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Sir John Harington

Born: 1561
Birthplace: Kelston, Somerset, England
Died: 20-Nov-1612
Location of death: Kelston, Somerset, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Author

Nationality: England
Executive summary: The Metamorphosis of Ajax

English writer, born at Kelston, near Bath, in 1561. His father, John Harington, acquired considerable estates by marrying Etheldreda, a natural daughter of King Henry VIII, and after his wife's death he was attached to the service of the Princess Elizabeth. He married Isabella Markham, one of her ladies, and on Mary's accession he and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower of London with the princess. John, the son of the second marriage, was Elizabeth's godson. He studied at Eton and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of M.A., his tutor being John Still, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells, formerly reputed to be the author of Gammer Gurton's Needle. He came up to London about 1583 and was entered at Lincoln's Inn, but his talents marked him out for success at court rather than for a legal career. Tradition relates that he translated the story of Giocondo from Ludovico Ariosto and was reproved by the queen for acquainting her ladies with so indiscreet a selection. He was to retire to his seat at Kelston until he completed the translation of the entire work. Orlando Furioso in English heroical verse was published in 1591 and reprinted in 1607 and 1634. Harington was high sheriff of Somerset in 1592 and received Elizabeth at his house during her western progress of 1591. In 1596 he published in succession The Metamorphosis of Ajax (containing a design for a watercloset, supposedly the first such), An Anatomie of the Metamorphosed Ajax, and Ulysses upon Ajax, the three forming collectively a very absurd and indecorous work of a Pantagruelistic kind. An allusion to Leicester in this book threw the writer into temporary disgrace, but in 1598 he received a commission to serve in Ireland under Essex. He was knighted on the field, to the annoyance of Elizabeth. Harington saved himself from being involved in Essex's disgrace by writing an account of the Irish campaign which increased Elizabeth's anger against the unfortunate earl. Among some papers found in the chapter library at York was a Tract on the Succession to the Crown (1602), written by Harington to secure the favor of the new king, to whom he sent the gift of a lantern constructed to symbolize the waning glory of the late queen and James's own splendor. This pamphlet, which contains many details of great interest about Elizabeth and gives an unprejudiced sketch of the religious question, was edited for the Roxburghe Club in 1880 by Sir Clements Markham. Harington's efforts to win favor at the new court were unsuccessful. In 1605 he even asked for the office of chancellor of Ireland and proposed himself as archbishop. The document in which he preferred this extraordinary request was published in 1879 with the title of A Short View of the State of Ireland written in 1605. Harington was before his time in advocating a policy of generosity and conciliation towards that country. He eventually succeeded in obtaining a position as one of the tutors of Prince Henry, for whom he annotated Francis Godwin's De praesulibus Angliae. Harington's grandson, John Chetwind, found in this somewhat scandalous production an argument for the Presbyterian side, and published it in 1653, under the title of A Briefe View of the State of the Church, etc.

Harington died at Kelston on the 20th of November 1612. His Epigrams were printed in a collection entitled Alcilia in 1613, and separately in 1615. The translation of the Orlando Furioso was carried out with skill and perseverance. It is not to be supposed that Harington failed to realize the ironic quality of his original, but he treated it as a serious allegory to suit the temper of Queen Elizabeth's court. He was neither a very exact scholar nor a very poetical translator, and he cannot be named in the same breath with Fairfax. The Orlando Furioso was sumptuously illustrated, and to it was prefixed an Apologie of Poetrie, justifying the subject matter of the poem, and, among other technical matters, the author's use of disyllabic and trisyllabic rhymes, also a life of Ariosto compiled by Harington from various Italian sources. Harington's Rabelaisian pamphlets show that he was almost equally endowed with wit and indelicacy, and his epigrams are sometimes smart and always easy. His works include The Englishman's Doctor, Or the School of Salerne (1608), and Nugae antiquae, miscellaneous papers collected in 1779.

    High School: Eton College
    University: MA, Christ's College, Cambridge University

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