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Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem by Henry Hart Milman (1826)

October 13, 2012

Henry Hart Milman, professor of poetry at Oxford University, was also an Anglican clergyman (as was required to teach there at the time) and wrote this closet drama as a result of his devotion both to religion and to history. Unlike the earlier play Vertue Betray’d (1682), the plotline has at least an intermittent relationship to the true story, though Milman probably thought it was stronger – many of the strange changes and omissions can be traced to the source he cites, Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily make the work better than its predecessor. John Bank, writer of Vertue Betray’d was a man of the theater who knew how to keep the action moving, and while his play paid lip-service to the superiority of “Lutheran” principles he knew better than to get bogged down in nitpicking about the actual doctrines under debate. Milman, whose play was not being written with theatrical performance in mind, is under no such constraints and while he produces some vivid and interesting scenes and characters, all too often the clergyman overcomes the poet and we’re subjected to Protestant speeches whose theology is more in line with the nineteenth century than the sixteenth.

The play opens with a meeting between Mark Smeaton and his twin sister Magdalene, a former nun whose convent has been suppressed and who lives in poverty with a few women from her former order. Magdalene and Mark have the sort of bond which Anne and George Boleyn demonstrate in other works – as Magdalene says;

Oh Mark, Mark! In one cradle we were laid
Our souls were born together, bred together;
In all thy thoughts, emotions, my fond love
Anticipated thine own consciousness.

Their consciousness is shortly to become split as it’s apparent that Magdalene has a very low opinion of Anne Boleyn, blaming “the wicked Queen” for the misfortunes of her order. Mark, newly in service in Anne’s household, defends her as a ministering angel whose sole concern is helping the unfortunate and spreading the Gospel. “I know not / What she believes, but I see what she does.” Enter Angelo Caraffa, S.J., who has been assisting Magdalene’s former Abbess and scheming in the best Jesuit tradition. He lets us know what he’s about right away as he tells the audience that his one mission in life is to destroy both Anne and “the Arch-Heretic enrobed” (Cranmer), and deftly explains his own absence from the historical record thus:

Be all mine agency
Secret as are the springs of living fire
In the world’s centre, bury deep my name,
That mortal eye ne’er read it, till emblazed
Amid the roll of Christ’s great Saints and Martyrs
It shake away the oblivious gloom of ages.

He and Mark have a chat about his new placement in Anne’s household and Angelo elicits the fact that Mark is devoted to her and that her chief admirers are Norris, Weston, Brereton, and of course her own brother. Says Mark “Not one I do believe, would deem his life / Ill-barter’d for her service.” Angelo warns him against the dangers of aspiring to “perilous distinction”, and Mark departs, after which Angelo has a short monologue beginning “That warning was a master-stroke!” and cackling over the fact that by warning Mark of the dangers of rising too high, he has put it into his head that it is in fact possible to rise. With a few judiciously-started rumours, Angelo might yet see Anne the victim of calumny, and that will “Brand the Heretic cause with thy eternal shame.”

The scene changes to the court, where we see Anne disputing with her almoner about the food she’s allotted for the poor – the almoner says that there isn’t enough to feed them all, and she tells him to bring out more food. When he protests at the cost, she says that yesterday she dined on “luxuries that might have fed a village” and declares that the former inhabitants of religious houses being destitute, she must feed them, although they have themselves to blame for being idle before. “Therefore, our bounty must outrun a while / Our better wisdom.” Her mother and brother are there as well, and George Boleyn favours her with his eight-page “Protestant Hymn to the Virgin” which the author of Vertue Betray’d would have cut from the first draft – the poem is pretty well-paced before this, but the hymn is eight pages long, kills the action completely, and while it does establish George’s bona fides, that frankly could have been done with a lot fewer words. It begins:

Oh, conscious child of Eve
Mary, thy soul doth grieve
At godhead’s sacred rite to thee assigned;
Mourning the rash unholy injury done
To the redeeming name of thy Almighty Son!”

Eight pages of this sort of thing later it’s a welcome relief to see Angelo take the stage again, first lamenting the death sentences of the Carthusians, and promising that he will bring down “the fire-wing’d ministers of Heaven’s just wrath.” Enter Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Rochester, whom Angelo sounds out to make sure that they’re both good Catholics who would like nothing better than to see Anne out of the picture. Angelo indicates to Gardiner that his plan is to frame Anne for adultery: “I tell thee, she shall die – die on a scaffold!” and that this bad publicity will sink Protestantism in England forever. “But this Jane Seymour / Is of no better brood,” protests Gardiner, and Angelo brushes him aside with “She shall give place to another” and even more, if need be, until Henry comes crawling back to the bosom of Mother Church. Angelo makes it clear that while he’s allied with Gardiner, he doesn’t think that much of his courage: “In safety reap the harvest / Sown in the sweat of others’ brows,” he tells him, and Gardiner seems comfortable with that arrangement.

Anne appears once more, this time distraught over having seen Jane Seymour on Henry’s knee, and acknowledging this as just punishment for “one who dared / To love, to wed another’s lord!” (This is the only mention of Catherine of Aragon throughout – Mary doesn’t come into it at all). Her mother and Cranmer appear, begging her to ask for mercy for the Carthusians – “there never lived that could refuse thee aught,” her mother tells her, but when Henry enters he’s in a foul mood and makes it clear that Anne has no power to persuade him to do anything; Jane Seymour also requested mercy for the Carthusians, he tells her, and if she couldn’t get it, Anne certainly can’t. Anne is astonished that Henry considers Jane’s request the only important one, but Henry snarls “Who raised up one from dust can raise another!” and leaves Anne distraught.

We return once more to Angelo, who this time is scheming with Lady Rochford. The latter is not an entirely willing participant, telling him that although she’s obtained Lady Wingfield’s letter and has been busy spreading innuendo about Anne throughout the court, her inmost soul “doth recoil / At this base service.” Angelo, however, reminds her of her carnal sins against George, which are so ghastly that “I do fear to breathe / The tainted air of my confessional!” Furthermore, he reminds her, “I have taught thee how to merit favour / From those to whom the eternal keys are given,” so she’d better get back down to performing her penance, which is to spread more rumours about Anne.

Back to Magdalene’s disbanded order goes Angelo, and so does Mark Smeaton – the men meet up there while Mark is raving to an unhappy Magdalene about how he had the chance to play for the Queen herself, and how he’ll treasure the memory:

Look, motion, word, like relics, have I shrined them,
In the heart’s sanctuary, where all my thoughts
Shall come in daily pilgrimage devout
Till I am dust and clay.

Angelo interrupts their conversation to observe to Mark that “Our prophecies come true / Thou’rt in the sunshine,” and drops hints that perhaps the Queen was more taken with him than he realized. Mark goggles at the idea – “The more I think, the wilder grow my thoughts,” and Angelo slips out, his work done, to attend the May Day tilt. (He tells Gardiner that he wouldn’t ordinarily have done this, but for once “the old Caraffa rose within my breast” and tempted him to go and do something secular). His journey is rewarded by the sight of Anne’s dropping a handkerchief for Henry Norris to use as his favour, and the King’s storming off in anger at the sight. Obviously Anne’s days are numbered and the King suspects her of deeds unspeakable. “The game is won ere played!” exults Angelo, babbling on for awhile before Gardiner, in one of the play’s very few light moments, testily says “I am not heretic: why keep me thus / Upon the rack?”

Back at Whitehall, Anne is terrified at the appearance of Kingston, fearing, rightly, that he’s come to arrest her; nonetheless, she manages to pretend to her mother that Kingston is merely an honour guard until she’s reached the Tower, at which point Anne asks her famous question “Will I find justice?” and begins to break down:

If they misjudge my cause, yea, but a jot
The fiery indignation from above
Shall blast the bosom of this land, the skies
Shall be as brass, nor rain nor drop of dew
Shall the adust and gaping earth.

Another scene shift to the countryside, where the ubiquitous Angelo has met up with Mark Smeaton, the latter trembling with rage at Anne’s arrest. Angelo, playing the part of the cynical cleric, tells Mark that of course Anne must die – “She stands between the King and a new lust,” and pretends that for himself, he’d rather see her “live on in shame and sorrow / For sorrow is the mother of true penitence.” Mark, panicking at the thought of a world without Anne, asks if there’s any way at all to save her. Angelo says no, no, there’s none at all, except … one way which will subject her savior and herself to “blackest branded infamy” and asks rhetorically,

Where shall we find, in these degenerate days
Devotion more than Roman? Who will risk
His fame, his soul, to save a woman’s life,
And give a heretic time to pluck the brand
Of her lost soul out of hellfire?

Mark, naturally, walks right into the trap and declares that he himself will do anything, anything! And here commences both the tensest and at first read most bafflingly unnecessary part of the entire play, wherein Angelo tells Mark that in order for Anne to live, Henry must find some grounds to divorce her, otherwise he’s just going to have her executed to clear the way for Jane Seymour. But if he has grounds for divorce, he’ll just shrug her off legally, and for grounds, “these new Gospellers / Do admit none but foul adultery,” so somebody would need to falsely confess to having slept with her in order to save her life. Angelo mourns that Anne, thus cast off, would have a miserable life anyway – “For who would wed a tainted outcast / She were beneath the lowest groom.” Mark may be the professional musician, but here it’s Angelo who’s playing him like a violin. Mark departs, anxious to save Anne’s life by heroically lying that he slept with her, and having received Angelo’s assurance that the Church forgives lies told in a good cause.

This is the dramatic heart of the story, and it’s just bizarre to read. Not that Angelo isn’t as silver-tongued as ever real or fictional Jesuit could manage, but it’s so unnecessary. Anne has already been arrested on suspicion of having something to do with Norris, and Angelo and Mark both know this. What on earth would Smeaton’s spontaneous confession give the king that he didn’t have already, if he was determined to get rid of her? The logic, as best I can decipher it, is that a confession would give the King confirmation of his suspicions – Norris, as we see in the next scene, denies that he committed adultery, swearing that Anne is “the chastest Queen, the closest Nun in Europe,” but a spontaneous accusation would make him much surer of his ground and thereby give him solid grounds on which to divorce Anne and not behead her. It sort of makes sense, but in order for it to really work as a plot device we would have needed to see that Henry had some sort of interest in playing by the rules; as it is, considering the scene with the Carthusians and his abrupt dismissal of Anne, it’s been made amply clear that Henry makes up his own rules as he likes, and if he wants Anne dead or divorced he’ll find some grounds. With the Henry we’ve been shown in the play (not to mention our recollections of the real one) Smeaton’s spontaneous confession would do nothing except doom both himself and Anne, as every character except Smeaton recognizes. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Angelo sets Mark up anyway because he’s been grooming him for a long time and he doesn’t want to see all that effort wasted.

Back to the Tower we go, where Cranmer is visiting the imprisoned Anne. The conversation starts off rather flat-footedly with Cranmer announcing that he’s not there to hear her confession, as confession is actually not a sacrament and misguided as well, and attempts to cheer her up by telling her how much good she’s done for Protestantism in England. Anne reproaches him for making her want to live, but takes comfort in what she’s accomplished, then dispatches him to carry a letter to the King for her (this is the “From The Lady In The Tower” letter).

Re-enter Angelo, now in the Tower of London (man, this guy goes everywhere), and saying “Down, impotent remorse! Temptation, down!” He’s feeling a few pangs of guilt about causing Mark Smeaton to damn himself, but gets over it soon enough. He then goes to visit Mark in his cell, telling him some news from the outside world, namely that

There has been a stir, and parleying to and fro
Concerning a pre-contract, said to exist
Between the Queen, when young, and the Lord Piercy.

Nonetheless, Mark’s confession is still necessary for Henry to have grounds for divorcing Anne, and Angelo shoves said written confession at Mark for him to sign, and Mark signs.

Anne’s trial takes place, in which she pleads long and eloquently for her own innocence, asking the assembled lords, “Think ye I’d have peril’d / The pride of giving birth to a line of Kings / And robb’d my children of their sceptr’d heritage?” She dismisses Mark’s testimony as that of “a besotted boy”, but the end is fore-ordained, and she’s found guilty. Back she goes to prison, ready to depart this life for a better one, and we go back to Mark’s prison cell, where Magdalene has joined him for a final visit and Angelo is still hanging around, basking in his successful villainy. Magdalene is distraught (she’s usually distraught) and says she sees Mark’s eyes “All gleaming with a horrid joy.” Mark tells her that he’s sacrificed himself in order that his beloved Queen might live, and asks Angelo if Anne will be free, to which Angelo replies that “she will be freed anon.” We know what he means, of course, but it takes Mark a few more rounds of dialogue to figure out that Anne is going to be freed from this trough of mortal error, and not surprisingly he reacts with a long, poetic howl of rage, ending by vowing to “unswear what I have sworn!” Magdalene also breaks down, informing Angelo that he’s broken her faith in the old Church. “‘Tis not the faith of Christ” to lure her innocent brother into lying his life away.

Back to Anne, talking with a sympathetic Kingston about the five men who have just been executed – Anne wants to know if Smeaton recanted before he died, and Kingston says that he tried to say something but was cut off (so to speak) too quickly.

Anne’s hour has come, and she makes her procession to the scaffold. Her final speech is close to the original in essentials, right down to the fulsome praise of the former husband who was having her murdered, and it, and the play, end with

God bless the King,
And make his Gospel shine throughout the land!

SEX OR POLITICS? Religion, as it coincided with politics.

WHEN BORN? Not stated.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy is mentioned once, at the end when the ubiquitous Father Angelo tells Mark about the alleged pre-contract. But we never see him and Anne never mentions him. Once, towards the end, she remembers better days now past – when Henry Norris asks her for her favour when tilting on May Day. She tells him that

This language breathes of the blithe air of France;
It brings back recollections of my youth,
When all my life was like a jocund dream.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lady Rochford is the only one we see, and she’s being used as Father Angelo’s cat’s-paw, since she regularly confesses all sorts of naughty deeds to him and he tells her to spy on Anne, steal that famous letter from Lady Wingfield, and spread nasty rumours about her as a penance, although Lady Rochford balks that “mine inmost soul recoils / At the base service.” It’s clear, however, that her hatred of George and Anne is derived from her own loose habits:

I hate that husband,
For that I’ve injured him so deeply; hate
Her virtue that reproaches mine own shame.
….The sinful
Have a base interest to drag down the holy
To their own level. Set me some strange penance
Shall grind the flesh and wring the heart’s-blood forth
Oh! Any thing but this base wicked service.”

Angelo, not willing to give up his spy, tells her that she’s so foul she’s lucky he doesn’t kick her out of the confessional. The only maid of honour mentioned by name is Jane Seymour, whom Henry describes as having pleaded (unsuccessfully) for the lives of the Carthusian monks before Anne tried the same thing. Anne is distressed, but also sense the poetic justice of it all:

Jane Seymour, like a sister I did deem thee;
But what of that? Thou’rt heav’n-ordained to visit
Her sins upon the head of her that dared
To love, to wed another’s lord. May’st thou
Ne’er know the racking anguish of this hour,
The desolation of this heart!”

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mark Smeaton, oh, Mark Smeaton. Cranmer has a touch of this as well, but not nearly as much as poor Mark. In the opening scene he’s raving to his skeptical sister about the wondrous new Queen and how he would be unworthy even to look directly on her (followed by Angelo warning him never to even contemplate doing so, then explaining to the audience that this was to plant the idea in his head so he would destroy himself). On a subsequent visit, Mark burbles to Magdalene of Anne’s

sweet tones
Thou’lt keep the perfume, as the Arabian air
The smell of spices.

All the perfumes of Arabia could sweeten Anne’s hand, apparently. His idiotic devotion inspires him to swallow Father Angelo’s suggestion that he confess to adultery with Anne because that would give Henry grounds for an annulment.

Cranmer’s appearances are more limited and mostly serve to emphasize how completely devoted both of them are to the cause of Reform. He eulogizes her as “the rainbow o’er the awful throne!” before asking for mercy for the Carthusians (“And though my soul abhor the wilful hardness / Of these proud men, yet they were nursed in error.”)
After Anne is in the Tower, Cranmer turns up to counsel her, but not to hear her confession; that would be insufficiently Protestant, as he lets us know:

I come not, Lady, to erect anew
The much misused Confessional, where sins
Best hid in shameful silence, or wrung forth
In voiceless anguish, to Heaven’s midnight ear
Are acted o’er again in foul recital.”

Instead he comforts her by telling her of all the good she’s done and how Reform will go on for long after her death. Between Smeaton and Cranmer, it would be understandable if this Anne prayed to be delivered from her friends.

THE PROPHECY: Anne’s mother, after watching the young Elizabeth (who never appears), declares:

There’s no similitude she doth not shame!
Her forehead arch’d by Heaven to fit a crown!
I’ve almost wish’d thou ne’er shouldst bear a boy
Dear Anne, to bar her from the throne she’s born to.

Later on, while in the Tower, Anne herself cries:

My child! My daughter! O prophetic soul!
I dare not trust, yet will not disbelieve
Thy glorious omens.

There’s nothing quite on the line of Anne of the Thousand Days declaring to Henry that Elizabeth will rule his kingdom, but it’s enough.

IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth is mentioned but nothing about her birth is described; Anne’s fall is a result entirely of religious and political factors (and Jesuits, of course).


FAMILY AFFAIRS: George Boleyn is noble, righteous, and unswervingly Protestant, as he demonstrates with that momentum-killing eight-page “Protestant’s Hymn To The Virgin.” Given that Chapuys complained about George’s insistence on discussing religious reform over dinner, it’s disconcerting to think that this George may be a bit closer to the real article than the many dashing, sexy Georges who have graced the pages of other works. Elizabeth Boleyn appears several times, caring for her granddaughter, exclaiming over Anne’s elevation, and introducing Cranmer so he can plead unsuccessfully for the lives of the Carthusians. In her first scene, Elizabeth reminisces:

Our little playful Anne, all mirth and frolic,
The veriest madcap ….
I’ll not endure that my base epitaph
Write me plain wife of good Sir Thomas Boleyn;
I’ll be emblazed in characters of gold,
The mother of Queen Anne.

Thomas Boleyn is not seen but, as we can see above, gets a few mentions as “good Sir Thomas.” That he’s still alive we can see from one of Anne’s monologues as she grapples with her loss of Henry’s love:

Long, long I’ve felt
Love’s bonds fall one by one from thy pall’d heart…
I’ve still a noble Father, and a Brother
And, Powers of grace! My Mother – kill her not,
Break not her heart, for sure ’twill break to hear it.

From this we can also see that Mary Boleyn, political and religious nonentity, doesn’t exist here, and of course her affair with Henry is wiped out as well.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Henry Norris declares when accused that Anne is “the chastest Queen, the closest Nun in Europe,” and the whole play backs that up. Anne is a very sober, not to say borderline-depressed, personality whose chief interests are poor relief, religious reform, and her daughter.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Angelo Caraffa is the patron saint of this category. Speaking to himself, he says:

But thou
That art a part of God’s dread majesty
In whose dusk robe his own disastrous purposes
Th’almighty veils, twin-born with Destiny,
Inexorable secrecy! Come, cowl
This soul in deep impervious blackness – Grant
I may deny myself the pride and fame
Of bringing back this loose apostate land
To the true Faith.

And here he is griping at Mark Smeaton in his prison cell for not wanting to martyr himself in order to blacken Anne’s reputation forever:

Weak boy and thankless, whom I’ve wrought
To be a sharer in this great design;
Were thine head crown’d, thy body rough with scars
Won in the service of the Church, the joy
And pride of nations waiting on thy footsteps,
I’d trample on thy corpse with merciless heel
If o’er it lay my way to lift the throne
Of Peter o’er the carnal lords of earth.

About one-quarter of the play is Angelo talking like this.

ERRATA: Well, there are the obvious problems; an imaginary Jesuit who seems to have the power to apparate, Mark Smeaton’s spontaneous confession, Thomas Cromwell’s total absence from the story and the elevation of Norfolk and the Bishop of Rochester as the other two parts of the triumvirate of villainy which brings Anne to her doom. The anachronism of a Jesuit character the author acknowledges in a note, stating that for dramatic reasons he chose to make the date of the Jesuits’ founding earlier, and also justifying it by saying that since the order was founded only four years after Anne’s death, some sort of preliminary group must already have existed while she was alive.

The thing here is that unlike, say, Vertue Betray’d the author did have concerns about accuracy: the tilt on May Day when Anne supposedly gave Norris her handkerchief as a favour is mentioned – indeed, it’s pivotal and causes a suddenly suspicious Henry VIII to have her arrested – and we hear Anne’s cry that “It is too good for me” when told that she’ll stay in the same rooms she had before her coronation. She asks the famous question of Kingston about whether she’ll die without justice, and her ramblings about how no rain would fall until she was freed are also rendered into poetry. Clearly the author had done a lot of reading, and he cites several works at the end of his poem, the most important of which is Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformation of the Church of England. No exercise in dispassionate reporting, it nonetheless contains a good deal of information on Anne’s last days that would be very familiar to a modern reader – the handkerchief-dropping and “tarry a while” conversations with Norris are mentioned, and Kingston’s letters are paraphrased liberally:

But Three or Four letters, which were write concerning her to Court, say, That she was at some times very devout, and cried much; and of a sudden would burst out in Laughter, which are evident signs of Vapours …. She also said “That she would be a Saint in Heaven, for she had done many good deeds; and that there should be no Rain, but heavy judgments upon the Land, for what they were now doing to her.” (Burnet, Book III, p. 198)

Significantly, it’s never mentioned to whom exactly Kingston wrote those letters except “the Court.” They were written to Cromwell. The business of the letter to Lady Wingfield is also mentioned, and Burnet understandably dismisses as “The safest sort of forgery, to one whose Conscience can swallow it, is to lay a thing on a dead person’s name, where there is no fear of discovery before the great day: and when it was understood that the Queen had lost the King’s heart, many, either out of their zeal to Popery, or design to make their fortune, might be easily induced to carry a story of this Nature.”

And here we see the origin of Angelo Caraffa, whom the author so carefully makes into the sort of person who will disappear without a trace, and the elevation of Norfolk and Gardiner as chief villains – although they certainly had no problem with Anne’s departure from the scene, they didn’t have nearly as much to do with it as did Cromwell, and although Cromwell is mentioned desultorily in Burnet’s history, it’s only well before, and after, Anne’s death. His involvement with her prosecution is not mentioned, and if the author’s main source was Burnet, he may not have known of it. Cromwell was, after all, a martyr.

WORTH A READ? It’s interesting but I think more of historic than literary interest at this point – the poetry, as best I can judge it, is competent, but little of it really stands out on its own account. Closet drama is an odd thing – the niche for it for no longer really exists, since it was written to be read aloud but not staged, and probably found its chief use in family parlors in the days when people had to make their own entertainment without electronic assistance. It’s hard to imagine anyone these days wanting to read the poem in the way the author intended unless they were consciously trying to channel an earlier era or participating in a time-travelling reality show. It’s serviceable entertainment, but when people want that now they’ll watch a good-enough rerun of Law & Order, not read a good-enough closet play. If someone wanted to try it, though, I’d be happy to participate, just as long as George Boleyn’s hymn gets cut. Even for a closet drama, that thing was just too damn long.

From → Book Overviews

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