Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

4
A West-Country Poet: Sidney Godolphin

Sidney Godolphin is a name to be remembered by every one in the West Country. But outside a small circle of literary scholars, the name is often attached to a nephew of the poet — a later Sidney Godolphin, who was Lord High Treasurer of England. The Sidney Godolphin I am concerned with was born about 1610 and died in 1643. And that may be one reason why he is seldom remembered; because of his early death, he is one of those men famous for their brilliant promise rather than secure achievement, like some of our war poets. And from one point of view that was what he was — a war poet of the seventeenth century.

Yet that is not the whole truth. For from the records we have of him — and they are scanty enough — he seems to have been a sort of man who is great by virtue of what he is, more than by anything he does. And perhaps if Sidney Godolphin had lived longer he would still have been worth remembering, as he is now, as an inspiring and ennobling figure in the background of many enterprises, not as a principal actor in any.

As for what he did with his life, that is soon told. He was the second son of Sir William Godolphin of Godolphin, near Helston in Cornwall, and he was born there, we may presume, shortly before he was baptized at Breage, also in the Duchy, in January 1610. By the time he was three, both parents had died and he was an orphan. From his father he inherited the lease of the Scilly Isles. After that we know nothing of him until he turns up at Oxford, in Exeter College, in 1623; four years later he left without taking a degree. There is some evidence that later he travelled on the continent in the diplomatic service, but all we can be sure of is that he was twice elected member of parliament for Helston, and that in parliament, in the years before the Civil War, he was a staunch supporter of the King. When that war broke out, Godolphin joined the Royalist army in the west, and retreated with it from Sherborne through Minehead to Launceston. Then the Royalists went on the offensive, captured Saltash and crossed the Tamar, splitting into two bodies,

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