Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Constable, Henry (1562-1613)
CONSTABLE, HENRY (1562–1613), poet, was son of Sir Robert Constable of Newark, by Christiana, daughter of John Dabridgecourt of Astley or Langdon Hall, Warwickshire, and widow of Anthony Forster. A niece of his mother, also called Christiana Daubridgcourt, married William Belchier, and was mother of Daubridgcourt Belchier [q. v.] His father, the grandson of Sir Marmaduke Constable (1480-1645) [q. v.], and son of Sir Robert Constable of Everingham, by Catharine, sister of Thomas Manners, earl of Rutland, was knighted by the Earl of Essex while serving with the English army in Scotland in 1570; a letter from him to his wife's kinsman, the Earl of Shrewsbury, dated in the same year, describes some military operations (Lodge, Illustrations, ii. 42). Subsequently he became one of Queen Elizabeth's pensioners, and in 1576 drew up a treatise on the 'Ordering of a Camp,' two copies of which remain in manuscript at the British Museum (Harl. MSS. 836, 837). He was marshal of Berwick from 1576 to 1678, and died in 1591.
Henry was born in 1662 and matriculated at the age of sixteen as a fellow-commoner of St. Joan's College, Cambridge. On 15 Jan. 1579-80 he proceeded B.A. by a special grace of the senate. Wood appears to be in error in asserting that Constable 'spent some time among the Oxonian muses' (Athenæ Oxon, ed. Bliss, i. 14). There is much obscurity about Constable's later life. At an early age he became a Roman catholic, and took up his residence in Paris. Verse by him was meanwhile circulated, apparently in manuscript, among his English friends and gave him a literary reputation. Letters of his addressed to Sir Francis Walsingham from Paris in July 1584 and April 1585 point to his employment for a short time in the spy-service oi the English government. In 1595 and the following year he was in communication with Anthony Bacon, Essex's secretary, and his correspondent admitted that his religion was the only thing to his discredit. He was clearly anxious at this period to stand well with Essex, probably with a view to returning home. In a letter addressed to the earl (6 Oct. 1595) he denied that he wished the restitution of Roman Catholicism in England at the risk of submitting his country to foreign tyranny, and begged for an introduction from Essex to the king of France, or for some employment in Essex's service. In October 1597 he had definitely thrown in his lot with the French government. 'One Constable, a fine poetical wit, who resides in Paris,' wrote an English agent from Liège (21 Oct. 1597), 'has in his head a plot to draw the queen to be a catholic' A few months later Constable wrote to Essex that he was endeavouring to detach English catholics from their unpatriotic dependence on Spain. In 1598 Constable was agitating for the formation of a new English catholic college in Paris, and was maturing a scheme by which the catholic powers were to assure King James of Scotland his succession to the English throne, on the understanding that he would relieve the English catholics of their existing disabilities. In March 1598-9 Constable arrived in Edinburgh armed with a commission from the pope; but his request for an interview with James I was refused. He entered into negotiations, however, with the Scottish government in behalf of the papacy, and remained in Scotland till September. After his return to Paris Constable declared that James preferred to rely on the English puritans, and that he had no further interest in the king's cause. He made James a present of a book, apparently his poems, in July 1600. Meanwhile Constable became a pensioner of the king of France, but on James I's accession in England he resolved to risk returning to his own country. He wrote without result (11 June 1603) for the necessary permission to Sir Robert Cecil; came to London nevertheless, and in June of the following year was lodged in the Tower. He petitioned Cecil to procure his release; protested his loyalty, and before December 1604 was set free (Winwood, Memoriall, ii. 36). Nothing is known of his later history except that he died at Liège on 9 Oct. 1613. Constable was the friend of Sir Philip Sidney (cf. Apologie for Poetry, 1695), of Sir John Harington (cf. Orlando Furioso, p. xxxiv), and of Edmund Bolton.
On 22 Sept. 1592 there was entered in the Stationers' Company Registers a book by Constable entitled 'Diana.' This work, containing twenty-three sonnets, was published in the same year, but only one copy, in the possession of Mr. Christie Miller of Britwell, is now known to be extant. Its full title runs: 'Diana. The praises of his Mistres in certaine sweete Sonnets, by H. C. London, printed by I. C. for Richard Smith, 1592.' The book opens with a sonnet to his absent Diana, and is followed by a brief prose address 'To the Gentlemen Readers' (not reprinted). Each of the next twenty sonnets 18 headed sonnetto primo, secundo, and so on. The last sonnet but one is entitled 'A Calculation upon the Birth of an Honourable Lady's Daughter; born in the year 1588 and on a Friday,’ and the final poem is headed ‘Ultimo Sonnetto.’ In 1594 appeared a second edition, under the title of ‘Diana, or the excellent conceitful sonnets of H. C. Augmented with divers Quatorzains of honourable and learned personages. Divided into viii. Decades,’ London (by James Roberts for Richard Smith). A perfect copy is at the Bodleian; an imperfect one at the British Museum. The date on the title-page is in most copies misprinted 1584 for 1594. The collection includes all the sonnets which had appeared in the first edition except the opening one, ‘To his absent Diana,’ but they are mingled with new matter, and no attempt is made to preserve the original order. The edition is prefaced by a sonnet, signed Richard Smith, ‘Unto her Majesty's sacred honourable Maids,’ and includes seventy-six sonnets in all, the eighth decade including only five, while on the last page is printed the unnumbered sonnet from the first edition dated 1588. Seven sonnets in ‘the third decade’ and one in the fourth were rightly printed as Sir Philip Sidney's compositions in the appendix to the third edition of the ‘Arcadia’ in 1598. The volume was doubtless a bookseller's venture in which many poets besides Constable are represented. Other editions are referred by bibliographers to 1604 and 1607, but no copy of either is known. Two facsimiles of the second edition were issued in 1818, one by the Roxburghe Club, under the direction of Edward Littledale, and Professor Arber reprinted it in 1877 in his ‘English Garner,’ ii. 225–64.
Whether ‘Diana,’ the reputed inspirer of Constable's verse, is more than a poet's fiction or an ideal personage—the outcome of many experiences—is very doubtful. Critics have pointed to Constable's cousin, Mary, countess of Shrewsbury (her husband was Constable's second cousin on his mother's side), as the lady whom the poet addressed; one or two sonnets, on the other hand, confirm the theory that Penelope, lady Rich, Sir Philip Sidney's ‘Stella,’ is the subject of the verse, but the difficulty of determining the authorship of any particular sonnet renders these suggestions of little service to Constable's biographer. Todd discovered another small collection of sonnets in manuscript at Canterbury, bearing Constable's name, and Park printed these in the supplement to the ‘Harleian Miscellany’ (1813), ix. 491. They are addressed to various noble ladies of the writer's acquaintance, including Mary, countess of Pembroke; Anne, countess of Warwick; Margaret, countess of Cumberland; Penelope, lady Rich; and Mary, countess of Shrewsbury. In Park's ‘Heliconia’ were published for the first time sixteen other sonnets attributed to Constable, entitled ‘Spirituall Sonnettes to the Honour of God and hys Sayntes, by H. C.,’ printed from the Harleian MS. No. 7553. Constable contributed a sonnet that was very famous in its day to King James's ‘Poetical Exercises,’ 1591; four sonnets (‘To Sir Philip Sidney's Soule’) to the 1595 edition of Sidney's ‘Apologie for Poetry;’ four pastoral poems to ‘England's Helicon’ (1600), one of which—‘The Shepheard's Song of Venus and Adonis’—(according to Malone) suggested Shakespeare's ‘Venus and Adonis;’ and a sonnet to Bolton's ‘Elements of Armoury,’ 1610. Constable's works were collected and edited by Mr. W. C. Hazlitt in 1859.
Constable's sonnets are too full of quaint conceits to be read nowadays with much pleasure, but his vocabulary and imagery often indicate real passion and poetic feeling. The ‘Spirituall Sonnettes’ breathe genuine religious fervour. His pastoral lyrics are less laboured, and their fresh melody has the true Elizabethan ring. In his own day Constable's poems were curiously popular. Francis Meres (Palladis Tamia, 1598) and Edmund Bolton (Hypercritica, in Haslewood, Critical Essays, ii. 250) are very loud in their praises, but the surest sign of his popularity are the lines placed in the mouth of one of the characters in the ‘Returne from Pernassus’ (ed. Macray, p. 85):
Sweate Constable doth take the wandring eare
And layes it up in willing prisonment.