A Prague poet “infinitely better known than Shakespeare”

Elizabeth Jane Weston

In Czech Books this week we find out about the life and times of an English-born Renaissance poet who spent nearly all her life in Prague and in her time was more celebrated than Shakespeare. David Vaughan has been exploring the life and work of “Westonia”.

Elizabeth Jane Weston
We have talked in past editions of Czech Books about the remarkable Elizabeth Jane Weston. Known in her time as the “Virgo Angla” – the English Maiden at the court of Rudolph II – at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries she was considered one of Europe’s great poets. Here is an extract from a poem that Elizabeth Jane dedicated to the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte, who at the time was living out his last years in Prague. She wrote the poem in Latin so here it is in translation:

What is left to say? Music keeps us sound,
dispels sicknesses, confirms friendships.
It leads our senses to an obedient spirit, and draws
that same spirit to the heavens in a resounding voice.
Yet do not foolishly consider that to be harmony
which, alas, becomes pernicious in its allurement;
but what Phoebus has blessed you with, praiseworthy Philippe,
is serious, or comes only by the gift of the Gods.
It snatches our emotions from the ground and exalts them
to Olympus, and can call our spirits away from vice.
So rejoice in these gifts, and fare you well, great Philippe,
that you may be sung throughout the whole world.

Elizabeth Jane Weston has been all but forgotten, and this inspired me to do some more research, talking to scholars in both the Czech Republic and Britain and visiting some of the places in both countries associated with the poet. The outcome is “A Poet in Bohemia”, a radio documentary to be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on November 13. One of the people I met in the course of my research was Prof. Susan Bassnett from the University of Warwick, who is probably the world’s foremost scholar on Westonia’s life and work. In today’s Czech Books I talk to Susan Bassnett about the poet.

Susan Bassnett
“I have been working with Elizabeth Weston – Westonia – for over 20 years. I have an enormous affinity with her. She and I both grew up in different countries, we spoke different languages, we both write poetry. We diverge on a number of things, but I have felt myself very, very strongly drawn to working on her and I am writing a book about her life.

“I first encountered Westonia in Prague in the early 1980s thanks to a very distinguished Czech professor, Zdeněk Stříbrný. I was taken to see the grave of an English poet, who – a contemporary of Shakespeare – was infinitely better known than Shakespeare, was in touch with all the great intellectuals and luminaries of Europe, while Shakespeare was pretty much a local hack! And yet Shakespeare’s reputation has risen and risen and become global and Westonia’s reputation has receded to the point where, after the middle of the 18th century, nobody read her and very few people had even heard of her.”

This has happened all through literary history and sometimes writers are deservedly forgotten. Is that not the case with Elizabeth Weston?

“She isn’t deservedly forgotten, in my view, but her poetry is very much of its time. She wrote a series of praise poems to friends and distinguished people, she played around with various forms of Latin verse, and none of that remained fashionable once we had romanticism, because what she doesn’t do is write passionate personal poetry. And so, once the vogue for passionate personal or nature poetry came in, people like Westonia, who were writing in very contained forms, albeit using those forms in highly original and innovative ways, simply weren’t read any more.”

And there is also the factor that she was writing in Latin…

William Shakespeare
“She was writing in Latin in an age when numerous people were writing in Latin. All intellectuals would not only write in Latin, but speak in Latin. We tend to forget that Queen Elizabeth I was entirely capable of doing extemporary speeches in Latin and prided herself on doing so. So, knowing Latin and writing in Latin, is something of its time, but, by the age of personal expression and romanticism and the rise of popularity of national literatures, poets were principally admired for what they could in their own language and not what they could do in a classical language.”

You have mentioned Shakespeare, but Elizabeth Jane Weston’s world a long way from that of Shakespeare, isn’t it?

“Shakespeare’s world was one of travelling players, it was a world very based in urban English society. Elizabeth’s was a very different world in that she mixed with high level intellectuals, who crossed a certain boundary – and I think this is very important for her. She was not just interested in poetry. She was also someone who was very into new science, astronomy, new alchemy. We have to remember that this is an age when the line between magic and mathematics is so thin that it virtually doesn’t exist. So Elizabeth was caught up in the world of what today we’d call alternative science, but in fact was the kind of science that Isaac Newton, not long afterwards, would also be practising.”

And that is also very much a reflection of Rudolphine Prague. It was an extremely interesting place – a melting pot for many scientists, alchemists, astrologers, astronomers, who were all gathered around the Rudolphine court.

“Yes, it’s very much a case of what Rudolph II viewed as important – his musicians, his painters, his scientists and so on. But I think we tend to forget, when we talk about Leonardo da Vinci being Renaissance man, that having an interest in literature, music, fine arts, mathematics, philosophy, alchemy, physics and so on, was very much part of being an intellectual in the Renaissance generally.”

Here are a few lines from one of several poems that Westonia wrote in honour of the Emperor Rudolph.

May Caesar’s empire, which establishes rewards for the Muses,
flourish; and may Caesar’s court long thrive.
May the anger of the Turk be smashed, and the name of Tyrant
perish: henceforth may your people worship you.
May the land be fertile, may the contagions of pestilence flee,
and may temples, theatres and schools all rise together.

Rudolph II | photo:
Little is known about Elizabeth Jane Weston’s roots. Only in the last few decades has research revealed that she was born in the Oxfordshire market town of Chipping Norton, probably in 1581. Her father appears to have been a scholar; parish records describe him as a “clark” and her mother came from a wealthy local farming family. Elizabeth Jane was still a babe in arms when her father died, and not long afterwards her mother remarried. The man she married was the alchemist, Edward Kelley, who was employed – thanks to his supposed ability to communicate with spirits – by none other than the greatest philosopher and mathematician of Elizabethan England, Dr John Dee. A year later, in September 1583, the entire Kelley and Dee families – presumably including Elizabeth Jane and her brother John Francis – headed off from London first to Poland and then to Prague. Elizabeth Jane found herself growing up and ultimately spending the rest of her life in Bohemia. While John Dee eventually returned to London, Edward Kelley gradually gained considerable favour at the court of the Emperor Rudolph, and was even knighted. He made sure that both John Francis and Elizabeth Jane were given the best tutors available. At the time it was rare, but not unheard of for a girl to have a good education.

“I think there are two issues. One is that the actual history of women’s education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is quite cloudy. A lot has come to light in the last 30 years. Before that it was generally assumed that only boys were educated and girls were not. We now know that’s nonsense. One of the most interesting cases I can think of is Lucretia Borgia. We all think of her as a poisoner, an adulteress, whatever. In fact, she was a very erudite, very learned woman, who wrote a little bit of verse herself, but also cultivated around her some very high level poets – and, of course, conversed in Latin. We tend to forget the high level of women’s education at the court of Isabel and Ferdinand of Spain, which was why Mary Tudor and ultimately Elizabeth were so well educated. And Latin was the absolute cornerstone. It was regarded as the supreme language, the sublime language. If you could compose good verse in Latin, this was a demonstration not just of your intellect and of your status, but also of your innate poetic ability. So there was a whole number of women who tried their hand at this.”

Edward Kelley
Westonia’s education put her in good stead, when her stepfather, Edward Kelley fell out of grace with the imperial court. He was imprisoned and the family’s properties confiscated. After his death under circumstances that are far from clear, Elizabeth Jane, still in her teens, fought determinedly to win back the family’s fortunes. The weapon she used was poetry. She addressed hundreds of influential figures around the Emperor Rudolph – writing exquisitely crafted Latin poems begging them for support and patronage – and, remarkably, she succeeded. Her poetry was so impressive that she very soon became a celebrity in literary circles across Europe. She went on to publish two sizable volumes of poetry and correspondence, in the meantime getting married, in 1603 to imperial lawyer, Johannes Leo. Over the next nine years they had seven children, only three of whom survived infancy.

“I think that what comes across from her poetry, from her letters and from what we know about her, is that she was a person clearly with a great deal of energy, she fought passionately for what she saw as her rights, her family’s rights, and that sense of grievance, injustice, of someone battling to right a wrong is very strongly there. She did bear grudges, as you can see in some of her poems. There’s also the edition in the British Library, where there’s a hand-written note, which I’d like to think that she wrote, that basically complains bitterly about what her editors have done to her. So I think she was a fairly strong-minded person. She’s also, obviously, a very kind person.”

And what of her poetry itself?

“Her poetry is, I think, first of all very learned. That’s important to stress. It’s not personal, in the sense that we understand poetry today. It’s very scholarly. She demonstrates in her poems what she’s read. So, even where she’s writing about natural events – such as the terrible flood in Prague that she writes about, she writes about gardens, she writes religious poems about the birth of Christ – there’s always this extraordinary learning. So when you read her work, what you can see – or what her contemporaries would have seen – was a modern woman using classical scholarship and classical conventions in new and exciting ways.”

No one who has not been touched by it can speak
of the force and power of insatiable Death.
Indeed I would have thought it raged through our bodies only
and could not wound the spirit with its darts;
but the reality teaches me far otherwise, and makes me speak
as one who has been wounded and is experienced.
Death’s savagery is wont to be greater against the inner mind,
lesser against the members of the body.
When it has overwhelmed the latter and transfixed it
with a sharp missile, there is no room for more wounds;
but I know not to how many torments the mind is subject.
In how many ways can Death overwhelm the heart’s senses?

Those were a few lines from a poem Elizabeth Jane Weston wrote on her mother’s death in 1606. She herself had only another six years to live. She died on November 23 1612 at the age of just over thirty. At the time she was probably the best known English writer on mainland Europe. Gradually, she is once again being remembered, even if most of us can only enjoy her work through translations. If you would like to hear more about her life and work, you might like to listen to “A Poet in Bohemia”, which will be broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature slot on November 13 at 19.45 (British Summer Time), or throughout the following week through the BBC iPlayer.

Westonia’s Collected Writings, edited and translated by Donald Cheney and Brenda M. Hosington, were published in 2000 by the University of Toronto Press. The translations used in this programme are from that edition.