1. John Owen [1564? - 1622?] was born at Plas Dhu, Carnarvonshire, Wales, the third son of Thomas Owen. NOTE 1 He was, no doubt, a member of the Welsh gentry. His ultimate supporter, as we shall see, was his kinsman John Williams, simultaneously Bishop of Lincoln and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Other distinguished members of the Williams clan figure in his epigrams (cf. X.42 - 45): a President of Jesus College, Oxford, a Fellow of St. John College, Cambridge, and a London Alderman. A large number of individuals are identified as kinsmen (cognati) in one or more epigrams: these men are all university-educated, and almost all are professional men, clergymen or lawyers. Then too, he had kinsmen about whom he was careful not to write: his uncle, the famous Catholic traitor Hugh Owen, and his maternal uncle Sir William Morris of Cleneney, also a Catholic. He was a scholarship boy at the Winchester School (at epigram II.25 he recalls that Thomas Bilson, a future Bishop of Winchester, was his tutor there), and as a schoolboy he already gained a small measure of national visibility as a prodigy at Latin versification (see the commentary note on II.39). Next he passed on to New College, Oxford, where he became a probationer fellow in 1582 and an actual fellow two years later. Since a Fellowship in Law was the only one available, he was obliged to read that subject, and (much like Thomas Campion at the Inns of Court) all that he ultimately derived from that subject was an abiding dislike of law and lawyers, which colors a large number of epigrams (Martyn p. 3). Receiving the B. C. L. in 1590 and going down from Oxford in 1591, he supported himself as a schoolmaster until he was appointed headmaster of Henry VIII’s school at Warwick.
2. In this position he could have lived out a life of honorable obscurity, as Ben Jonson (a rare detractor) said of him, “a pure Pedantique Schoolmaster sweeping his living from the Posteriors of little children, having no thinge good in him, his epigrames being bare narrations” (Conversations with Drummond I.138 Herford-Simpson). Had he not written, his only distinction might have been service as tutor to Sir Thomas Puckering, a future Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal (VI.9). But in 1606 he published the first of a series of volumes of Latin epigrams, which earned him an enduring reputation as “England’s Martial” both at home and abroad. His epigram volumes (invariably published by at London by Samuel Waterson) may be listed:
1. Ioannis Audoeni Epigrammatum libri III, London, 1606 (dedicated to Lady Mary Neville, reprinted twice in 1607).
2. Epigrammatum Ioannis Owen…liber singualris, London, 1607 (dedicated to Lady Arabella Stuart.
3. Epigrammatim Ioannis Owen…Libri Tres, London, 1612 (the first two Books dedicated to Henry, Prince of Wales, the third Book dedicated to Charles, Duke of York).
4. Epigrammatum Joannis Owen…libri Tres, London, 1613 (?) (three Books, dedicated respectively to Sir Edward Noel, Sir William Sedley, and Sir Roger Owen).
As Wood (II.320) put it:
He was a person endowed with several gifts, especially with the faculty of poetry, which hath made him famous for those books of epigrams, that he hath published, wherein an ingenious liberty of joking being by him used, was, and is now with some, especially foreigners, not a little pleasing and delightful.
Owen’s epigrams were repeatedly reprinted in England: in 1618, 1622, 1633, 1634, 1653 (twice), 1659, 1668, and 1671. European editions also appeared rapidly and frequently: one might be able to dispute the statement of Martyn (I.1) that “On the Continent [Owen’s epigrams] were as popular, it seems, as the works of his contemporary, Shakespeare,” on the grounds that one needs to be convinced that in the seventeenth century Shakespeare made an immediate impact on Europe remotely like that of Owen’s. Unfortunately, Continental editions are not listed in the Pollard and Redgrave Short Title Catalogue. I am aware of ones at Leipzig in 1615, Leipzig 1620, Amsterdam 1624, Amsterdam 1628, Amsterdam 1646, Amsterdam 1647 (three in a year), Amsterdam 1657, Breslau 1658, Amsterdam 1669, Amsterdam 1679, Leiden 1682, Bratislava 1694, Breslau 1705, Cologne, 1708, Paris 1794, and Leipzig 1824. This list, which may well be incomplete, at least serves to convey an idea of Owen’s rapidly spreading popularity, slow to fade. Translations into English and various other languages, mentioned here in a later context, reinforce the impression. Then too, despite the general tendency of Elizabethan and Jacobean poets to fall into obscurity, he has not quite been forgotten in modern times: there have been a partial edition of 100 Ausgewählte Epigramme by H. C. Schnur (Stuttgart, 1964), a handful (with translations, in Fred J. Nichol’s An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry (New Haven, 1979), John R. C. Martyn complete edition, described below, and a trickle of secondary scholarship. NOTE 2
3. Owen’s timing helped win him popularity. In contemporary English literature, the pointed comic epigram had enjoyed increased popularity beginning in the 1590’s. Walter R. Davis (Thomas Campion, Boston, 1987, pp. 40f.) has written:
A new set of genres sprang up which, eschewing myth and fiction, espoused realism and a plain unadorned style. The erotic elegy as practiced by Donne and Jonson ran counter to the sonnet sequences: the focus was not on the mistress in a mythic context but on the half-amused self-observation of the lover in a social context, and it was direct erotic experience rather than its transcendence that was celebrated. The self-proclaimed originality of verse satire by Hall (1597), Marston (1598), and others featured the addressing of actual abuses of the time instead of a mythic past, and in a rough, plain, and frequently scurrile style … the 1590’s were the heyday of the epigram, which treated actual city life, the London scene, with amusement, wit, satire, and a plain style. If we follow its history from Weever (1599) and Davies (1600) to Donne and Johnson, we will discover a growth in brevity and wit.
To be sure, epigrams had been written earlier, notably by the prolific but untalented John Heywood. These may be read in The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood (ed. John S. Farmer, London, 1906). To the epigrammatists cited by Davis in the above quote should be added Sir John Harington, whose efforts were unprinted but circulated widely in manuscript. They have been published in The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington (ed. Sir Norman E. McClure, Philadelphia, 1930): Owen was well aware of Harington, and in fact addressed several epigrams to him. Another, slightly later specimen of the English epigram-collection, also included in the Philological Museum is Linsi-Woolsie (1613) written by another Oxford-educated Welshman, William Gamage. The reason for the enhanced popularity of the epigram in the late 1590’s probably had to do with that great literary paradigm shift known as the Anti-Ciceronian movement. It is likely that this literary vogue engendered new interest in Martial and the literary possibilities of the kind of pointed, “sting-in-the-tail” kind of epigram one associates with his name. Indeed, at IV.140 Owen drew precisely this parallel between Seneca’s pithy sententiae and the terse Martial-style epigram.
4. Simultaneously with the impact of Martial’s epigram on English poets, their contemporaries who preferred to write in Latin also turned their attention to this form. The first conspicuous example was the two Books of epigrams included in Thomas Campion’s 1595 Thomae Campiani Poemata. This was followed in 1601 by the appearance of the Affaniae by Campion’s friend and imitator Charles Fitzgeoffrey. Owen’s epigrams show no especial awareness of Campion’s work, but some seem written in reaction or response to ones by Fitzgeoffrey: see the commentary notes on I.172, V.10, V.65, and X.39. Another volume of such Latin epigrams, explicitly inspired by the appearance of Owen’s first volume, was Sir John Stradling’s Epigrammatum Libri Quatuor (1607).
5. This does not mean, however, that Owen was entirely an imitator of his predecessors Campion and Fitzgeoffrey. Campion had added an element entirely absent from the Martial formula, short erotic poems that differ from his erotic elegies in length much more than in tone or substance. His epigrams, no less than the elegies that accompany them in the same volume, are studded with items written to his two mistresses, Mellea and Caspia. Fitzgeoffrey goes even farther, as Book I of Affaniae is to a large extent dominated by poems written to his mistress Cordula. In many of these he indulges in what was by his time the stereotyped rhetoric of the Petrarchan sonnet, and indeed one could readily imagine several of his Cordula items being transformed into English sonnets. Fitzgeoffrey went even further than Campion in presenting the reader with a kind of literary smorgasbord, introducing short poems on a variety of subjects, and constant and sometimes deliberately jarring changes of topic and tone are matched by the use of a number of different meters to give relief from the standard epigram fare of elegiac couplets. Owen, however, limited himself to the pure epigram. Not all of his epigrams are comic, and in this sense the reader is presented with plenty of variety. But almost all his nearly 1,700 epigrams is written in elegiac couplets, and the large majority are of the short and pointed kind traditionally (albeit not entirely accurately, for he did not always stick to this formula) associates with Martial, consisting of two or four lines. Epigrams praising the virtues of extreme brevity in poetry, such as I.168, III.207, IV.40 and IV.274 invite reading as personal aesthetic manifestos, and within the confines of this single form, Owen was a master of his art. His irrepressible wit, and his delight in clever puns, anagrams, and other forms of word-play distinguish him as one of the outstanding stylists of his time; in this sense, he is a worthy contemporary of Shakespeare, and one reason for his popularity is readily perceived. Another, as will quickly become apparent to the reader, is that he was often extremely funny.
6. His variety of subject-matter is in fact so great that it may seem problematic to a modern reader. Poems that are moralizing or pietistic do not only coexist with ones that are pert and playful. Some, although admittedly not a large number, are spectacularly obscene. This stretch of subject may strike a modern reader as somehow “schizophrenic,” although it may not be entirely clear whether such evident contradictions are to be credited to the man or to the age in which he lived. In Renaissance thinking, imitatio of classical models was all-important, and an element of obscenity and even nastiness was a stock part of the Martial formula. Less ambiguous, however, and much less explicable by reference to classical precedent, is Owen’s outspoken misogyny. Often pitched in biblical terms, with reference to Eve being seduced by the serpent, women are frequently portrayed as innately vicious and therefore as dangerous. Even in an age where cuckoldry and its consequences provided a standard source of humor, the number of Owen’s epigrams about dysfunctional marriages (involving adultery, supposititious children, shrewish wives, and so forth) is remarkable. Others frankly praise batchelorhood, and Owen often congratulates himself and others on escaping the pitfalls of married life. There are, to be sure, a handful of poems in which the poet writes as if he were in love (I.74 is especially striking, being his only attempt at Petrarchan rhetoric). Perhaps, therefore, Owen was seriously conflicted on the subject of sex, love and marriage. Another category of epigram consists of the frankly anti-Papist. These sufficed not only to get Owen disinherited but to come to the attention of the Catholic authorities. As Wood (II.321) put it:
The first Latin impressions of the author Owen, being greedily bought, and taken into the hands of all ingenious scholars, and forthwith conveyed beyond the seas, they came at length into the hands of the Romish inquisitors after heretical matters in printed books, who finding dangerous things in them, especially these two verses following, the book was put into the Index Expurgatorius (V.8):
An Petrus fuerit Romae, sub iudice lis est.
Simonem Romae nemo fuisse negat.
(This of course alludes to the practice of simony.) Possibly Owen included them, and also his many patriotic and royalist effusions, to distance himself from his notorious uncle (so Martyn I.11). But since these are easily matched in the writings of Campion, Fitzgeoffrey, and many other contemporary writers, such a suggestion is probably unnecessary; Owen was simply a typical product of his times. Another enthusiasm was detected by Martyn (I.2f.), himself a Welshman. Just as many of Fitzgeoffrey’s epigrams are aggressively Cornish in their orientation, so Owen “was proud of his provincial origin, and regularly termed himself Cambro-Britannus. He liked to proclaim this connection, through family or through friends from school or college, with any Welshmen who had succeeded, or were likely to succeed, in Church, State, or business careers.”
7. The only other subject on which Owen is self-revealing to any appreciable extent is his financial condition. According to Wood (II.130):
But that, which I must father note of him is, that being always troubled with the disease that attends poets (indigence) he was received into the patronage of his country-man and kinsman, Dr. Jo. Williams, bishop of Lincoln, and lord-keeper of the great-seal, who for several years exhibited to his wants.
As a third son, he inherited none of his father’s estate (VI.83), and Anthony à Wood wrote that, angered by some of his recusant epigrams, his Catholic uncle Sir William Morris “dashed his name out of his last will.” The result, evidently, was chronic poverty, and several epigrams (such as I.170, VI.83, XII.32, and XII.53) offer wry comments on the fact. Evidently his headmaster’s income did not suffice, and in Owen’s time literary popularity did not bring prosperity, as he was ruefully aware (XII.32). The answer, then, was dependence on patrons, and “Maecenas” is a frequent word in his vocabulary. Indeed, it is not clear that he long continued as headmaster. In view of all his epigrams about London life, he may have demitted his post and lived on patronage (Martyn I.8 thought that starting with his 1607 volume reflected a heightened interest in city life). All but one of his volumes is dedicated to one or more patrons: Lady Mary Neville, a member of the powerful Sackville clan, Lady Arabella Stuart, Prince Henry (Prince Charles, to whom he dedicated a Book of epigrams as a courtesy, was too young to matter), and his “three Maecenases,” Sir Edward Noel, Sir William Sedley, and Sir Roger Owen. We may assume that each of these patrons gave him support at some point in his life, and in X.102, he states that he had received an annual stipend from Prince Henry until his death in November 1612. In addition, in II.217 he mentions receiving a gift of three pounds from Sir Henry Fanshaw in exchange for one of his volumes, and at X.14 similar largesse from Robert Carr and Henry Danvers. We may also probably assume that at least some of the epigrams honoring other leading figures of the times were written in the hope of attracting further handouts (such as II.32, addressed to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, a notable sponsor of letters). It seems questionable, however, whether this kind of sufficed. If he were living in London supported by such handouts, the great mystery of his literary career would be even more difficult to understand: why did Owen cease writing after the appearance of his fourth volume? The answer is probably to be supplied by Wood’s tradition that he came to be supported by Bishop Williams. It is likely that, as a member of the household of his great kinsman, he had no further need for patron-hunting, and therefore no further need for writing.
8. The date traditionally given Owen’s death is 1622, although Wood insisted it was 1623, and Jones argued for a later date on the grounds that a new Headmaster was not appointed for the Warwick School until 1628 (but see Martyn I.4). He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Bishop Williams put up his epitaph (I quote it with Thomas Harvey’s translation):
Parva tibi statua est, quia parva statura, supellex
Parva, volat parvus magna per ora liber;
Sed non parvus honos, non parva est gloria, quippe
Ingenio haud quicquam est maius in orbe tuo:
Parva domus texit, templum sed grande, poetae
Tum vere vitam, cum moriuntur, agunt
Thy Statue, Stature, thine Estate, thy Book
All little, great Men yet on this do look:
Nor is thine Honour, or thy Glory small,
For greater wit than thine, is not at all:
Thy little house in a great Temple lies,
A Poet lives not truly till he dies.
9. Owen’s epigram volumes quite literally experienced a sea-change. German or Dutch publishers were the first to gather his Books into a single, unified publication, and to number them sequentially as Books I - X. What came to be the “vulgate” text of Owen consisted of twelve Books. Book XI contains 128 epigrams appearing under the title Monosticha Quaedam Ethica et Politica Veterum Sapientum. The claim that Owen wrote them is not made, and they have been shown to have been first added in the 1620 Leipzig edition. They are in fact appropriated from the Disticha de Moribus of Michel Verino [d. 1487]: cf. Alphonse Willems, Les Elzevier (Brussels, 1880) 78, and J. J. Enck, “John Owen’s Epigrammata” (Harvard Library Bulletin 3, 1949) 431 - 4. (The Dictionary of National Biography life of Owen wrongly states that this set of epigrams first appeared appended to Owen’s 1607 volume dedicated to Lady Arabella Stuart). This set of rather repulsive moralizing epigrams have a certain social and perhaps even psychological interest as a rare example of Renaissance Latin literature written for children. The gloomy ones that urge the young reader to brace for death’s inevitability, and to mistrust his fellow man, and even more his fellow woman, are not the sort of thing one inflicts on the modern child. Book XII is a kind of appendix made up of items by Owen — Enck does not explain its origins in his survey of Owen’s printed texts — or at least attributed to him, gathered from unspecified sources. Some are duplicates or very close variants of ones in his published volumes, but others are original and are included here.
10. I am of course aware that an excellent edition of Owen’s epigrams has appeared in print within the last generation, by John R. C. Martyn. I nevertheless think there is room for a new one that is somewhat more than a crambe bis cocta. Although Martyn provides a useful set of explanatory notes and biographical sketches of individuals who appear in these poems, in a number of ways his annotations can be supplemented and occasionally corrected. I hasten to acknowledge how much I have benefitted from Martyn ’s notes: the reader who compares his with mine will readily perceive where I am indebted to him, and also where I am not. A more important rationale for a new edition is that a work written by a seventeenth-century Englishman in Latin is nonetheless a work of seventeenth-century English literature, and a tangible part of the national cultural heritage. Because of their popularity and influence, and because of their not infrequent interest as contemporary social documents, Owen’s epigrams have some claim on the attention of students of the Jacobean literary scene. Accordingly, the present edition features an English translation. In general, I am content to use Martyn’s Latin text of Books I - X, which was founded on a comparison of some but not all printed editions, and the handful of places I have felt it necessary to depart from his version are recorded and justified in individual commentary notes.
11. Owen’s popularity as an epigrammaticist is not solely measured by the number of editions of his epigrams in Latin. He has found a number of English translators: there are partial ones by John Vicars (1619), Henry Harflete (1653), Thomas Pecke (1659), and even a modern translation of sixty epigrams by the contemporary American poet David R. Slavitt (1997). NOTE 3 His epigrams have also been translated into French by Lebrun (Brussels, 1709), De Pommereul (Ixelles, 1818), and De Kérivalent (Lyons, 1819), into German by Löber (Hamburg, 1653, reprinted Jena, 1661), and Castilian by F. de la Torre (Madrid, 1674 - 82, reprinted 1721). There is only one English translation of the complete epigrams, or at least those of Books I - X, John Owen’s Latine Epigrams, Englished by Thomas Harvey, Gent. (London, 1677). Harvey’s versions are usually clear and serviceable and on occasion the translator displays flashes of wit that match Owen’s own. In a few instances, Harvey’s translations have been slightly modified in the interest of accuracy or clarity; as an aid to reader comprehension I have silently modernized some of his punctuation, and many of the titles he affixed to the epigrams have been adjusted to match Owen’s own ones more accurately.
NOTE 1 The important biographical sources are the article in the Dictionary of National Biography, largely based on the biographical sketch provided by Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses II.320ff., the various studies of J. H. Jones (“John Owen Plas Du,” Llenor 17, 215 - 220; “John Owen, Cambro-Britannus,” Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society 1940, 130 - 43; “John Owen, The Epigrammatist,” Greece and Rome X (1941) 65 - 73, biographical article in The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940 (London, 1959) 709, and “The Will of Hugh Owen of Plas Du,” Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies IX, 357; S. L. Kunitz and H. Haycroft (edd.), British Authors Before 1800 (London, 1952) 389f.; Martyn (I.123f.) cites other modern scholarship on Owen, some biographical in nature, and the Introduction to his edition (I.1 - 13) is valuable and illuminating.
NOTE 2 See the bibliographical references given by Martyn I.123f. and II.159.
NOTE 3 David R. Slavitt, Epic and Epigram: Two Elizabethan Entertainments (Baton Rouge - London, 1997).