During the age of Chaucerians (the followers of Chaucer) nearly all the poets tried to walk in Chaucer’s footsteps and, with little of his genius labored to reproduce his matter and style. Here and there real sympathy of mind and a touch of genuine power gave birth to work having distinct merit of its own, as in the beautiful ‘The Flower and the Leaf’, a poem long ascribed to Chaucer himself, but now referred to some anonymous writer of his school. But on the whole, like all merely imitative things in art, such productions are of slight permanent value. Of these Chaucerians, who were numerous the best known are Thomas Occleve and John Lydgate.
Thomas Occleve (1370-1454)
He is the earliest of the Chaucerians. His works are interesting not for their artistic or literary merits, but for the light, they throw on the life of the times. He is also known for some lines on Chaucer in which he pays moving tributes to the older poet and acknowledges him as his master. His important works are:
A Letter of Cupid, an allegory in the manner of the Legend of Good Women. But instead of Chaucer’s humor, imagination and realism we get too much of dry reasoning.
The Regiment of Princes. It is his most important work. It was written to win the favor of Henry V, then Prince of Wales. It is a series of lessons laying down the rules of conduct for princes. It is didactic and utilitarian, and not a work of art. Compton Rickett says, “There is no duller dog in literature than Occleve.”
John Lydgate (1373-1450)
Lydgate, like Occleve, was a close contemporary of Chaucer and might have actually known him. He was a great scholar and monk and he has the credit of being the most voluminous poet of medieval England. He has nearly one lakh forty thousand lines to his credit. Most of his work consists of translations. His most popular work is the short and lively London Lack Penny which describes the misery of a poor rustic who visits London in quest of justice. Unfortunately recent research has thrown doubts on Lydgate’s authorship of this interesting work.
His other works, Troye Book, The Story of Thebes, The Fall of Princes, The Temple of Glass are merely servile imitations of Chaucer and repetitions of themes already used by the earlier poet.
William Dunbar (1465-1530)
In William Dunbar the greatest British poet between Chaucer and Spenser, the individual quality is much more apparent. His graceful allegorical poem, The Thistle and the Rose, composed to commemorate the marriage of James IV of Scotland and Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England, is quite in the manner of Chaucer’s early poetry. But in much of his later verse, as in his satirical ballads and in his remarkable Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins, there is a combination of vigor, broad humor, and homely pathos, which belongs wholly to the character of the poet and to his native soil.
Stephen Hawes (1475-1530)
Stephen Hawes is an allegorist and too much of the past, yet he also feebly heralds Spenser. He allegories in the manner of Roman De La Rose and acknowledges Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as his masters, yet he feebly anticipates Spenser in as much as the theme of his principal works is the fashioning of a perfect gentleman, virtuous and chaste, through education and discipline.
It should be remembered that the Elizabethan ideal of a gentleman was all-round perfection in virtue. In the fine arts, in social arts, and in the use of arms, and it is this ideal that Hawes has before him. However, he seeks to achieve this ideal through a scholastic education. The Example of Virtue and The Pastime of Pleasure, his chief works, are moral and didactic allegories.
In general Hawes’ versification is awkward and stiff, marred by Latin constructions. “Never did poetry in English sink to lower depths of the prosaic than when Lady Grammar explains the nature of a noun to her pupil” (Legouis). He marks an advance in theme but not verification.
Alexander Barclay (1474-1552)
Barclay, too, like Hawes, marks an advance in theme. He is hardly more than a translator, though an imaginative translator. He has also no grasp over versification. But he is historically significant for two reasons.
l. He was the first English poet to choose a German subject. His Ship of Fools is a translation from a German poet, and it enjoyed immediate and immense popularity. The poet is a fellow passenger in a ship full of fools and in this way he is enabled to review every kind of folly. The humor is lively and pleasant.
2. He was the first to write Eclogues pastoral poems in which shepherds are introit: ‘A -conversing with each other in England. He thus introduced a genre which was to reign supreme in times to come.
Robert Henryson (1430-1506)
He followed the Chaucerian model in his Testament of Cresseid but also produced in Robin and Makyne a story which anticipates Bums’, Duncan Gray.
John Skelton (1460-1529)
John Skelton is the most vigorous and original poet of the 15th century. He was a learned poet, very well acquainted with the ancients. But he does not care for poetic beauty or beauty of versification. We write verses like a buffoon, but he breaks new ground both in theme and versification. He broke new ground in more than one way. First, he had the courage to discard the hackneyed measures.
He found English verse, the heroic measure, in a bad way, and so proceeded to make new experiments in versification. Secondly, he begins as an allegorist but ends with writing satires. He exposes with brutal frankness the corruption in high places. Not even Wycliffe had been so merciless in his denunciation of the clergy. His verse is called Skeltonic owing to its peculiar qualities: “endless repetition of the same rhymes, and short irregular lines,” he himself called his verse, “tattered and ragged”. His chief works are:
1. The Book of Colin Cloute — Colin Cloute is a peasant who, like Piers the Plowman, chastises the corrupt clergy of the times.
2. Why come not You to Court is a violent denunciation of Wolsey, the all-powerful minister of Henry VIII.
3. The Book of Philip Sparrow an elegy on the death of a sparrow. It shows that Skelton, who could be so coarse and brutal, could also be tender and pathetic when the occasion demanded.
By his metrical experiments, he prepared the way for the verse innovations of the Renaissance.
Gawin or Gavin Douglas (1474-1522)
Gawain, Bishop of Dunkeld, whose Palice of Honour is full of Chaucer, while his original prologues to the successive books of his translation of the Aeneid bear the stamp of the writer’s own mind and style.
The treatment of nature by these Scottish poets, in general, is especially interesting. Chaucer’s May mowing and garden landscape had become a convention in which his English disciples were content to reproduce. In Scottish poetry, too, the convention reappears, but on the other hand, we often find real Scotch scenery painted manifestly by men who, instead of adopting a mere literary fashion, had studied and were Wing to depict the nature about them for themselves.
Thus three of Douglas’ prologues, just mentioned, deal with the country in spring, in autumn, and in winter, and though there are many stereotyped details, the pictures are evidently painted directly from reality, and with wonderful care and accuracy. This faithful rendering of landscape is a characteristic which should be remembered, for, as we shall learn in due course, Scottish poets did much to bring the love of nature into later English literature.
It will be seen that in speaking of these Scottish poets we have followed the Chaucerian tradition into the sixteenth century. But though they thus wrote on into a time when new ideas of poetry were beginning to arise, the general quality of their work leads us to class them with the fifteenth-century men.
I must add that though poetically poor in other respects, this fifteenth century seems to have been rich in a particular kind of minor verse. We cannot indeed be sure when such poems as The Battle of Otterburn, the Nut Brown Maid, and the numerous ballads of the Robin Hood cycle, first took shape; but there is good reason to believe that ballad literature, in general, became increasingly popular in the century after Chaucer’s death. Often rude in style, but often wonderfully direct and vigorous and full of real feeling, these ballads did much to foster a love of poetry among the English people.
Reginald Pecock (1395-1460)
Pecock, Bishop of St. Asaph’s and afterwards of Chichester, who took an active part in the religious controversies of his day, without, however, satisfying either the Lollards, for whom he was too conservative, or the orthodox churchmen, for whom he was too radical, made a bold break with a tradition which Wyclif had failed to shake, when he set out his arguments in English instead of Latin, and his Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clero and his Boke of Faith, must be mentioned as landmarks in the history of our prose.
Sir John Fortescue (1394-1476)
Some importance has been given to the political treaties of Sir John Fortescue. He has given a graphic picture about ‘The Difference between an Absolute and Limited Monarchy’ in his work.
Sir Thomas Malory
The great prose production Of the fifteenth century, which is indeed the one really great book of the age, is the Morte D’ Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory. Of the author, we know nothing for certain except that he was a knight. According to Caxton’s statement, he completed his work in the ninth year Of King Edward IV, that is in 1470.
Malory’s Morte D’ Arthur is a sort of compilation of the various legends that had the legendary Arthur as their hero. There are many digressions and episodes, and the main plot can be followed only with difficulty. King Arthur reigns triumphantly till his Queen, Guinevere, turns unfaithful to him and takes Launcelot as her lover.
The result is the dissatisfaction of his knights who revolt against his authority. Finally, it records the way in which Arthur died. Guinevere and Launcelot both repent of their sins. Guinevere becomes a nun and Launcelot a hermit. Thus the work emphasizes the value of chastity. The writer himself was a victim of civil war (the War of the Roses) and so his account of the civil war in the kingdom of Arthur is forceful and moving.
No doubt, as Legouis points, out, “This over-loose compilation, lacks unity, both of thought and plot. There are contradictions in thought and too many digressions make the story diffuse and incoherent. But it has unity of another kind, unity of manner, tone and atmosphere.”
The readers are transported to a wonderland, to a fairy country, where there are only big castles and tournaments and beautiful ladies and brave knights going out to seek impossible adventure. It is a country’ in which the marvelous is at home and fantastic personages are possible. It recreates a vanished golden age and thus provides escape from the sordid realities and hardships of the present.
Morte D’ Arthur is a charming fairy tale and the style is suited to the theme. It is simple, even childish, but harmonious and having poetic cadence. It is the first book in English in poetic prose, it is in the style of fairy tale, such as are often told to children.
One of its special charms is that its prose is made up of a host of poetic reminiscences, resulting from its author’s wide reading of the various poetic versions of the Arthurian romances. And what is more, the style is clear, smooth and easy with a mild archaic flavor. It is a skilful blend of dialogue and narrative and is full of color and life. It may not appeal to the intelligence but its appeal to the imagination is profound.
The literary influence of this work cannot be exaggerated. (a) It is a storehouse of those medieval legends which have the most haunted English imagination; (b) It is the first book in England in poetic prose. (c) It has kept the chivalrous spirit alive among all sections of the English people. (d) It has inspired poets like Tennyson, Morris, Swinburne, etc., who have poetized the various legends. Shakespeare too turned to this work for his material in certain plays of his.
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