The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIII. Robert Burton, John Barclay and John Owen

§ 5. John Barclay

The Scot abroad, winning success in arms or commerce, has long been a familiar figure. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the countrymen of Buchanan and Dempster are often found in foreign lands as scholars of fortune. William Barclay, of an old Aberdeenshire family, a Catholic and an adherent of queen Mary, after some years’ legal study in France, accepted a chair at Pont-à-Mousson in the territory of the duke of Lorraine, and married a lady of that country. Their son, John Barclay, born in 1582, counted himself a subject of king James, though circumstances gave a cosmopolitan tinge to his character. Himself married to a Frenchwoman, a resident successively in England and Italy, suing for the patronage of the sovereigns of different realms, Barclay nowhere achieved the position his powers might have won. Too little is known of his life in London and his eleven years’ connection with the English court. That he was employed on important missions is certainly an exaggeration, though passages in his work appear to indicate some official errand.

To the modern reader, Barclay’s yearning for the favour of the great is, doubtless, distasteful. Each royal personage in turn is posed as the noblest and pleasantest prince of his acquaintance; but, in his days, to touch without adorning was unpardonable, and we have the testimony of such men as Casaubon and Peiresc and Thorie to the real charm of his character. Intellectually, Barclay was a compound of the student, the man of letters and the curious observer of affairs, and his highest work combines “the scholar’s learning with the courtier’s ease.”

His first performance, at the age of eighteen, was in the character of a scholar, a commentary on four books of Statius’s Thebais, with notes on the four following. It has been asserted that subsequent editors have neglected this book: but Barth refers to it frequently, and, while criticising it severely at times, styles the author vir doctissimus, and applauds several of his suggestions. Barclay was a fluent and pleasing master of Latin verse, and some lines of his were published as early as 1599. His collected poems contain matter of autobiographical interest, and also much adulation of James and others, with an occasional touch of grotesqueness. In his hexameters on the Gunpowder plot, the poet expresses his horror that men should have proposed to send the king piecemeal to the skies, when his own soaring virtues would more rightly bear him thither.