3.7. Sir Thomas Smythes voiage to Russia


Sir Thomas Smythes voiage and entertainment in Rushia (1605)



‘The late English Ovid’ and ‘Our ever-living Poet”

Towards the end of 1605, a travelogue with the title Sir Thomas Smythes voiage and entertainment in Rushia  appeared in England wherein the chaotic and tragic state of the Tsarist Russia was compared with the tragedy Prince Hamlet. The reference to Hamlet was only short but that does not detract from its relevance. The diplomat and business man who had earned a Knighthood (rather than inheriting it) was commissioned with the task of improving trade relations between Russia and England, to this purpose he lived in Russia between the summers of 1604 and 1605. The Russian drama unfolded before his own eyes so quickly that he didn’t have time to assimilate it. When Tsar Boris Godunow died suddenly (on 23 April 1605), Smythe interpreted his death as suicide. When the Tsar’s son Fjodor was strangled a month later (on 10 June 1605), Smythe also suspected that the youth had killed himself by poison. On 20th June, just ten days after the death of Fjodor, a man by the name of Dimitry Ivanovich († May 17, 1606), (later known as “the false Dimitry”) came on the scene. Like many other people, Smythe believed false Dimitry’s claim that he was the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. 

This falling away of them, the State so greatly blinded upon (...) with the many continually doubts of the issue, hastied the last breath of the once hoped-for Prince [Fjodor Borissowitsch Godunov], as from him that (though an Emperor, was much hoodwinkby his politic kinsmen great counsellours) now might easily discern those times to outrun his, and must notoriously know (though haply his youth and innocency shadowed the reflection) that his Sun was setting or beclouded at noon-days, and that the right heir [Dimitri Iwanowitsch] was (and would be when he was not) apparent: that his fatherʼs [Boris Godunovʼs] Empire and Government, was but as the Poeticall Fury in a Stage-action, compleat yet with horrid and woeful Tragedies: a first, but no second to any Hamlet; and that now Revenge, just Revenge was comming with his Sword drawn against him, his royal Mother, and dearest Sister, to fill up those Murdering Scenes; the Embryon whereof was long since modelled, yea digested (but unlawfully and too-too vively) by his dead self-murdering Father: such and so many being their fears and terrors; the Devil advising, Despair counselling, Hell itself instructing; yea, wide-heart-opening to receive a King now, rather than a Kingdom; as Lord Bartas devinely saith: They who expect not Heaven, find a Hell everywhere.

These wicked instruments, the whole family of the Godunovs, their adherents and factors, making a second (but no divine) damned Jury; these dejected and abjected, as not knowing how to trust any, they so distrusted themselves, like men between murdering others, and being massacred themselves; holding this their only happiness, that they were then only miserable (Nobleness yet esteeming any preferment felicity, but honorable employment): As those whose unmerciful greatness gained a pittiful commiseration, accounting security neither safety, nor reward; indeed they were like Beasts, that have strength, but not power.

Oh for some excellent pen-man to deplore their state: but he which would lively, naturally, or indeed poetically delineate or enumerate these occurrents, shall either lead you thereunto by a poeticall spirit, as could well, if well he might the dead living, life-giving Sydney Prince of Poesie; or deify you with the Lord Salustius [du Bartas] divinity, or in an earth-deploring, sententious, high rapped Tragedy with the noble Fulke-Greville, not only give you the Idea, but the soul of the acting Idea; as well could, if so we would, the elaborate English Horace that gives number, weight, and measure to every word, to teach the reader by his industries, even our laureate worthy Benjamin [Jonson], whose Muse approves him (with our mother, the Ebrew signification to be) The elder Son, and haply to have been the Child of Sorrow: It were worthy so excellent rare wit: for my self I am neither Apollo nor Appelles, no nor any heir to the Muses: yet happely a younger brother, though I have as little bequeathed me, as many elder Brothers, and right born heirs gain by them: but Hic labor, Hoc opus est.

I am with the late English quick-spirited, clear-sighted Ovid: It is to be feared Dreaming, and think I see many strange and cruel actions, but say myself nothing all this while: Be it so that I am very drowsy, the heat of the climate, and of the State will excuse me; for great happiness to this mighty Empire is it, or would it have been, if the more part of their State affairs had been but Dreams, as they prove phantasmas for our years. 

Smythe’s words are truly worthy of reflection. After he had described the situation in Russia and the plight of the young Prince, Smythe establishes the similarity with the stage. The story of the reign of Tsar Boris Godunow, he says, is one of  tragedy and poetic exhaltation in its purest form. The goddess of vengance bore down on Fjodor Borissowitsch. Dimitri Iwanowitsch appears as the avenger in the role of Prince Hamlet. This Russian drama deserves to be documented by a great writer, says Smythe. (Two hundred years later, Pushkin took on this very task.) In spite of his intensive search, Smythe could not find an author who could have been capable of this task. Sir Philip Sidney und Salluste du Bartas are both dead, Fulke Greville (the author of Mustapha) und Ben Jonson (who presented himself as the English Horace) were worthy of consideration but closer scrutiny excluded them. (The choice of subject is completely out of character with Greville’s and Jonson’s other works.) Subsequently Smythe kept returning to his theory that the stage bears a remarkable resemblance to real life. It is every bit as dangerous to follow one’s dreams in real life as it is on the stage. Whereby Smythe brushes shoulders with the stage figure of Hamlet. (We remember: “To die - to sleep. / To sleep - perchance to dream.”) Yet how much better would have been Russia’s lot if the events as they unfolded had been just a dream. (“And let all sleep, while to my shame I see /The imminent death of twenty thousand men /That for a fantasy and trick of fame /Go to their graves like beds...”)

Surrounded by these reflections stands the reminiscence on the creator of the dreams with whom Smythe is in full agreement: I am with the late English quick-spirited, cleare-sighted Ovid: It is to be feared Dreaming.

Does that which Smythe was not allowed to articulate directly be implied more forcefully? Who is meant by Ovid, quick-spirited, cleare-sighted visionary, if not the very man whom Francis Meres had compared to Ovid in 1598? (“As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagorus, so the sweet, witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare”).

Smythe speaks of the late Ovid, i.e. the author who passed recently! (In the same text Smythe speaks of the dead Queen Elizabeth as “her late Majesty of blessed memory.”)

Therefore it is clear that SHAKE-SPEARE’S death did not go unnoticed. This can also be demonstrated with a second example.  


In 1609 the immortal Thomas Thorpe published Shake-speares Sonnets. These 154 poems, originally intended to demonstrate that all aspects of life could be expressed in verse, also describe, however, an amour fou that, in the eyes of the family, amounted to a huge scandal.

At the court of King James a lot of people knew who was behind the name Shake-speare. And now this bookseller Thomas Thorpe comes along and has the audacity to publish an unabridged version of the most compromising works. To add insult to injury he adds a personal message to the “begetter” of the poems.


Neuer before Imprinted.

AT LONDON By G. Eld for T. T. and are to be solde by William Aspley. 1609.


T O . T H E . O N L I E . B E G E T T E R . O F .

T H E S E . I N S U I N G . S O N N E T S .

M R . W . H . A L L . H A P P I N E S S E .

A N D . T H A T . E T E R N I T I E .

P R O M I S E D .


O U R . E V E R - L I V I N G . P O E T .

W I S H E T H .

T H E . W E L L - W I S H I N G .

A D V E N T U R E R . I N .

S E T T I N G .

F O R T H .

T . T.

The term “ever living” describes the eternal memory of a dear departed person. Similarly when speaking of the memory of a deceased person, one used phrases like: “ever-living memory”, “ever-living names” or: “ever-living lines”. (See John Dickenson, Arisbas, 1594; OED, ever-living: 1a und 1b).

In the 16th century it would have been unthinkable to use the term “ever-living” when speaking of a living person. Only the soul is immortal and the soul’s immortality is only relevant after the death of its wordly container.

Some people say that in Polimanteia (1595) William Covell spoke of the “ever-living Empresse” when referring to Queen Elizabeth I. (1533-1603) This quote is easily put out of context . What he actually said was that it was much harder to express the praise due to a living person than it is to express the same praise to a deceased person. He instructs the contemporary authors:

“Yet follow not so far the conceited imitation of former time, to take trifles for subjects to work upon, as therein meaning to make art wondered at that work of nothing. Thousands of objects might be found out, wherein your high spirited muse might fly an unmatched pitch ... Write then of Elizas reign, a task only meet for so rare a pen. It is easy to give immortality to an ever-living Empress.”


See also: Jane Cole, Who was the ‘late English Ovid’? De Vere Society Newsletter, May 2014.