Gerard Kilroy, ed.  The Epigrams of Sir John Harington.  Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009.  xiv+348pp. ISBN 978 0 7546 6002 6.


James Doelman
Brescia University College, University of Western Ontario

James Doelman. “Review of Gerard Kilroy, ed. The Epigrams of Sir John Harington." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 11.1-5 <URL:>


  1. The rich and various work of Sir John Harington, Queen Elizabeth’s “witty godson”, has lately been attracting increasing scholarly attention, in such books as Jason Scott-Warren’s The Book as Gift (2001), and Gerard Kilroy’s chapter on Harington in Edmund Campion: memory and transcription (2005).   After his translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and his playful and satiric volume on indoor privies, A new discourse of a stale subject, called The metamorphosis of Ajax, Harington’s most significant work was his collection of approximately 400 epigrams.    However, scholars to this point have been limited by their dependence upon Norman E. McClure’s 1930 edition.  While this volume at least made the majority of epigrams available in a modern edition, its basis in the early seventeenth-century printed collections by John Budge that appeared after Harington’s death was problematic.  Kilroy has now provided a far more authoritative original-spelling edition of the epigrams, based upon the gift manuscripts of epigrams that Harington carefully prepared for King James and Prince Henry.

  2. Kilroy’s well-supported argument is that previous print collections disturbed the significant thematic organization of the epigrams.  While Harington might dismiss them as random collections of trifles, a gesture common to epigrammatists, the manuscript collections manifest an organizational rationale.  Throughout the four books, every tenth epigram (or “decade”) is of a more serious religious nature, and form what Kilroy considers the essential theological framework of the volume.  Ultimately, the widespread concern with religious matters  marks a seriousness of purpose obscured by the early print collections, from which  these epigrams were largely absent.  Extending the argument he first advanced in Edmund Campion, Kilroy finds in Harington a man who maintained at least a partial allegiance to the “old religion” of Rome, and to the church traditions that it embodied.   In addition, he portrays Harington as one who, behind the mask of the “wise fool”, was a shrewd explorer of the political situation throughout his literary works.

  3. Kilroy’s copy text is Folger MS V.a.249, a finely produced gift manuscript to the young Prince Henry based upon a slightly earlier gathering prepared for King James; fully collated with this are the related manuscripts BL Add. 12049 and Camb. U.L. Adv.b.8.1.    The manuscripts are fully described, and Kilroy tentatively suggests that his copy-text is in the hand of Harington’s trusted servant Thomas Combe.  However, Kilroy also keeps in perspective that this is one version of the epigrams framed for a particular audience, that it is “a moment in the history of the text” (85).   Some epigrams were omitted by Harington from these manuscripts, which Kilroy has included in an appendix .

  4. The substantial 100-page introduction takes it place as the most significant scholarly discussion of Harington’s epigrams to date, as Kilroy places the epigrams in both their generic and historical contexts.  He insists upon the dominant influence of the Greek Anthology and the epigrams of Thomas More and John Heywood, and perhaps overcompensates in downplaying the influence of Martial.  There are epigrams of Martialian abuse here, some directly based upon Harington’s Latin forebear.    Harington’s role as an incisive critic of the political, religious and social corruptions of his time is ably delineated.  At times Kilroy might push the political reading too far; for example, he distorts the sense of “You that extol the blisse” (3:70) to make it a “criticism of Elizabeth’s reign” (45), where the focus is really on the corruption of the nation, and the willingness of a preacher to flatter the nation rather than rebuke it.   While Kilroy’s discussion focuses on the political and religious concerns of Harington’s epigrams, he also gives due attention to the domestic epigrams to his wife, the convivial ones celebrating friendship, and the epigrams of praise.  Worthwhile attention is offered to Harington’s experimentation with stanza forms, which goes beyond that of any other English epigrammatist writing in the period.

  5. Helpfully appended is a table that allows for easy correlation of this numbering to that found in McClure, and also shows where the epigrams appeared in the two first printings by Budge. My only regret is the absence of annotations on the individual poems; in place of this Kilroy provides a preliminary thematic commentary.  However, with the high level of topical reference in the epigrams, this more precise annotation would have been valuable.  None of this should take away from Kilroy’s accomplishment in providing what will now be the standard edition for any scholarly citation of Harington’s epigrams.


Works Cited



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