The sonnets of William Alabaster
This volume, one of many donated to the Library by Thomas Baker, contains a book of hours in parallel Latin and French texts, and would be a notable item by virtue of that alone. But the binding also holds sixty-four manuscript sonnets by the poet William Alabaster (1567-1640), and is one of the three major sources for the seventy-nine sonnets now in print under his name.
Religious in content and ritualistic in form, the sonnets might seem quite at home sharing their binding with a devotional aid. Yet a distinction should be drawn. Even if there is something ostentatious in the lavish illumination of a book of hours, the raison d'être of such a text is to serve as a guide to private reflection and prayer. In contrast, while Alabaster’s sonnets were not published in his lifetime, the composition of a poem with any readership in mind is essentially a public act, regardless of how ‘personal’ one considers the organisation of language into lines to be.
And Alabaster, a fellow of Trinity, evidently did not care much for keeping his views private. Shortly after his conversion to Catholicism in 1597 he composed and distributed Seven Motives for the alteration in his religious stance, and was placed under arrest in Cambridge; as G.M. Story writes, Alabaster was ‘anxious to air his views in a public disputation (he tried unsuccessfully to have his challenges set up at the gates of all the colleges)’, but found himself ‘kept in ignominious isolation’. Eager to be martyred, Alabaster—whose surname derives not from the ornamental stone but from ‘arbalestier’ (crossbowman)—would instead spend much of his time on trial or in prison.
Although the depth of his sincerity is doubtful in light of his religious wavering (his faith being inclined to alter on the basis of political nuance or personal offence), Alabaster’s sonnets are at least superficially devoted to their cause. Given the importance of surfaces to poems, this is not faint praise. The image to the left includes the ninth sonnet of the sequence, which attacks Martin Luther: ‘damned Luther, swollen with hellish pride’ is critiqued for presuming to understand Christ better than St Peter did; who has less right to presume, the poet asks, ‘than Luther, that did dwell | In such acquaintance with the fiends of hell, | And married (incest!) with a sacred nun?’
If this makes Alabaster seem a self-important polemicist—and if there is something wrong with that—then one would do well to spend time with the sonnets and become involved in their syntactical density, their paradoxes and their combination of emotional overflow and formal control. Happily the College’s manuscript contains as its sixty-third poem a sonnet commencing with an address to St John: ‘High towering Eagle, rightly may thy feast | Be held so near to Christ’s solemnity’. Christ is imagined as a mother with his disciple leaning on his breast, that John might ‘suck of his divinity’. Turning to address Christ, Alabaster writes: ‘I not only on thy breast will lean | But through thy breast unto thy heart will run.’ There is a transgression here characteristic of much great religious verse; it is carried over into the Johnian poet Robert Herrick’s tribute to Alabaster, which imagines him being filled with ‘the spirit of the Gods’ while ‘like Earth-wormes we will craule below, | And wonder at Those Things that thou dost know’.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 26 August 2013 by Adam Crothers, Library Assistant. Adam's articles on the literary vestiges of St John's can be read in PN Review.