Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webbe, William

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WEBBE, WILLIAM (fl. 1568–1591), author of ‘A Discourse of English Poetrie,’ was a member of St. John's College, Cambridge, where he was acquainted with Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser. He graduated B.A. in 1572–3. About 1583 or 1584 he was private tutor to the two sons of Edward Sulyard of Flemyngs in the parish of Runwell, Essex. When these pupils reached manhood Webbe went, probably again as private tutor, to the family of Henry Grey (cousin of Lady Jane Grey), at Pirgo in the parish of Havering atte Bower, Essex. One of Grey's daughters was married to a William Sulyard. From Pirgo on 8 Aug. 1591 Webbe dates a letter to his friend Robert Wilmot (fl. 1568) [q. v.] which is prefixed to the edition of ‘Tancred and Gismund’ revised and published by Wilmot in 1592. Grey's wife was one of the ladies to whom the tragedy is dedicated. From this letter Webbe would appear to have been present when the first version of the play in 1568 at the Inner Temple was 'curiously acted in view of her majesty, by whom it was then princely accepted.' Nothing more is known of Webbe.

While he was at Flemyngs in the 'summer evenings' apparently of 1586 Webbe composed 'A Discourse of English Poetrie. Together with the authors judgment touching the reformation of our English Verse. By William Webbe, graduate. Imprinted at London, by John Charlewood for Robert Walley, 1586,' 4to. This was entered on the 'Stationers' Register,' 4 Sept. 1586. Only two copies are known—one is in Malone's Collection at the Bodleian, and the other is now at Britwell. It was reprinted in 'Ancient Critical Essays, edited by J. Haslewood, London, 1815' (ii. 13–95), and by Edward Arber among the 'English Reprints' in 1870. The work shows Webbe to have been intimately and intelligently acquainted with contemporary English poetry and poets. It is dedicated to Edward Sulyard, and has a preface 'to the noble poets of England.' At the end of the 'Discourse' the author prints his own version in hexameters of the first two eclogues of Virgil. It appears from the dedication (see also Discourse, p. 55, ed. Arber) that he had previously translated the whole eclogues into a common English metre, probably hendecasyllables, for Sulyard's sons. The eclogues are followed by a table in English of 'Cannons or general Cautions of Poetry,' compiled from Horace by George Fabricius (1516–1571) of Chemnitz. A short 'Epilogus' concludes the tract. It is of high value and interest as a storehouse of allusions to contemporary poets, and for the light it throws upon the critical ideas of the Cambridge in which Spenser was bred. It is a proof of Webbe's taste that he perceives the superiority to contemporary verse of the 'Shepherd's Calendar' (ib. pp. 23, 35, 52, 81). He translates Spenser's fourth eclogue into quaintly absurb sapphics, and his hexameters are scarcely better; but his protest against 'this tinkerly verse which we call rhyme' must not be judged by his attempts at composition in classical metres.

Warton mentions 'a small black-lettered tract entitled "The Touchstone of Wittes," chiefly compiled, with some slender additions, from William Webbe's "Discourse of English Poetry," written by Edward Hake and printed at London by Edmund Bollifant' (History of English Poetry, ed. 1870, p. 804); but no copy is known to be extant.

[Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. ii. 12; notes and prolegomena to Professor Arber's reprint of the Discourse, 1870; Morley's English Writers, ix. 84.]

R. B.