Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Browne, William (1591-1643?)
BROWNE, WILLIAM (1591–1643?), poet, second son of Thomas Browne, who is supposed by Prince to have belonged to the knightly family of the Brownes of Browne Hash in the parish of Langtree, near Great Torrington, Devonshire, was born at Tavistock in 1591. Wood states that he was educated at the grammar school of his native town, and 'about the beginning of the reign of James I' was sent to Exeter College, Oxford. On leaving Oxford (without a degree) he entered himself at Clifford's Inn, whence he migrated (November 1611) to the Inner Temple. A certain William Browne was granted on 18 April 1615 the place of pursuivant of wards and liveries during life; but we cannot be sure that it was the poet who received the sinecure, for at this time there were other William Brownes belonging to the Inner Temple. A William Browne of Chichester was admitted student in November 1588, and another of 'Walcott, Northants,' in November 1579 (Students of the Inner Temple, 1571-1625, pp. 32, 57). Browne's earliest publication was an elegy on Prince Henry, who died in November 1612. It was printed in 1613, with an elegy by Christopher Brooke [q. v.], in a small quarto, entitled Two Elegies, consecrated to the never-dying memorie of the most worthily admirred most hartily loued; and generally bowayled Prince, Henry Prince of Wales,' 17 leaves. There is a manuscript copy of this elegy in the Bodleian. It was afterwards introduced, in a somewhat altered form, into the fifth song of the first book of 'Britannia's Pastorals.' The first book of the 'Pastorals' appears to have been composed before the poet had attained his twentieth year; for in the fifth song he writes—
O how (methinkes) the impes of Mneme bring
Dewes of Invention from their sacred spring!
Here could I spend that spring of Poesie
Which not twice ten sunnes have bestow'd on me.
meagre and of no great interest. In 1614 appeared 'The Shepheard's Pipe,' small 8vo, dedicated to Edward, lord Zouch. It contains seven eclogues by Browne, to which are ap-pended eclogues by Christoplier Brooke, Wither, and Davies of Hereford. In the first of Browne's eclogues is incorporated the story of Jonathas by Occleve, then printed for the first lime. At the end of the eclogue Browne makes the following note : — 'As this shall release I may be drawne to publish the rest of his workes, being all perfect in my hands.' Unfortunately the manuscripts were never published. The fourth eclogue is a smoothly written elegy (which may have supplied Milton with hints for 'Lycidas') on the death of Thomas Manwood, son of Sir Peter Manwood. In the first eclogue the poet addresses Christopher Brooke, urging him to write poetry of a higher strain. After the seventh eclogue there is a second title-page, 'Other Eglogves : by Mr. Brooke, Mr. Wither, and Sir. Davies.' The first piece is inscribed to Browne by Brooke ; in the second (which is by Wither) Brooke and Browne are figured under the names of Cuttie and Willy; the third, which is by Davies, is entitled 'An Eclogue between young Willy the singer of his native Pastorals and old Wernocke his friend.' Then follows a third title-page', 'Another Eclogue by Mr. George Wither. Dedicated to his truely louing aud worthy friend, Mr. W. Browne.' Browne's next work was the 'Inner Temple Masque,' on the subject of Ulysses and Ciree, written to be represented by the members of that society on 13 Jan. 164-15. After the books of the Inner Temple contain no mention of any expenses incurred by the performance, it is probable that the arrangements for the representation of the masque were at the last moment countermanded. The piece was printed for the first time in Daviess edition of Browne's works (3 vols. 1772) ,from a manuscript in Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Warton suggests, with little show of plausibility, that the 'Inner Temple Masque' supplied Milton with 'the idea of a masque on the subject of Comus.' Few facts are known about Browne's personal history. From Harleian MS. 6164 Sir Egerton Brydges discovered that he married the daughter of Sir Thomas Eversfield of Den, near Horsham, and had two sons, who died in infancy. He survived his wife and wrote an epitaph on her. At the beginning of 1624 he returned to Exeter College and became tutor to the Hon. Robert Dormer, afterwards earl of Carnarvon. In the 'Matriculation Book ' is the entry, ' 30 Ap. 1624, William Browne, son of Thomas Browne, gentleman, of Tavistock, matriculated, age 33.' It is possible (though improbable) that he did not matriculate during his earlier residence. On 25 Aug. 1624 he received permission to be created master of arts, but the degree was not actually conferred until the 16th of the following November. In the public register of the university he is styled 'vir omni humana literarum et bonarum artium cognitione instructus.' Wood states that he was afterwards received into the family of the Herberts at Wilton, where he 'got wealth and purchased an estate.' In 1629 Samuel Austin [q. v.] of Lostwithiel dedicated to Browne, jointly with Drayton and Serjeant Pollexfen, the second book of his 'Urania.' Ashmole MS. 36 contains a copy of verses by Abraham Holland addressed 'To my honest father M. Michael Drayton and my new yet loved friend Mr. Will. Browne.' In November 1640 Browne was residing at Dorking, whence he addressed a letter (presented in Ashmole MS. 830) to Sir Benjamin Ruddyerd. Among the Lansdowne MSS. (No. 777) is a collection of poems by Browne, first printed at the Lee Priory Press in 1815. The collection includes a series of fourteen sonnets to 'Cœlia,' in which the writer seems to refer to the death of his wife and to his second wooing ; some tender epistles and elegies ; six 'Visions,' on the model of Du Bellay ; jocular and bacchanalian verses ; epigrams and epitaphs. Among the epitaphs are found the famous lines 'Underneath this sable herse,' &c., which have been commonly attributed, on no better authority than Peter Whalley, to Ben Jonson. In 'Notes and Queries,' 1st ser. iii. 262, it was pointed out that in Aubrey's 'Memoires of natural remarques in Wilts' the lines are stated to have been 'made by Mr. Willia Browne, who wrote the Pastoralls, and they are inserted there.' No new information was elicited bv the recent discussion in the pages of the ' Academy ' (Nos. 608-10, and 617). The Lansdowne MS. makes the ~^*taph consist of twelve lines ; and in this form it is found in 'Poems Written by the Right Honourable William, Earl of Pembroke' (1660) and Osborne's 'Traditional Memoirs of James I.' The epitaph certainly reads better as a single sextain ; and Hazlitt makes the plausible suggestion, that ' whoever composed the original sextain . . . the addition is the work of another pen, namely. Lord Pembroke's.' Among the humorous poems in the Lansdowne MS. is the well-known 'Lydford Journey.' Prince in the 'Worthies of Devon ' makes the poem consist of sixteen verses. The manuscript gives seventeen verses ; and the copy in Thomas Westcote's 'View of Devonshire in 1630' (Exeter, 1 846) contains nineteen verses. Comparing Westcote's text with the text of the Lansdowne MS., we get twenty verses (vide Academy, No. 623, p. 262).
After 1640 we hear no more of Browne. In the register of Tavistock, under date 27 March 1643, is an entry, 'William Browne was buried' ( Works, ed. Hazlitt, i. xxxviii) ; but, as the name is so common, we cannot be sure that this William Browne was the poet. Another William Browne died at Ottery St. Mary in December 1645. From a passage in Carpenter's 'Geographia' (1636, p. 263) it has been frequently asserted that Browne intended to write a history of English poetry from the earliest times to his own day : but Carpenter's words, which are usually quoted at second hand and without reference to the context, do not bear this interpretation. What he says is : 'Many inferiour faculties are yet left, wherein our Devon hath displaied her abilities as well as in the former, as in Philosophers, Historians, Oratours, and Poets, the blazoning of whom to the life, especially the last, I had rather leave to my worthy friend Mr. W. Browne, who, as hee hath already honoured his countrie in his elegant and sweet Pastoralis, no question will easily bee intreated a little farther to grace it by drawing out the line of his Poeticke Auncasters beginning in Joseph us Iscanus and ending in himselfe.' Wood, making no reference to Carpenter, writes : 'So was he expected and also intreated, a little farther to grace it [sc. his country] by drawing out the line of nis poetic ancestors beginning in Josephus Iscanius and ending in himself ; but whether ever published, having been all or mostly written as 'twas said, I know not.' Whether there is any truth or not in the italicised words, it is certain that the work would have been merely an account of Devonshire writers, not a complete survey of English poetry. Browne was a good antiquarian. In a marginal note at the beginning of the first book of 'Britannia's Pastorals' he corrects a passage in the printed copy of William of Malmesbury from a manuscript copy in the hands of his 'very learned friend Mr. Selden.' Michael Drayton in the Epistle to Henry Reynolds speaks of Browne as one of his 'dear companions' and 'bosom friends.' To the second edition of the 'Polyolbion' (1622) Browne prefixed a copy of laudatory verses; and Drayton showed his respect for Browne by dedicating to him an elegy. Christopher Brooke's 'Ghost of Richard the Third,' 1614, and the later editions of Overbury's 'Wife,' contain poetical tributes by Browne, to whom may be safely assigned the commendatory verses, bearing the signature 'W. B.,' prefixed to Massinger's 'Duke of Millaine' (1623) and ' Bondman '(1624). Browne was also a contributor to 'Epithalamia Oxoniensis,' 1625. Like his friend Michael Drayton, whom he resembled in many respects Browne possessed a gentleness and simplicity of character which secured him the affection and admiration of his contemporaries. Prince tells us that 'he had a great mind in a little body.' Whether this description is to be taken merely as a flower of speech, or whether the poet was of short stature, it would be difficult to determine.
Browne's works were edited in 1773, 3 vols. 12mo, by Thomas Davies the bookseller. The poems in Lansdowne MS. 777 were first printed by Sir Egerton Brydges at the Lee Prioty Press. In 1868 a complete edition of Browne's works was edited for the Roxburghe Club, in 2 vols. 4to, by Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt.
[Memoir by W. C. Hazlitt prefixed to vol. i. Browne's works, ed. 1868; Wood's Athenæ (Bliss). ii. 364-7; Wood's Fasti, i. 419; Boase's Reg. Exeter Coll. Oxon.; Prince's Worthies of Devon; Carpenter's Geographia, 1635, p. 263; Beloe's Anecdotes. vi. 58-85; Warton's Hist. of English Poetry. ed. 1871, iii. 321; Retrospective Review, ii. 149; Corser's Collectanea.]