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Early Modern British Literature. Amsterdam: VU University
ALABASTER, WILLIAM (1567/8-1640) William Alabaster was born on January 27, 1567/8, in Hadleigh, Suffolk. The eldest in a family that included six children, he matured as a Protestant in a family proud of its Norman heritage and engagement in trade. His father, Roger, was a clothier and related to the Winthrops, well-known Anglian Puritans. William's uncle, John Still, served as master of Trinity College in Cambridge and as bishop of Bath and Wells. He decided to supervise Alabaster's education, encouraging his nephew to learn classical languages. Alabaster did not disappoint his uncle, becoming a Queen's Scholar to Trinity College in 1584. While finishing his education, he wrote poetry as an active member of Cambridge literary coteries. Two poems written between 1588 and 1592 eventually attracted the attention of literary greats. Alabaster's friend Edmund Spenser alluded to his Elisaeis, an epic about Queen Elizabeth, in Spenser's Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), and Samuel Johnson (1709-84) judged Alabaster's tragedy Roxana some of the best of English Latin verse to precede the work of John Milton. An ambitious man, Alabaster knew he was destined to join the clergy and became chaplain to Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, in 1596, accompanying Devereux on a famous voyage to Cádiz.
Upon his return to England, Alabaster experienced the first of several religious conversions when he became a Catholic. He later wrote in an autobiography that in 1596 at Michaelmas he felt more tender toward "Christes Crosse and Passion" than most Protestants, then described visions that succeeded in shaking his faith. On Easter 1597, while visiting a friend, he met Thomas Wright, an outspoken Catholic priest who had led Ben Jonson from Protestantism. Wright's arguments supported Alabaster's reading of a French publication by William Rainolds titled A refutation of sundry reprehensions. According to the scholars G. M. Story and Helen Gardner, he vividly described his conversion, writing, "i lept vp from the place where i satt, and saide to my self 'Now I am a Catholique,' and then fell down vpon my knees." His fascinating but damaged and often indecipherable autobiography titled "The Conversion of Alabaster" has never been printed and is at the English College in Rome.
Alabaster spent the next five months immersed in reading and study, delaying his wedding and converting family members, while writing religious poetry. His Seven Motives, describing how he was moved to convert, caused an order for his arrest in September 1597. He was under house arrest by the university beadle until October, when he traveled to London and suffered a light imprisonment in a private home. For six months, authorities, including his uncle John Still, in addition to a former schoolmaster urged him to recant in private conferences. He refused, and his Anglican orders were removed in February 1597/8 while further punishment was considered. Not allowed any public defense of his beliefs, Alabaster decided to escape.
Alabaster remained in hiding during summer 1597/8 and fled across the Channel in September, taking refuge in a convent in November. He planned eventually to return to London to testify in favor of Catholicism. During a visit to Spain, he was arrested and sent to England, where he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in early August 1599. He was examined for nearly a year, claiming to act as an emissary promoting peace between England and Spain, although his claims were never proved. By 1601, he had been moved from the Tower to live imprisoned in Framlingham Castle, Suffolk, until James I ascended the throne and pardoned Alabaster in 1603. He returned to prison after the Gunpowder plot, when Catholic persecution increased. By 1606 he remained confined at the King's Bench prison, where he wrote to Robert Cecil, offering to spy on the political Catholic émigrés.
Alabaster wrote his Apparatus in Revelationeum Iesu Christi, essays in mystic theology, which was printed in Antwerp, in 1607. His writing and action drew the disfavor of Rome, and he was called before the Inquisition, his Apparatus labeled heretical in 1609/10. Ordered not to leave Rome, he denied the church and fled to Marseilles, where by July he was accusing Catholics of involvement in the Gunpowder plot. The English authorities remained unconvinced of his denial of Rome and ordered him into confinement at the house of the dean of St. Paul, his Cambridge fellow John Overall. By 1610/11 Alabaster regretted his separation from Rome and again declared himself a Catholic. While little detail of his life during the next few years exists, he was again a Protestant by 1613/14 and in favor with King James, who declared him a doctor of divinity at Cambridge, a benefit noted by John Donne in correspondence. John Chamberlain labeled Alabaster a "double or treble turncoat" in January 1614/15, noting that not many clergy applauded him but remarking that Alabaster was yet a "curious fantasticall piece of worke."
Alabaster at last settled into his writing over the next few decades, although in his time his fame remained that of a clergyman. He outraged many by attempting to reveal the true hidden meaning of Scripture in his interpretations, which seldom prompted positive criticism. Robert Herrick offered a rare tribute to Alabaster in one of his own poems, and Ben Jonson befriended him late in life. The sonnets in his Divine Meditations remain crucial to the new style of the metaphysical poets and poetry, which first became popular in the last years of the Elizabethan age; examples include Sonnet 10, Sonnet 15, and Sonnet 46. They also extended the devotional tradition of the 17th century that persisted, despite various religious upheavals and reformation attempts. Alabaster wrote his will in March 1640 and died on April 28.
As an English sonnet poet Alabaster did not receive much attention, perhaps because his poetry circulated mainly in manuscript form. His work was seldom referenced later, although the 1821 (Third Variorum) Shakespeare contained two sonnets, and John Payne Collier published an additional two in History of English Dramatic Poetry in 1831. In the early 20th century, 43 of his sonnets were discovered and six of those printed as the work of an "Elizabethan divine and neoLatin Poet" along with a brief biography in a 1903 edition of the Athenaeum. Later an additional 164 sonnets by Alabaster were identified at St. John's College, Cambridge. A few of the sonnets were published in 1904 in Month, and research on his life appeared in Recusant Poets (1938). Two sonnets were reprinted in Poets of the English Language (1952) by W. H. Auden and N. H. Pearson. With the introduction of electronic postings, the university of Birmingham developed and sponsors a Web site, The Philological Museum, that carries links to a portion of Alabaster's interrogation during the Inquisition written in both Latin and an English translation, along with a hypertext Latin version of his play Roxana. With the revival in Donne's popularity in the 20th century, critics hoped that Alabaster's Devine Meditations, composed of 77 sonnets, might also be widely anthologized. That did not happen, however, and his poetry still awaits discovery by 21st-century readers.
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