Dwarfed by the mighty accomplishments of Geoffrey Chaucer at one end and the great Elizabethans at the other, fifteenth century poetry has often seemed to stretch like a lesser plain between mountain ranges. There is some truth to this view: By no standard was this a distinguished age in the history of English verse. The English Chaucerian tradition, running from John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve to Stephen Hawes, can boast no major poet and only a paucity of significant minor ones, and rarely did fifteenth century works in the well-established popular genres of metrical romance, saint’s life, and lyric match the high achievements of the century before. Indeed, the best-known literary productions of the 1400’s—the prose Arthurian romance of Sir Thomas Malory and the dramatic cycles of the Corpus Christi season—belong to genres other than poetry. Poetry in this period may have suffered a general undervaluation owing to comparisons that it cannot sustain.
If one approaches fifteenth century poetry with chastened expectations and sensitivities attuned to the artistic aims of this period as distinct from others, one can find work of real interest and value. For example, although the age found little original stimulus in matters of poetic form, the carol attained its fullest development during this time, and the ballad was beginning to take shape. Finally, at the turn of the century, three Scots “makars”—Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas—produced verse of a sufficiently high order to warrant labeling the reign of James IV a brief “golden age” of literary Scotland.
Although it is always hazardous to speculate on the connections between history and artistic felicity, it remains true that the political and social climate in the fifteenth century did not favor literary achievement. The international stage was still dominated by the Hundred Years’ War with France; Henry V’s successful invasion, crowned by the victory of Agincourt in 1415, committed his successors to a costly, protracted, and ultimately futile defense of this new French territory against the onslaughts of Joan of Arc and the French king. Meanwhile, in England itself the weakness of Henry VI encouraged factionalism and intrigue, which finally erupted in the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. It was a nation tired of war and depopulated of much of its nobility that welcomed the restoration of civil order in 1485 with the crowning of Henry VII and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.
This political turbulence severely disrupted the patronage system on which art throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance had always relied. Early in the century, Henry V had encouraged literary production, as had his brother, Humphrey of Gloucester. However, the decimation and financial impoverishment that subsequently exhausted the aristocracy could hardly serve to foster an atmosphere of courtly refinement such as had supported Chaucer and John Gower. Indeed, it is notable that the fifteenth century witnessed a contraction in most aspects of intellectual and cultural life. Architecture, the visual arts, philosophy, and theology all declined; only in music did the English excel, principally through the harmonic innovations of John Dunstable (1370?-1453). At the same time, the role of the poet seems to have been evolving from that of an entertainer in the tradition of medieval minstrelsy to one of an adviser to princes. Thus the prestige of erudition rose while the indigenous oral traditions fell further into disrepute.
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