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

§ 7. Argenis

Argenis is a far more mature work than Euphormio; its author’s intention is clearer, it has a carefully constructed plot, and, in style too, a distinct advance is perceptible. The work was written at Rome where Barclay had settled in 1617, and Rome is recalled by some of the details in description. Light is thrown on the composition of Argenis by Barclay’s own letters and by those of Peiresc and others. They show us quite plainly that Argenis must not be regarded as a purely artistic work of imagination, but, at least in part, as inspired by political motives. In a letter to de Puysieu, dated Rome, 12 July, 1620, Barclay writes:

  • Le suiet du liure ou je pretends faire entrer au bon escient Monseigneur le Chancellier et vous aussy, est une inuention assés gaye comprise en cinq liures ou se traitte de la pluspart des affaires de nostre temps. J’y adjousteray cette preface de laquelle je vous ay parlé si le Roy accepte mon service et tourneray aisement le stile de tous les cinq liures à l’honneur de la France.
  • In a letter which Barclay sent to Louis XIII with a copy of Argenis a few days before his death, he says of his book:
  • son principal but est de traicter des guerres et des amours d’un jeune et chaste Prince qui semblent estre tirees sur le modelle de vostre courage et genie.
  • This time, Barclay was anxious to avoid giving offence, and specimens of what he had written were submitted to the judgment of others. In his dedication to Louis XIII, he speaks of his work as a new kind of writing and, in the course of the book, expounds its principles in the person of Nicopompus. The poet describes how he proposes to write a story in the style of a history. The fictitious element, the exciting and unexpected incidents, are to attract readers: the pictures of virtues and vices with their appropriate rewards are to compel men to self-criticism and self-condemnation. He is careful to add that no persons will be portrayed to the exact life, but that disguise will be secured by fictitious details; consequently, to take offence will be a confession of the reader’s own guilt. It will be an equal error to assume that everything or that nothing corresponds to real fact. As, in Euphormio, the satirical element was dominant, in the later fiction it is the didactic.

    There is no need to repeat the details of the story. Argenis, daughter and heir presumptive of Meleander, king of Sicily, has four aspirants to her hand: Lycogenes, the rebel whose attempt to carry her off is frustrated by Poliarchus, disguised as a girl; Radirobanes, king of Sardinia, her father’s ally against the rebels, who fails in an attempt to seize Argenis and is afterwards slain in single combat by Poliarchus; Archombrotus, a prince who arrives in Sicily incognito, but proves to be Meleander’s son by a secret marriage; and the hero Poliarchus, a Gallic king, whose union with Argenis is celebrated at the conclusion.

    According to one view, Argenis is simply a political treatise cast in the form of a novel. According to another, it is a perpetual historical allegory; while a third would make it, in all that is essential, a romance. That there is really a fusion of romantic, political and historical motives is proved, if proof be needed, by the author’s own words.

    Like his father, Barclay was a strong but not unreasoning supporter of the power of the crown. The abuses of monarchy are debated, but he is careful not to let the Whig dogs have the best of the argument. His was evidently that acute and cautious type of mind that sides with authority and shows resourcefulness in opposing the advocates of less arbitrary rule. In the remedies suggested for strengthening the crown against two powerful nobles, there is a curious anticipation of Richelieu’s measures.

    The political questions are those of the day, but how far are the principal characters and situations historical? The detail and order of the action is imaginary and a precise allegory is out of the question, but it would certainly seem that, in describing the condition and relation of various countries, Barclay had in mind the recent history of Europe. The troubles of Sicily, it is reasonable to suppose, were at least suggested by those of France during the wars of the League. To give an exact picture was no part of Barclay’s intention; but Sardinia, under the ambitious and encroaching Radirobanes, recalls Spain, while Mauretania, which repels Radirobanes’s attack and is governed by a queen unable to take her subjects’ money without their consent, has its analogue in England. The chief characters are no portraits. Lycogenes may correspond to the duke of guise, but Henri III would be flattered in Meleander. Argenis, in a sense, typifies the succession to the crown, and Barclay may have thought of Marguerite of Valois, the subject of his touching verses in Euphormio. Poliarchus has usually been taken to represent Henry of Navarre; that Archombrotus is his understudy illustrates the danger of demanding an exact resemblance. Barclay’s claim that his hero is meant for Louis XIII is not inconsistent, as he elsewhere attributes the father’s merits to the son. Certain minor characters are easily recognised—Ibburranes and Dunalbius are the cardinals Barberini and Ubaldini; Hieroleander is Hieronymus Aleander; Antenorius, Antonio Querenghi. Nicopompus, ever ready with occasional verse, is Barelay’s self. One of Barclay’s letters gives his intention of introducing Sillery, who may be Cleobulus. There are undisputed references to historical incidents—the story of Concini, of Somerset and lady Essex; the dispute between the emperor Ferdinand and the Pfalzgraf Friedrich. The narrative, though never lost sight of, is relieved by poems, by discussions, in which the parts maintained are in skilful keeping with the characters, by descriptions of scenery, works of art and pageants, in which, perhaps, we may see recollections of the masques at James’s court. There are lighter passages and some attempts at mirth, but the prevailing tone is elevated and serious, at times approaching the epic. Consistency is maintained in the characters, with little development. Of Barclay’s reading, there is continual evidence. We are reminded of the Greek novelists with whom the pirate is often the diabolus ex machina; of Polybius, to whom the description of Epeircte is due; of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (the name Gobrias, however, may be taken from Theodorus Prodromus, the Vatican MS. of which writer Barclay examined for Gaulmin’s edition). But a list of authors who colour his poetry and prose would be endless.

    Barclay’s Latin style has been lauded without limit by Grotius and Coleridge, and severely dealt with by Scaliger, the author of Censura Euphormionis, Scioppius and others. If we judge by a classical standard, it is easy to “smell false Latin.” The vocabulary is not pure. There are lapses in usage. Among his merits can scarcely be counted “a witty and dexterous use of the subjunctive mood.” But, as an example of the application of Latin to modern use, Barclay’s language deserves high praise. While no Ciceronian, he has not affiliated “Lipsius his hopping style.” His own is ready, flexible and expressive, and has the inestimable merit of conveying the author’s meaning.

    To whatever degree the belief in a clavis may have contributed to the success of Argenis, its literary merits are beyond question. Sorel criticised it with some animosity in his Remarques sur le Berger extravagant, but its popularity is proved by translations into ten languages and more than one continuation.

    While there is little direct imitation of Argenis, it was among the influences that passed into the heroic novel, and separate signs of it are frequent in the literature of the seventeenth century. We may trace them in other Latin works of fiction, in Erythraeus’s Eudemia and in Nova Solyma. The story yielded material for dramas, in French, Spanish, Italian and German. Fénelon’s indebtedness has been doubted. Burton quotes from Argenis, as well as from Euphormio and Icon Animorum. Crashaw translated verses from Argenis. There are touches of it in Boyle’s Parthenissa. Katherine Philips addresses a friend as Poliarchus.

    Barclay’s works were even employed for purposes of instruction. A selection was made of his political aphorisms. In Earle’s Micro-Cosmographie, a college tutor sets his pupil an extract from Euphormio, and the suitability of Barclay as a Latin author for boys’ reading was discussed in a school programme of Schulpforte (1729). It has been often repeated that Argenis appealed to Richelieu and Leibniz: we know that Rousseau read it. Cowper’s praise and Coleridge’s are familiar.

    Before the close of the seventeenth century, the Latin text of Argenis was reprinted between forty and fifty times. The demand during the next hundred years was satisfied with half-a-dozen editions, all proceeding from Nürnberg, since the last of which no publisher has thought it worth his while to issue it. Recently, several monographs dealing with Barclay’s life, bibliography and chief works have appeared in France and Germany. But published statements in the bibliographies still require some corrections; there are important particulars in his life which have not been exhaustively investigated; and the full influence of his works on subsequent literature still requires to be traced in detail.