William Alabaster

ALABASTER, or ARBLASTIER, WILLIAM (1567--1640), English Latin poet and scholar, was born at Hadleigh, Suffolk, in 1567.  He was, so Fuller states, a nephew by marriage of Dr John Still, bishop of Bath and Wells.  His surname, sometimes written Arblastier, is one of the many variants of arbalester, a cross-bowman.  Alabaster was educated at Westminster school, and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1583.  He became a fellow, and in 1592 was incorporated of the university of Oxford.  About 1502 he produced at Trinity College his Latin tragedy of Roxana.1 It is modeled on the tragedies of Seneca, and is a stiff and spiritless work.  Fuller and Anthony a Wood bestowed exaggerated praise on it, while Samuel Johnson regarded it as the only Latin verse worthy of notice produced in England before Milton’s elegies. Roxana is founded on the La Dalida (Venice, 1567) of Luigi Groto, known as Cieco di Hadria, and Hallam asserts that it is a plagiarism (Literature of Europe, iii. 54). A surreptitious edition in 1632 was followed by an authorized version a plagiarii unguibus vindicata, aucta et agnita ab Aithore, Gulielmo, Alabastro. One book of an epic poem in Latin hexameters, in honor of Queen Elizabeth, is preserved in MS. in the library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  This poem, Elisaeis, Apotheosis poetica, Spenser highly esteemed. “Who lives that can match that heroick song?” he says in Colin Clout’s come home again, and begs “Cynthia” to withdraw the poet from his obscurity.  In June 1596 Alabaster sailed with Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, on the expedition to Cadiz in the capacity of chaplain, and, while he was in Spain, he became a Roman Catholic.  An account of his change of laith is given in an obscurely worded sonnet contained in a MS. copy of Divine Meditations, by Mr. Alabaster (see J. P. Collier, Hist. of Eng.  Dram.  Poetry, ii. 341). 

He defended his conversion in a pamphlet, Seven Motives, of which no copy is extant.  The proof of its publication only remains in two tracts, A Booke of the Seuen Planets, or Seuen wandring motives of William Alablaster’s (sic) wit . . ., by John Racster (1598), and An Answer to William Alabaster. his Motives, by Roger Fenton (1599).  From these it appears that Alabaster was imprisoned for his change of faith in the Tower of London during 1598 and 1599.  In 1607 he published at Antwerp Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi, in which his study of the Kabbalah was turned to account in a mystical interpretation of scripture which drew down the censure alike of Protestants and Catholics.  The book was placed on the Index librorum prohibitorum at Rome early in 1610.  Alabaster says in the preface to his Ecce sponsus veni (1633), a treatise on the time of the second advent of Christ, that he went to Rome and was there imprisoned by the Inquisition but succeeded in escaping to England and again embraced the Protestant faith.  He received a prebend in St Paul’s cathedral, London, and the living of Therlield, Hertfordshire.  He died in 1640.  Alabaster’s other cabalistic writings are Commenitarius de Beslia Apocalyptica (1621) and Spiraculum tubarum . . . . (1633), a mystical interpretation of the Pentateuch.  It was by these theological writings that he won the praise of Robert Herrick, who calls him “the triumph of the day” and the “one only glory of a million” (“To Doctor Alabaster” in Hesperides, 1648). He also published (1637) Lexicon Pentaglottoni, Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum. Talmudico-Rabbinicci et Arabicum.

See T. Fuller, Worthies of England (ii. 343); J. P. Collior, Bibl. and Crit.  Account of the Rarest Books in the English Language (vol. i. 1865); Pierre Bayle, Dictionary, Historical and Critical (ed. London, 1834); also the Athenaeum (December 26, 1903), there Sir Bertram Dobell describes a MS. in his possession containing forty-three sonnets by Alabaster.

1. For an analysis of the play see an article on the Latin university plays in the Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare Gesellschaft (Weimar, 1898)


Source: 1911 encyclopedia.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved