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The Spectral Historiopoetics of the Mirror for Magistrates

The Spectral Historiopoetics of the Mirror for Magistrates

Donald Jellerson

[1]  The Mirror for Magistrates was first published in 1559, soon after Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne.[1] A group of poets under the direction of William Baldwin wrote the volume as historical ‘poesy’ that would instruct the current English nobility by conjuring the spectres of past political figures to give accounts of their lives and deaths. The Mirror’s revenants rise from the grave in historical order to tell of their falls from power, beginning with figures from the reign of Richard II and ending with those in the time of Edward IV. (The 1563 sequel extends that chronology into the reign of Henry VII.) The authors interpose prose links between the poems, often in order to comment on the moral lesson of the previous poem and sometimes to introduce the next. From these linked exercises in prosopopeia in which poets voice historical figures, current magistrates are supposed to learn virtue. As Baldwin explains in his dedication, the spectres are meant to provide examples of how providence works in English history, detailing ‘[h]ow [God] hath delt with sum of our countreymen your auncestors for sundrye vices…’. These historical examples of vice, Baldwin suggests, ‘will be a good occasion to move you to the soner amendment’. [2] The apparitions of the Mirror are doubly constrained: first by the moralizing historiography of the chronicles in which their stories are encoded and then by the Mirror’s poets, who conjure them as examples of vice and recipients of a divine retribution achieved through the inexorable turning of fortune’s perilous wheel. The title page reads:

A Myrroure for Magistrates. Wherein may be seen by example of other, with howe grevous plages vices are punished: and howe frayle and unstable worldly prosperitie is founde, even of those, whom fortune seemeth most highly to favour. Foelix quem faciunt aliena pericula cautum.

The Latin sentence translates to ‘happy are they who are made cautious by the dangers of others’. The emphasis on punishment and divine intervention leads readers to assume that in these narratives, Fortune will serve as the handmaiden to God. Baldwin and his fellow writers promise spectral poems that will comprise a history of providential justice. Many of the spectres fail to deliver on that promise, however, despite the heavy-handed terms of their appearance. And that very failure, as I will argue in what follows, lays the foundation for the Mirror’s success—its popularity and proliferation in editions, expansions, and spinoffs in the decades to follow—and its influence on sixteenth-century poetics.

[2]  Midway through the first edition of the Mirror for Magistrates the image of Salisbury rises in a poem entitled ‘How Thomas Montague the earle of Salysbury in the middes of his glory, was chaunceably slayne with a piece of ordinaunce’. The ninth in a series of nineteen spectres, Salisbury tells the story of his accidental death at the siege of Orleans. In so doing, he calls into question the didactic purpose of the Mirror. The poem demonstrates not divine providence but fickle fortune, simple chance that neither the authors nor Salisbury can interpret as a providential account. ‘Now Baldwin’, the Earl says, ‘note mine ende’:

I stoode in vewing where the towne was weake,
And as I busily talked with my frend,
Shot fro the towne, which al the grate did breake,
A pellet came, and drove a mighty fleake,
Agaynst my face, and tare away my cheeke,
For payne wherof I dyed within a weeke (152).

Salisbury dies as the result of standing too close to a window struck by a cannonball. Neither the writers of the Mirror nor the Earl himself know how to interpret this ill fortune because Salisbury does not seem to deserve his end. A valiant soldier and loyal servant to the King, he is loved by nobles and commoners alike. After the poem ends, the authors are nonplussed. As Baldwin reports in the prose link following the poem, ‘This straunge adventure of the good erle drave us al into a dumpne, inwardly lamenting his wofull destynye…’ (154). Soon they snap out of their reverie: ‘To what end (quote one) muse we so much on this matter. This Earle is neyther the first nor the last whom Fortune hath foundered in the heyth of their prosperitye’. The poets resolve to henceforth skip over stories of ‘many whych have bene likewise served, whose chaunces sith they be marcial, and therefore honorable, may the better be omitted’. This spectre, they admit, has done nothing to further the didactic purpose of the collection. In fact, Salisbury’s apparition scandalously speaks against the entire project of reading providential lessons into history:

[…] how many shall we find
For vertues sake with infamy opprest?
How many agayn through helpe of fortune blind,
For yll attemptes atchived, with honour blest?
Succes is wurst ofttimes whan cause is best,
Therefore say I: god send them sory happes,
That judge the causes by their after clappes (144).

For this speaker, we can read the pattern of human destiny only as chance. Fortune ‘gideth al the game’ (143). Interpreting after the fact, judging by ‘after clappes’, does not provide reliable moral lessons, much less an understanding of God’s divine plan. ‘God doth suffer that it should be so, / But why, my wit is feble to decise’ (145). Historical interpretation produces only ‘uncertaynty’; our best intentions and most praiseworthy desires may misfire when ‘sodayne mischief dasheth all to dust’ (153).

[3]  Stories such as Salisbury’s contribute to the difficulties modern scholars encounter in attempting to categorize and evaluate the Mirror. If viewed as a form of history writing, the Mirror may appear as an odd and ‘lackluster’ step between the medieval chronicle and an ostensibly more objective, modern narrative history (Levy 1967: 217). (For history writing’s supposed ‘objectivity’—the positivist assumption before the postmodern turn—see Certeau 1988.) If examined as poetry, the volume’s apparent didacticism seems difficult to embrace. And if understood as moral or religious philosophy, the text seems inconsistent. As Paul Budra claims of the Mirror’s critical reception,

either the individual tragedies are shown to be predictable stories of the schematic retribution inflicted upon the morally or politically corrupt, and are therefore consistent and tedious, or they are shown to be a haphazard assortment of tales mixing divine Providence with irrational Fortune, and are therefore inconsistent and tedious (1988: 303).

The accusations that the Mirror poems are either tediously consistent or tediously inconsistent betray the degree to which scholars have been unable to reach a consensus about what exactly these poems are supposed to be and do. Yet by all accounts the Mirror was widely read and much appreciated in its time. It was reissued and expanded often over the course of more than fifty years. Sir Philip Sidney ranks its poetry with Chaucer and Surrey, calling it ‘meetly furnished of beautiful parts’; Sir John Harrington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando includes a reference to the volume, ‘in which the life and fall of many great persons is very well set downe, and in a good verse’; and Jasper Heywood doubts that his poetic abilities measure up to those of Baldwin, the editor and principle writer, ‘whose Myrrour doth of Magistrates, proclayme eternall fame’ (Trench 1898: 71–88). Elizabethans clearly enjoyed the Mirror’s blend of poetry, history, and moral philosophy. Given the difference between modern and early modern receptions of the Mirror, Jim Ellis asks the right question: ‘What did the Elizabethans find so fascinating about the poem[s] that the rest of us have been missing?’ (2000: 1033).

[4]  Scholars have dealt with the most flagrant of the Mirror’s inconsistencies, the fluctuation between fortune and providence, in a number of ways. Some attempt to understand the Mirror as consistent in its belief structure, while others admit and explain its inconsistency (Keifer 1977, Budra 1988 and Winston 2004). The former critics understand the volume as didactically consistent: following classical and renaissance dialectic, the Mirror authors intend to synthesize opposing voices and points of view into truth—the moral lesson that the dedication promises (Mack 2002: 141ff). The exceptions, in other words, prove the rule. By contrast, I suggest that Baldwin’s editions of the Mirror are better described as dialogic—conversational, multivocal, happy to present contradictions and question their own premises, reflecting what Baldwin in the prologue to his Treatise of Moral Philosophy (1547) calls the ‘mutuall conuersation of lyfe’, and what one scholar, Jessica Winston, calls a ‘collaborative conversation’ (2004: 395). I suggest that the ‘inconsistencies’ and contradictions that have so troubled critics of the Mirror are, in fact, part of its purpose and appeal. If we reevaluate the Mirror’s spectral effects in order to appreciate its dialogic sensibility, we may better understand why the collection was so well-loved in Elizabethan England and so influential for the era’s literature. The Mirror’s poetic effects, I argue, arise from its historiopoetic engagement. Baldwin and his fellow writers use spectral effects to fashion a politically engaged, dialogic text that prompts a conversation about the interpretation of history even as it pretends to be a didactic lesson in history’s meanings. In so doing, they provide models for poetics in the Elizabethan period.

[5]  The 1559 and 1563 versions of the Mirror edited by Baldwin prompted many editions, expansions, and spinoffs over the course of several decades. Among the most intriguing trends generated by the Mirror was a vogue for ghost complaint poetry in the 1590s. These late Elizabethan works took the Mirror poems as their pattern (Kerrigan 1991, Dubrow 1986). Works such as Samuel Daniel’s The Complaint of Rosamond (1592), Thomas Lodge’s The Complaint of Elstred (1593), Thomas Churchyard’s rewrite of the 1563 Mirror’s Jane Shore poem as The Tragedie of Shore’s Wife (1593), Michael Drayton’s Matilda (1594), John Trussell’s The First Rape of Fair Helen (1595) and Thomas Middleton’s The Ghost of Lucrece (1600) proliferated in the era. In these poems, as in the Mirror, historical and legendary figures rise from the dead to contest previous accounts of their lives. Such poems markedly influenced literary history in the early modern period. As Richard Helgerson notes, among the most famous of the female characters in complaint poetry, Jane Shore, ‘went on to be made the subject of plays that redrew the generic map of European drama even more remarkably than her story had redrawn the generic map of Elizabethan poetry’ (1999: 461). Helgerson and Wendy Wall both point out the ways in which seventeenth-century domestic tragedy was measurably influenced by complaint poems such as Jane Shore’s. Wall suggests that the ‘Shore’s Wife’ story demonstrates a growing interest in ‘the household as an alternative historical space to chronicle’ (124). Recent criticism has focused productively on the Mirror’s aftereffects and its place in Elizabethan culture. Meredith Skura, for instance, sees the volume as precursor to autobiography or ‘life writing’ (2006: 27), Jim Ellis suggests that the Mirror registers the change from ‘a residual feudalism’ to ‘an emergent capitalism’ (2000: 1052), and Scott Lucas writes about ‘the role of the Mirror as a text of political critique and commentary’ (1995: 52). These critics attempt to counter decades of relative neglect in order to show that the Mirror is both culturally relevant and influential. Scholarly work proceeding in this direction convincingly demonstrates the need for further investigation into the influence of the Mirror on later literary trends.

[6]  Why did Baldwin’s Mirror volumes prove intriguing enough to later Elizabethan poets to serve as objects of imitation? I suggest that part of what fascinates poets such as Daniel, Drayton, and Middleton about the Mirror poems is the way in which the figure of the spectre revives, in the Mirror authors’ words, the ‘auncient liberties’ of the poet (359). The poems insist on the autonomy of poetry over and against history even as they animate their apparitions precisely as historical figures that vex historical interpretation. This dynamic becomes highly influential for later articulations of the power of literary representation such as that of Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (1595) as well as for later literature. Sidney famously makes the case that poetry precedes and enables history: ‘…historiographers, although their lips sound of things done and verity be written in their foreheads, have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of the poets’ (2004: 5). The Mirror’s spectral histories, as critics have noted, influence literary complaint, domestic tragedy, autobiographical writing, and even index a trend for a more inclusive ‘public political discourse’ (Winston 2004: 400). I am interested here in describing the foundational move through which the Mirror exerts such influences. I suggest that the resistance to history, the assertion of independence from the perceived biases and determinations of the chronicle tradition, constitutes that move.

[7]  I began this essay with the Earl of Salisbury not only because his poem disputes the Mirror’s avowed providentialism, but also because in doing so it perfectly captures the way in which the volume’s speaking avatars challenge the moralizing of chronicle history. These spectres are not only fictionalized simulacra of past ‘real’ figures; at their most scandalous, they break their enabling frame and question the historicity they represent. Moments of interpretive impasse such as the one in the Salisbury poem occur many times in Baldwin’s editions of the Mirror. Uncertainty about the volume’s didactic message and its reception by readers becomes a motif in the poems. The spectre of the poet Collingbourne, for instance, pleads with Baldwin to end the project, citing the uncontrollability of interpretation: ‘Ceas therefore Baldwyn… / Withdrawe thy pen, for nothing shalt thou gayne / Save hate, with losse of paper, ynke and payne’ (349). In fact, the very first poem of the first edition, featuring Robert Tresilian, takes interpretation as its theme—specifically, Tresilian’s penchant for ‘wrest[ing] the sence’ from words and therefore misinterpreting the law (73). And the poems featuring Owen Glendower and George, Duke of Clarence, also take up interpretation and misinterpretation—both cite Merlin and bemoan ‘false…prophecies / That go by letters, siphers, armes, or signes: / Which all be foolish, false and crafty lies…’ (228). Such poems, depicting limit cases, problems of interpretation, and challenges to the volume’s overarching message, occur alongside others that more straightforwardly demonstrate divine providence. The cumulative effect of this uncertainty serves less to secure a comforting, providential view of history than to demonstrate the difficulty of doing so. The moralizing mode of the Mirror for Magistrates, at least in Baldwin’s editions, prompts many questions. Conflicts abound between Fortune and Providence, Human and Divine law, and so forth. The Mirror’s moralizing is less dogmatic than dialogic. The volume complicates preconceived notions of how providence directs historical progress and reveals historical meaning, less concerned with unfolding history’s absolute moral truths than with the lament produced by our inability to securely know either what history teaches or what God’s lesson plan might be. Despite its insistently didactic introduction, the Mirror as a whole is more concerned with the questions that history raises than with providing answers to those questions.

[8]  Unlike in the modern world, as Blair Worden remarks, in the Early Modern period ‘Poets and historians were…the same individuals’ (2005: 72; see also Kewes 2005: 7–8). Both a collection of poems and a history book, the Mirror for Magistrates exemplifies the way in which sixteenth-century historian poets felt free to combine the ars historica and the ars poetica. We might add that these individuals often, and without contradiction, saw themselves as moral philosophers. Baldwin’s other famous and often reprinted work, we might recall, was a work of moral philosophy. Later in his life he became a preacher (King 2004). Certainly the Mirror promises to be a moral guidebook in the tradition of princely conduct manuals. The Mirror, then, is an attempt to write within the terms of discourses that were not yet firmly separated in the sixteenth century: history, poetry, and philosophy. Though the borders between these fields had been contested since antiquity, early modern humanists would once again address the need to define them (Levy 1967, Baker 1967, Kewes 2005, Woolf 2005). Such fields would grow into distinct disciplines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sir Philip Sidney would famously insist on the borders between disciplines in his Defence. In his Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon would distribute knowledge into the time-honored categories of memory (history), imagination (poetry), and reason (philosophy). And seventeenth-century historians from Degory Wheare to John Milton (History of Britain, 1670) would revive classical distinctions in order to keep historical ‘truth’ separate from poetic invention. (Wheare registers this growing separation by suggesting that historians are those who write ‘explications’, ‘relations’, or ‘narratives’ as distinct from ‘chronicles’ or ‘lives’—1685: 17–18.) While we may argue about how these borders were redrawn, few would argue that by the eighteenth century these kinds of writing had acquired distinct procedural and formal identities.

[9]  The mid-sixteenth-century Mirror, however, attempts to use the poet’s pen in order to write history as moral philosophy. Its well-educated writers could not have been unaware of the long standing debates between the practitioners of such discourses since Plato. Indeed, they seem to have considered the ars historica and the ars poetica related but distinct (Kelly and Sacks 1997), and distinct in turn from moral philosophy or a religious doctrinal writing, often termed ‘divinity’. Yet in writing the Mirror, Baldwin and his cohorts were more interested in the shared aims of poetry, history, and philosophy (secular or religious) than in respecting the borders between those discourses. For the purposes of this essay, I am less interested in the early modern development of these disciplines—whether the growth of historiography, the territories defensively staked out by poetry, or the move from moral philosophy to more ‘scientific’ approaches—than in what the Mirror envisions as their shared aims. The historiopoetic Mirror knowingly performs its work in the shared terrain of discourses in the slow process of becoming separate disciplines.

[10]  With this in mind, we can investigate the memorializing and moralizing aims the Mirror shares with the historiography of the period and how the Mirror puts those aims into operation differently. One productive way to do this is to look at Hall’s chronicle (1548), one of the history books that Baldwin and his fellow writers claim to have open in front of them as they select their subjects. As Lily B. Campbell notes, ‘The prose links state explicitly that the work was based upon the histories compiled by Fabyan, Halle, and Sir Thomas More. Wherever the chronicles disagreed, the authors accepted the authority of Halle’ (10). Among the most influential of sixteenth-century chronicle histories, Edward Hall’s The Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke opens by inveighing against ‘Oblivion’, described as ‘the cancard enemie to fame and renoune’ and ‘the dedly darte to the glory of princes’. Hall opposes Oblivion, a ‘sucking serpent’ and ‘dedly beast’, to ‘memory by litterature…the verie dilator and setter furth of Fame’. For Hall, as for early modern historians to follow, such memorializing has a moral purpose:

If no man had written the goodnesse of noble Augustus, nor the pitie of mercifull Trajan, how shoulde their successours have folowed ther steppes in vertue and princely qualities: on the contrarie parte, if the crueltie of Nero, the ungracious life of Caligula had not beene put in remembrance, young Princes and fraile governors might likewise have fallen in a like pit, but by redyng their vices and seyng their mischeveous ende, thei bee compelled to leave their evill waies, and embrace the good qualities of notable princes and prudent governours: Thus, writyng is the keye to enduce vertue, and represse vice (ii).

In this vision, writing about the past becomes the means by which morality and proper governance can be defined in the present. Indeed, this kind of exemplarity is the hallmark of early modern historiography. Whatever else it does and however it changes from the late medieval period to the enlightenment, early modern history writing retains this emphasis on memory and morality—above all else, early modern historiography preserves and moralizes. As Thomas Blundeville writes in 1574, ‘All those persons whose lyves have beene such as are to bee followed for their excellencie in vertue, or else to be fledde for their excellencie in vice, are meete to be chronicled’ (sig. C2r). And Degory Wheare explains that history writing is ‘undertaken to the end that the memory of [particular affairs] may be preserved, and so Universals may be the more evidently Confirm’d, by which we may be instructed how to live well and Happily’ (15). In Hall’s account, history writing bestows meaning on past lives by bringing those lives into the present. Princes, governors, and nobles may shuffle off their mortal coils, ‘yet thei by writyng and Fame live and bee continually present: Thus fame triumpheth upon death, and renoune upon Oblivion, and all by reason of writyng and historie’. Hall’s introduction to The Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke thus previews a central preoccupation of the complaint poems of the Mirror: the moral effect of memorializing the dead.

[11]  But a comparison between the Salisbury stories in the chronicle and the Mirror shows how very differently they employ the historiopoetic aims of memorializing and moralizing. When Hall comes to the freak accident that kills Salisbury, he does everything he can to both memorialize the Earl and securely moralize his death. Hall calls Salisbury a man of ‘wit, strength and pollicie’:

in whose power (as it appeared after his deathe) a greate part of the conquest consisted and was estemed, because he was a man both painful and diligent, redy to withstand thynges perilous and imminent, and prompt in counsail, and with no labor beweried, nor yet his corage at any tyme abated or appalled, so that all men put no more trust in any one man, nor no synguler person gat more the hartes of all men (sig. R4r).

This panegyric prepares the reader for the meanings that Hall will make of Salisbury’s sudden death. The phrase ‘as it appeared after his deathe’ reminds us that the florid praise to follow depends on a retrospective view of events. Hall’s post-mortem memorializing of Salisbury eulogizes the dead man. After Hall describes Salisbury’s death, he tells us about its effect:

what losse succeded to the Englishe publique wealthe, by the sodain death of this valiaunt capitain, not long after his departure, manifestly apered. For high prosperitie, and great glory of the Englishe nacion in the parties beyond the sea, began shortely to fall, and litle and litle to vanishe awaie: which thing although the Englishe people like a valiant & strong body, at the firste tyme did not perceive, yet after that they felt it grow like a pestilent humor, which succescively a litle and litle corrupteth all the membres, and destroyeth the body. For after the death of this noble man, fortune of warre began to change, and triumphant victory began to be darckened (sig. R5v).

For Hall, Salisbury’s death becomes the turning point in the Hundred Years’ War. It marks the moment at which the English begin to lose by suggesting that the death of such a highly valued leader ruins the nation’s resolve. Hall explains the loss of the battle at Orleans in the context of the larger historical narrative. There is, therefore, much at stake in moralizing Salisbury’s death: no less than the trajectory of the wars with the French.

[12]  Even if Hall’s introduction makes much of literature’s ability to make the dead live again, those dead live a qualified existence in fame or infamy; they must be safely contained in moralizing writing. Unlike the Mirror’s spectral historiopoetics, Hall’s historiography cannot allow ‘dedde bodies’ to shamble out of the grave to interrupt its narrative, the meanings it makes of death: ‘dedde men cannot with sorowe be called again, nor lamentacion for dedde bodies cannot remedy the chaunces of men livyng’. Hall’s use of Salisbury recalls the double gesture of elegy: with one hand it buries and with the other it praises and eternizes. Hall’s historical narrative may appear naively moralizing to us from our historical distance, but it is worth remembering that moralizing haunts history writing whether ancient, early modern, or modern. As Hayden White suggests:

If every fully realized story, however we define that familiar but conceptually elusive entity, is a kind of allegory, points to a moral, or endows events, whether real or imaginary, with a significance that they do not possess as a mere sequence, then it seems possible to conclude that every historical narrative has as its latent or manifest purpose the desire to moralize the events of which it treats (1987: 14).

White reminds us that narrativity itself is inseparable from ‘the impulse to moralize reality’. No narrative history can therefore escape it. For modern historians this desire may be more or less ‘latent’ under whatever disciplinary cover of objectivity is available. Hall’s ‘desire to moralize’ is certainly not latent, and he uses it in service of an authoritative account. In reading Salisbury’s death as a signal moment in the larger historical narrative, Hall’s authority arises from what Michel de Certeau calls a ‘will to objectivity’:

Even though historiography postulates a continuity (a genealogy), a solidarity (an affiliation), and a complicity (a sympathy) between its agents and its objects, it nevertheless distinguishes a difference between them, a difference established in principle by a will to objectivity (1986: 4).

This ‘will’ works to make a ‘clean break between the past and the present’ even as it relies on strong sutures across that break. That is, Hall’s account relies on two kinds of appeal. The first establishes connections to the past, those Certeau names genealogy, affiliation, and sympathy. Hall must see the Salisbury episode as part of a genealogical story that will lead, as his title suggests, to the end of the wars (both civil and international) in a marriage of the Lancaster and York factions. What Certeau calls ‘affiliation’ we can read in Hall’s account as nationalism: ‘the great glory of the Englishe nacion’. And ‘complicity’ or ‘sympathy’ in Hall’s chronicle is evident in his use of pathos—in the Salisbury story, a lament for the dead (and battles lost) that includes the audience in shared affective response. If these appeals are to similarity, the second kind of appeal is to difference. Certeau writes about the ‘will to objectivity’:

The space it organizes is divided and hierarchical. That space has an ‘own’ [un propre] (the present of this historiography) and an ‘other’ (the ‘past’) under study. …the discourse of interpretive knowledge subjugates the known, cited, represented past.

Hall’s knowledge relies on the historian’s perspective from the present, subjugating the past as other. The events he describes have a telos to which he has access—the union of warring factions—and Salisbury’s death must be interpreted in that frame. Salisbury’s death must mean something relative to the larger narrative, which can only be grasped from the retrospective position of the historian. Capricious Fortune may have a hand in the event, but she does not finally determine its meanings. What’s past is prologue.

[13]  Memorializing seeks to both preserve and bury the dead; it erects monuments that assign meaning to past lives, dealing with loss through attempts to entomb and idealize; and moralization attempts a mastery of the past through received understandings of history, whether religious or secular, by which to evaluate past lives. As we have seen, it is precisely this monumentalizing quality of Hall’s narrative that the Salisbury of the Mirror refuses. Both Hall’s chronicle and the Mirror memorialize the dead and moralize their lives. But for Hall, that turns out to be a mode of monumental historicism: he brings back the dead only insofar as he can freeze them in the amber of moralizing writing. History writing—what Hall calls ‘litterature’—provides the dead with a moralized story, a ‘fame’ that eternizes them as figures of either virtue or vice. From the perspective of the living, the dead survive in memory because historians have pronounced on the moral value of their stories, their ability to either ‘enduce vertue’ or ‘represse vice’. The memorializing of complaint poetry, on the other hand, is more likely to destabilize the moralizations of the present than to secure them. Hall’s historicism, like any such elegiac discourse, must founder when the dead return to speak on their own behalf.

[14]  Baldwin frames the 1559 Mirror with a conceit: the authors gather one day to select their subjects from Fabyan’s and Hall’s chronicles. They thumb through these histories, choose stories to represent in poetry, then read the resulting poems to each other. This mythical exchange structures the volume, often working to give the impression that the writers compose on the spot as the spectres possess them. The imagined gathering represents the voices of eight poets. More often than not the poets’ voices are detached from particular names with phrases such as ‘quoth one’, ‘another said’, ‘the company said’, and so on, forming a spectral octet for which the audience only learns two names in the 1559 Mirror: William Baldwin and George Ferrers. (Later editions name others such as Chaloner, Sackville and Phaer, though only sporadically; many of the poems still go without attribution.) In the narrative frame, the poets agree that each of the spectres will speak to Baldwin. In Baldwin’s words, the poets ‘al agreed’ that ‘the wretched princes’ should ‘complayne unto me’ (69). That is, the Mirror employs a self-conscious prosopopeia that fictionalizes the voices of the poets as they voice their apparitions. Keeping this conceit in mind, we might profitably ask how it is that the poets are taken aback when Salisbury refutes their providential project.

[15]  In the prose link following the Salisbury poem, the Mirror writers (again, as imagined and penned by Baldwin) bemoan their inability to moralize Salisbury’s accidental death: ‘This straunge adventure of the good erle drave us al into a dumpne, inwardly lamenting his wofull destynye.’ When, on the other hand, the Duke of Suffolk falls, the authors ‘rejoyce […] to heare of a wicked man so righteously punished’ (170). The prose links model the reader’s response in feigned lamenting and rejoicing after the apparitions speak. Such affective modeling invites readers to participate in a conversation about the meaning of history by assuring them that not even the authors know beforehand what the spectres will say or how to moralize their speeches. If Baldwin and his cohorts had desired a simpler, perhaps less poetic kind of moralizing—a ‘looking glass’ in which vice is punished, as the dedication promises—they could easily have chosen only those figures in whose righteous punishment they could rejoice, figures who would simply and consistently reinforce the providential model. But, as one of its writers says, the Mirror ‘is a Poesie and no divinitye’ (346).

[16]  We see prosopopeia at work to its full, spectral potential when Salisbury’s speech causes surprise in the chorus of poets. Speaking for the dead works as temporal palimpsest, creating the possibility that the voices of the dead may contest those of the present. As in a ventriloquist’s act, the object ventriloquized is most interesting and uncanny when it seems to take the ventriloquist by surprise, when it seems to speak without the ventriloquist’s volition and against his or her design. Clearly the Salisbury poem aims for similar effects. The poem, however, complicates and accentuates this effect by spectralizing the poet. Though Salisbury addresses Baldwin, the prose link that precedes his poem denies us knowledge of the author. Though the prose link cites him, it does so anonymously: ‘quoth one…I wyll take uppon me the person of Thomas Mountague earle of Salysburye…’ (142). We never discover who this ‘one’ is. What happens when an anonymous voice takes on the voice of a spectre? At this level of complexity, prosopopeia creates harmonics and dissonances between absent (past) and present voices, threatening the seemingly secure borders between past and present, dead and living. It invites the kind of disturbance Jacques Derrida describes as ‘spectrality’, in which the past operates inside the present (1994). The more effective the prosopopeia, the greater the sense that the poet is possessed by the spectre and dispossessed of his own intention.

[17]  Salisbury’s opening speech to Baldwin amply demonstrates the spectre’s doubled, metaleptic perspective. The Earl spends the bulk of the poem recounting the events of his life from a first person perspective, but he also looks back on those events from the distance of Baldwin’s present. In the following stanza, the spectre speaks directly to the poet of the way in which events are resignified in hindsight:

The ende in dede, is judge of every thing,
Which is the cause, or latter poynt of time:
The first true verdyct at the first may bryng,
The last is slow, or slipper as the slime,
Oft chaunging names of innocence and crime.
Duke Thomas death was Justice two yeres long,
And ever sence sore tiranny and wrong (144).

This passage and those like it slip between cause and effect in a manner difficult to interpret. Here and in the passage I cited earlier—‘god send them sory happes, / That judge the causes by their after clappes’—Salisbury speaks of two kinds of causes. The first is rooted in motive, the reason for action. In the opening of the poem, the Earl attempts to clear the name of his father, John, who took up what the spectre claims was a noble cause—a ‘iust pursute’ and ‘purpose good’—that nevertheless led to unforeseen evil effects. Teleology informs the second kind of cause, an inciting incident—regardless of the motivations that may prompt individuals to action—held responsible for present conditions and valued on that basis. Salisbury suggests that ‘the cause’ (the first, motivational kind) and not the ‘causal spede’ (the second, teleological kind) ‘is to be wayed in euery kinde of dede’. Moral lessons change with time and circumstance, and we revalue past people and actions given our ability to view them in hindsight. History, then, according to Salisbury (and he is not the only Mirror spectre who says so), happens after the fact, and events will be given the valence of ‘innocence’ or ‘crime’ by those in the present who seek to control interpretation of the past according to changeable current values and power structures.

[18]  Using the same emphasis on memorializing and moralizing reconfigured by spectral poetics, the Mirror plays havoc with Hall’s monumental historicizing. As Nietzsche reminds us in his own treatise on ‘the use and abuse of history’, the object of monumental history ‘is to depict effects at the expense of causes—monumentally’,

that is, as examples for imitation; it turns aside, as far as it may, from reasons, and might be called with far less exaggeration a collection of ‘effects in themselves’ than of events that will have an effect on all ages. The events of war or religion cherished in our popular celebrations are such ‘effects in themselves’; it is these that will not let ambition sleep, and lie like amulets on the bolder hearts—not the real historical nexus of cause and effect, which, rightly understood, would only prove that nothing quite similar could ever be cast again from the dice-boxes of fate and the future (15).

When Salisbury returns from the dead in the Mirror, he disavows the ‘causal spede’ that Hall relies on to create historical narrative. By insisting on the rule of fate, which ‘gideth al the game’ (143), Salisbury insists on what Nietzsche calls the ‘real historical nexus of cause and effect’, a game of chance that cannot authorize monumental history.

[19]  Salisbury’s musings about causes and ‘causal spede’ occur in a conversation with the poet that takes place in the present looking back on historical events. ‘Baldwin’, the spectre demands, ‘waye the cause’. The apparition pleads with those in the present to take intention into account when judging past figures, not the resulting events or the way in which history has made its heroes and villains after the fact. The authority for such a plea is based on the point of view of a first-hand participant in events who now also understands the use history has made of those events. Such a perspective—that of both the eyewitness and the historian—imaginatively trumps the singular perspective from the present. In this respect, the poet triumphs over the historian. At stake is the way in which moral lessons are drawn from the past. A later poem in the 1559 Mirror takes up the issue of ‘causes’ again. This time, the speaker is not an innocent victim of Fortune but one who clearly deserves death, as we can tell from the title of the poem, ‘The infamous ende of Lord Iohn Tiptoft Earle of Wurcester, for cruelly executing his princes butcherly commaundementes’ (197). For this spectre, stories about the past should be told truly, ‘Feare, nor favour, truth of things to spare’, but the biases of those who tell them prevent it, so that ‘stories never can be true’ (198). The spectre accuses chronicle writers in particular of writing useless or partial history:

Unfruytfull Fabyan folowed the face
Of time and dedes, but let the causes slip:
Whych Hall hath added, but with double grace,
For feare I thinke least trouble might him trip:
For this or that (sayeth he) he felt the whip.
Thus story writers leave the causes out,
Or so rehears them, as they wer in dout.

The two chronicle histories that the volume as a whole claims as source materials are here put in question. Fabyan presents no historical ‘causes’ and Hall’s are overly influenced by his desire to appease the powerful and elude punishment. The spectre continues:

And therefore Baldwin eyther speake upright
Of our affayres, or touche them not at all:
As for my selfe I waye al thinges so light,
That nought I passe how men report my fall.
The truth wherof yet playnly shew I shall,
That thou mayst write, and other therby rede,
What thinges I did, wherof they should take hede (199).

Here we can see both the doubling of perspective (metalepsis) and voice (prosopopeia) at work. The spectre claims authority over historians by virtue of his first person narrative. It tells us it will speak the truth about its life. The poet persona, Baldwin, will take dictation. The audience will read and learn. The confusion between speech and writing, however, is no accident. Baldwin is asked to both ‘write’ and ‘speake’ here—‘speake upright’, ‘That thou mayst write’. And again we are not told in the prose links who of the eight poets writes (or speaks) the poem. The authority over the historian ostensibly results from the first person quality of the narrative. However, any authority (moral or otherwise) that such a narrator might provide for the reader is put in doubt not only because of the spectre’s ostentatiously fictionalized, doubled perspective as a figure of the past occupying the present, but also because the poetic voice (and writing) that gives it form and presence bears a forged signature, ‘Baldwin’, that draws attention to its own forgery. In the Mirror, poetic memorializing in the form of prosopopeia and perspectival metalepsis deconstructs the volume’s ability to apply doctrine and demand judgment.

[20]  Critics have sometimes understood Baldwin’s Mirror as oppressively moralistic in contrast to the seemingly more complicated, ambiguous, and irreverent poetic productions of the late sixteenth-century superstars such as Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare. But by crafting the Mirror poems as a conversation—creating a dialogic exchange with both the prose links and the various spectral speeches—its authors employ a kind of moralizing that challenges the audience to interpret. The Mirror authors understand something of what Spenser sees as the necessity of ‘darke conceit’ in framing moral lessons. As Baldwin reports after the Lord Hastings poem, ‘one sayd it was very darke, and hard to be understood’ (297). ‘I like it the better’, another in the group responds, because it will ‘be the oftener reade, and the better remembred’. It is ‘written for the learned’. In fact, the learned poets of the 1590s do read and remember the Mirror. Baldwin’s volumes prompt the kind of conversation they model. In so doing, they exert a marked influence on sixteenth-century literary history. When Sidney’s famous Defence valorizes poets, who ‘borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be; but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be’ (11), against historians, whose work is ‘captived to the truth of a foolish world’ (21), it seems fair to say that the Mirror has already made the same argument.

Vanderbilt University


[1] The author thanks those who have guided this essay’s development, Leah Marcus, Lynn Enterline, Kathryn Schwarz, Peter Lake, Christina Neckles, and a particularly helpful anonymous reader for JNR. [back to text]

[2] William Baldwin et al., The Mirror for Magistrates, edited by Lily B. Campbell (65–66). All citations of the Mirror are from Campbell’s edition. Several versions of the project were produced from 1559 to 1610. Later editions (1574, 1578, 1587) reach back in time to depict spectres from Roman history and early English legend. But the individual poems, be they representations of Caligula or Richard III, retain a recognizable pattern, and the didactic intent of the volumes remains clear through changes in historical location. Each aimed to expand on the exemplary history of Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium, which was adapted into English by John Lydgate as The Fall of Princes in the 1430s (through the intermediary of a French translation of Boccaccio by Laurent de Premierfait). [back to text]


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