Born three decades before William Shakespeare, George Gascoigne (1535-77) was one of the earliest poets to write in modern English. He also wrote the first essay on poetic meter; what could be called the first novel (A Discourse of the Adventures of Master FJ); and the first stage comedy, The Supposes, translated from the Italian of Ludovico Ariosto.
Gascoigne's sense of humor, with its metrical deadpan and droll, peculiar sense of self, still works. He sometimes uses his name in the title of his poems, as in the longish self-defense "Gascoigne's Woodmanship." In that poem, the poet explains his inadequacies as a hunter, addressing his patron in a way that relates his failures with the bow to his failures to bribe the right people at court. In a brilliant piece of rhetoric, he makes his own clumsiness a matter of ethical superiority while keeping it comical.
I first learned about Gascoigne and his best-known poem, "The Lullaby of a Lover," from my crusty, passionate, and dictatorial teacher Yvor Winters. With a chuckle, Winters first read the poem aloud, handed me a copy, and then explained that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse, quietly omitted the fifth, next-to-last stanza of Gascoigne's poem. Did I see why? I passed Winters' test by answering that Gascoigne, in that stanza, was pretty clearly singing the lullaby to his penis—his "loving boy." With a somewhat malicious smile, Winters told me that he had asked the same question of his colleague, an eminent professor specializing in 16th-century poetry. The professor, in Winters' words, "had no idea."
I admire "The Lullaby of a Lover" for the way it sounds: The hypnotic rhythm and refrain vary enough to beguile without monotony. Part of that engaging music rises from Gascoigne's gift for personal comedy: Like Oliver Hardy dancing, he knows how to be funny and graceful, hyperbolic and earnest, laughable and grave, all at once.
"The Lullaby of a Lover"
.....Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest,
And lullaby can I sing too,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguiled,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be stilled with lullaby.
.....First lullaby my youthful years,
It is now time to go to bed,
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven [within] my head:
With Lullaby then youth be still,
With Lullaby content thy will,
Since courage quails, and comes behind,
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.
.....Next Lullaby my gazing eyes,
Which wonted were to glance apace.
For every Glass may now suffice,
To show the furrows in my face:
With Lullaby then wink awhile,
With Lullaby your looks beguile:
Let no fair face, nor beauty bright,
Entice you eft with vain delight.
.....And Lullaby my wanton will,
Let reasons rule, now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill,
How dear I have thy fancies bought:
With Lullaby now take thine ease,
With Lullaby thy doubts appease:
For trust to this, if thou be still,
.....My body shall obey thy will.
Eke Lullaby my loving boy,
My little Robin take thy rest,
Since age is cold, and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best:
With Lullaby be thou content,
With Lullaby thy lusts relent,
Let others pay which hath mo pence,
Thou art too poor for such expense.
Thus Lullaby my youth, mine eyes,
My will, my ware, and all that was,
I can no more delays devise,
But welcome pain, let pleasure pass:
With Lullaby now take your leave,
With Lullaby your dreams deceive,
And when you rise with waking eye,
Remember then this Lullaby.
Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of this poem by George Gascoigne this week. Post your questions and comments on the work, and he'll respond and participate. You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems. For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site.