ALMOST nothing is known of the life of Henry Constable. He belonged to a Yorkshire family; he was educated at Cambridge; he was acquainted with the Earl of Essex, with Anthony Bacon, with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, with the Countess of Pembroke and Lady Rich. His sonnets to the soul of Sir Philip Sidney seem to prove that he was honoured with the friendship of the author of the Defence of Poesie. As a Catholic and an honest man, as he calls himself, Constable could not escape suspicion in the suspicious England of his time. He passed much of his life in exile, wandering in France, Scotland, Italy, and Poland, and was acquainted with prisons and courts.
The slight but graceful genius of Constable is best defined by some of the epithets which his contemporary critics employed. They spoke of his pure, quick, and high delivery of conceit. Ben Jonson alludes to his ambrosiac muse. His secular poems are Certaine sweete sonnets in the praise of his mistress, Diana, conceived in the style of Ronsard and the Italians. The verses of his later days, when he had learned, as he says, to live alone with God, are also sonnets in honour of the saints, and chiefly of Mary Magdalene. They are ingenious, and sometimes too cleverly confuse the passions of divine and earthly love. In addition to the sonnets we have four pleasant lyrics which Constable contributed to Englands Helicon. We select two of these pastorals, one being an idyllic dialogue between two shepherdesses; the other, The Shepherds Song of Venus and Adonis. These things have at once the freshness of a young, and the trivial grace of a decadent literature, so curiously varied were the influences of the Renaissance in England. Shakespeare and Constable begin where Bion leaves off. Constable was neither more nor less than a fair example of a poet who followed rather than set the fashion. His sonnets were charged and overladen with ingenious conceits, but the freshness, the music, of his more free and flowing lyrics remain, and keep their charm.