Samuel Daniel's gifts of books to Lord Chancellor Egerton

Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Annual, 2005 by John Pitcher

THIS is an article about twelve rare books. Eleven of these books are in the Huntington Library in California and one of them is in the Beinecke Library at Yale. (1) The books, containing poems, plays, and histories written by the poet Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), arrived in the United States late in 1917. Daniel's books were a small part of the famous Bridgewater Library purchased from the Earl of Ellesmere for a million dollars by Henry E. Huntington who made it the cornerstone of his new library in San Marino in Southern California. (2) Some of the treasures of the Bridgewater collection--the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales for instance--far exceed this small set of books in importance, but there are nevertheless good reasons why we should examine the books closely. For one thing, they point to a sustained connection between Daniel and Sir Thomas Egerton--the founder of what became the Bridgewater Library--over a period of fifteen to twenty years; for another, they show how carefully Daniel chose to present his poems and histories to Egerton, at the appropriate moment and in the proper format.

Scholars have known for two centuries and more that Sir Thomas Egerton (1540-1617) was one of Daniel's patrons. (3) The important verse epistle that Daniel addressed to Egerton in print in 1603 implies as much. The starting point of this austere and impressive poem is the confused condition of civil law at the end of Elizabeth's reign. Egerton is the officer of state entrusted by the monarch with the job of protecting people from the delays, wrangling, and over severity of the law courts. He has been chosen, Daniel tells him, to preserve the "sanctuarie" to which (lines 122-24)

              Th'opprest might flie, this seate of Equitie
              Whereon thy virtues sit with faire renowne,
              The greatest grace and glory of the Gowne. (4)

One measure of Daniel's high standing with Egerton is that he is able to write to him so openly in these terms, and to express his own opinions. Daniel's views on equity, perhaps informed by passages from Aristotle's Ethics, were not out of line with Egerton's, (5) but the poem has some straight-talking passages in it about harsh law and corrupt lawyers. It is inconceivable that Daniel could have written like this unless he was already, in some sense, a client of Egerton's. The poem was published early in May 1603, at the head of a folio collection of six verse epistles Daniel had written to other members of the Jacobean court elite (Lord Henry Howard, Lucy, Countess of Bedford and so forth). (6) In this folio, the epistle to Egerton is placed immediately after the Panegyric Congratulatory that Daniel wrote to King James at his accession (he presented the poem to the king in an autograph manuscript on 23 April). The title Daniel uses to address Egerton at the outset of the epistle, "Lord Keeper of the Great Seale of England," is another indication of a degree of familiarity between them. Egerton, who been had Lord Keeper since May 1596, gave over this office in June 1603 when he was appointed Lord Chancellor, (7) but in the epistle, at least a month earlier, Daniel is already addressing him as the "Great Minister of Justice" who sits in the court of equity (the reference to the "seate" in the lines above is probably an allusion to the woolsack, the symbol of the Lord Chancellor's position). Daniel was only a minor player on the fringe of the court set that was bringing in the new king, but he was close enough to the Egerton circle to know, weeks or months before it was made public, that the Lord Keeper was due to be made Lord Chancellor.

The image Daniel used to describe Egerton's new office confirms that the connection between them was not a distant one. The poem opens with King James's "powreful hand of Majestie" setting Egerton in "th'aidfulst roome of dignitie" (that is, giving him the office in which he could be of most help):

              As th'Isthmus, these two Oceans to divide
              Of Rigor and confus'd Uncertaintie,
              To keepe out th'entercourse of wrong and pride,
              That they ingulph not up unsuccoured right
              By th'extreame current of licentious might. (8)

Daniel made this striking comparison out of well-known lines early in the first book of Lucan's De Bello Civili. For a brief time, Lucan writes, the triumvir Crassus kept Pompey and Julius Caesar at peace, despite them wanting to make war on each other. He was like a strip of land between two raging seas (I.99-103):

              Nam sola futuri
              Crassus erat bella medius mora. Qualiter undas
              Qui secat et geminum gracilis mare separate Isthmos
              Nec patitur conferre fretum, si terra recedat,
              Ionium Aegaeo frangat mare. (9)

This wasn't the first time Daniel had drawn on this passage in Lucan, and his return to it for the Egerton epistle was, most likely, deliberate. In Book 4 of the 1595 Civil Wars, his epic poem on the wars of the barons, Daniel had described how the murder of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had removed the only man (like Crassus in Lucan) who was preventing a civil war. With Gloucester's death, the flow towards war in medieval England became an unstoppable torrent, and the full force of mischief began (IV.91.6-8):


 

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