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Theodore Beza’s Poetic Ode to Queen Elizabeth

June 9, 2009
Portrait of a young Theodore Beza

Portrait of a young Theodore Beza

The Reformers are not usually known for their poetry or their appreciation for aesthetics. Yet, church Reformers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli were reared hearing the poems of Ovid and Cicero, often knowing them by heart. Calvin went on to produce a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia and Theodore Beza wrote his Iuvenilia, a collection of original love poems inspired by his love of Catullus and Ovid (some of which may be found here.) Of course, Calvin and Beza published these works at an early age, the latter of whom even regretted the literary achievements of his early days, saying of his early poems, “Would, therefore that they might at length be buried in perpetual oblivion.”

Despite the apparent disdain for their former aesthetic pursuits both of these men went on to write Christian literary works in which pagan poets are quoted in a positive light. Both Calvin and Beza became writers of hymns, the latter even arranged what became the Huguenot “battle psalm.” Another example of Beza’s later use of poetry is his Ad Serenissimam Elizabetham Angliae Reginam (To the Most Serene Elizabeth Queen of England), which was written in 1588 to congratulate the English queen for the recent defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Latin original is quoted below with an English rendering to follow.

Straverat innumeris Hispanus navibus aequor,
Regnis iuncturus sceptra Britanna suis.
Tanta huius, rogitas, quae motus causa? Superbos
Impulit ambitio, vexit avaritia.
Quam bene te ambitio mersit vanissima ventus,
Et tumidos tumidae vos superastis aquae.
Quam bene totius raptores orbis avaros
Hausit inexhausti iusta vorago maris!
At tu, cui venti, cui totum militat aequor,
Regina, o mundi totius una, decus,
Sic regnare Deo perge, ambitione remota,
Prodiga sic opibus perge iuvare pios,
Ut te Angli, longum Anglis ipsa fruaris,
Quam dilecta bonis, tam metuenda malis

The following English translation was rendered in the same year by an unknown Englishman:

1588 Portrait of Elizabeth with Spanish Armada in background

1588 Portrait of Elizabeth with Armada in background

The Spanish fleete did flote in narow seas,
And bend her ships against the English shore,
With so great rage as nothing could appease,
And with such strength as never seene before.
And all to joyne the kingdom of that land,
Unto the kingdoms that he had in hand.
Now if you aske what set this king on fire
To practise warre when he of peace did treat,
It was his pride, and never quencht desire,
To spoile that islands wealth, by peace made great,
His pride, which farre above the heavens did swell,
And his desire, as unsuffic’d as Hell.
But well have winds his proud blasts overblown
And swelling waves alaid his swelling heart,
Well hath the sea with greedie gulfs unknown,
Devoured the devourer to his smart,
And made his ships a praie unto the sand
That meant to praie upon anothers land.
And now, o queene above al others blest,
For whom both windes and waves are prest to fight,
So rule your owne, so succour friends opprest,
(As farre from pride, as ready to do right),
That England you, you England long enjoy,
No lesse your friends delight, then foes annoy.

This poem and two others that Beza wrote to Elizabeth concerning the English defeat of the Spanish Armada are significant not only as examples of aesthetic appreciation among the Reformers but also because very few literature pieces of that time exist that are dedicated to that most significant battle. Read the other poems and learn about their historical context at the University of Birmingham Philological Museum.

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