Saturday 27 February 2021


 Born on this day in 1567 was the gorgeously named William Alabaster, poet, dramatist and religious writer. He is forgotten today, his works of interest only to scholars, but he gets a favourable mention in Johnson's Life of Milton
'I once heard Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, remark, what I think is true, that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classick elegance. If any exceptions can be made they are very few; Haddon and Ascham, the pride of Elizabeth's reign, however they may have succeeded in prose, no sooner attempt verses than they provoke derision. If we produced anything worthy of notice before the elegies of Milton it was perhaps Alabaster's Roxana.'
  Roxana was a tragedy in Latin verse in the manner of Seneca (there, that's whetted your appetite, hasn't it?), and it attracted some attention in its day. Alabaster also wrote a number of devotional sonnets (in English), but devoted much of his time and energy to theological writing and caballistic speculations. The most interesting thing about him now, perhaps, is his life story, which exemplifies so much about his times – how strange and different they were, and what a dangerous business life could be, even for a poet and theologian. 
After Cambridge (Trinity College, where he wrote Roxana), he went with the Earl of Essex on an expedition to Cadiz, and while there converted to Catholicism, a conversion he defended in a pamphlet of which not a single copy survives. It seems his rather too public change of faith led to a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London. 
Then, in 1607, he published (in Antwerp) a mystical interpretation of Scripture, Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi, which went down badly with his new Church and was duly put on the Index. Rashly travelling to Rome, he was imprisoned by the Inquisition, but contrived to escape and return to England, where he again embraced the Protestant faith. He became a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and chaplain to James I, and, having married and settled down, he devoted his remaining years to his caballistic studies and other theological writings, contributing his portion to that great mountain of unread and unreadable verbiage that is all that remains of most writers of the past – and likely all that will remain of most writers of the present.  As Johnson said, 'No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.'


  1. Don't know why I thought of Sabatai Tzvi...

  2. Yes Ricardo – having consulted Wikipedia, I see what you mean...