1536 – 1608

In English literature departments, Thomas Sackville — the scion of an ancient family that came to England with William the Conqueror—is now remembered for composing a handful of innovative works by his mid-twenties that paved the way to the great poetry and drama of the late Elizabethan age. He is often described as the most important English poet between Chaucer and Spenser.

In 1561 he and his friend Thomas Norton co-authored the play Gorboduc, the first blank verse play and the first classically-inspired drama in the English language, and “the manifest source of Shakespeare’s lifelong style and idiom” according to Shakespeare scholar Eric Sams. The eminent literary critic E. K. Chambers described Sackville in 1906 as “a great poetic genius, indeed,” and the literary critic Fitzroy Pyle called him in 1938 “one of the great might-have-beens” of English literature. Historical and poetic records show that Sackville’s preferred literary genres were those favored by Shakespeare: sonnets, songs, narrative poems, and blank verse plays. As a young man, Sackville even formulated a grand plan to relate stories from English history in verse as a way of teaching the

important lessons of history, as Shakespeare did in his history plays.

In addition to being a poet of very high ability, Sackville was one of the preeminent statesmen of his age. His second cousin Queen Elizabeth I made him the first Baron of Buckhurst in 1567, a privy councilor in 1586, a Knight of the Garter in 1589, the Chancellor of Oxford University in 1591, and the Lord Treasurer of England in 1599. Sackville sat under a canopy of state as Lord High Steward of England during the shocking 1601 trial of the Earls of Es¬sex and Southampton for treason against the crown. (“Were’t ought to me I bore the canopy” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 125.) After Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor King James I made him the first Earl of Dorset.

Sackville died on April 19, 1608 while conducting business at the king’s privy-council table. He was outlived by his wife of fifty-three years, Cecily Baker Sackville, with whom he had seven children. The recent discovery of the lost poem Sacvyle’s Olde Age in the 1980s overturned scholars’ longstanding assumption that Sackville abandoned poetry in his mid-twenties. Instead, he remained devoted to poetry throughout his life but did not allow his later works to appear under his name. Sackville’s contemporaries knew him as the author of both “public” and “private” poems, and he is likely to have been the major hidden poet lauded by several writers in the 1590s. After his death he was honored as a poet “secretly devoted to the muses.” Sackville’s known writings and biography contain hundreds of unusual and unique parallels with Shakespeare’s writings, and his lifespan is consistent with the known range of composition dates for Shakespeare’s works.