ON 31 May 1655, the Westmorland gentleman Daniel Fleming gave two shillings and sixpence ‘to a Poetaster’. Fleming’s enigmatic note about the payment, found in an autobiographical sketch published in 1904, did not specify the name of the poet or the reason for the outlay.1 The recent rediscovery of Fleming’s memoirs, which had been lost for over two centuries, allows us to give the poet a name: he was the Stuart dramatist Robert Davenport. The memoirs also inform us that Fleming made the payment in exchange for a poem, a full copy of which he supplied in his text.2 The word ‘poetaster’, a contemptuous term for a minor poet, was coined by Erasmus in Latin before being brought into English by Ben Jonson, first in his play The Fountaine of Selfe-love (1601) and then, more prominently, in the title of his 1602 play Poetaster.3 By calling Davenport a poetaster, Fleming was seriously underrating his talent. He was no mere versifier but a serious playwright whose works included The City Night-Cap (1624), A New Trick to Cheat the Devil (c.1624–39), and King John and Matilda (c.1628–34). He had, nevertheless, fallen on hard times, reduced to offering unsolicited poems in hopes of patronage. Fleming’s narrative of their encounter is brief but revealing: ‘The last of May one Ro. Davenport (a Poetaster) presented him [Daniel Fleming] with a Letter, & a Paper of Verses, on purpose to get a little money; such Flatterers often makeing it their Imploy to attend young Gentlemen.’4 Fleming was in London on legal business, having arrived in the city on 4 May 1655. His account does not suggest any prior connection with Davenport, who is not mentioned elsewhere in the memoirs. In default of other evidence, we must assume that Davenport approached him without an invitation. If so, the playwright could not have known whether he would receive any reward for the poem he had written. Fleming described him as a man on the make, a ‘Flatterer’ who made it his business to visit ‘young Gentlemen’, who were presumed to be easier to separate from their money than their elders. Fleming was twenty-one years old at the time, having inherited his estate two years earlier after his father’s death. He described no subsequent contact with the playwright; their meeting was not the beginning of a patronage relationship. Apart from this reference in Fleming’s memoirs, nothing is known for certain of Davenport’s career after 1640. He presumably faded into obscurity because of the closing of the playhouses in 1642, which deprived him of his livelihood.5 His encounter with Fleming gives us some sense of how a playwright sought to sustain himself during the difficult years of the Civil War and Interregnum. It also provides the not inconsiderable biographical detail that Davenport was still alive in the 1650 s, something that scholars had suspected based on two pieces of evidence: an epigram addressed to him by Samuel Shepard in 1651, and an address to the reader signed R. D. in the 1655 quarto edition of King John and Matilda.6 Davenport offered to Fleming an acrostic poem based on the young gentleman’s name. The composition did not attempt to depict its subject’s personality or to describe his politics; it makes no reference to Fleming’s staunch royalism or to his father having taken up arms in defence of King Charles I. Neither does it refer to Fleming’s Anglicanism, his continued adherence to the traditional rituals of the church at a time when parliament had banned the Book of Common Prayer. Perhaps Davenport felt it would be incautious to mention such controversial matters, but it seems more likely that he did not know much about the young man he was approaching. The poem, despite its vagueness, hit its mark in one key respect: by dwelling on the worth of Fleming’s name, it flattered a young man who cared deeply about his lineage and went on to become a learned antiquary, writing a lengthy memoir of the history of his family. Fleming was so devoted to his family that he, curiously, did not write his memoirs in the first person. He began with the Norman Conquest and moved forward to the present, generation by generation. When he reached his own birth, he referred to himself in the third person as ‘Daniel Fleming’, the latest of his line. That oddity may have helped to keep his memoirs hidden in obscurity, since they seem on a cursory glance to be a history of the Fleming family rather than an autobiography of one of its most prominent members. The young man from Westmorland was far from unusual in prizing his lineage, and Davenport hardly needed to guess that this theme might appeal to a proud gentleman from the shires. But Davenport could not have known that Fleming also prided himself on his thrift, which would have militated against making any sort of payment to a ‘Flatterer’. The fact that Fleming parted willingly with two shillings and sixpence suggests that he found the poem to be very pleasing indeed. The care with which he transcribed it in his memoirs suggests the same. Fleming, despite his dismissive description of its author, appears to have seen the composition as a badge of honour. The poem was written in thirteen lines. It begins with a couplet, followed by a rhymed triplet, then four more couplets. The six letters of Fleming’s Christian name alternate with the seven letters of his surname, in the following manner: Fame, with its plenal, fair refulgency, Dwell ever in this Worthy Family. Laurel, doth Lightenings rudest rage outlast; } And Rocks (though Windes Warr with the Waves) stand fast. } Envy may blow on good men, but not blast. } No turn, nor Storm of Time, can work his fear, Makes Honour his resolv’d Port, and doth steer Ingeniously by vertues Compass; may (In all Times Sir) such vertue steer your Way. Ever may you stand sphear’d in a clear Fame; No cloud eclipse that worth which makes your Name Live in true Honour, Virtues due reward; Goodness bee constantly your Guide, and Gard. The composition, in Fleming’s transcript of it, is preceded by the words ‘The much Honoured’, followed by a stroke of the pen separating these prefatory words from the verse that follows. A similar stroke follows the last line of the poem, after which is written the word ‘Esquire’. The verse can thus be read as part of a longer phrase of address: ‘The much Honoured Daniel Fleming Esquire’. At the head, above the words ‘The much Honoured’, appears the word ‘Congratulary’, underlined.7 The heading evidently referred to the poem’s honorific nature.8 Accompanying the poem was a brief letter in which Davenport provided the barest of excuses for its composition: he had heard that Fleming was present in London and wished to pay his respects. The letter, as transcribed by Fleming, is as follows: Sir, My Respects to your honour’d Name and Family, seconded by proximity of Country, prevalently invited my Pen to kiss this Paper, & to congratulate your presence in these Parts. And Sir, though I may want sublimity of Phansie to marshal mee with the highest of Poets, I have Humility to Ranck mee amongst The humblest of your servants Robert Davenport. For the much honoured Daniel Fleming Esquire. This self-deprecating letter, like the poem itself, betrays no prior acquaintance between the two men. Davenport’s choice of the acrostic form was a savvy one; he could both flatter Fleming by making prominent use of his name and simultaneously assure him that the verse had been composed for him alone and was not copied from some other work. In both the poem and the letter, Davenport refrained from mentioning his prior career as a successful playwright; instead, he carefully kept his focus on his target, which was Fleming’s ego. His heightened choice of diction seems aimed at appealing to a young gentleman’s sense of what a proper poem should accomplish. He began the poem with the uncommon words ‘plenal’ and ‘refulgency’, using the first two lines to announce the worth of the Fleming name while at the same time showcasing the breadth of his vocabulary. The next two lines lean heavily on alliteration and natural metaphors, suggesting variously that the fame of the Flemings was like a laurel withstanding lightning or a rock withstanding the waves. From there Davenport transitioned into five lines developing the maritime metaphor that good men (like Fleming), though beset with storms of time and envy, would steer their way to a safe port with virtue as their compass. The poet then returned to the theme of Fleming’s honourable name, using the unusual verb ‘sphear’d’ to illustrate how his fame would shine through any cloud. The poem’s argument, then, was that a worthy name would triumph over the vicissitudes of life. This theme might have appealed to Fleming since much of his patrimony had been sequestered by parliament due to his family’s royalist activities in the 1640 s. Fleming had not gained full control of his estate until 1654, and even then only after some wrangling with other claimants. It is doubtful that Davenport would have been aware of the full extent of Fleming’s financial troubles, but he might have had some inkling of them. The transaction was amenable to both parties. Davenport received a payment of two shillings and sixpence, roughly equivalent to two and a half days’ wages for a common labourer.9 Fleming received a poem that he could transcribe in his memoirs as evidence of the worth of his name. Although Davenport’s skills as a playwright were no longer in demand, he was able to parlay his cultural capital into the sale of an uncommissioned work of verse. His ability to win over a young gentleman as suspicious as Fleming was an indication of his continued skill, both as a writer and as a student of human appetites. Nevertheless, his reward was meagre considering how much effort he must have put into identifying a suitable candidate for the poem, let alone the expense of spirit needed to write a creditable verse that might never find a market. The vigour with which Davenport threw himself into this unpromising venture is evidence both of the depths to which he had sunk and the lack of other prospects for London’s playwrights in the lean years between the start of the Puritan ascendancy and the reopening of the playhouses after the Restoration. Footnotes 1 John Richard Magrath (ed.), The Flemings in Oxford, Being Documents Selected from the Rydal Papers, 3 vols (Oxford, 1904–24), I, 8. 2 The memoirs of Daniel Fleming were separated at some point in the eighteenth century from the bulk of the Fleming family papers and were discovered by the present author in the Lowther papers at Carlisle. The full reference is Carlisle Archive Centre, DLONS/L12/2/14–15. The present author is currently co-editing the memoirs for publication with the assistance of Noah McCormack. 3 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. poetaster. 4 Carlisle Archive Centre, DLONS/L12/2/14, fol. 122. In this quotation, as in those that follow, thorns and abbreviations have been lengthened and italics have been used to indicate underlined words. 5 An Ordinance of both Houses of Parliament, for the Suppressing of Publike Stage-Playes throughout the Kingdome (London, 1642). 6 Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, 7 vols (Oxford, 1941–68), III, 226; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Robert Davenport. 7 Carlisle Archive Centre, DLONS/L12/2/14, fol. 121v. 8 For later uses of the word ‘congratulary’ in reference to laudatory verses, see A Congratulary Poem on the Right Honourable Heneage Lord Finch (London, 1681), and A Congratulary Poem on the Most Illustrious William Henry, Prince of Orange (London, 1689). 9 On wage rates, see E. H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, ‘Seven Centuries of Building Wages’, Economica, n.s., xxii (1955), 205. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 12, 2018
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