Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Presbyterian Imitation Practices in Zachary Boyd's Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Presbyterian Imitation Practices in Zachary Boyd's Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace

Article excerpt

Margarete Rösler edited Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace: nach dem ms. Harl. 7578 for the series "Materials for the Study of Old English Drama" in 1936.1 She transcribed the fourth item in British Library, Harleian MS 7578, a mid- to late-seventeenth-century manuscript written in a fairly rapid but consistent secretary hand. The text is arranged on quarto sheets numbered consecutively from 321 to 368, with running heads and catchwords. Fierie Furnace is a verse adaptation of Daniel 3 that relates how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image and demanded that all should fall and worship it when summoned by music, or else be thrown into the eponymous furnace. Daniel's three companions Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are threatened with burning when they refuse to pay homage. The manuscript breaks off at this point after 1459 lines, but the catchword "Mens" on the final leaf indicates that the work did go on to relate the trio's miraculous escape from the fire. The text begins with a list of speakers, contains speech headings throughout, and has a single stage direction, "The Kings Herauld conveeneth the princes etc." (lines 76-7). Observing that the text is "set out as nothing less than a drama" ("nichts weniger als dramatisch aufgebaut", viii), Rösler speculated that Fierie Furnace was a play performed in the 1600s or 1610s before James VI and I, who she supposed was represented by Nebuchadnezzar. She believed its author to be the Jacobean translator and poet Josuah Sylvester based on the many close verbal similarities she discovered between Fierie Furnace and Sylvester's translations from Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas's Semaines, published as Devine Weekes, and Workes (xii-xiv).

Susan Snyder disputed this attribution in her edition of Sylvester 's translation, con- tending that "Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace appears to be the work not of Sylvester himself but of one of his fervent admirers, who borrowed his vocabulary and (rather mechanically) some of his phrases and conceits, but not other aspects of his style or his ideas". 2 Although Sylvester did indeed pursue royal patronage and wrote original divine poetry, Snyder correctly pointed out that the poem's style makes him an unlikely candidate for its authorship: the writer of Fierie Furnace wrenches the literal meaning of images in Devine Weekes to give them new figurative connotations; does not share Sylvester 's "taste for couplets shaped by antithesis, alliteration, and line-balance" (40); and in sum "the pattern of these [borrowings] suggests not so much a writer to whom Sylvestrian phrasing comes naturally as one leafing through the Weekes as he writes" (41). Snyder also debunked the idea that Fierie Furnace was ever presented before James, remarking that the association between James and Nebuchadnezzar would be a "strange kind of compliment" (41). Nonetheless, she maintained that Fierie Furnace was an "unfinished play" (39). Her brief analysis left key questions about the manuscript unan- swered: Who wrote it? When was it written? How much text is missing? Was it part of a collection of works? Why does the author imitate Sylvester so closely? If it is a play, when and where was it performed?

Nebuchadnezzars Fierie Furnace is in fact a dramatic poem written by the Scottish preacher and poet Zachary Boyd (1585-1653), who borrowed many epithets and similes from across Sylvester's oeuvre when writing his versifications from Scripture entitled Zion's Flowers. Establishing his authorship - easily done by consulting Boyd's holograph manuscripts in Glasgow University Library - does more than correct Rösler's and Snyder 's earlier work: it encourages us to look closely at Boyd's use of Sylvester when composing his dramatic poems, adjust the probable date of composition to the 1630s, and so consider ways in which Boyd's distinctive imitation practices were appropriate for a Scottish Presbyterian denouncing idolatry and sycophantic bureaucracy in verse as civil war approached. …

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