Nicholas Breton (also Britton or Brittaine) (1545?-1626), English poet and novelist, belonged to an old family settled at Layer Breton, Essex.
His father, William Breton, a London merchant who had made a considerable fortune, died in 1559, and the widow (née Elizabeth Bacon) married the poet George Gascoigne before her sons had attained their majority. Nicholas Breton was probably born at the "capitall mansion house" in Red Cross Street, in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate, mentioned in his father's will.
There is no official record of his residence at the university, but the diary of the Rev. Richard Madox tells us that he was at Antwerp in 1583 and was "once of Oriel College." He married Ann Sutton in 1593, and had a family. He is supposed to have died shortly after the publication of his last work, Fantastickes (1626). Breton found a patron in Mary, countess of Pembroke, and wrote much in her honour until 1601, when she seems to have withdrawn. her favour. It is probably safe to supplement the meagre record of his life by accepting as autobiographical some of the letters signed N.B. in A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters (1603, enlarged 1637); the 19th letter of the second part contains a general complaint of many griefs, and proceeds as follows:
"bath another been wounded in the warres, fared hard, lain in a cold bed many a bitter storme, and beene at many a hard banquet? all these have I; another imprisoned? so have I; another long been sicke? so have I; another plagued with an unquiet life? so have I; another indebted to his hearts griefe, and fame would pay and cannot? so am I.?
Breton was a prolific author of considerable versatility and gift, popular with his contemporaries, and forgotten by the next generation. His work consists of religious and pastoral poems, satires, and a number of miscellaneous prose tracts. His religious poems are sometimes wearisome by their excess of fluency and sweetness, but they are evidently the expression of a devout and earnest mind. His lyrics are pure and fresh, and his romances, though full of conceits, are pleasant reading, remarkably free from grossness. His praise of the Virgin and his references to Mary Magdalene have suggested that he was a Catholic, but his prose writings abundantly prove that he was an ardent Protestant.
Breton had little gift for satire, and his best work is to be found in his pastoral poetry. His Passionate Shephzeard (1604) is full of sunshine and fresh air, and of unaffected gaiety. The third pastoral in this book—"Who can live in heart so glad As the merrie country lad"—is well known; with some other of Breton's daintiest poems, among them the lullaby, "Come little babe, come silly soule,"—it is incorporated in A. H. Bullen's Lyrics from Elizabethan Romances (1890). His keen observation of country life appears also in his prose idyll, Wits Trenckrnour, "a conference betwixt a scholler and an angler," and in his Fantastickes, a series of short prose pictures of the months, the Christian festivals and the hours, which throw much light on the customs of the times. Most of Breton's books are very rare and have great bibliographical value. His works, with the exception of some belonging to private owners, were collected by Dr AB Grosart in the Chertsey Worthies Library in 1879, with an elaborate introduction quoting the documents for the poet's history.
Breton's poetical works, the titles of which are here somewhat abbreviated, include:
Of his twenty-two prose tracts may be mentioned Wit's Trenchmour (1597), The Wil of Wit (1599), A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters (1603). Sir Philip Sidney's Ourania by N. B. (1606), A Mad World, my Masters, Adventures of Two Excellent Princes, Grimello's Fortunes (1604), Strange News out of Divers Countries (1622), etc.; Mary Magdalen's Lamentations (1604), and The Passion of a Discontented Mind (1601), are sometimes, but erroneously, ascribed to Breton.