Philosopher, lawyer, politician and concealed poet, Francis Bacon was one of the last, and greatest, renaissance men. Bacon’s first three roles are well known to history. The fourth is documented in private letters written by Bacon and close associates of his; it is also alluded to more or less openly in contemporary poetry. Bacon was far from unusual among his Elizabethan peers in writing secretly. The practice of concealment was successful, as it remains hard to identify the author or authors of a number of that age’s literary masterpieces.
As philosopher, Bacon is still regarded as a founder and prophet of modern science. Although science departed from his methodology within decades of his death, his influence on cooperative scientific research and methodical experimentation was seminal. Beyond the originality of his intellectual vision, it was Bacon’s insight into the socio-economic realities of learning that enabled science as we know it to come into existence. In contrast to many philosophers, his writing is beautiful – many non-philosophers have read Bacon in admiration of his matchless command of English, muscular yet musical. Indeed, Percy Bysshe Shelley said ‘Lord Bacon was a Poet’, apparently without ever having considered the authorship question.
Beyond his literary exploits, Bacon’s outward career was remarkable. A leading courtier, lawyer and politician for most of his adult life, he rose under to King James I to be Lord Chancellor and Viscount St. Alban, arguably the second most important person in England to James himself. But his political career ended in disgrace with his impeachment for taking bribes, and Bacon’s reputation was ruined. Study of the evidence surrounding Bacon’s fall suggests the probability that he was set up in a political coup, a victim of Jacobean power politics. The Francis Bacon Society led the way in drawing attention to this forgotten part of 17th century history. In 1996, Nieves Matthews’ book Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination was published, which has already gone some way to restoring the damage done to his reputation.
The final, controversial aspect of Bacon’s life is the nature of his concealed poetry. As is well known, he has been put forward by some writers, many of them members of the Francis Bacon Society, as the true author of the Shakespeare plays; this has led to bitter controversy, characterized too often by emotionalism, prejudice and unscholarly treatment of evidence. What is interesting for the student of Bacon is that he was openly hinted to be the author of Shakespeare by two fellow poets Hall and Marston in 1597, when only two Shakespeare works had been published: the classically-influenced poems Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece.
At that time Bacon was 36 and Shakespeare was 33, presumably both in their literary prime. Bacon’s legal and political career had yet to begin in earnest, and no literature had been published under his name. But he was an acknowledged child prodigy who had left Trinity College Cambridge at around the age of 16, having learned all he could. In his ‘teens’, he had already acquired a profound knowledge of the Latin and Greek classics and there is evidence of his easy familiarity with French, Italian and Spanish language and literature. Whatever the facts, Bacon was believed to be a concealed poet of standing and merit by various contemporaries, among them authors of poetry, concealed and overt.
There have been few men as revered in his own time as Francis Bacon. Leading poets and eminent writers stood in awe of him during his life; and for over a century after his death his influence and posthumous reputation were matchless.