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Anthony Copley, A Fig For Fortune, Susannah Brietz Monta, ed.
by Claire McEachern

Copley, Anthony. A Fig For Fortune: A Catholic Response to The Faerie Queene. Edited by Susannah Brietz Monta. Manchester UP, 2016. viii + 158 pp. ISBN: 978-0719086977. $110.00 cloth. 

The records we possess of contemporary readers of The Faerie Queene—typically marginal annotations of Book I—demonstrate that topical readings, at least of this poem’s first book, lay in the eye of the beholder. Some readers apparently found in it a reinforcement of Elizabethan religious policy; others considered its panoply of events and images proof of an insufficiently reformed sensibility. As if to demonstrate Spenser’s point about the difficulty of discerning true from false churches, Anthony Copley, Archimago-like, was inspired to write a Catholic imitation of a portion of Book I (shadowing the cantos following Redcrosse’s encounter with Despair). Susannah Brietz-Monta’s well-researched, copiously annotated and elegantly introduced account of the poem makes this response available for the first time in a critical edition.

One of the volume’s many virtues is the glimpse it provides into the complex world of Elizabethan Catholicism. Historians of the Reformation have worked hard in recent decades to nuance the picture of the Protestant side of things, calling attention to the multiple strands of reformed thought, theology and policy, and making us aware of the ways in which Tudor-Stuart religious differences could play out at the level of the individual and the family. Yet the internal complexities of the world of Elizabethan Catholicism have been relatively less explored. Monta corrects this imbalance, recounting the multi-textured world of Elizabethan Catholics, “not stable in its membership, starkly delineated from its Protestant neighbours, or uniform in its convictions, practices and priorities” (29). In her analysis, divisions between the Jesuit and anti-Jesuit factions, debates over conformity vs. recusancy, and the rival claims of allegiance to faith and crown provide as rich a ground for identity and poetry as the more celebrated tensions internal to the Protestant community.   

In any political universe, however, Anthony Copley (1567-1609) would likely have been a handful—even to the sympathetic Robert Parsons, he was “that wanton boy” (10); to the less charitable Richard Topcliffe, (torturer of recusants) “the most desperate youth that liveth” (12). Whatever temperamental qualities these statements reveal were undoubtedly exacerbated by the condition of being a younger son who perforce, in his own sister’s words, “sought to raise his fortune by the favour of great men” (19). As the youngest of three sons of a father exiled for his Catholic faith, Copley confronted not only the structural challenges to worldly success endemic to gentle children of large families (eight children in all), but confessional barriers. As Monta recounts, his father Thomas had a talent for finding himself on the wrong side of regimes: he was imprisoned in 1558 for arguing in Marian parliament for Elizabeth’s right to succeed, but then arrested in 1568 for aiding Catholic exiles in Louvain. Having converted, after marriage, to Catholicism, Copley senior forfeited his property for life after decamping to the continent without permission—a decision that drove him to accept a Spanish pension and henceforth the frequent epistolary need to explain his loyalty to Elizabeth and her councilors. Arrest was somewhat of a family tradition: Copley’s mother was taken up in 1586 for harboring a priest; his sister Margaret and her husband whilst attending mass (both later pardoned on the scaffold); his brothers William and John (a sometime priest, later a convert to Protestantism) in 1586 and 1607, respectively, and Anthony himself in 1590, 1591, and again in 1603, the last for being party to the Bye plot, the plan to kidnap James I (!) and hold him hostage until he made good on pre-coronation suggestions of sympathies towards toleration of Catholics. In each of his own instances, Copley secured his own release by providing information on fellow recusants. On the last occasion it was his own confession that uncovered the plot, and won him the relatively lenient sentence of exile with the addition of an increase in his annuity compelled from his far less troublesome brother.    

Like his father, Anthony also started out as a Protestant; unlike his brother John, he did not end as one.  His career also included an unsuccessful attempt to woo the niece of Cardinal Allen, the acquisition of a pension from the Duke of Parma, and service for Spain in the wars in Flanders—a variety of allegiances which found him, as occasion demanded, seeking pardon from injured parties varying from Elizabeth I to Robert Parsons. As Monta describes, a fair amount of contortion was involved in balancing these competing allegiances. What in a different instantiation might have appeared to be the picaresque career of an accomplished all-round Renaissance gentleman was in Copley’s rendition perhaps more the scrambling of a man trying to be on the make by such difficult means as were available to one of gentle birth, illegal confessional alliances, and no steady income—or, as he himself describes it in the work under consideration, “The Rag of Fortune, Badge of base deblesse[1]/ The spunge of Care, a broken Hower-glasse. / The Finger-man of shame, and Obloquie / Downly degraded from Felicity” (101.4-7).

One means by which Copley sought to forge his path was the literary one. Prior to the publication of A Fig for Fortune, in 1595 he parlayed his experience of the Spanish into a volume combining an adaptation of a Spanish jest book and a translation of Rodrigo de Cota’s “Love’s Owle, an idle conceited dialogue between Love and an Olde man,” and in 1601 and 1602 he contributed two texts to the appellant’s controversy (on the anti-Jesuit side). In between the former excursion into the literature of light entertainment and the latter into that of internecine confessional polemic we find A Fig for Fortune, a 2010-line narrative poem (of 335 six-line stanzas) in which a wandering “Elizian” knight addresses himself to the plight of how to live in a world of adverse fortune. Or rather, is addressed: the poem begins with a thirty-stanza recommendation in favor of suicide delivered by Cato’s ghost, progresses to forty-odd stanzas on the relative wisdom of Revenge (“To be deposed by blisse to injurie / Is double glorie to remount to it” (48.1-2), and from thence to 130 stanzas of refutation of the two latter by a “Sophie” named “Catechrysius.” The poem culminates in a vision of a temple unsullied by religious schism and persecuted by the foul “Doublessa”:

    There credence and their language was alike
    All Babel-Bibleres they did dead dislike.   


There was no scambling for the Ghospels bread
But what a publike Unitie dilivred
The same a prompt Credulitie received;
Their humblenesse was so beholie-ghosted
   As Pride had not the power to entice
   The wisest of them all to a new device. (264.5-265)  

As Monta convincingly argues, Copley’s imagination was seemingly fired by The Faerie Queene’s attenuated narrative logic of deferral; he answers his own question “why did not God confound [Doublessa] in her birth?” with a vision of protracted struggle: “O ‘twas because his Temple might attaine / Through her assaults to be more sovereign” (271.5-6)—an institutionally-directed sentiment in keeping with Catechryisius’s recommendation that the purpose of personal suffering is to increase one’s spiritual strength. Monta argues that “the central thematic burden of Copley’s poem is to explain, justify, and soothe Elizabethan Catholics’ sufferings” (48), and that The Faerie Queene provided “the occasion to articulate a complex form of Catholic loyalism, … challenge Spenser’s reworking of martyrdom and suffering … replace Spenser’s Protestant reading of Revelation with a Catholic reading, argue for the superiority of Catholic forms of worship and devotion, and enforce differences between the ecclesiologies of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church” (32)—a broad agenda indeed. That said, his poem closes with a rather bellicose vision of the contest between Doblessa (“the haggard whoore” 277.5) and Sion, a contest that culminates in an apotheosis of a “Mayden nymph most shone satellited” (326.3) who is not, as it turns out, Eliza after all.

As the verses cited above suggest, Copley’s poem gives a view of what Reform looked like to an Englishman on the outside. While he does not imitate Spenser’s antique diction and frequently substitutes supplementary syllables for skill in versification (“beholie-ghosted”), his own handling of language is not without an endearing (if perhaps inadvertent) charm of its own. Monta claims that Copley’s eschewing of the more complex Spenserian stanza stems from an implicit acknowledgement of his inferior technical skill; however, his Ababcc stanza may also have been an homage not merely to the intellectual concerns of his cousin Robert Southwell’s St. Peter’s Complaint (which Monta does detail) but to that poem’s very form (albeit one of the commonest stanzas in the period). Certainly, as Monta carefully claims, Copley’s poem “deserves a place in the literary history of the English Renaissance” (1). She does a persuasive job of arguing for Copley’s close reading of Spenser’s poem: for example, his rejection of Virgilian triumphalism in favor of the bleaker vision of Lucan; his emphasis on volition as well as grace; his liturgical reading of Revelation. 

However, a place in the literary history is not necessarily the same as a place in the canon; indeed, Spenser himself is increasingly pressed to retain his own standing in the latter as far as pedagogical popularity is concerned. The real service of Copley’s poetical-polemical riposte to Spenser is not merely to demonstrate the grist provided to all manner of literary productions by confessional controversy in this period, but also what it is about The Faerie Queene that thrives irrespective of knowledge of those contexts. In other words, it requires the existence of The Faerie Queene to make Copley’s poem compelling, whereas it remains both possible and pleasurable to read Spenser’s action-packed fantasia completely oblivious to the details of Elizabethan religious politics—for one thing, the latter works through narrative rather than homily, and hence offers the pleasures of ambiguity rather than doctrine. Monta proposes, plausibly and generously, that Copley’s ambitions may have included “challenging the anti-Catholic underpinnings of much Elizabethan literature” (34); the compass of his critique also comprehended classical models of subjectivity and political resistance. What this handsomely edited presentation of his poem demonstrates, however, is that whatever the confessional agenda, there may be more poetic payoff in the effort to delight than to teach. 


Claire McEachern

[1] For “deblesse,” see Monta’s footnote: “the low state of being without bliss” (93).


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Cite as:

Claire McEachern, "Anthony Copley, A Fig For Fortune, Susannah Brietz Monta, ed.," Spenser Review 47.1.5 (Winter 2017). Accessed May 25th, 2018.
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