Sir John Harington (1560-1612) was an ambitious courtier who spent much of his life seeking favor at Queen Elizabeth's Court. He relied on his sharp wit and lively descriptive writing to attract attention, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. His work includes numerous epigrams, the first English translation of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, atract on an improved toilet that also served as a metaphor on Elizabethan life, and a political treatise on Ireland.
Harington was born at Kelston near Bath on August 4, 1560. His father, also named John, had served under Sir Thomas Seymour, high admiral of the fleet of Edward IV. When Seymour was accused of treason, the senior Harington was imprisoned in the tower along with his commander. His lot improved greatly when he became the confidential under treasurer to Henry VIII, the position in which he served at the time of Harington's birth. Harington senior's first wife was the illegitimate daughter of the king. Through her, the Haringtons had acquired the family estate. Isabella Markham, Harington senior's second wife and John's mother, had served as a maid of honor for Elizabeth before she assumed the throne. Through these connections, Queen Elizabeth came to be named Harington's godmother. Throughout his lifetime, Harington ambitiously, if not always successfully, pursued a favored place at the Queen's court.
Harington received his first formal education at Eton, where he studied under William Wickham, who later became the Bishop of Winchester. Showing an early inclination for literary endeavors, Harington translated Foxe's Book of Martyrs into Latin. Queen Elizabeth also took an active interest in her godson, "Boye Jack" as she called him. On at least one occasion she sent him a copy of a speech she had delivered before Parliament, requesting his literary assistance. Although not an exceptionally hardworking student, Harington performed academically well enough to matriculate at King's College, Cambridge, in 1576, earning a bachelor's degree in 1577 (or 1578) and master's degree in 1581. While at Cambridge, Harington maintained the status of filius nobilis, an ancient title assigned to sons of noblemen and bishops. Considering his father's lack of a noble designation, the entitlement bestowed on Harington gives evidence to the influence of his relationship as the Queen's godson.
Upon his graduation from King's College, Harington entered Lincoln's Inn in London to study law. However, when both his parents became deceased, his mother in 1579 and his father in 1582, Harington quickly abandoned his studies to claim his inheritance of the family estate at Somerset. The following year he married Mary Rogers, the daughter of Sir George and Lady Jane Rogers of Cannington in Somersetshire. Harington moved into the family estate at Kelston, which remained his primary residence until his death. He and his wife had nine children that lived beyond infancy and two that died at birth. Seven of the nine children survived Harington's own death.
According to Townsend Rich in Harington and Ariosto: A Study in Elizabethan Verse Translation, "Harington, although living in the country, spent a good deal of time at Court. Elizabeth favored him because of his position as her godson and because of the long years of service of his parents. He had reason to expect a brilliant career at Court. Harington had a thorough education at Eton and Cambridge, good family connections, and a ready and amusing mind. He began his career as a writer of epigrams as soon as he arrived at Court, and quickly obtained a reputation as a wit." Epigrams, short, witty, and satirical poetic verses, became Harington's trademark. Although only one out of the 400 epigrams that he wrote was published during his lifetime, most circulated widely in unpublished form. He had a distinct talent for the succinct, biting style of poetry: "Treason doth never prosper, what the reason? / For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Addressing a wide variety of themes and issues, Harington often pointed his barbed remarks at individuals or certain types of people. He seemed to disdain extremes in all directions, attacking the overly pious along with the overly indulgent.
The impact of Harington's wit upon his relationship with the Queen and his place in the Court was varied. Popular for his epigrams, he often pushed his humor to the edge, and sometimes over the edge, thus earning the Queen's ire. According to a traditional tale, during the 1580s, being well versed in the Italian language, he translated the indelicate and bawdy story of Giocondo from canto 28 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Probably in an effort to increase his popularity, he began circulating his translation around the Court. The story found the favor of the Queen's maids of honor, but when the Queen discovered that her godson was behind the translation, she was furious at him for corrupting the minds of her maidens. As punishment, Harington was banned from the Court and ordered by the Queen to translate the whole of Orlando Furioso. Harington returned to Kelston and fulfilled the Queen's command.
According to D. H. Craig in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers, the resulting translation was an "exceptionally elaborate book." It is filled with marginal notes, illustrations, commentary, summary, and other literary addition. As Craig describes, "Some of this is taken over from the Italian editions of the poem. But a great deal of the apparatus is specifically designed for Harington's English readers. While aware that intruding English references in the text or changing the story would be 'wronging mine author,' Harington fills the spaces around his translation with reminders and observations that make him a remarkably immediate presence in the book. The translation itself is readable, sustaining narrative momentum with a brisk, sometimes spritely, use of the ottava-rima stanza (eight lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming abababcc). " Published in 1591, Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse, which Harington dedicated to the Queen, became very popular. It was reprinted in 1607 and 1634.
Despite the fact that the translation granted Harington some measure of fame, he remained unsuccessful in securing an position of importance at Court. During the 1580s he was recognized as qualified to serve as a justice of the peace, and he traveled briefly to Ireland on a failed expedition to re-colonize the province of Munster. In 1592 he was appointed sheriff of Somersetshire, but the assignment did not carrying the prominence of position to which Harington deeply aspired. Discouraged and disillusioned, Harington returned to his family in Kelston in 1594. However, he did not completely abandon his ties to Queen Elizabeth, sending her frequent correspondence with humorous news of the countryside. At some time during the 1590s Harington also wrote his Discourse Showing That Elias Must Personally Come before the Day of Judgment, an unpublished defense of a literate interpretation of Biblical references to the return of the prophet Elijah. Ultimately unable to shake his desire for life at Court, Harington wrote a pamphlet, Metamorphosis of Ajax. Rather than earning him advancement, the publication once again resulted in his dismissal by Elizabeth.
During his time in the country, Harington had invented an indoor toilet. The English term for a toilet is a jakes; therefore, A Metamorphosis of Ajax is a playful way of noting improvements to the toilet, or privy. Although the work did, in fact, provide an account of an improved toilet that involved flushing with water from a cistern and a stopper that prevented smells from rising from the storage below, the work was much more a satirical metaphor of English society. Most considered the whole subject a breach of common decency, and Harington had difficulty finding a printer. Eventually, Richard Field agreed to serve as the publisher, and it was released in 1596 with the full title of A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. Harington listed the author as "Misacromos (hater of filthiness)."
Harington's intent was not to merely broach a subject so repulsive to attract idle attention. His subject matter was meant to shock his audience into hearing his message of reform, moving from "privy faults" to "privy vaults." According to Craig, "readers were to be repelled initially by all the talk of urine and ordure but then reminded that vice (however painted and perfumed) was a far more serious offense against moral sensibilities." Filled with characters drawn from family and friends along with veiled representations of his enemies, the work also makes common use of biblical characters and classical writers. Sometimes the tract provides a series of pleading, sometimes a courtroom scene, and, in a part published separately, patrons in a diner raising objections to the subject matter. Whatever his intended effects, the result of the publication of Metamorphosis of Ajax probably ruined any chance of obtaining a position at Court. Although Elizabeth sympathized with the message, she was displeased with her godson for once again stepping over the line of decency. Interpreting a section of the treatise as an attack on Leicester, she was sufficiently angry to send Harington away from the Court once more. She did, however, install Harington's "water closet" in the Richmond Palace, making it the first indoor plumbing of its type.
For several years, Harington remained away from Court. By 1599, however, the stir caused by Metamorphosis of Ajax had subsided, and he was appointed by the Queen to accompany the Earl of Essex to Ireland to squelch a rebellion of the Earl of Tyrone. In the complex politics of the Queen's Court, in which the loyalty of the Earl of Essex was not completely trusted by Elizabeth, most likely Harington was sent along to protect the Queen's interests, serving as something of a spy. Granted an important mission with the chance to prove his worthiness to the Queen, Harington, having been warned by his friends and family to maintain his distance and cap his wit, made the mistake of allowing Essex to bestow knighthood upon him on July 30, 1599. He was also reported to have visited the outlaw Earl of Tyrone while waiting in Ireland for the rest of the expedition to arrive. The whole venture was a grand failure. Upon his return, Essex was removed from his position, tried, and placed under house arrest. Having associated himself too closely with Essex, Harington faced the Queen's anger. He assuaged her by presenting a detailed account of the expedition. Nonetheless, he removed himself from Court and returned to Kelston.
Harington was back at Court in early 1601 and participated in protecting the Queen from the now-rebellious Essex. Following the rebellion, Harington made several trips between Kelston and London. On at least one occasion the Queen told him bluntly to leave. During one stay in London, he visited Essex, who convinced Harington to carry a message of contrition to the Queen on his behalf. Finding himself in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle of the quarrelling sides, Harington found the solitude of his country home appealing for once. He did, however, continue to return to the Queen's side, especially in her dying days in 1602.
With the Queen's death and James's accession, Harington continued to seek the Court's favor, but he was never to achieve the position he desired. His financial situation had deteriorated, and the unwise promise of guaranteeing a loan for his uncle, Thomas Markham, landed Harington in jail for debt in 1603 and 1604. Despite his situation, he continued to write, translate, and court the favor of the king and Prince Henry (to whom he forwarded some of his writings). After publishing A Short View of the State of Ireland in 1605, in which he lists his qualifications for the positions, Harington suggested that he be appointed archbishop and lord chancellor of Ireland. Nothing became of his attempts at self-promotion, and he returned to writing. In 1607 he published The Englishman's Doctor, which addresses some of the issues raised in Metamorphosis of Ajax. He was working on a metrical paraphrase of the Psalms in May 1612 when he became ill. He died at Kelston on November 26, 1612.
British Authors Before 1800. edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1952.
Browning, D. C. Everyman's Dictionary of Literary Biography, English and American. J. M. Dent and Sons, 1969.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Research, 1994.
The Oxford Companion to British History. edited by John Cannon, Oxford University Press, 1997.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature. edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Reference Guide to English Literature. edited by D.L. Kirkpatrick, 2nd edition. St. James Press, 1991.
Rich, Townsend. Harington and Ariosto: A Study in Elizabethan Verse Translation. Yale University Press, 1940.
Ruoff, James E. Crowell's Handbook of Elizabethan and Stuart Literature. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.