INTRODUCTION

1. In 1576 Edward Grant, headmaster of the Westminster School, published a collection of Latin letters by Robert Ascham under the title Dissertissimi viri Rogeri Aschami, Angli, regiae maiestati non ita pridem a Latinis epistolis, familiarum epistolarum libri tres, which as reissued in progressively enlarged forms in 1578, 1581, and 1590. Two further items were appended to the volume, a biography of the author written by Grant, entitled Oratio de Vita et Obitu Rogeri Aschami, and a small cache of eight poems by Ascham.
spacer2. These poems are rarely noticed by students of Tudor Neo-Latin literature, for two reasons. The first is Ascham’s own deprecatory statements about his poetic abilities. In Book II of The Scholemaster he wrote of his poem on the death of Sir Anthony Denny (poem III here), “And though I had never poetical head to make verse in any tongue, yet either love, or sorrow, or both, did wring out of me then certain careful thoughts of my good will towards him,” and lines 30f. of poem V (30f.) are:

Quae fundit ergo nostra Musa carmina spacer
Incompta, rudia, vasta, dura, exanguia,

[“Thus the songs my Muse pours forth (unkempt, crude, uncouth, harsh, and bloodless)…”]

The second is that in his seminal survey of English Neo-Latin poetry, Musae Anglicanae: A History of Anglo-Latin Poetry 1500 - 1925, pp. 17f., NOTE 1 Leicester Bradner was very willing to accept Ascham’s self-appraisal at face value and adopted an abruptly dismissive attitude which has, no doubt, exerted a chilling influence on any subsequent interest in Ascham’s poetry.
spacer2. This view is perhaps extravagant, and surely is unwarranted at least to the degree that it has prevented Ascham’s poetry from finding a modern edition It also manages to neglect the fact that Latin versification was part of the standard Tudor curriculum, so that for any recipient of a Humanistic education the writing of Latin verse was a familiar, if not necessarily comfortable, accomplishment. NOTE 2 Every schoolmaster taught it, every schoolboy was supposed to learn it. The idea of the prosaically erudite William Camden, of all people, giving Ben Jonson instruction in the writing of poetry, as he did at the Westminster School, may strike a modern reader as risibly grotesque, but at the time it seemed right and natural, and if we were to shut our ears every time an educated Englishman chose to express himself in Latin verse less than winged, we should miss out on a great deal of literature that, for one reason or another, has plenty of interesting things to say.
spacer 3. Ascham’s poetry may not exactly soar aloft into the aether, but it is competently crafted. Indeed, if in making these remarks Ascham was doing anything more than indulging in the rhetoric of modesty, he may have been measuring himself against the standards of the best Continental poets such as were currently lionized in England. His Latin verse no more conspicuously earthbound than similar stuff written by most of his contemporaries, including some (such as John Leland) to whom Bradner and other modern scholars are willing to accord a good deal of respect. Here, then, are Ascham’s poems. If nothing else, I suspect modern readers will find the playful V diverting, and take an interest in Ascham’s theory, stated at VIII.33ff., of the superiority of female sovereigns. There is no reason for thinking that he ever read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, but the logic is not dissimilar.

 

Notes

spacerNOTE 1 (London, 1940, repr. New York, 1966), p. 17f.

spacerNOTE 2 For the place of Latin verse composition in the Tudor grammar school curriculum, see T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke (Urbana, 1944), Chapter XLI.