James Shirley 17th century War Poetry

                                                     James Shirley 1596-1666

James Shirley's house was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666; He and his wife managed to escape the blaze but both died a few weeks later.

His life, even his date of birth, are disputed. In 'Ben Johnson and the Cavalier Poets' selected & edited by Hugh Maclean( 1974), , we are informed that Shirley was educated at the 'Merchant Taylors' School, studied at Saint John's College at Oxford in 1612, but soon transferred to Saint Catherine's Hall in Cambridge. James Shirley graduated in 1646 and was a minister in and then a headmaster of a Grammar School in St. Albans, converting to the Roman Catholic faith around 1623.

From 1625 -1636, Shirley wrote fifteen comedies, four tragedies, and two masques. He then spent four years in Dublin, with two further plays appearing. A number of his  plays were performed by Queen Henrietta's Men, and his 1634 play 'The Triumph of Peace' had a set designed by Indigo Jones.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, Shirley served with the Royalist forces until July 1644 , then became a teacher.

In 1653, James Shirley's masque 'Cupid and Death' was performed in front of Oliver Cromwell and the Portuguese ambassador.  The plot involves Cupid's arrows causing deaths, whilst those of  Death's trigger love. The masque was set to music by Mathew Locke.

The passage to consider was published by 1659-  'Calchas Hymn at the Funeral of Ajax, not sure when this was first performed.  One edition available in the British Library from
Honoria and Mammon, written by James Shirley Gent.
Where unto is added the Contention of Ajax and Ulisses, for the armour of Achilles.
As it was reprenced by young Gentleman of quality at a private entertainmant of some persons of Honour.
Further more, this was printed for
John Crooks, and are to be sold
at his shop at the signe of the ship in St Pauls Churchyard
March 27 1659. 

                                            Extract from 'Calchas Hymn at the Funeral of Ajax'
                                           As featured in 'The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses'

                                          "The glories of our blood and state
                                          Are shadows, not substantial things;
                                          There is no armour against fate;
                                          Death lays his icy hand on kings;
                                          Sceptre and Crown
                                          Must tumble down,
                                         And in the dust be equal made
                                         With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

                                         Some men with swords may read the field,
                                         And plant fresh laurel where they kill;
                                         But their strong nerves at last must yield;
                                         They tame but one another still.
                                         Early or late,
                                         They stoop to fate
                                         And must give up their murmuring breath.
                                        When they, pale captives, creep to death..

                                       The garlands wither on your brow;
                                       Then boast no more your mighty deeds.
                                        Upon Death's purple altar now
                                        See where the victor- victim bleeds,
                                        Your heads must come
                                       To the cold tomb.
                                       Only the actions of the just
                                       Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust "

On line text

There is a debate to be had concerning what constitutes the first known War Poetry in Western European Culture,  the works of Homer or The Psalms ? Though James Shirley was a scholar, and most likely to have been a student of Greek, the rise of printing meant that people without university education were reading both the Classical texts and the Scriptures for themselves.

Calchas was the famous Greek soothsayer of the Trojan War, who was said to have fulfilled a prophecy stating that he would die when he was pitted against another seer who was more skilled at divination. After the Trojan War , Calchas was  said to have killed himself after being defeated in a contest by the soothsayer Mospus, a son of Apollo.

Links :

Companion blog to this one is World War 2 poetry

Companion website   WorldWarpoetry.com


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