.    

17. Recognizing the equally multivocal nature of Gascoigne’s The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle, Susan Anderson examines both the influence of Gascoigne’s text on later royal entertainments as well as the authorial agency created through the textual transformation of such an ephemeral social event.  Anderson establishes that “the text’s presentation of the event enhanced its importance for the development of modes of addressing and representing the Queen” in later royal entertainments.  As Anderson also demonstrates, Gascoigne’s contributions on the second and final days of Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth effectively coopted the previous entertainments, therein reinterpreting their meanings according to Gascoigne’s directives.

18. Anderson also indicates that, ever the master manipulator, Gascoigne maintains an authorial autonomy through the use of multiple perspectives.  “Images of the monarch, the host, performers, courtly observers, and writers are variously introduced at events where the fashioning of selves and others is constantly in play.  The text itself then forms a refashioning of these portrayals, a further space in which political identities can be refined and reiterated.”  Seeking patronage from Kenilworth’s host, Robert Dudley, and others, Gascoigne magnifies his own contributions to Princely Pleasures.  As Anderson indicates, however, “Gascoigne’s death in 1577 nullified any effectiveness this appeal for patronage might have had. It is clear, though, that Gascoigne’s contributions to Kenilworth and Princely Pleasures provided models for later entertainments and their texts.”  Literary historians, however, all too often overlook Gascoigne’s late success and posthumous influence. 

19. Placing Gascoigne’s The Spoyle of Antwerpe in the context of the rise of the Black Legend and his broader oeuvre, Linda Bradley Salamon recovers Gascoigne’s internationalism and his deployment of an “imaginary of the globe.”  Set within the context of geopolitical conflict and the “ideological anxiety, created in part by the growing array around the globe of Others with inexplicable ‘customs’ and practices,” The Spoyle demonstrates both Gascoigne’s astute awareness of contemporary international politics and his sustained interest in “global profit-seeking.”  Deploying a nuanced reading informed by postcolonial theory and Bhaktinian discourse analysis, Salamon also recovers the text’s function as sophisticated and xenophobic propaganda that demonizes Spain.  In the mixed registers of military reportage, moral exemplum, and the Othering discourse of the Black Legend, The Spoyle nevertheless “provides the most detailed, factual account of the sack available.”  Primarily vilifying the “cruel and treacherous” Spaniard, Gascoigne undermines their miraculous victory by convicting them of “state-sponsored terrorism” and by attributing the defeat of Antwerp to God’s providential scourging of the sinful city.

20. Kevin Laam closes the collection by examining Gascoigne’s final work, The Grief of Joye, and concludes that, rather than a stultifying moral treatise, Gascoigne’s second New Year’s gift to Elizabeth demonstrates an “ambivalent handling” of the moral themes inherited from his source text, Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae.  Offering, as Laam writes, a “thinly veiled reportage of the Elizabethan court milieu,” Gascoigne maintains an authorial independence that borders on the perilous.  For Laam, “the pretext of pitting one’s own Muse against a bevy of assailants plucked from the Queen’s court results in a poem that is, on some level, terrifying in its specificity.”  Gascoigne’s consistent social analysis, then, retains its potential for scandal even in his final work. 

21. Although fully versed in the Stoic-Petrarchan and Augustinian constituents of the moral grief-in-joy mode, Gascoigne characteristically transcends such moralism, notably demonstrating, as Laam establishes, a “remarkable lack of contempt for the affairs of the world.”  Tracing the poet’s use of both Petrarch and Chaucer, Laam reads Grief as “an instance of Chaucerian self-fashioning,” which embodies both a “penitent persona” and a concern for his broader poetic legacy.  Concurring with the other writers gathered here, Laam establishes that, in his final work, “the poet had not altogether thrown off the worldly attachments that he had held as an aspiring courtier.”   

22. Drawing from a range of contemporary critical methodologies and Elizabethan cultural contexts, this special issue on Gascoigne provides fresh insights into the accomplished writer and artist.  Even more broadly creative than previously recognized, Gascoigne’s achievements extend into both the visual arts and eye-witness reportage.  A quintessential polymath and man of his age, the Green Knight, Gascoigne’s nom de guerre, remained fully immersed in the contemporary political, artistic, military, and courtly concerns of his day.  Highly versed in these discourses, he repeatedly capitalized upon the fact that such social contexts help to constitute meaning.  With this awareness, Gascoigne actively and aptly shaped a readerly hermeneutic designed to accentuate his unique talents.  Together, then, these readings both consolidate a revisionist interpretation of George Gascoigne and, through fresh analysis, hope to facilitate further examination of his extensive and impressive body of successful work. 



 1 The title quote is from Gascoigne’s “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse,” in  The Complete Works of George Gascoigne, ed. John Cunliffe (2 vols, New York:  Greenwood Press, 1969), vol. 2, p. 466.  A Hundreth Sundrie Flowers, ed. G. Pigman, III ( New York Oxford University Press, 2000).  I want to thank the anonymous readers and my Honors Apprentice, Ian Cole, for their assistance.  The forthcoming monograph is, Gillian Austen, George Gascoigne (Rochester:  D. S. Brewer, 2008).  

 2 On Gascoigne’s reputation, see Marie Axton, The Queens Two BodiesDrama and the Elizabethan Succession (London:  Royal Historical Society, 1977), p. 66, Robert Maslen, Elizabethan FictionsEspionage, Counter-Espionage, and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 8, 156, Diana Henderson, Passion Made PublicElizabethan Lyric, Gender, and Performance (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 47–8, and Stephen Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 39. 

 3 Laurie Shannon, “Poetic Companies:  Musters of Agency in George Gascoigne’s ‘Friendly Verse,’” GLQA Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 10.3 (2004), pp. 458–9.

 4 The Complete Poems of George Gascoigne, ed. William Hazlitt (2 vols, London:  Roxburghe Library, 1869), vol. 1, pp. xx–xxi.  Such a “revisionist” reading begins with Austen, “Gascoigne’s Master FJ And Its Revision, or, ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet!,’” in Wolfgang Görtschacher and Michael Klein (eds), Narrative Strategies in Early English Fiction (New York:  Edwin Mellen Press, 1995):  67–85, and Kevin LaGrandeur, “‘Androgyny and Linguistic Power in Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 37 (1995):  344-361.   

  5 C.T. Prouty, George GascoigneElizabethan Courtier, Soldier, and Poet (New York, 1942), Richard Helgerson, The Elizabethan Prodigals (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1977), and Richard McCoy, Gascoigne’s ‘Poemata castrata’:  The Wages of Courtly Success,” Criticism, 27.1 (1985):  29-55.  For other significant reappraisals, see Felicity Hughes, “Gascoigne’s Poses,” SEL, 37.1 (1997):  1-19, and Robert Maslen, Elizabethan FictionsEspionage, Counter-Espionage, and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). 

 6 The prefatory letter to Elizabeth is at Cunliffe, Complete Works, vol. 2, pp. 513-515. 

 7 Ilana Nash, ‘“A Subject Without Subjection’:  Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle,” ComitatusA Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 25 (1994):  81–102.

 8 Pigman, Hundreth, pp. 703-704, provides the translation.  Kevin LaGrandeur, “‘Androgyny and Linguistic Power in Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37 (1995), pp. 344-361, provides a careful analysis of Gascoigne’s combination of martial and poetic personae, rejecting readings of a castrated or disempowered poet. 

 9 Cunliffe, Complete Works, vol. 2, pp. 513-515. 

 10  For Gascoigne’s use of “wyll” in a carnal or sexual sense, see Pigman, Hundreth, 31.20, 40.20, 53.39, 58.5, F.J., 211.14, and DB, 2.77, 11.5, and Cunliffe, Complete Works, vol. 2, pp.  6, 214, 468, 521, 532. 

 11  Prouty, Elizabethan Courtier, p. 95, records contemporary opinion of Gascoigne’s service in Antwerp .  Abraham Feldman, “Playwrights and Pike-Trailers in the Low Countries,” Notes and Queries, 198 (1953), pp. 184-185, discusses Gascoigne’s service in Antwerp .  The relevant letter is in Keryvn Lettenhove, Relations Politiques des Pays-Bas et De L’angleterre, Sous le Regne de Philippe II (11 vols, Brussels: University of Brussels Library, 1882-1900), vol. 9, pp. 13-14. 

  12  The Papers of Nathaniel Bacon Stiffkey, in A. Smith, Gillian Barker, and Robert Kenny, (eds) (4 vols, Norwich, 1979-2000), vol. 2, pp. 3-4.

 13  Hughes, “Gascoigne’s Poses,” p. 17.  Gillian Austen, “The Literary Career of George Gascoigne,” Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation (Oxford University, 1997).


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