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

IX. “A Mirror for Magistrates”

§ 4. Sackville

In the eighteenth century, when the Mirror was recalled to notice in Mrs. Cooper’s Muses Library, it was to direct special attention to the work of Sackville, but appreciation of the poetic quality of Sackville was no new thing. It was the prevailing opinion of his contemporaries that, if he had not been called to the duties of statesmanship, he would have achieved great things in poetry. Spenser gave expression to this view with his usual courtly grace and in his own “golden verse” in the sonnet addressed to Sackville in 1590, commending The Faerie Queene to his protection:

  • In vain I thinke, right honourable Lord,
  • By this rude rime to memorize thy name,
  • Whose learned Muse hath writ her owne record
  • In golden verse, worthy immortal fame:
  • Thou much more fit (were leasure to the same)
  • Thy gracious Soverains praises to compile,
  • And her imperiall Majestie to frame
  • In loftie numbers and heroicke stile.
  • Some of Spenser’s praise might be set down to the desire to conciliate an influential patron, for lord Buckhurst had just been installed at Windsor as a knight companion of the order of the Garter; and, in the following year, by the direct interposition of the queen, he was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford. But, when all temptation to flattery had long passed away, Pope chose him out for special commendation among the writers of his age as distinguished by “a propriety in sentiments, a dignity in the sentences, an unaffected perspicuity of style, and an easy flow of numbers; in a word, that chastity, correctness, and gravity of style which are so essential to tragedy; and which all the tragic poets who followed, not excepting Shakespeare himself, either little understood or perpetually neglected.”

    Only the small extent of Sackville’s poetical work has prevented him from inclusion among the masters of the grand style. This distinction is the more remarkable because the occasion of which he took advantage, and the material he used, were not particularly favourable. He evidently felt that the vast design of Baldwin and his fellows was inadequately introduced by the bald and almost childish prose preface, with its frank acceptance to medieval machinery, which had seemed sufficient to them. He turned to the great examples of antiquity, Vergil and Dante; indeed, apparently, he had intended to produce a Paradiso as well as an Inferno. Sorrow says:

  • I shall thee guide first to the grisly lake,
  • And thence unto the blissful place to rest,
  • Where thou shalt see, and hear, the plaint they make
  • That whilom here bare swing among the best:
  • This shalt thou see: but great is the unrest
  • That thou must bide, before thou canst attain
  • Unto the dreadful place where these remain.
  • The astonishing thing is that Sackville is not overwhelmed by the models he has adopted. His command of his material is free and masterful, although he has to vivify such shadowy medieval abstractions as Remorse of Conscience, Dread, Revenge, Misery, Care, Sleep, Old Age, Malady, Famine, Death and War. It is not merely that his choice of phrase is adequate and his verse easy and varied. He conceives greatly, and handles his great conceptions with a sureness of touch which belongs only to the few. He was undoubtedly indebted to Chaucer and Gavin Douglas, and, in his turn, he influenced Spenser; but his verse bears the stamp of his own individuality. The Induction has not Spenser’s sensuous melody; and it is far removed from Chaucer’s ingenuous subtlety and wayward charm; but it has an impassioned dignity and grave majesty which are all its own.