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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
Sir John. The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington. Ed. Norman
Egbert McClure. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1930.
Gerard. Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription. Aldershot: Ashgate,
Jason. Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.