Samuel Daniel (1562 – October 14, 1619) was an English poet and historian who exerted a considerable influence on the development of Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry. Daniel's verse was highly praised and widely read by some of the most important poets of his era, including Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, whose history plays were influenced by Daniel's own verse-histories. Despite his strength for verse-writing, Daniel is primarily remembered today for his insightful knowledge of history. Daniel's verse-epic The Civile Warres, a retelling of The War of the Roses, remains one of the most important documents for historians of the period, as well as one of the most masterfully written of all English histories.
Although he never became a literary giant in his own right, Daniel stands out as one of the most versatile of all English men of letters.
Daniel was born near Taunton in Somerset, the son of a music-master. He was the brother of John Daniel. In 1579 Daniel was admitted to Magdalen Hall at Oxford University, where he remained for about three years, afterward devoting himself to the study of poetry and philosophy. It is believed that in 1586 Daniel was employed as the servant of Edward Stafford, the Baron of Stafford and the English ambassador in France.
He was first encouraged and, if we may believe him, taught in verse by the famous Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, whose honor he was never weary of proclaiming. He had entered her household as tutor to her son. His first known work, a translation of Paulus Jovius, to which some original matter is appended, was printed in 1585.
His first known volume of verse is dated 1592; it contains the cycle of sonnets to Delia and the romance called The Complaint of Rosamond. Without the Daniel's consent, 27 of the sonnets had already been printed at the end of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. Several editions of Delia appeared in 1592, and they were very frequently reprinted during Daniel's lifetime. We learn that Delia lived on the banks of Shakespeare's river, the Avon, and that the sonnets to her were inspired by her memory when the poet was in Italy. To an edition of Delia and Rosamond, in 1594, was added the tragedy of Cleopatra, written in classical style, in alternately rhyming heroic verse, with choral interludes. The First Four Books of the Civil Wars, a historical poem on the subject of the Wars of the Roses, in ottava rima, appeared in 1595.
As far as is known, it was not until 1599 that a volume entitled Poetical Essays was published, which contained, besides the Civil Wars, Musophilus and A letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius, poems in Daniel's finest and most mature manner. About this time he became tutor to Lady Anne Clifford, daughter of the Countess of Cumberland. On the death of Edmund Spenser, in the same year, Daniel received the somewhat vague office of Poet Laureate, which he nonetheless seems to have shortly resigned in favor of Ben Jonson. Whether it was on this occasion is not known, but about this time, and at the recommendation of his brother-in-law, Giovanni Florio, he was taken into favor at court, and wrote a Panegyric Congratulatorie offered to the king.
In 1601 the panegyric was published in a presentation folio, the first folio volume of collected works by a living English poet. Many later editions contained in addition his Poetical Epistles to his patrons and an elegant prose essay called A Defence of Rime (originally printed in 1602) in answer to Thomas Campion's Observations on the Art of English Poesie, which argued that rhyme was unsuited to the genius of the English language.
In 1603 Daniel was appointed Master of the Queen's Revels. In this capacity he brought out a series of masques and pastoral tragi-comedies—of which were printed A Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), The Queen's Arcadia, an adaptation of Guarini's Pastor Fido (1606), Tethys' Festival or the Queenes Wake, written on the occasion of Prince Henry's becoming a Knight of the Bath (1610), and Hymen's Triumph, in honor of Lord Roxburgh's marriage (1615).
In 1605 Certain Small Poems appeared, with the tragedy of Philotas. Certaine small Workes heretofore divulged by Samuel Daniel (1607) was a revised version of all his works except Delia and the Civil Wars. In 1609 the Civil Wars had been completed in eight books. In 1612 Daniel published a prose History of England, from the earliest times down to the end of the reign of Edward III. This popular work was continued and published in 1617. The section dealing with William the Conqueror was published in 1692 as being the work of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Daniel was made a gentleman-extraordinary and groom of the chamber to Queen Anne, sinecure offices which did not interfere with his literary career. He was acknowledged as a leading writer of the time. Shakespeare, Selden, and Chapman were among the few friends allowed to visit his secluded home in Old Street, St Luke's, where, Fuller tells us, he would "lie hid for some months together, the more retiredly to enjoy the company of the Muses, and then would appear in public to converse with his friends." Late in life Daniel gave up his titular posts at court and retired to a farm called "The Ridge," which he rented at Beckington, near Devizes in Wiltshire. Here he died on October 14, 1619.
As a dramatist, Daniel maintained a traditional relationship of conformity with Court and University, and he had little to do with the popular drama that was such a striking development of his culture in his era. As a result, he was largely isolated from the turmoil that sometimes enveloped the popular drama—though not totally: a 1604 performance of his play Philotas led to his being called before the Privy Council. The hero of the play was perceived to resemble Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex—a troubling connection, given the Earl's 1601 execution for treason. Curiously and rather amazingly, Daniel served as a sort of assistant censor for the Master of the Revels around this time, with specific responsibility for the Children of the Chapel Company, in precisely the years when that company was performing its most scandalous productions, Eastward Hoe and The Isle of Gulls.
Daniel's poetic works are numerous, but were long neglected. This is more surprising since, during the eighteenth century, when so little Elizabethan literature was read, Daniel retained his prestige. Later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and others praised him highly. Of his works the sonnets are now, perhaps, most read. They depart from the Italian sonnet form in closing with a couplet, as is the case with most of the sonnets of Henry Howard and Sir Thomas Wyatt, but they have a grace and tenderness all their own.
Of a higher order is The Complaint of Rosamond, a soliloquy in which the ghost of a murdered woman appears and bewails her fate in stanzas of exquisite pathos. Among the Epistles to Distinguished Persons will be found some of Daniel's noblest stanzas and most polished verse. The epistle to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, is remarkable among those as being composed in genuine terza rima, till then not used in English. Daniel was particularly fond of a four-lined stanza of solemn alternately rhyming iambics, a form of verse distinctly misplaced in his dramas. These, inspired by the Countess of Pembroke, are less successful than his pastorals, and Hymen's Triumph is considered the best of his dramatic writing. An extract from this masque is given in Lamb's Dramatic Poets, and was highly praised by Coleridge.
Daniel was a great innovator in verse. His style is full, easy, and stately, without being very animated or splendid; it is content with level flights. Although he often lacks fire and passion, he makes up for it with his scholarly grace and breadth of wisdom.
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