Last reviewed: June 2018
English poet and playwright
October 7, 1577
George Gascoigne, who was possibly born in Cardington, was a member of a Bedfordshire family that was in a position to educate him and send him to Trinity College, Cambridge. He does not seem to have been successful there, for he left the university without a degree and entered Gray’s Inn in 1555. From 1557 to 1559 he was a representative for his county in Parliament. While attending Gray’s Inn he joined a small group, and as a part of his initiation he had to compose five poems written in five different meters on five different themes. George Gascoigne.
About this time he attempted the expensive life of a courtier, but he ended up deeply in debt, and his father disinherited him because of his riotous living. Giving up this type of life, he returned to Gray’s Inn where his Supposes, a translation of a prose comedy by Ariosto, and Jocasta, the first English-language translation of a Greek tragedy, were performed in 1566.
In 1561 he married Elizabeth Bacon Bretton Boyes, who had been left a wealthy widow upon the death of her first husband, William Bretton, in 1559. She had thereupon married a man named Edward Boyes, but her sons from the first marriage had disputed the legality of the second marriage ceremony. After Elizabeth divorced her second husband, she married Gascoigne, but her sons then questioned the legal date of the divorce.
Gascoigne may at this time have returned to the ways of his youth, for in 1572 a petition prevented him from taking his seat in Parliament, whereby he could have pleaded immunity from arrest by his creditors. The petition stated, among other things, that “he is a defamed person and noted as well for manslaughter as for other greate cryemes,” and referred to him as a “common Rymer” and “notorious Ruffianne.”
Perhaps for these reasons he left the country and became a soldier in Holland, an experience of which he gives a very questionable account in The Spoyle of Antwerpe. In 1573, while he was in Holland, his A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres Bounde Up in One Small Poesie, the first English sonnet sequence, was published. He returned to England, revised this work, and published it as The Posies of George Gascoigne in 1575. This was more than a revision, for the publication contained some new work. Appended to some copies of this new volume of verses was his “Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse,” the first treatise on prosody in English. In April of 1575 he finished The Glasse of Governement, a drama that is typical of the Dutch prodigal son play. In 1575 Gascoigne finished The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle, a record of royal festivities that is surprisingly similar to the kind of masques written several years later. That same year he was inspired to write The Tale of Hemetes the Heremyte for Queen Elizabeth’s entertainment at Woodstock. The following year saw the publication of The Steele Glas, a Satyre and, in the same volume, The Complaynt of Phylomene. Gascoigne’s last work, The Grief of Joye, was written as a New Year’s gift for the queen in 1577. He had been severely ill before writing it and later that year suffered a relapse and died.
It is hard to judge Gascoigne’s work, for only two years after his death Edmund Spenser published his Shepherd’s Calendar and began the great flow of poetry that came in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. Gascoigne is a pioneer who blazed a trail for those who were to follow, but his character was such that even his contemporaries remarked on his vanity and his levity. Gabriel Harvey wrote of him, “In his studdies, and Looves [Gascoigne] thought upon the warres; in the warres, mused upon his studdies, and Looves.” Gascoigne, however, made definite contributions to literature. He was the first to write an English treatise on poetry, the first to stage a Greek tragedy in England. His The Steele Glas, a Satyre is the first original, nondramatic blank verse in English. His The Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. is the first original English story in the Renaissance, and some call it the first English novel.
Gascoigne was truly a man of his times. Not only did he contribute to the literature but he was also a member of Parliament, a soldier, and to a lesser degree a painter and composer. He was friendly with other poets and associated with the great courtiers of the day.