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A chapter from LIVES OF THE POETS

From Lives of the Poets: the English poets of the fifteenth century


Why does vernacular poetry falter in the fifteenth century? The Renaissance, which it ushers in, is soon mired in classical humanism. Petrarch, the embodiment of this new spirit, urges the use of Latin in preference to the coarse vernacular; languages just gathering confidence were rolled back before the universal claims of Latin. Even champions of vernacular reneged. They incorporated their experience into that of classic writers, remote from the street-cries, lullabies, ballads and working songs of the oral tradition, and remote too from the new literature of the previous century.

An absolute requisite of renaissance humanism was authority and precedent, elements which resided in the almost sacred authoritative text. It was the heyday of the editorial scholar, not the editor. When vernacular literature crept out again, it found readers in the market for masters, canonical classics and those who sounded like them. Anon has no place at the high table; writers like Langland are beneath contempt. The classics are found among the Italians, or at home - apologetically - in Chaucer and Gower, then later and proudly in Sidney, Spenser, and pre-eminently in Milton. Shakespeare is a bit too near the ground, too profuse and varied to be a fountainhead, too anarchic. After all, he broke most of the rules of dramatic (and poetic) form, extended syntax and muddied diction in preposterous ways, and the plays are suspect because he never saw them through the press. Few writers in the fifteenth century dared to ask: what is a natural language? Is it what we daily speak, what we write in and pray in, or is it an old-newfangled Roman idiom with cold purities, marbly outline? We have learned to forget the English Latin poets, even the good ones. We forget most of the English poets who wrote in French - and the French forget them.

An exception is Wace, born in Jersey in the twelfth century. His Le Roman de Vrut was a sort of translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain which he finished in 1155 and presented to Eleanor of Acquitaine, Henry II’s queen. Also in the twelfth century there’s Thomas d’Angleterre, who must have been English - his Tristram survives in bits and pieces. But who reads Wace? Who reads d’Angleterre? We forget, or we almost do, the French poets who wrote in English. Charles of Orleans (1394-1464/5) is usually left out of account. Aristocratic, with an easy directness, he deserves attention. He’s like a Tudor poet born a century too early, an eager daffodil blasted by frost.

Few Frenchmen (indeed, few Englishmen) mastered English as well as he did in the shadows of an English court where he was held prisoner for years, just as earlier Chaucer (more briefly, with a modest ransom on his head) was imprisoned in France. Detention was an important part of education. A grandson of Charles V of France, Charles of Orleans’s son by his third wife Marie of Clèves became King Louis XII. His cousin Isabel at the age of seven became the wife of King Richard II and was kept in custody after the King was killed because his successors did not wish to repay her dowry. She married Charles when he was twelve; she was so distressed to lose the title of Queen of England that she wept through the ceremony. His cousin Catherine became the wife of Henry V and a character in Shakespeare’s play. He was himself a possible heir to the French crown.

His pedigree is full and complex and would have fascinated a man like Proust. Born in Paris in 1394, he was the eldest son of mad King Charles VI’s only brother. At thirteen he became head of his house and faction, when his father was assassinated. His first mission was to avenge his father. His wife died in childbirth leaving a daughter. He married Bonne d’Armagnac, who was twelve, and continued pursuing his family’s enemies. He signed a marriage contract between his daughter, nine months old, and the six year old Duke of Alençon, who later fought beside Joan of Arc. Defeated, excommunicated, he struggled back to grace and was restored in 1412 (he was eighteen), his father’s reputation cleared, the Duke of Burgundy discredited. Then at Agincourt the English found him under a heap of dead Frenchmen. They took him and held him for ransom. In Canterbury he was paraded through the streets and endured a Cathedral service of thanksgiving for his defeat. His brother too was a hostage. They were held in various prisons - the Tower, where James I of Scotland was also interned; Pontefract, where Richard II was murdered; Fotheringay; Ampthill; Windsor. The ransom was too much for his estates, beggared by war. The Clarences and Somersets were greedy. Prisoners were chattels to be sold, milked and bequeathed in wills.

His brother had the Canterbury Tales copied out and the brothers read it to one another, getting to know the characters and the language. They read Boethius, consolation in the circumstances, and composed prayers. Henry V in his will recommended that they not be released until Henry VI - who inherited the thrones of England and France when he was nine months old - should come of age. Charles was eventually freed in 1440 at the age of 46. He married Mary of Clèves - then fourteen - and worked for peace between England, France and the factions, retiring to Blois after a few more bloody noses. There he gave himself up to the arts, including literary gatherings and the competitions between poets which he sponsored.

'Ther nys leef nor flowre that doth endewre

But a sesoun as sowne doth in a belle.' Sometimes he translated his own French poems, allegories and amorous pieces, but half his poems in English were composed in the language of his captors and a few of the French poems are translated from English originals. It’s hard to tell whether a poem is an English chicken or a French egg. Writers in other centuries have done this - Samuel Beckett, for example. and James Joyce in the twentieth.

Some said he couldn’t have done the English poems: no Frenchman could have. But where versions of a poem exist in French and English you see the differences, because in making English poems he was making poems, not committing translations: they’re in his personal manuscript. His detractors ignore the quality of the versions, and of the originals which they reject: English is closed to foreigners, even foreign prisoners held for twenty-five years. This linguistic hubris reflects a common fear of the alien, though the English had no difficulty in believing that their poets could write in French (or Latin) according to their degrees of skill. Like Gower, Charles wrote Latin religious poems as well as French and English. His manuscript book - he was a royal scribe, a noble predecessor as it were - shows how, as he learned the language, he found his (metrical) feet. There is a rondel he composed, remembering - he had time to remember (‘When I am hushed it marvel is to me

To hear my heart, how that he talketh soft’) - a beloved.

The smylyng mouth and laughyng eyen gray
The brestis rounde and long smal armys twayne
The hondis smothe the sidis streiyt & playne
Yowre fetis lite what shulde y ferther say
Hit is my craft when ye are fer away
To muse theron in styntyng of my payne
The smylyng
The brestis
So wolde y pray yow gef y durste or may
The sight to se as y haue seyne
Forwhi that craft me is most fayne
And wol ben to the howre in which y day
The smylyng
The brestis

The reprise lingers, with sadness, with desire. Wyatt may have known his verse: he seems to remember him, as he remembers Gower and Chaucer.

A chief person in his poems is Heart, now clad in black, now in a dungeon, occasionally thrilled by the Lady’s beauty, then cast down again by her hauteur. Heart has moods, Heart speaks, counts money and tears, counsels, despairs of counselling, complains, hopes, celebrates. He’s part of the allegory of love and, in the end, of faith. Charles isn’t Heart, the poems are not anecdotal confessions. The ladies, like Dame Philosophy in Boethius, are representative not specific figures. They are not one of his three wives, the Queen or any lady of the English court. The poems do not arise from a passing carnal passion. Charles wrote lyric poems of subtlety a century before the Tudor poets got going, in the tedious age of those interminable, yawning poems by Hoccleve and Lydgate.

What of Thomas Hoccleve? Was he so very bad? Warton says he is 'the first poet that occurs in the reign of Henry the Fifth'. His verdict is peremptory: 'Occleve is a feeble writer, considered as a poet…' Considered as a man, he was little better. But he took into a new century and reign improvements of language that Chaucer and Gower effected. Hoccleve is the first - there’s hardly another until Wyatt and Gascoigne - to speak in his poems not only as himself but of himself. His candour is excessive: he lays himself open without a sense of irony, the ur-Confessional. His Amans is not a papery fiction but a man in need of psychiatric attention. Even so, his poetry is deficient in ‘world’, in the coloured, scented, sounding particulars that confront and affront him.

Hoccleve was born around 1368 and vanishes from view around 1426. He may have come from Bedfordshire. For years he worked as a clerk in the office of the Lord Privy Seal but seems not to have distinguished himself. He had a modest pension, was always poor and sometimes loopy. If he indulged in dissipation, he did it in taverns and without much style. In 1409 his pension increased to £13.6s.8d. (All we know for sure about our early poets has to do with money: what they got paid. Even now, when poets get together, money and sex are what they tend to talk about.) Around 1411 he married. Five years later he was quite mad. In 1424 he got a benefice (or a corrody or charge on a monastery).

Hoccleve is the first large-scale poet for whom we have several manuscripts in his own hand. They reveal the writerly habits of the day. He also left autobiographical lines which, Saintsbury says, ‘make him (in a very weak and washed out way, it is true) a sort of English and crimeless Villon, to the actual picture of his times that we have in London Lickpenny.’ Saintsbury refers to Le Male Règle, in which the poet petitions for his salary to be paid and unfolds a mildly vicious nature.

The state of his texts is unstable: many manuscripts remain unprinted. His most important piece is a version of Aegidius’s De Regimene Principium which he calls the Regiment of Princes and addresses to Henry, Prince of Wales. It runs to 5500 lines. Much is commonplace but the first 2000 lines, a dialogue between the poet and a beggar, are interesting, with autobiography and the address to Chaucer. In the Prologue (not printed at the time) he apostrophises his master:

O mayster dere, and fadir reverent,
My mayster Chaucer, floure of eloquence,
Mirrour of fructuous entendement,
O universal fadir in science,
Alas that thou thine excellent prudence
In thy bed mortel mightest not bequethe…

These lines, written just after Chaucer died, were worked back into the Prologue. His poems swallow material from different periods without embarrassment.

After the Regiment in importance are the verse stories from Gesta Romanorum: ‘The Emperor Jereslaus’s Wife’ and ‘Jonathas’, La Male Règle with its confessions, and the ‘Complaint’ and ‘Dialogue’ (largely autobiographical), ‘and a really fine Ars Sciendi Mori’ says Saintsbury which one critic describes as (uncharacteristically) ‘manly’. Somehow he attracted a great patron of the age, Duke Humphrey, who around 1440 gave the University of Oxford one of the finest libraries of the day - six hundred volumes. ‘They were the most splendid and costly copies that could be procured,’ says Warton, ‘finely written on vellum, and elegantly embellished with miniatures and illuminations.’ Most of the books were removed as ‘popish’ under Edward VI and destroyed or scattered. Duke Humphrey was also Lydgate’s patron and a friend of European scholars and writers in the arts and sciences.

Hoccleve was an unpalatable man of the world. John Lydgate being a myopic monk - he was among the first English poets to wear spectacles - had acres of time after prayers and was turned into a verse machine by his superiors, churning the stuff out by the yard. In 1800 Warton's vigorous and rather mad foe the literary antiquary Joseph Ritson described him as a 'prosaick and driveling monk'. The bulk of his work is huge, yet little is known of his life: not much of it is invested in the verse. There must be more than 140,000 lines. Longer than Wordsworth. Longer than Milton. Longer than Milton and Wordsworth put together. There’s occasional humour. But Lydgate is not consistently funny as Chaucer can be. He has little control of tone and veers towards prosodic incompetence and prolixity. Saintsbury sees it as an over-emphatic caesura with discord at both ends of the line: ‘even in rime royal, his lines wander from seven to fourteen syllables’.

Born around 1370, Lydgate died in 1450 or thereabouts. He reached his highest eminence under Henry VI, around 1430. He'd become a monk at the big Benedictine abbey of St Edmund’s Bury in Suffolk at a young age, after being educated at Oxford, in France and Italy, from where he returned a master of the languages and literatures of both lands. So proficient was he that he opened a school in his monastery to teach sons of noble houses the elegancies of composition. Like Gower, he set himself apart: his acquisitions were those of study, not derived from the world of affairs. His Miracles of St Edmund and other huge devotional poems emerged from his cloister.

Robert Graves tells how he ‘was forced (apparently against his will) to become a sort of scholarly Versificator Regis. The rules of his Order compelled every monk to unthinking obedience; so Henry V commissioned Lydgate, through his superior, to translate Giovanni delle Colonne’s 30,000-line Historia Trojana, which took eight years; then the Earl of Warwick called him to Paris in 1426 to turn into English a French poetical pedigree proving Henry VI to be the rightful King of France. In the same year the Earl of Salisbury set him another translation task: the 20,000 line Pélérinage de la Vie Humaine – an allegory. Next, the Duke of Gloucester commanded him to translate Boccaccio’s 36,000-line De Casibus Illustrium Virorum (Fall of Princes), an even more formidable commission.’ Graves quotes these lines:

Thus my self remembyring on this boke
It to translate how I had undertake,
Ful pale of chere, astonied in my loke,
Myn hand gan tremble, my penne I feltè quake.

I stode chekmate for feare when I gan see
In my way how littel I had runne.

His horror at the size of the task does not translate as Hoccleve’s would have done in self-pity. He chooses metaphorical expression in the language of chess.

Lydgate is mired in his age, if not in the age before, yet he points forward. His Fall of Princes, Siege of Troy and Destruction of Troy stand reading. The Fall is a 'set of tragedies', a prototype for the Mirrour for Magistrates that so entertains and instructs the sixteenth century. Characters appear before the interlocutor Bochas and report on their downfalls. The best copy of the poem has a portrait of Lydgate. When Adam arrives he greets his interlocutor as ‘Cosyn Bochas’.

Lydgate’s Story of Thebes pretends to be an additional Canterbury Tale. The narrator arrives in Canterbury, chances on the Pilgrims, goes back to their inn, is welcomed by the Host who comments on his threadbare outfit, and next day on the return from Canterbury Monk Lydgate is enjoined to tell his enormous tale, interrupted by a steep descent near Broughton.

Warton finds some delight in The Life of Our Lady, and Saintsbury says the best way in is via The Complaint of the Black Knight. Gray and Coleridge valued him; he is worth a patient attempt. Shortly after his age William Dunbar pays tribute to Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate in 'The Golden Terge', as though they could justly inhabit a stanza together:

Your angel mouthis most mellifluate
Our rude langage has clere illumynate,
And fair ourgilt oure speche, that imperfyte
Stude, or your golden pennis schupe to wryte:
This ile before was bare and desolate
Off rethorike or lusty fresch endyte.

He was one of the first English writers ‘whose style is cloathed with that perspicuity, in which the English phraseology appears at this day to an English reader’. And what a range of forms, themes and tones he displays - it's his prolixity that makes him a problem for modern readers. Excerpted he shines, and Warton finds lines of miraculous compression and originality. From the Lyfe of Our Lady he singles out a passage in which Lydgate argues the virgin birth against unbelievers. His argument is clinched in metaphor:

For he that doth the tender braunches sprynge,
And the fresshe flouris in the grete mede,
That were in wynter dede and eke droupynge,
Of bawme all yvoyd and lestyhede;
May he not make his grayne to growe and sede,
Within her brest, that was both mayd and wyfe,
Whereof is made the sothfast breade of lyfe?

The grain is transformed into bread within the virgin, an amazing consistency of metaphor working at every level, emerging in incarnation and the transubstantiated Host. Conceit gathers force and finally bursts to the surface in a literal meaning.

Warton isolates other instances, more lyrical, less metaphysical in character: 'Like as the dewe discendeth on the rose

With sylver drops…' and

When he of purple did his baner sprede
On Calvarye abroad upon the rode,
To save mankynde…

Lydgate is easy to read, easier than Chaucer, but his language is less precise, less thrifty. He’s easy but smooth. He soon bores. Moments of reward, which in Chaucer occur in almost every line, are scarce. Language is in excess of its occasion, and Lydgate is a rhetorician in both the good and bad senses: he is absolute master of the figures of rhetoric, but he also spins out, often a very thin thread, sometimes no thread at all. His verse will admit anything, and the result is prosaic structure and prosaic movement. Yet he was popular for a couple of centuries. Henry VIII got Pynson to print The History Siege and Destruction of Troye in 1513. Another, more correct edition was printed in 1555 by Thomas Marshe.

When Chaucer and Gower and Langland were about, it seemed that English poetry had a centre that would hold and grow stronger as the language cohered and poetic skills evolved from good examples. But in the powerful south the fifteenth century belonged to fat language, prolixity. The growth of pedantic humanism in Europe and in England, the hunger for authority which drove poets and scholars back on the classics, made English appear as unserviceable as it had when the Normans suppressed it. Hoccleve isn’t substantial enough to rebut the humanists by example; Lydgate was the equivalent to a modern journalist, churning out matter for a market, in his case a court wanting history and verse delivered in easy form. And Henry V was not enthusiastic about panegyrics, or about English poetry. Patronage for him was more a custom than a decision; in the troubled times of his successors it was a custom often honoured in the breach. There was a more concise talent, that of the first English woman verse-writer, Juliana Berners, born around 1388. She contributed (it is believed) ‘advice literature’ to The Book of St Albans (1486). Her succinct and unabashed definitions of hunting terminology and her advice to hunters may have been translated from prose originals, but they have an original feel. Practical verses - no one would claim they are poetry - yet more pleasurable, instructive and concise than much that passed for poetry at the time, pointing the way for Thomas Tusser a century later.

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