Henry Constable was known to his contemporaries and later readers as the author of the sonnet sequence Diana. We know him also from the much larger collection of secular sonnets left in manuscript, as well as from the 17 Spiritual Sonnets, also existing only in manuscript.
By his contemporaries, including fellow poets such as Drayton and Jonson, he was highly esteemed, and, although we may not altogether endorse their estimate, we can understand it. His love sonnets (some of them, like Sidney's, addressed to Penelope Rich) came at the very start of the great Petrarchan explosion of the 1590's, and provided a strikingly pure example of the form. The ``sweet conceits'' from which they were fashioned were the stock-in-trade of the Petrarchan tradition: his lady is an object of adoration, far above him—a queen, a sun, a goddess; her beauty is the source of beauty in Nature; her hair is a golden net which entraps the lover like a bird; her hand wounds him with its ``ivory arrows,'' and so on. Yet, though typical, the conceits are not hackneyed, for Constable handles them freshly, giving to the thought a graceful turn which makes it legitimately his own. Since the essence of Petrarchan discipleship was the production of variations on a theme, this makes him an almost model exemplar. A modern reader misses the richness of texture, the sensuous warmth, and the elegiac note he finds in other practitioners, such as Shakespeare or Daniel, to say nothing of the ``true voice of feeling,'' which, whenever it occurs in such sequences, is to be regarded as a bonus. The virtues of these sonnets are, rather, their neatness, elegance, order, delicacy, and control. Their very artificiality is their charm. Seldom producing a memorable phrase, they are to be enjoyed like a song or an Elizabethan air, as, on the whole, trifles, but agreeable ones. Nor perhaps was personal feeling entirely lacking in them: distanced very far, Constable's ``busyness'' (he was described on one occasion as ``a busie yong man''), his ambition, and his anxiety, may have found both an outlet and a sedative in them.
Not all his secular sonnets were love sonnets. Some were poems of compliment, addressed to various influential people, including Elizabeth I and King James. The interest of these sonnets is slight.
Much more rewarding are the Spiritual Sonnets, written after Constable's conversion to Roman Catholicism. These, addressed to ``God and His Saints,'' have a fervour, and with it a poetic density, both intellectual and emotional, lacking in the secular sonnets. They are among the finest religious sonnets produced in English before Donne. Their style approaches the Metaphysical: it has a certain intellectual toughness and energy, and thought and emotion are fused in a compelling way which makes the conceits more than merely decorative. The completeness of Constable's conversion is clear: most of the saints addressed are women, and, as in much Counter-Reformation literature, the feeling expressed turns the poems into sacred love poems, considerably more passionate than the love sonnets themselves.