Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Stephen Gosson (1554–1624)
[Stephen Gosson, who, though a man evidently of considerable ability, owes most of his fame, as not uncommonly happens, to his having provoked the unfavourable notice of men of more ability than himself, was a Kentish man by birth. He would seem to have been born in 1555 or a little earlier: he entered at Oxford in 1572 (being assigned by some to Christ Church, by others with more assurance of authority to Corpus), and took his bachelor’s degree in 1576. He then appears to have gone to London and commenced at once poet, playwright, and player. His pastorals were highly thought of, but the few fragments of his verse which are extant are no great things. Of his plays we have, given by himself, the titles of three, Catiline’s Conspiracies, of course a tragedy; Captain Mario, a comedy; and Praise at Parting, a “moral.” It does not seem quite so certain that he actually appeared on the stage, but both from his adversaries’ remarks (though Lodge’s “player” might simply mean “playwright”) and his own excuses it is probable. However this may be, he seems to have experienced a sudden and violent conversion, which led him to give up the theatre, to take a tutorship, and then to take orders. There is no space here for the details of the controversy excited by his School of Abuse (1579) the most important part or result of which was Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, or Apology for Poetry. Gosson, who had dedicated his pamphlet to Sidney himself, repeated the dedication in his Ephemerides of Phialo (1579) a book of the Lyly kind, to which an Apology for the School of Abuse itself is added: though he addressed the Plays Confuted (1582) which concludes the series to Sidney’s father-in-law, Walsingham. He survived the debate many years, successively holding a curacy at Stepney, the Crown living of Great Wigborough in Essex, and that of St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, and writing a few small works, some of which have survived. He died on the 17th February, 1623–4, at the age of sixty-nine.]  1
GOSSON has been spoken of above as a man of ability, and this he certainly was. The very short interval between the appearance of Euphues and that of the School of Abuse shows that he must rather have mastered the Lylyan style in the same circumstances and situations as Lyly than have directly borrowed it from his fellow at Oxford. Nor does he push such imitation as there is to the extremes which were common, and which in other instances (such as Lodge’s answer to his own attack) show the thing to be mainly imitative. There can be very little doubt that there was considerable justification for his attack as far as the moral and social side of the matter went: and it is to be observed that both his direct and his indirect traversers (for Sidney nowhere directly attacks the School of Abuse) take no small license in extending his indictment from dramatic poetry in particular to poetry in general. It is true that Gosson had to some extent laid himself open to this, especially in the exordium of the School of Abuse. As for his own work, it is rather a pity that the whole extant part of it, which is not bulky and which hangs pretty closely together, has never been reprinted together, while part of it is still difficult to get at. The School of Abuse, the Apology for it, and the Plays Confuted form a connected series, the tone of which increases in gravity and religiosity as it goes on. The Ephemerides of Phialo, which accompanied the Apology, while following very close in the track of Euphues, in its dealings with friendship, love, and so forth, both in manner and substance, glances frequently in the main direction of Gosson’s ascetic and reforming thought. The four following passages will, I think, fairly represent his four chief works. And however unwilling we may be to countenance a line of argument which would have deprived us of one of the greatest divisions of English literature, I think Gosson must receive credit at once for absolute purity of intention, and for no small literary and intellectual power. His thought and argument, though narrow, are by no means without acuteness, his illustrations and ornaments digress much less than is usual with his contemporaries into mere random display of learning and wit, and his style is better knit than is usual with any but the greatest of them. He was evidently a very fair scholar, his Latin preface to the Literarum studiosis in Oxoniensi Academia, prefixed to the Ephemerides being well written, and his scholarship seems to have had much of the good and little of the bad influence which it was likely to exert on his English. It has been rather usual, and not unnatural in the circumstances, to think of him as a dunce and an enemy to the Muses, but few, I think, who give him a fair reading will take this view.  2
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