AMONGST the poets that immediately preceded the great Elizabethan Period, which may be said to begin with the publication of The Shepherds Calendar in 1580, Gascoigne occupied, and occupies, a notable place. Bolton indeed, in his Hypercritica, speaks slightingly of him: Among the lesser late poets George Gascoignes Works may be endured; but for the most part he is mentioned with high respect and praise. Raleigh commends The Steel Glass in what are his earliest known verses. Puttenham distinguishes him for a good metre and for a plentiful vein. Webbe calls him a witty gentleman and the very chief of our late rimers; gifts of wit, he says, and natural promptness appear in him abundantly. Amongst other eulogists may be named Nash, Gabriel Harvey, Whetstone.
He was a man of family and position, well known to and amongst the Inns of Court men, who, in the Elizabethan age, as in that of Queen Anne, passed for the arch wits and critics as well as the first gentlemen of the day; and when campaigning in the Low Countries he met with adventures which added to his personal prestige. Thus he was a conspicuous figure in the society of his time, and for this reason, if for nothing else, his verses would win esteem and circulation.
Gascoigne, then, is interesting as a poet who was popular during Shaksperes boyhood and Spensers adolescence. But he is yet more important as one who did real service in the way of extending and improving the form of literatureas a pioneer of the Elizabethan Period. Whoever, says Nash, my private opinion condemns as faulty, Master Gascoigne is not to be abridged of his deserved esteem, who first beat the path to that perfection which our best poets have aspired to since his departure; whereto he did ascend by comparing the Italian with the English, as Tully did Græca cum Latinis. He is the author of our earliest extant comedy in prosepossibly the earliest writtenThe Supposes, a translation of Ariostos Suppositi, and in part the author of one of our earliest tragedies, of Jocastaa paraphrase rather than a translation of the Phoinissai of Euripides; he is one of our earliest writers of formal satire and of blank verse, and in his Certain Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or rime in English written at the request of Master Edouardo Donati, one of the earliest essayists, if not the earliest, on English metres.
Happily, we can add, his works have not only these historical claims on our attention; they have intrinsic merits. His lyrics are occasionally characterised by a certain lightness and grace, which give and will give them a permanent life. Singing of all a lovers moods and experienceshow he passions, laments, complains, recants, is refused, is encouragedhe is never a mere mimic of his Italian masters, or, though somewhat monotonous, wanting in vigour and sincerity. His style is clear and unaffected. The crude taste of his age is often enough apparent; and in this respect his poor rude lines, if we compare them with the bettering of the times, may sometimes make but little show; but here too he rises above his fellows, who are often simply grotesque when they mean to be fervent, and are dull when they are not grotesque. He writes in various metres with various facility and skill. Of blank verse his mastery is imperfect; he is like a child learning to walk, whose progress is from chair to chair; he lacks freedom and fluency. The metre of his Complaint of Philomene is ill chosen for its purpose. It is a jig, not a movement of even step and musing gait. Much of his work is autobiographical. We can trace him from gay to grave, perhaps we may add from lively to severe; for in his later years, by a reaction that is common enough, it would seem he took a somewhat morbid view of the life he was leaving, under-prizing it, after the manner of zealots, even as in his youth he had prized it too highly.