Alexander Barclay Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Alexander Barclay c. 1475-c. 1552

Scottish poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.

Barclay is credited with being the first poet to write English pastorals. He enjoyed a brief literary career spanning about fifteen years, during which he produced poems, translations, and a French textbook. While many of his writings are translations, Barclay's writing style allowed him to keep the spirit of the original work while successfully adapting each piece to incorporate his own ideas concerning English society. Barclay was among the first writers to enjoy a wider circulation of his works as a result of the invention of the printing press, which allowed large quantities of his works to be distributed relatively inexpensively. Consequently, Barclay had an important role in introducing Continental literature to the English public.

Biographical Information

Little is known with certainty regarding Barclay's life, and many scholars turn to his writings to obtain information on his life and experiences. Most critics believe he was born in Scotland around 1475. He is thought to have moved to England very early in his life and raised in Croydon or Lincoln. In The Ship of Fools (1509), Barclay claims that he was comprehensively educated in a variety of disciplines, but no records of his formal education have been found. Most scholars agree that Barclay most likely earned a degree at an English university and traveled abroad to study. Over a period of five weeks beginning in March 1508, Barclay was ordained as subdeacon, deacon, and priest. This sequence of events most likely took place in order for Barclay to secure a position at the collegiate church of Ottery Saint Mary in the Exeter diocese. The following year Barclay published The Ship of Fools, and it is believed that he left Ottery Saint Mary sometime before 1514. Around this time Barclay joined the Benedictine monks at the Ely Cathedral and enjoyed an association with several important religious figures, including Bishop James Stanley. Barclay completed the remainder of his literary works while a member of the Benedictine order, including The gardyner's passetaunce (c. 1512), The Towre of Vertue and Honoure (c. 1514), and The Mirror of Good Manners (c. 1518). Lacking evidence to the contrary, scholars believe that Barclay's literary career ended after his publication of The Introductory to Write and to Pronounce Frenche in 1520. Details of Barclay's life after this point are unknown. In June, 1552, a priest named Alexander Barclay died and was buried at Croydon, but scholars are not sure this was the poet.

Major Works

Barclay is most widely known for Ship of Fools, a rendering of Sebastian Brant's poem Das Narrenschiff. Barclay's version, which significantly lengthens the work and adapts the story to his own view of English society, established him as a satirist of the social evils of the time. The gardyner's passetaunce is an allegory of English-French hostility, in which a gardener prefers the English rose to the French lily. Along the same lines, The Towre of Vertue and Honoure is an allegory glorifying English military campaigns against the French. Barclay's eclogues, pastoral poems modeled after Italian humanists, are the first of their kind to have been written in English. Written sometime between 1509 and 1514, the five eclogues were not published together until 1570. The first three form a unit that depicts the miseries of court life. Barclay's Life of St. George (1515), a translation, was intended to have a patriotic appeal and a tone of pious respectability. The Mirror of Good Manners is a moral work analyzing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The Introductory to Write and to Pronounce Frenche is a type of textbook that provides a comprehensive guide to the language; it was published shortly after peace was concluded between England and France.

Critical Reception

Many critics have attempted to assemble what is known of Barclay's life and career in an effort to assess his particular achievement and influence. John Richie Schultz has sought to gauge Barclay's contemporary reputation and fame, despite the paucity of surviving information on the poet. Nicholas Orme has explored The Ship of Fools within the contexts of Barclay's own life and the larger social and political events of his time. R. J. Lyall has analyzed The Towre of Vertue and Honoure, arguing that it was influential in the development of the English elegy, written in a style that presents a freshness and originality not seen before. Sukanta Chaudhuri has examined Barclay's eclogues, judging them “the most important English ones before [Edmund] Spenser's.” Critics agree that Barclay was significant for introducing European works and literary forms to a wide audience in England. His translations typically reworked the foreign material to present patriotic messages that found favor with English readers.