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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VIII. The New English Poetry

§ 12. Thomas Churchyard

One of those “uncertain” authors, according to his own account, was Thomas Churchyard. The son of a farmer and born near Shrewsbury, Churchyard gave some part of his long life to war, the rest to poetry. He served under the emperor and other famous captains in Scotland, in Ireland, in the Low Countries and in France, where he was taken prisoner and escaped. He was in fact, a soldier of fortune, and, on laying down his arms, he continued to look to fortune for a maintenance. That fortune played him false till he was over seventy, denying him the court place he desired and rewarding him then only with a pension from the queen, was not the whole secret of his frequent reflections on the vanity of human wishes, for that was a trick of the times. And beneath his complaints lay a poetic bravery which goes far to atone for the monotony of his style and the poverty of his thought. Soldier-like, he ruffles it in a glittering display of similes and comparisons. His ingenuity in this field is inexhaustible, and one little commonplace is decked out in a hundred guises till the brain is dazzled. The display covers very little substance, and his fondness for alliteration and the monotony of his stress (which he seems to drive home by his practice of marking his caesuras with a blank space in the printed line) make his valiant “fourteeners” and “common-time” stanzas prized rather for the rarity of his editions than for the merit of his poetry. At the same time, Churchyard was, for his period, a smooth and accomplished versifier, who had taken to heart the lesson taught by Wyatt and Surrey, and who did his share of the work of restoring form and order to English poetry.

His earliest publication seems to have been a three-leaved poem, The myrrour of man. Early in his career he is found in controversy, and employing a weapon which he always found useful, the broadside. In 1563 came his best work, the long “tragedy” of Shore’s Wife in A Mirror for Magistrates. In 1575, he published the first of the books with the alliterative titles or sub-titles which he liked—Churchyardes Chippes. In 1578, he began to make use of matter which served him well, his military experiences: the Wofull Warres in Flaunders of that year was followed by the Generall Rehearsall of Warres (Churchyard’s Choise), which reviews the deeds of the soldiers and sailors of England from the time of Henry VIII, and his descriptions of the sieges of Leith and Edinburgh are among the best of his narrative poems. In the next year, 1579, he appears in a new light as devising and describing “shows” for the queen on her progresses. Others of his principal works were The Praise of Poetrie (1595), in which he attempted to do in verse what Sidney’s Apologie had done in prose, and The Worthines of Wales (1587), a vigorous book which, to some extent, anticipates the Poly-Olbion of Michael Drayton. He translated three books of Ovid’s Tristia and began a translation of Pliny which he destroyed. Grumbling, hoping, quarrelling and making friends again, with Nashe (who realised his merit) and others, paying fine homage to the great men of his day, he continued writing till his voice sounded strange in the new era, long after Colin Clout had described him as “Old Palaemon that sung so long untill quite hoarse he grew.”

The decadence of the school of Wyatt and Surrey may be seen in other miscellanies, which will soon be considered; but, for the moment, we must turn aside to a poet who felt none of the Italian influence—Thomas Tusser.