[ A collection of verse-narratives ]
An ambitious poetic project of the mid-sixteenth century is A Mirror for Magistrates. This is not a single work of verse from a singlé hand. It is a collection of a number of verse-narratives, written by different poets with cautionary objectives. This is a voluminous work, a monument of industry, and contains more than fourteen hundred closely printed pages, rehearsing the tales of misfortune and wickedness in high places from the very
remote past of Albanact (B.C. 1085) to the time of Queen Elizabeth.
| Contributions ]
A Mirror for Magistrates is a composite didactic work, almost of the medieval type, intended originally as a continuation of Lydgate’s Falls of Princess, under the inspiration of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. The collection contained initially seven verse-stories, and it was published as a supplement to an edition of the Falls of Princess. Later on, the stories were enlarged to nineteen and the volume was published separately in 1559.
The new edition was extended to include the tragic fate of different famous and unfortunate Englishmen. The subsequent editions of the work, however, included some other stories and effected some changes. Thomas Sackville’s “Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham” and “Induction” were included in the edition of 1563. The poets, included in the volume, have not all been identified till now. Besides Sackville, the other poets,
contributing to the work, including Baldwin, Churchyard, George Ferrers, Thomas Chaloner, Thomas Phaer, John Dolman, and Francis Seager.
A Mirror for Magistrates contains monologues from different personalities, written in rhyme. The purpose of the work, as already indicated, is medieval. This is ethical, cautionary. The central theme is the just and unavoidable punishment of all vices and this serves as an implied caution and is meant for edification. The authors of the work are found concerned to demonstrate the nature of order and justice and the divine
retribution that overtakes human crimes and follies. They moralize on the proper behavior of the princess and on the proper relation between the ruler and the ruled. The poems represent different characters from English history and the tragedy of English kingship and thereby project the moral and educational meaning of history.
[ Significance ]
A Mirror for Magistrates is not a great specimen of Renaissance literature, but it well embodies the Renaissance spirit of the age. The notion of history, as the great teacher of humanity, so popular in the Renaissance, is particularly emphasized in the work. It retains the Renaissance study of the past, with the purpose of the instructions to the princess, cautioning them, by means of illustrations, worth to follow, and worth-to-avoid.
Moreover, the volume remains particularly important as the curiosities of Renaissance literature, representing diverse matters and diverse types of poetical composition. It may also be taken as the pioneer of chronicle poetry, and such works, as Daniel’s Civil War and Drayton’s Barons’ War, are in the direct line of its descent. Chronicle poetry is found to have inspired the chronicle play, and a good many Elizabethan historical plays
are found based on the very subjects, treated first in the Mirror.
[ Poetical merit ]
The poetical quality of the Mirror is not at all impressive, and no consistent high quality should be expected from a collection of chronicle poems like this. It demonstrates the varying degrees of metrical arrangements and rhythmic movements. There are elegiac cadences, old alliterative measures, and different types of jog-trots. Some of the poems, included in the work, are, of course, quite remarkable, and mentions may be
made here of Churchyard’s Complaint of Jane Shore and Sackville’s Complaint of Henry. The significance of the work actually lies not as a literary masterpiece, but as an inspiration or literary creations. This is not individually great but provides an impulsive stimulus for great poetry.