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

IX. The Successors of Spenser

§ 6. Sir Henry Wotton

Sir Henry Wotton owes his literary fame to one poem of memorable beauty, to his friendship with Sir Edward Dyer and John Donne, and to the twofold fact that an elegy on his death was composed by Abraham Cowley and that his life was written by his illustrious fellow-angler, Izaak Walton. The author of “You meaner beauties of the night” deserves immortality, though many authors of songs as beautiful remain unknown. He was born at Boughton hall, in the parish of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, in 1568, and was educated at Winchester and New college, which he entered on 5 June, 1584. His father’s death left him in a position to travel, of which he availed himself to the full. He visited Linz, Vienna, Naples, Venice, Florence, and stayed with the scholar Casaubon at Geneva. Few provosts have had a career so chequered and adventurous as Sir Henry Wotton. For he sent news to the earl of Essex from abroad, and, being at home in the capacity of secretary to Essex at the time of his patron’s disaster, was obliged to flee the country. He returned to Florence, and duke Ferdinand, hearing of a plot to assassinate king James of Scotland, sent him to warn the king. Wotton, taking up “the name and language,” as Walton recounts, “of an Italian,” travelled to Scotland from Florence by way of Norway, and arrived, as Octavio Baldi, at Stirling, where king James was. Three months he stayed at the court, disguised as Baldi, and the king alone knew the secret of his identity. Then he returned to Italy. When king James ascended the throne of England, Wotton was received into favour. He was three times sent as ambassador to Venice and, eventually, was made provost of Eton—a post which he retained until his death in 1639.

Sufficient of his poems have survived to make some wish that the number were less scanty. His play Tancredo and, doubtless, many poems are lost. His writings were collected and published in 1651 under the title Reliquiae Wottonianae. His character is typical of the days in which he lived. The power to write verse was considered an indispensable attribute of a courtier. Sir Edward Dyer, the earl of Essex and his great rival, Sir Walter Ralegh, afford eminent examples, and there are many more whose names are known by a song or two more generally than by other weightier though less important achievements. A gradual and indefinable change, however, was evolving; and poetry, leaving the court and the circle of those in authority, took, as it were, its own place in the country, and that place seems at first to have been the church. The two brothers Giles and Phineas Fletcher head the line of poets who were divines of the English church.