My little book: who will thou please, tell me?
All which shall read thee? No that cannot be.
Whom then, the best? But few of these are known.
How shall thou know to please, thou know’st not whom?
The meaner sort commend not poetry;
And sure the worst should please themselves for thee:
But let them pass, and set by most no store,
Please thou one well, thou shall not need please more.
—Thomas Bastard, “Ad librum suum” (Book 1, Epigram 39)
Seems like you couldn’t throw a stone in Elizabethan England without hitting a poet or a clergyman—or both.
Thomas Bastard, like John Donne, was both. He was a well-educated man who was made a Fellow at Oxford’s New College at the age of twenty-two and later served as a vicar for the Church of England. He published two collections of sermons around 1615, cleverly titled Twelve Sermons and Five Sermons.
He also wrote epigrams. A lot of them. Three hundred or so of his short poems were collected into seven books and published in 1598 under the series title Chrestoleros. Seven years later—and no wonder it took so long—he published a three-volume poem called Magna Britannia: A Latin Poem, which I haven’t read because I can’t find it for love, money, or Google.
There’s a reason for that, beyond my unfortunate choice of nationality: unlike Donne, Thomas Bastard wasn’t, and isn’t, famous.
His poems didn’t receive much recognition during his lifetime, he didn’t score any powerful patrons, his works don’t appear in many textbooks or collections, and people generally don’t go around quoting him or even snickering at his name.
Even the Poetry Foundation doesn’t have much to say about him and his Wikipedia entry is just this side of a stump. I don’t even have an image to offer—mostly likely, he couldn’t afford one, though it’s possible that there’s an anonymous painting out there with his face.
He appears to be most well-known for losing his Fellowship when he was accused of writing the Oxford version of Peyton Place, describing, in great disapproving detail, the sexual shenanigans of several community leaders.
Sounds promising, doesn’t it?
But the whole thing seems to have fizzled out; no one on our side of the timeline seems to know for sure whether he actually did it or why anyone thought he had—though the title, Marprelates Basterdine, could, I suppose, have been a clue. There’s no mention of whether he was ever convicted of the libel charges, either.*
Aside from this, he appears to have led a blameless, semi-literary life, before suffering a mental breakdown around the age of fifty and dying in debtor’s prison—which wasn’t uncommon for a poet. Or a clergyman. Or both.
And that would seem to be it for the Reverend Bastard, who might be generously judged a midlist writer before being forgotten again.
Except . . . some of his epigrams—not all, but there are tons to choose from—resonate with me, possibly because he wasn’t an uncommon poet.
Several, including the one at the top of this post, have a certain air of “Why am I doing this again?” that so many writers of poetry and prose, struggling or not, can totally understand:
Ad lectorem de subjecto operis sui
(Thomas Bastard, Book 1, Epigram 5)
The little world, the subject of my muse,
Is a huge task and labor infinite;
Like to a wilderness or mass confuse,
Or to an endless gulf, or to the night:
How many strange Meanders do I find?
How many paths do turn my straying pen?
How many doubtful twilights make me blind,
Which seek to limb out this strange All of men?
Easy it were the earth to portray out,
Or to draw forth the heavens’ purest frame,
Whose restless course, by order whirls about
Of change and place, and still remains the same.
But how shall man’s, or manner’s, form appear,
Which while I write, do change from what they were?
There are those familiar touches of pride, as well, especially in the face of criticism:
De libro suo
(Thomas Bastard, Book 2, Epigram 40)
One said my book was like unto a coat,
Of diverse colours black and red and white.
I, bent to cross him, said he spoke by rote.
For they in making rather are unlike.
A coat, one garment made of many fleeces:
My book, one meaning cut into many pieces.
And then there’s the ever-present problem of inspiration, couched in the sharply-edged snark that Elizabethan poets all seem to do so well**:
Ad Henricum Wottonum
(Thomas Bastard, Book 2, Epigram 4)
Wotton, the country and the country swain,
How can they yield a Poet any sense?
How can they stir him up, or heat his vein?
How can they feed him with intelligence?
You have that fire which can a wit enflame,
In happy London England’s fairest eye:
Well may you Poets’ have of worthy name,
Which have the food and life of Poetry.
And yet the country or the town may sway,
Or bear a part, as clowns do in a play.
In short, the good Reverend is one of us. And, no matter where we are in our careers, vice-versa.
I think that should be acknowledged and remembered. And maybe even applauded.
Because in a way, we’re all of us commonplace Bastards.
And still, we write.
* He was, however, allowed to complete his studies—which could mean that the college didn’t want to risk any sequels. I’d like to think so . . .
**And which leads me to suspect that he may have had something to do with that Marprelates Basterdine business after all.