Academic journal article Studies in Philology

A Queen in a "Purple Robe": Henry Constable's Poetic Tribute to Mary, Queen of Scots

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

A Queen in a "Purple Robe": Henry Constable's Poetic Tribute to Mary, Queen of Scots

Article excerpt

The religious sonnets that the Elizabethan poet and courtier Henry Constable wrote in exile, which reveal strong post-Tridentine and continental influences, have been edited and assessed as they survive in a manuscript in the British Library (Harley MS 7553)> thought to be the only witness. The rediscovery of another manuscript containing the Spiritual Sonnets, held at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, throws light on the hitherto obscure history of their production and reception. It also adds four new sonnets to the canon of Constable's poetry, three of which are addressed to Mary, Queen of Scots. This article looks at the rediscovered sonnets as pieces that fit in a larger martyrological narrative constructed around the figure of the executed queen; in addition, it brings to the fore Constable's personal anxieties as an exiled Englishman who hoped to return home under the rule of a more tolerant king.

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THE Elizabethan poet Henry Constable (1562-1613) is best known for his secular sonnets, which found their way into different manuscript miscellanies and two printed editions and earned him a considerable reputation among his contemporaries. (1) In 1621 he was described by Edmund Bolton as "a great Master in English Tongue" whose "Delivery of Conceit" was unparalleled. (2) However, his literary prestige suffered on account of his religion. Later critics and scholars considered Constable a traitor of sorts based on Thomas Birch's portrayal of the poet as a "zealous Roman Catholic," which became a critical commonplace and influenced the reception of his works from the early eighteenth century on. (3)

Thomas Park, the first modern editor of Constable, printed not only the secular sonnets but also a later group of works that had gone largely unnoticed and became known as the Spiritual Sonnets. (4) The shift from amatory and courtly sonnets to Catholic ones revealing strong post-Tridentine influences is consistent with the evolution of a man who started out as a steadfast Protestant with a promising career as a diplomat and converted to the Roman church around 1590. (5) In i960, Joan Grundy included these later sonnets in her book The Poems of Henry Constable, using as her copy-text the only manuscript known to that date, BL Harley MS 7553 (henceforth HA), a miscellaneous volume whose provenance remains obscure. (6) In the last few decades, as a result of the "turn to religion" in early modern English studies, Constable's Spiritual Sonnets have been reassessed by scholars interested in the poetry written by converts as illustrating the way in which the sonnet form was adapted to religious concerns. (7)

The rediscovery of another manuscript containing the Spiritual Sonnets, held at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, under the call mark Select Books 85 (henceforth BE), throws new light on the hitherto obscure history of production and reception of these sonnets. Besides presenting a more complex arrangement of the sequence and a number of textual variants, BE adds four new sonnets to the canon of Constable's poetry, three of which are addressed to Mary, Queen of Scots. (8) These raise questions concerning the poet's embrace of the Catholic martyrological tradition, his rejection of Queen Elizabeth as a sovereign, and the extent of his renunciation of worldly concerns as he sought to reingratiate himself with Mary's son, the heir presumptive to the throne. They embody a narrative shift in a collection that, in the better-known Harley manuscript, is concerned exclusively with doctrinal and devotional matters and offers but a fragmented view of Constable's experience as an exiled convert who longed to be welcomed back home. (9) A close reading of Constable's Spiritual Sonnets as the carefully crafted sequence surviving in BE provides a better understanding of the situation of people tom between their newfound faith and service to their country and underscores Michael Questier's notion of "loyalism" as a "myth," that is, a constraining belief that Catholic converts were either traitors or patriots. …

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