The Epigrams of Sir John Harington
BY GERARD KILROY
ASHGATE, £60 John Harington was happiest when far away from the intrigues of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. He preferred life at his stately pile, Kelston, in Somerset, where he could be surrounded by his books. Local political life was not too onerous and Harington happily played a role in the affairs of nearby Bath and even served as the county’s High Sheriff for a spell. The national stage was not to his liking, however.
He detested the corruption and sycophancy of the courtly round and he knew all about its “unstable wheel of fortune”. Harington’s father had twice been imprisoned in the Tower by Tudor monarchs.
Harington was a very wellconnected man – he was the godson of no less a luminary than Elizabeth I – but he had no desire to scoop up prefer ment and high office. Ambition, as he put it, was a puffball and it wasn’t to his taste.
He opted to snipe from the sidelines. Luckily for him (and for us) he had deep reserves of literary talent and, in works like the Epigrams, he launched a veiled attack on the parlous moral, religious and political world in which he found himself.
As Gerard Kilroy explains, this was a perilous pursuit but Harington was careful to hide his strictures behind a mask of wit and playfulness. This was the oldest trick in the book. To portray oneself as a whimsical, even foolish, writer was the very best way of keeping out of trouble. At first blush, the Epigrams look like the product of just such a harmless, unthreatening pen. Look a little closer, however, and all sorts of subversive meanings and messages are revealed.
There are attacks on lacklustre clergymen and offensive theological ideas, and many attempts to scold political leaders for their shortcomings.
There has never been a complete printed edition of these 400 wonderful little poems. Gerard Kilroy’s book is therefore a major achievement. He offers a brief but informative account of Harington’s life. He tells us all about the epigrammatic tradition that Harington inherited and he seeks to convince us that, behind the apparent chaos, the structure of Harington’s work possesses a sophisticated and satisfying “architecture”.
I’m not entirely convinced by this last argument but I’m now fully aware of just how splendid Harington’s poems could be. Harington was a marginalised, alienated figure. He hated the religious bickering and name-calling of his times and he was dedicated to making Britain’s rulers shun tyranny and embrace a sense of justice.
This, of course, was the sort of dream that only a poet could cling to but, when the poems are this good, there is something to be said for idle fancy.
Hats off to Kilroy. His book isn’t cheap but I’d still urge you to buy a copy. It’s only 15p a poem, after all.