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AMONG the contemporaries of Shakespeare an interesting but little-known figure is that of the poet and ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton. It is still remembered that he was the author of two or three beautiful lyrics which are to be found in every anthology; that he went as ambassador to Venice, and fell into temporary disfavour owing to a witty but indiscreet definition of his office; and that afterwards he became Provost of Eton, where he was visited by the young Milton, and where he fished with Izaak Walton, who quoted his sayings in the Compleat Angler, and wrote an exquisite portrait of his old friend. But behind the tranquil old age described by Walton lay many years of travel and participation in public affairs, much acquaintance with men, and with courts and foreign lands. The period indeed of Wotton's life covers the whole of what is known as the great age of Elizabethan literature, from the defeat of the Armada to the death of Shakespeare, and extends almost to the outbreak of the Civil Wars. It is hardly necessary, therefore, to apologize for the publication of his letters (which for the most part have remained hitherto unpublished), and a study, longer and more complete than any which has yet been attempted, of his career and character and public services.
Sir Henry Wotton was the most widely cultivated Englishman of his time. A ripe classical scholar, an elegant Latinist, trained in Greek by his studies with Casaubon, he was an admirable linguist in modern languages as well. He corresponded with Bacon about natural philosophy, and was the friend of most of the learned men of that epoch, both at home and on the Continent; the first English collector of Italian pictures, he brought from Italy, where he lived many years, the refined taste in art and architecture, the varied culture of antiquity and the Renaissance, which was then only to be derived from Italian sources. His experiences of life were