The Stratiotikon

Ralph Knevet (1600-71) was a Jacobean poet who wrote some fairly decent verses of which this one (from his devotional verse collection The Gallery to the Temple) is probably the best known.

In contrast with that modest and charming farewell to arms, his earlier poem The Stratiotikon, which can be found in The Shorter Poems of Ralph Knevet (1966) is a plea to the military men who were training in Norfolk at the time to better prepare themselves for battle. This unpromising subject is made more so by Knevet's employment of high-flown imagery and allusion which seems entirely inappropriate to the task of persuading a lot of rough-necked men to get out in a field and practice rifle drill.

His tract opens with nearly forty verses of unctuously flattering addresses to the Norfolk officers and gentry he wished to win over with his argument. What chaps these must have been to merit such a ladling of oil! Here is one example, the verse to Mr Philip Woodhouse, who was the son of a local bigwig:

Methought I stood that sacred fountaine night
Where high conceites in blessed draughts are lent
Whose cristall brest seem'd suddenly to rent
And when a Nimph of rarest majestie.
Whose hayre seem'd Gold, and skin cleare Ivorie,
Upon her browes an Arch of bayes was bent,
Her presence taught even trees to complement.
For all the Laurells bow'd, and modestie,
With a low voice, seem'd, to give suffrage free,
To make her Empresse of faire Helicon.
With that I heard a grone, which seem'd to be
Sent from the urnes, of Poets dead and gone,
Whose Ghostes envy'd this peerlesse Ladies grace
That should them all in loftie straines surpasse,
Mistake me not (I thinke) your Muse was shee,
That like this Sylvane Nymphe appear'd to me.

A long-winded way of praising someone's poetry while not actually saying anything about it. Admirable, in a way.

Having completed his buttering up of the local yeomanry, Knevet got to the point. Well, no, he didn't. Instead he embarked on a fantastically overlong and over-the-top verse exposition, including a distended allegory in which various members of the animal kingdom act out the parts of his argument. (This sort of thing may have been fashionable at the time but that doesn't make it any less a sin against sense and taste.) A favourite passage is this one, in which Knevet tells himself to stick to his subject:

But intermit (my Muse) thy hastie chace;
And give those Harpies leave, to breathe a space:
Another worke doth thy assistance aske:
Then (my Virago) take thee to thy taske:
And with a pirrhique straine grace every line;
So shouldst thou sing of Martiall Discipline

He invokes his muse so often that one starts to picture her as his harrassed personal assistant: take a letter, Miss Muse; sorry, intermit thy hastie chace, Miss Muse: could you possibly spare a minute to sing of Martiall Discipline, Miss Muse ...

Another favourite is this longer extract, with its nice example of the pathetic fallacy (how exactly does a river look back?):

Needes then must my impartiall Muse commend
Those, whom theyre countries love doth move, to spend
Some houres, in Mars his Schoole, where loyal hearts
May learn the rule, of Militarie arts.
But thou (faire Norwich) by whose stone-rib'd side,
The gentle Yare in sandie path doth glide,
Creeping along thy meade with a slow pace,
As ravish'd with the beautie of thy face:
And parted from thee, still his love doth shew
With frequent lookes, and softly sigh adue.
I praise thy wisdome, and thy prudent care,
That art in Peace, providing against warre;
As witnesse may that warlike practise bee,
Which now is so exactly taught in thee.
Oh what a gracefull qualitie it is,
To be expert in Martiall properties.
The Tennis-court, and bowling grounds smooth face,
Compar'd with the Artill'rie yard seeme base,
Those great Olimpicke Games, and Isthmian plaies
Did never merit such applause, and praise;
As doe those Martiall gymnickes in our daies:
Those games through ostentation were ordain'd:
But ours for publicke weales sake be maintain'd.
To know each motion well, and to performe
Each title of command, in truest forme:
To doe the Muskets Postures dextrously:
And nimbly for to let a bullet fly:
With advantageous skill to manage pike:
To know how to defend and how to strike,
Doth not alone at hand, prevaile in fight,
But also doth far off the foe affright.

"Oh what a gracefull qualitie it is, To be expert in Martiall properties." Priceless.

The Stratiotikon was Knevet's first published work and his later efforts are rather better on the whole. A verse play, Rhodon and Iris is tedious but his Funerall Elegies and Gallery to the Temple, while pious, are sparely written and occasionally inspired. He also had the presumption to attempt a completion of Spenser's Faerie Queene but it was never published: Amy M. Charles, the editor of The Shorter Poems says that he feared political persecution but I prefer to think that he came to his senses. Let The Stratiotikon, though, stand as a fitting monument to the folly of his youth.