Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alabaster, William
ALABASTER, WILLIAM (1567–1640), Latin poet and divine, was born at Hadleigh, Suffolk, in 1567; a date that we are able to fix from the superscription to his engraved portrait in one of his later books, ‘Ecce Sponsus venit’ (1633). He was a ‘nephew by marriage’ (according to Fuller) of Dr. John Still, bishop of Bath and Wells, the well-known author of ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle.’ From a tract of John Racster (William Alabaster's Seven Motives removed and confuted, 1598) we learn that Alabaster was educated at Westminster School. From Westminster he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge; was elected to a fellowship, took the degree of M.A., and on 11 July 1592 was incorporated of the university of Oxford, The first mention of him by any of his contemporaries occurs in Spenser's ‘Colin Clout's come Home againe.’ Although this poem was not published until 1595, the dedication is dated ‘27 Dec. 1591.’ Additions were certainly introduced into the poem after 1591, but there is no need to follow Malone and Todd in supposing that the date of the dedication should be 1594. In ‘Colin Clout’ Spenser gives the most enthusiastic praise to an epic poem in Latin hexameters which Alabaster began, but never completed, in praise of Queen Elizabeth. The first book (which is probably all that was written) of this epic is preserved in manuscript in the library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge: the full title is ‘Elisæis, Apotheosis Poetica sive de florentissimo imperio et rebus gestis augustissimæ et invictissimæ principis Elizabethæ, D. G. Angliæ, Franciæ, et Hiberniæ Reginæ.’ Before 1592 Alabaster must have written his Latin tragedy ‘Roxana,’ which was acted in the hall of Trinity College, Cambridge. A surreptitious edition of this play was published in 1632, and in the same year it was issued by the author in a more correct form, ‘a plagiarii unguibus vindicata, aucta et agnita ab authore,’ with a dedication to Sir Ralph Freeman. There exist manuscript copies of it in MS. Lambeth 838, and MS. Bibl. Publ. Cantab. Ff. ii. 9. The tragedy is a stiff and lifeless piece of work, written on the model of Seneca: at our universities Seneca died hard. Fuller is loud in his praises of Alabaster—‘a most rare poet as any our age or nation hath produced;’ and Anthony à Wood, still more enthusiastic, calls him ‘the rarest poet that any one age or nation produced.’ In the next century ‘Roxana’ again came into notice by a remark of Dr. Johnson in his ‘Life of Milton,’ that ‘if we produced anything worthy of notice before the elegies of Milton it was perhaps Alabaster's “Roxana.”’ A copy of the tragedy (preserved in the British Museum) has the following manuscript note in a seventeenth-century hand: ‘Haud multum abest hæc tragœdia a pura versione tragœdiæ Italicæ Ludovici Groti Cæci Hadriensis cui titulus “Dalida.”’ Hallam, on comparing Alabaster's play with the ‘Dalida’ of Groto, discovered that ‘the story, the characters, the incidents, almost every successive scene, many thoughts, descriptions, and images, are taken from this original’ (Literature of Europe, ed. 1854, iii. 54).
In June 1596 Alabaster, as chaplain to the Earl of Essex, accompanied the expedition against Cadiz. While in Spain he was induced by the arguments of a Jesuit priest to become a convert to Romanism. On his return to England he seems to have published a pamphlet giving ‘Seven Motives’ for his conversion. There is no copy of this pamphlet in the British Museum, the Bodleian, or the Cambridge University library. It was no doubt rigidly suppressed; but two answers to it have come down, one by John Racster (reference to which has been made above), and the other entitled ‘An Answere to William Alabaster his Motives. By Roger Fenton, Preacher of Grayes Inne,’ 1599. From these tracts it appears that Alabaster suffered imprisonment in the Tower for his change of opinions. As the dedication of Fenton's pamphlet bears date ‘24 Nov. 1599,’ and as Alabaster was already in the Tower when Racster expostulated with him in 1598, the imprisonment must have lasted several months. There is no evidence to show the time and circumstances of his release or escape, but we find him abroad in 1607, when he published at Antwerp a strange treatise on cabalistic divinity, under the title of ‘Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi.’ By order of the papal authorities the book was placed on the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ early in 1610. For the biographical facts relating to this part of his career Alabaster himself is our authority. In the preface to his ‘Ecce Sponsus venit,’ 1633 (a mystical disquisition concerning the end of the world), he tells us that he was induced, at the solicitation of some Jesuits, to go to Rome; that on his arrival he was thrown into the prison of the Inquisition, whence he was released on the condition that he should keep himself within the city for five years; that having with great danger made his escape he returned to England and became reconverted to protestantism. Afterwards he took the degree of D.D., was made a prebendary of St. Paul's Cathedral, and received the living of Tharfield in Hertfordshire. Pursuing his recondite studies in cabalistic divinity, he published in 1621 ‘Commentarius de Bestia Apocalyptica,’ and in 1633 ‘Spiraculum Tubarum, seu Fons Spiritualium Expositionum’ (Bodl. Catal.). His last work, published in 1637, is his ‘Lexicon Pentaglotton, Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Talmudico-Rabbinicon et Arabicum,’ fol. Alabaster died early in April 1640. Herrick, in ‘Hesperides,’ has some verses in praise of his mystical writings.
Mr. J.P. Collier (Engl. Dram. Liter. ii. 340–41, 1879) printed two sonnets of Alabaster's from a manuscript volume in his possession; and two others were printed by Malone from a manuscript, once Archbishop Sancroft's, in the Bodleian Library. MS. Ashmole 38, art. 87, contains an unpublished tract of Alabaster's, entitled ‘In duos Reginaldos inter se de religione certantes.’ Cottonian MS. Jul. Cæs. v. fol. 23 has some Latin elegiacs in praise of Camden, signed Gulielmus Alliba[ster]. There is a scanty notice of our author in Lansdowne MS. 984.
[Fuller's Worthies; Bayle's Dictionnaire Critique; Wood's Athenæ, ed. Bliss, i. 613. iv. 280; Collier's Hist, of Engl. Dram. Lit. ii. 340–41 (1879); Malone's Shakespeare.]