The poet Henry Constable (1562-1613) was the son of Sir Robert Constable. Sir Robert’s Newark residence was at The Spital, a sizeable house belonging to the hospital of St.Leonard, then located on the outskirts of the town on Northgate. Following Sir Robert’s death the ‘interest’ in this house came to Henry (and thereafter to William Cecil, later Earl of Exeter).
Henry Constable was educated at St.John’s College, Cambridge, and took his degree in 1579.
In 1595 he moved abroad when his religious opinions brought him into difficulties in this country. Of Roman Catholic descent, his religious opinions were opposed to the established church, and ultimately involved him in serious trouble. He was suspected of disloyal proceedings against the Crown by opening a treasonable correspondence with France. He sought refuge in that country, and there is preserved a letter from him writing from Paris in October 1595. Two months later he wrote again from Paris to the Earl of Essex in which he wrote “I beseech your Lordship to let me know by some means, which in your wisdom you may think good, how I stand in your gracious opinion, and what I may do (my duty to God and my religion reserved) to wish or encrease it”.
Soon afterwards his exile moved to Rouen where he certainly remained until October 1596. During the period of his exile he is known also to have visited Poland, Italy and the Low Countries, all the while endeavouring to gain leave to come home: he wrote several letters to Lord and Lady Shrewsbury asking them to exert their influence in his favour.
Unfortunately his entreaties came to nothing, and elsewhere his movements were being closely scrutinised with suspicion. In 1599 Constable temporarily left France for Scotland, and among the State Papers relating to Scotland occur a few letters, (principally addressed to Sir Robert Cecil by his Scottish correspondents), in which Constable is mentioned by name, and from which it becomes clear that his movements were being watched with singular interest by that minister’s agents at Edinburgh and elsewhere (3).
Constable, it was said, was there to offer his services to King James and to bring about some negotiation on behalf of the Pope, an interview with whom had perhaps recently occurred during Constable’s time in Italy. The poet was not at all successful in Scotland (James being reluctant to incur Elizabeth’s displeasure at that particular time in favour of someone who had so recently been banished by the English government), and the simple upshot was that Constable was obliged to return to France.
By April 1600 he had found his way into Spain, but was still attempting to end his exile. In c.1601/02 he made the desperate resolution of returning to England in secret – or so he thought – but was soon discovered and imprisoned in the Tower of London, from where – only after repeated petitions to the Privy Council – he finally obtained release towards the end of 1604
(According to J. Payne Collier writing in Notes and Queries, 2nd January 1864, the charge made by the Lieutenant of the Tower for keeping and maintaining him had been three pounds per week).
In terms of his poetry, Henry Constable has been described as “one of the leading Soneteers of the age of Elizabeth”(1), and was esteemed by the foremost poets of his time. Ben Jonson referred to his series of sonnets entitled “Diana” (published in 1592) as displaying “Constable’s ambrosaic muse”, whilst his contemporary, the poet Michael Drayton, rated him alongside, if not superior, to other poets of the age as Thomas Lodge and Samuel Daniel (2)
In the anonymous ‘academic dramas’, known collectively as the Returne from Pernassus (published c.1606) and regularly performed as part of the Christmas festivities at St.John’s College Cambridge, Constable is remembered in the following couplet:-
“Sweet Constable doth take the wondering ear / And lays it up in willing prisonment”
The Dictionary of National Biography considers this remembrance as “the surest sign of his popularity”.
Edmund Bolton in his Hypercritica (c.1616) refers to ‘Noble Henry Constable was a great master of the English tongue: nor had any gentleman of our time a more pure, quick, or higher delivery of conceit’.
Constable’s reputation was made – and lasts – largely on his sonnets. In 1600 his poem ‘The Shepheard’s Song of Venus and Adonis’ appeared in England’s Helicon (compiled by John Flaskett), which was a collection of poems by many writers. Constable’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ is said to have preceded the more celebrated version by Shakespeare, but may indeed have been an inspiration for the latter. Edward Dowden, in his Shakespeare Primer” (1877) says ‘Shakespeare’s treatment of the subject of the ‘Venus and Adonis’ has less in common with Ovid than with a short poem by H. Constable which appeared in 1600…. It is uncertain which of the two poems, Constable’s or Shakespeare’s was the earlier written’
Constable himself tended to divide his works into two categories – the “vain poems” of his youth, and the “spiritual sonnets” of later life. Of these he considered the latter his greater work, although more recent commentators have said that where his “sacred effusions rarely rise above mediocrity, a more beautiful specimen of early English lyric poetry than ‘The Shepheard’s Song of Venus and Adonis’ could hardly be found in the whole circle of Elizabethan literature” (1).
A Final Word
“Independently of the character of Constable as a poet, some estimate may be formed from his letters, several of which have been fortunately preserved…. Our poet appears to have been gifted with a patriotic spirit and a liberal mind, to have possessed more than a common share of shrewdness and good sense, and to have entertained wide and enlarged views on religious and political questions. Constable’s talents introduced him to the friendship of many persons of rank and power; but they also procured for him the unenviable, and perhaps unjust, distinction of being a man dangerous to the safety of the State”. (3)
(1) Preface to “Diana: The Sonnets and other poems of Henry Constable, B.A….” (London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1859).
(2) Brown Vol.2, p.276-277).
(3) Biographical Notice in “Diana: The Sonnets and other poems of Henry Constable, B.A….” (London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1859).