John Fletcher in 1600-1601: Two Early Poems, an Involvement in the "Poets' War," and a Network of Literary Connections

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"We know nothing" of John Fletcher the playwright, "through the crucial years from eighteen to twenty-eight." So G. R. Proudfoot has said, and other commentators affirm this lack of knowledge. (1) Born in 1579, John Fletcher is likely to have studied at Cambridge during the 1590s. His first acknowledged writing is usually considered to be the commendatory verses for Volpone (1607), signed with the initials "I. F."; and Fletcher's full name is attached to a poem prefacing the 1611 quarto of a later Jonson play, Catiline His Conspiracy. In or close to 1609 the first printed playtext to name Fletcher as its author appeared: The Faithful Shepherdess. His first work as a dramatist may have taken place around 1606. (2) What of the preceding period? This essay will seek to recapture a sense of Fletcher's hidden years, first by presenting the case that he was responsible for two brief commendatory poems which appeared in 1600 and 1601, and second by arguing that the connections thus revealed throw an intriguing light upon certain literary alliances of the time. The second claim is dependent upon the first: if Fletcher did not write the verses in question, we still know nothing about his first literary activities. If he did do so, on the other hand, much more is achieved than a capture for the Fletcher canon of two minor poems: for he appears within a network of relationships associated with the production of homoerotic narrative verse, and he emerges as a player in the turn-of-the-century's contentions between rival satirists.

In the course of demonstrating that The Whipping of the Satyre (1601) was the work of John Weever, Arnold Davenport notes that both The Whipping and Weever's earlier publication Faunus and Melliflora (1600) "have commendatory poems by 'I. F.,' and the supposition that it was the same 'I. F.' in both cases is supported by a repetition of phrase." (3)

The poem published with Faunus and Melliflora is this:

 
   Methinks I heare some foule-mouth'd Momus say, 
   What have we here? a shepheards roundelay? 
   More love-tricks yet? will this geare never end, 
   But slight lascivious toyes must still bee pend? 
      Content thee Momus, thou hast lost thy sight, 
      For this is neither vaine, obsceane, nor slight. 
 
   If for to write of Love, and Loves delights, 
   Be not fit objects for the graver sights, 
   Then stil admired Chaucer, thou maist rue 
   And write thy auncient stories all anew: 
      And that same Fayry Muse may rise againe, 
      To blot those works that with us do remaine. 
 
   Then feare not Weever, let thy Muse go on, 
   Thy maiden Muse, thy chaste Endimeon: 
   To blazon forth the love of shepheard swaines, 
   As well in Cottage as in Court Love raines. 
      And whosoever shall chance thy booke to see, 
      In it shall reade ripe wit, sweet Poetrie. 
 
   I. F. (4) 

The verses celebrating The Whipping are these:

 
   To his friend. 
 
   You that come by, and chance this booke to see, 
   Peruse it well, and judge indifferently; 
   Yeeld him no more that made it, but his owne, 
   And give him leave to reape what he hath sowne. 
   But if it chance to stand within the sight 
   Of any time-observing Parasite; 
   Or any value obsequious Sicophant 
   Think with a bended front his Muse to daunt, 
   Him doth this little little booke despise, 
   And seemes as flashing lightning to his eyes: 
   In this as in a glasse, those men may see 
   The true proportion of their vanitie. 
   Then view him well, that with impartiall eye, 
   Dares scourge the Scourger of base villany, 
   And ye shall finde Wit, Poetrie, and Arte, 
   Each in his function play his severall part. 
 
   I. F. (5) 

Davenport does not suggest who "I. F." might have been, and neither does Weever's biographer, E. A. J. Honigmann. (6) William Keach, in a footnote to his discussion of Faunus and Melliflora, has proposed Fletcher, "who would have been twenty-one, three years younger than Weever, in 1600, and who had entered Cambridge (Bene't, later Corpus Christi, College, of which his father had been president) in 1591, three years before Weever enrolled in Queens' College. …