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BRETON, NICHOLAS (ca. 1555-1626)
Nicholas Breton (last name also spelled Brittaine) was probably born in Essex and later may have gained an education at Oxford, as indicated by diary notes of the Reverend Richard Madox. His wealthy widowed mother, Elizabeth Bacon Breton, remarried to George Gascoigne, a revered Renaissance poet, soldier, and member of Parliament, whose Certain Notes of Instruction in English Verse proved one of the earliest statements on English prosody and influenced Breton's writing. In 1593 he married Ann Sutton and the two raised a family. Breton moved to London and began to write labored verse, often overwrought with alliteration and heavy word choice. He enjoyed the patronage of Mary, countess of Pembroke, and probably served her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, a Protestant martyr and seminal poet. Although the countess withdrew her support for unknown reasons in 1601, Breton continued to write and publish. Facts regarding his life are credited to assumed autobiographical letters signed only "N.B.," contained in A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters (1603).
As Breton's poetry improved, the writer Francis Meres compared him at the close of the 16th century with the poets Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Michael Drayton; later critics felt Breton's works did not merit membership in that group. Breton's preferred use of rime royal connects him to a past tradition including the 16th-century poets Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, both early imitators of the Petrarchan sonnet. His work appeared in the important publication England's Helicon (1600), and his later poem "Strange News Out of Diverse Countries" (1622) is considered one of his best. His voluminous publications included religious writings, pamphlets, and satires. All of his work is supported by a moralistic tone, and, at times, an overwhelming sweetness that suited religious poetry of his age. His better known works include "Passionate Shepheard" (1604) and the lullaby "Come Little Babe," the latter published in Lyrics from Elizabethan Romance (1890) by A. H. Bullen and a prime example of rime royal; both are easily located in electronic format. His final published work, titled Fantastickes (1626), helped later scholars collect information on religious festivals and customs of the day.
Occasionally a scholar will advance a new theory regarding authorship by a lesser-known writer. This happened with Breton in 1929, when a scholar named Charles Crawford proposed that a work titled Greenes Funeralls, a copy of which existed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, had wrongly been credited to a writer named Richard Barnefield, to whom Crawford referred as "that much over-rated poetaster." Instead, he claimed, Breton authored the book celebrating Greene. The concealing of his name may have resulted from the animosity of his contemporaries, explained with fervent empathy by Crawford, who notes, "they condemned all he wrote, whether good, bad, or indifferent; one special point of theirs being that Breton was a rhymer, and no poet." Crawford claims Breton wrote "many anthologies," the majority "of which were assigned to others, printers and publishers being among the happy people thus honoured." Breton "loved to play practical jokes on his friends, as well as on his enemies," and he seems to have provoked William Shakespeare by "unlawfully" using his name "to gull the public" into believing he had a hand in the publication of an anthology titled Poetical Rhapsody. Apparently the bard did not care for Breton's habit of publishing some of his own writing under the names of others. Many of those others remained silent, however, according to Crawford, gladly accepting that credit. Crawford theorized that Breton's reticence to claim credit for his own work may be why "so little direct mention of him is made in contemporary writings."
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