Poetry Wednesday: A Common Rymer and Notorious Rufianne


Lo, pleasure, lo! lo thus I lead a life
That laughs for joy, and trembleth oft for dread;
Thy pangs are such as call for change’s knife
To cut the twist, or else to stretch the thread,
Which holds yfeer the bundle of my bliss:
Fie, pleasure, fie! I dare not trust to this.

—George Gascoigne, “Fie, Pleasure, Fie”

George Gascoigne is an interesting dude—or was, since his heyday was about thirty years before Shakespeare hit the scene.

He was a soldier of fortune—or lack thereof*—wrote poetry, plays, and prose, dabbled in politics,** and, according to what I’ve read, spent his life in a manner that more or less proves that all that hanky-panky that went on in that HBO show about the Tudors wasn’t just wish-fulfillment on the part of the writers.

He was one of the first poets to suck up to Queen Elizabeth I in worshipful verse, though it apparently didn’t do him much good.   What did do him good was marrying a rich widow and writing  a scandalous work called A Hundredth Sundry Flowres bound up in one small Posie. Gathered partly (by translation) in the fyne outlandish Gardens of Euripides, Ovid, Petrarch, Ariosto and others; and partly by Invention out of our owne fruitfull Orchardes in Englande, Yelding Sundrie Savours of tragical, comical and moral discourse, bothe pleasaunt and profitable, to the well-smelling noses of learned readers, which seems to have been the 16th Century version of Peyton Place, but with a somewhat longer title and far more blatant references to well-known people who were not all that amused about it at the time.

He also wrote a few plays, which were performed and then printed, which meant they were probably pretty good.  In fact, there’s some speculation that his play The Supposes inspired The Taming of the Shrew.  I’ve never read The Supposes,^ but judging by Master Gascoigne’s poetry, it wouldn’t surprise me—like “Shrew,” many of his poems have, um, strong opinions about women.

From the Epilogus to The Steel Glass
(George Gascoigne)

Alas, my lord, my haste was all too hot,
I shut my glass before you gaz’d your fill,
And, at a glimpse, my silly self have spied
A stranger troop than any yet were seen.
Behold, my lord, what monsters muster here,
With angel’s face, and harmful hellish hearts,
With smiling looks, and deep deceitful thoughts,
With tender skins, and stony cruel minds,
With stealing steps, yet forward feet to fraud.
Behold, behold, they never stand content,
With God, with kind, with any help of art,
But curl their locks with bodkins and with braids,
But dye their hair with sundry subtle sleights,
But paint and slick till fairest face be foul,
But bumbast, bolster, frizzle, and perfume.
They mar with musk the balm which nature madeMysterious Face
And dig for death in delicatest dishes.
The younger sort come piping on apace,
In whistles made of fine enticing wood,
Till they have caught the birds for whom they birded.
The elder sort go stately stalking on,
And on their backs they bear both land and fee,
Castles and towers, revenues and receipts,
Lordships and manors, fines, yea, farms and all.
What should these be? Speak you, my lovely lord.
They be not men: for why? they have no beards.
They be no boys, which wear such side long gowns.
They be no gods, for all their gallant gloss.
They be no devils, I trow, which seem so saintish.
What be they? women? masking in men’s weeds?
With Dutchkin doublets, and with jerkins jagg’d?
With Spanish spangs, and ruffs fet out of France,
With high-copp’d hats, and feathers flaunt-a-flaunt?
They be so sure, even woe to men indeed.

And when women in his works aren’t monstrous, they’re just plain mean.

And If I Did, What Then?
(George Gascoigne)

“And if I did, what then?
Are you aggriev’d therefore?
The sea hath fish for every man,
And what would you have more?”

Thus did my mistress once,
Amaze my mind with doubt;Fisherman
And popp’d a question for the nonce
To beat my brains about.

Whereto I thus replied:
“Each fisherman can wish
That all the seas at every tide
Were his alone to fish.

“And so did I (in vain)
But since it may not be,
Let such fish there as find the gain,
And leave the loss for me.

“And with such luck and loss
I will content myself,
Till tides of turning time may toss
Such fishers on the shelf.

“And when they stick on sands,
That every man may see,
Then will I laugh and clap my hands,
As they do now at me.”

But what interests me about Gascoigne’s poetry, the thing that elevates it above the general misogyny of the time period, is that curious mix of self-deprecation and irritation—the speaker above strikes me as the resentful flipside of J. Alfred Prufrock.

There’s a dark edge to his stuff, sometimes, that seems to imply that his self-abasement isn’t his natural state and he’s not too happy about having to perform all the time.

For That He Looked Not Upon Her
(George Gascoigne)

You must not wonder, though you think it strange,
To see me hold my louring head so low,
And that mine eyes take no delight to range
About the gleams which on your face do grow.
The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom ’ticèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,Mouse
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
The scorchèd fly, which once hath ’scaped the flame,
Will hardly come to play again with fire,
Whereby I learn that grievous is the game
Which follows fancy dazzled by desire:
So that I wink or else hold down my head,
Because your blazing eyes my bale have bred.

However, when he drops this simmering resentment but keeps the humility, the results can become taxing for the reader—or this reader, anyway—who would like him to get on with it, please.

One of his better known poems, “Woodmanship,” is a lengthy description of how much he truly sucks at bowhunting.

My worthy Lord, I pray you wonder not
To see your woodman shoot so oft awry,
Nor that he stands amazèd like a sot,
And lets the harmless deer unhurt go by.
Or if he strike a doe which is but carren,
Laugh not good Lord, but favor such a fault,
Take will in worth, he would fain hit the barren,
But though his heart be good, his hap is naught . . . 

About a hundred lines later, he apologizes not only for being so inept, but for writing such a crappy poem about it.


He doesn’t always do this, but it does appear to be a default setting for him, and I wonder if it’s partially this frequent, overly forced lack of self-confidence that makes it so easy for us non-scholars to dismiss him as little more than some frilly-necked guy who wasn’t Shakespeare.  Or maybe we’ve all been so supersaturated with The Bard’s stuff that Gascoigne’s rhythms and rhyme schemes seem slightly off, even though they really aren’t.

Or maybe only bloggers with a weird compulsion to rant about poetry every Wednesday care enough to be impressed that George Gascoigne wrote one of the first, if not the first, English articles about creating effective poetry—Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English^^—because someone commissioned him to do it.

Part of his advice?  Wordplay is fine and dandy, but for a poem to be more than passable, a poet has to write about something that matters to him.

Makes sense to me.

And in my opinion, it’s his gentle, philosophical ode to a particular symptom of old age that exemplifies what truly mattered to George Cascoigne:

The Lullaby of a Lover
(George Gascoigne)

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest,
And lullaby can I sing too
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguiled,
Full many wanton babes have I
Which must be stilled with lullaby.

First lullaby my youthful years;
It is now time to go to bed,
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven within my head.
With lullaby, then, youth be still;
With lullaby content thy will;
Since courage quails and comes behind,Timecrafter
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.

Next, lullaby my gazing eyes,
Which wonted were to glance apace.
For every glass may now suffice
To show the furrows in my face;
With lullaby then wink awhile,
With lullaby your looks beguile;
Let no fair face nor beauty bright
Entice you eft with vain delight.

And lullaby, my wanton will;
Let reason’s rule now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill
How dear I have thy fancies bought;
With lullaby now take thine ease,
With lullaby thy doubts appease.
For trust to this: if thou be still,
My body shall obey thy will.

Eke lullaby, my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest;
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best;
With lullaby be thou content,
With lullaby thy lusts relent,
Let others pay which hath more pence;
Thou art too poor for such expense.

Thus lullaby, my youth, mine eyes,
My will, my ware, and all that was.
I can no more delays devise,
But welcome pain, let pleasure pass;
With lullaby now take your leave,
With lullaby your dreams deceive;
And when you rise with waking eye,
Remember then this lullaby.

That loving boy and little Robin in the fifth verse?  Totally his favorite body part.

Never change, George.


*He was accused of playing both sides during the Netherlands campaigns in 1572, when his CEO caught him sneaking back from The Hague, after a night with an accommodating lady friend and was captured a few years later when the English evacuated.   When he arrived back in England, he wrote a couple of stories about his adventures, which did pretty well—write what you know, I guess.

**He was accused by the opposition of being a ruffian, a known killer, and a bad poet.  So politics haven’t changed much, really.

^Or, to be honest, his Posie, beyond the first sectionI enjoy old texts and I love me some scandals, but I’d have to dig up the identities behind all those initials and if you put too much effort into understanding salacious innuendo, it ruins the point.

^^John S.?  Liligriff?  Indy?  I’m interested in your opinions of this. You can skip the first paragraph, which says how unqualified he is to write the thing.   You might also paste it into Word and replace all the u’s with v’s, because oy . . .


5 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: A Common Rymer and Notorious Rufianne

  1. My favorite lines:

    * The sea hath fish for every man,
    And what would you have more?”

    *First lullaby my youthful years;
    It is now time to go to bed,
    For crooked age and hoary hairs
    Have won the haven within my head.

    Nice effort.

  2. Interesting how long some common sense rules of poetry have been around (don’t be too obscure, or too obvious, keep the rhythm pleasant…). I’m amused by his distaste for multisyllabic words. Also, an obvious high regard for Chaucer. It is also funny how distracted one can get trying to mentally translate olde english.

    • I agree—some of the things he says seem to get at our universal understanding of what poetry is, but others are obviously all about his own tastes.

      Gascoigne wrote his stuff juuust on the edge of when spelling congealed. The inconsistencies make my brain hurt.

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