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Excellencie of the English Tongue

Sometime after 1605, Richard Carew (1555-1620) wrote an essay titled, Excellencie of the English Tongue, to defend and extoll the virtues of the English language for its powers of poetry. Scholars of earlier generations regarded Latin and Greek as the languages of high art and scholarship. They viewed English as crude. While that view was changing, there were still some who argued for the superiority of the classical languages.

Will you read Virgil? Take the Earl of Surrey.
Catullus? Shakespeare, and Marlowe’s fragment.

One of those advocates was Richard Verstegan (c.1550-1640). Verstegan was a Catholic who had dropped out of Oxford to avoid swearing to the Oath of Supremacy. Later he was accused of printing a secret account of the execution of Edmund Campion. To avoid punishment, Verstegan escaped England, eventually taking residence in Antwerp. In 1605, he wrote, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence: In Antiquities Concerning the Most Noble and Renowned English Nation, in which he denigrated the English language.

Carew responded by writing his essay, which was eventually printed by William Camden (1551-1623), in his second edition of Remaines, Concerning Britaine (1614). Since Carew's essay did not appear in Camden's first edition in 1605, it is assumed Carew wrote his essay in 1606 or later. Carew's defence of the English language sounded similar to Frances Mere's praise of English in Palladis Tamia, in that he compared English authors to writers of antiquity. Carew wrote:

Click on image to enlarge.

“Whatsoever grace any other language carrieth, in Verse, or Prose, in Tropes, or Metaphors, in Echoes or Agnominations, they may all be lively and exactly represented in ours … Will you read Virgil? Take the Earl of Surrey. Catullus? Shakespeare, and Marlowe’s fragment. Ovid? Daniel. Lucan? Spencer. Martial? Sir John Davies and others. Will you have all in all for Prose & Verse? Take the miracle of our age, Sir Philip Sidney.”

Carew's comparison of Catullus to Shakespeare and Marlowe is understood to be Carew's equivalence of Catullus's Ariadne and Theseus to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. In his manuscript, Carew actually wrote “Barlowe's fragment” (enlarge image at left). Scholars regard the name as a misspelling and “fragment” as a recognition that Hero and Leander was unfinished at the time of Marlowe's death in 1593.