Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barclay, John (1582-1621)
BARCLAY, JOHN (1582–1621), author of the ‘Argenis,’ was born 28 Jan. 1582 at Pont-à-Mousson, where his father, William Barclay [q. v.], was professor of civil law in the college then recently founded in that town by the Duke of Lorraine. His mother, Anne de Malleviller, was a French lady of distinguished birth; but Barclay always considered himself a Scotsman and a subject of James I, and the attempt to affiliate him to France, of which his native town at that period formed no part, has been renounced even by the French critics who have of late done so much to elucidate the circumstances of his life. He is said to have been educated by the jesuits, and this may partially have been the case; but his father is little likely to have resigned the main charge of his education to other hands, and his writings show no trace of the false taste which had already begun to infect the jesuit colleges. Like Pope's, his youthful fancy was captivated by Statius, and his first performance was a commentary on the ‘Thebaid,’ composed at the age of nineteen. The jesuits may well have desired to enlist so promising a recruit in their order; but the usual story that his father carried him off to England to avoid their persecutions is rendered doubtful by the different account of the motive of his visit assigned by himself in one of his poems. The accession of a Scottish king to the English throne would seem quite sufficient inducement to draw a gifted and enterprising young Scotsman to London; at the same time his antipathy to the jesuits, from whatever cause it may have arisen, was unquestionably very genuine, and found vent in his next work. The first part of the ‘Satyricon,’ published under the name of Euphormio Lusininus, is said to have appeared in London in 1603, but no copy of the edition has ever been found. A second edition was printed at Paris in 1605. Barclay's stay in England was but short; he repaired first to Angers, and in 1605 to Paris, where he married Louise Debonnaire, daughter of an army paymaster, and herself a Latin scholar and poetess. The married pair removed in 1606 to London, where, in the same year, Barclay published his Latin poems under the title of ‘Sylvæ,’ but the second part of the ‘Satyricon’ was published at Paris in 1607, an edition entirely unknown until recently brought to light by M. Jules Dukas. Barclay continued to reside in London for nearly ten years, enjoying, as the statement of his friend Thorie and the internal evidence of his works attest, the favour of James I as a countryman and a scholar; but the assertions of some of his biographers fail to convince us that he was entrusted with state secrets or employed in foreign missions. The obloquy occasioned by the attacks made in the ‘Satyricon’ on the jesuits and the Duke of Lorraine compelled him in 1611 to vindicate himself by the publication of an ‘Apologia,’ usually but improperly regarded as a third part of the work. This has been usually stated to have been designed as a reply to a particular attack of which the author has remained unknown, but M. Dukas demonstrates that this latter cannot have been written before 1616 or 1617. In 1608 Barclay lost his father, and in 1609 he edited the latter's posthumous treatise, ‘De Potestate Papæ,’ a work boldly attacking the usurpations of the mediæval popes, which involved him in a controversy with Bellarmine. By other jesuit adversaries he was accused of having dissembled or forsaken his religion to gratify James I, a charge which could have been easily established if it had been well founded. In 1614 he published the ‘Icon Animorum,’ generally reckoned as the fourth part of the ‘Satyricon,’ an animated and accurate sketch of the character of the chief European nations. In 1616 he quitted England for Rome, a step imputed by himself to penitence for having published and defended the errors of his father on the extent of the papal authority; but which the internal evidence of his Latin poems shows to have been rather occasioned by the disappointment of his hopes of reward and advancement at the English court. Though his works continued to be prohibited at Rome, he was pensioned by Paul V and well received by his old antagonist Bellarmine; he repaid their protection, ‘meliore voluntate quam successu,’ says one of his biographers, by a controversial work against protestantism, the ‘Parænesis ad Sectarios,’ printed at Cologne in 1617. It was probably discovered that theology was not his forte; at all events, his services were not again put into requisition, and he spent his last years in retirement, indulging the innate Scottish taste for gardening by cultivating tulips, and his special literary gift by the composition of his masterpiece, the ‘Argenis.’ According to a manuscript note in a copy belonging to M. Dukas, founded on information derived from Barclay's son, this memorable work was completed on 28 July 1621; on 1 Aug. the author was stricken with a violent fever, and he expired on the 15th. Ralph Thorie, in his anonymous elegy on Barclay's death (London, 1621), more than insinuates that he was poisoned, and the suddenness of his decease is certainly suspicious. His romance was printed the same year at Paris, under the supervision of his friend Peirescius, whose letters to him remain unedited in the public library at Carpentras. Barclay, by his own direction, was interred in the church of St. Onofrio, which also holds the remains of Tasso. A monument erected to him in another church was subsequently removed, either from the revival of suspicions respecting his orthodoxy; or, according to another account, from his widow's displeasure at a copy having been made for Cardinal Barberini as a monument to a tutor in his own family. Barclay left a son, who became an abbé. His widow returned to France, and died at Orleans in 1652.
Barclay is a writer of the highest merit, who has adapted the style of Petronius, elevated by the assiduous study of more dignified models, with signal success to the requirements of his own day. His ‘Satyricon’ shows how completely at an early age he had appropriated the fascinating elegance of Petronius, while good taste or good morals kept his matter singularly pure, considering his age and his vocation as a satirist. There is more of youthful vigour in the ‘Satyricon,’ more weight and finish in the ‘Argenis,’ which enjoys the further advantages of an interesting plot and a serious purpose. The ‘Satyricon’ is partly autobiographical, partly based on his father's adventures, and one main object is the ridicule of persons individually obnoxious to him, such as the Duke of Lorraine, who figures under the name of Callion. The jesuits are attacked under the collective designation of Acignii; and the puritans, whom Barclay hardly liked better, are impersonated under the figure of Catharinus. In the ‘Argenis,’ though most of the characters are real personages, the merely personal element is less conspicuous; the author's purpose is graver, and his scope wider. He designed to admonish princes and politicians, and above all to denounce political faction and conspiracy, and show how they might be repressed. The League and the Gunpowder plot had evidently made a strong impression on his youthful mind. The valour and conduct of Archombrotus and Poliarchus (both representing Henry IV), the regal dignity and feminine weakness of Hyanisbe (Elizabeth), the presumptuous arrogance of Radirobanes (Philip II), are powerfully depicted. As a story, the work occasionally flags, but the style and the thoughts maintain the reader's interest. Fénelon's ‘Telemachus’ is considerably indebted to it, and it is an indispensable link in the chain which unites classical with modern fiction. It has equally pleased men of action and men of letters; with the admiration of statesmen like Richelieu and Leibnitz may be associated the enthusiastic verdict of Coleridge, who pronounces the style concise as Tacitus and perspicuous as Livy, and regrets that the romance was not moulded by some English contemporary into the octave stanza or epic blank verse. Barclay's own Latin verse is elegant and pleasing, and rarely aspires to be anything more. Very little is known with certainty respecting Barclay's character and personal traits. His elegist Thorie extols his personal qualities with most affectionate warmth, but in very general terms. He is usually said to have been grave and melancholy, but Thorie celebrates his ‘facilis lepor,’ and Bugnot speaks of his ‘frons ad hilaritatem porrecta.’ He evidently sought the favour of the great, and would concede much to obtain it, but he cannot be reproached with flattery or servility. His adherence to the catholic religion was probably the result of a sincere preference, but his writings are by no means those of a zealot.[Barclay's biography, as usually narrated, is disfigured by many errors, and many passages in his life are unknown or obscure. The notices of contemporaries and writers of the next generation, such as Bugnot, Pona, Crassus, Erythræus, were condensed, with many corrections, into an article in Bayle's Dictionary, which has since served as the standard source of information, but which M. Jules Dukas, in the preface to his bibliography of the Satyricon (Paris, 1880), has shown to abound with errors. M. Dukas has discovered many new facts, and his essay is the most valuable modern work on Barclay. There is a good Latin dissertation on the Argenis by Léon Boucher (Paris, 1874). See also Dupond, L'Argénis de Barclai (Paris, 1875). There is no collected edition of Barclay's works, and M. Dukas's exhaustive bibliography of the Satyricon is the only important contribution to their literary history. His separate poems appear in the Delitiæ Poetarum Scotorum. A fifth part was added to the Satyricon by Claude Morisot, under the pseudonym of Alethophilus, and has frequently been published along with it. A translation of the Argenis by Ben Jonson was entered at Stationers' Hall on 2 Oct. 1623, but was never published. Two other translations appeared shortly afterwards. The Icon Animorum was translated by Thomas May in 1633.]