English Poetry in the Fifteenth Century Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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.

Historical context

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

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.

Social context

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The rise of the middle class was another factor in the determination of literary tastes. Though depressed economically by the disorders in the middle of the century, this constituency ultimately gained in power as the aristocracy depleted its own ranks and resources. Simultaneously, education and literacy were spreading down the social pyramid. The gradual infiltration of Humanism from the Continent, particularly during the 1480’s and 1490’s, had as yet made no impression on the literary sensibility: What this new, conservative readership demanded was the familiar and time-honored—such as the lives of saints, or works of the revered Chaucer. This appetite fueled extensive copying of manuscripts, an activity culminating, as chance would have it, in a technological revolution when William Caxton established England’s first printing press in 1476. The advent of widespread printing, following Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type for the printing press, radically and permanently altered the availability of literary works and finally established the written text as the principal medium of poetic exchange.

Genres and versification

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In their cumulative effect, these factors produced a literary conservatism that persisted throughout the century. Poets of this era turned to their own native tradition, particularly to Chaucer and Gower, for their models and stimulus, a practice contrasting radically with that of Chaucer himself, who wove into his verse many continental influences. Thus Chaucer’s meters, the iambic pentameter and tetrameter, and his rhyme patterns, notably the ballade (ababbcbc) and rhyme royal (ababbcc) stanzas and the couplet, were widely imitated, even by poets with a most imperfect grasp of what they were imitating. These same poets likewise admired the poetic diction and the rhetorical elevation that Chaucer and Gower had standardized. This influence produced the inflated sententiousness, the rhetorical pomp, and the “aureation” (use of polysyllabic Latinisms) that modern readers often deplore in the verse of Lydgate and his followers.

However, fifteenth century poets adopted larger poetic forms as well. The many allegories and dream visions of the period clearly model themselves on Chaucer’s work and that of his contemporaries. Other genres, such as the romance and lyric, continued to draw upon the same reserve of verse forms, topoi, story patterns, and subjects. Nowhere is the conservative character of the period better revealed than in the inclination toward verse translation. Of course, this was nothing new: The Middle Ages always had great respect for authority, and most writers—even the best—worked from sources. The sheer bulk of fifteenth century translation obtrudes nevertheless, particularly in the number of major works that fall into this class. Lydgate’s 36,365-line The Fall of Princes 1430-1438, printed 1494), for example, was his longest poetic effort. Further, with the exception of Gavin Douglas’s version of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), seldom do the translations, despite their frequent expansion and supplementation of the originals, stand as significant poetic works in their own right; John Walton’s competent yet poetically uninspired rendering of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) represents the best that the age produced. However sympathetically perceived, this widespread tendency to rely on the matter and inspiration of the past must ultimately be admitted as a weakness in much fifteenth century poetry, translated or otherwise. Rarely do the versifiers exhibit the ability of great traditional poets to return to and re-create the myths embedded in the traditional material.

The Chaucerian tradition

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the late fourteenth century Chaucer, drawing on the French tradition of courtly love and allegory that he found in Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century), translated part of it as Romaunt of the Rose (The Romance of the Rose, complete translation 1900), and brought courtly poetry in England to its fullest perfection. His precedent inspired many imitations; allegories, love-debates, and dream visions throughout the fifteenth century attempted to recapture the Chaucerian magic. Although several of these labors show talent, one finds in this tradition little innovation or development beyond the point that Chaucer had reached.

Chaucer’s first and historically most significant heir was John Lydgate (1370?-1451?), the prolific monk of Bury St. Edmunds whose influence and prestige over the next two hundred years rivaled those of his master. Written in almost every form and mode available to him, Lydgate’s poetic corpus is staggering in its volume and variety: Taken collectively, his many allegories, romances, histories, courtly love poems, fables, epics, lyrics, hymns, prayers, didactic and homiletic works, and occasional pieces total some 145,000 lines. Lydgate’s debt to Chaucer and the courtly love tradition appears most plainly in his early work of the first decade of the 1400’s. Complaint of the Black Knight (wr. c. 1400; pb. 1885) features lovers’ complaints in a dream-vision garden setting; in the 1,403-line The Temple of Glass (wr. c. 1403; pb. 1477), the poet in a dream visits a temple, styled after Chaucer’s House of Fame (1372-1380), in which Venus joins a love-distressed knight and a lady. To this early period also belong versions of seven of Aesop’s fables, representative of several didactic works in this vein composed by Lydgate at various times. Tales of Mariolatry loosely strung amid much digressive material constitute the 5,932-line The Life of Our Lady (wr. c. 1409; pb. 1484), another early work, and the harbinger of many later efforts in the genre of the saint’s legend.

Lydgate’s major works were the prodigious translations completed in his later years. Undertaken at the behest of Henry V, the The Hystorye, Sege, and Dystruccyon of Troye (wr. c. 1420; pb. 1513; better known as Troy Book) rendered Guido delle Colonne’s Latin prose history of Troy into 30,117 lines in decasyllabic couplets. The tale of Oedipus and the rivalry of his two sons furnished the...

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Other writers and works

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Another captive nobleman, Charles d’Orleans (1391-1465) sprang directly from the French courtly tradition, writing in its language and traditional idiom. The main English translation, which Charles may have authored, is a three-part sequence of ballads and rondels dealing conventionally with the progress of several love affairs.

One further work from this early period was Sir John Thomas Clanvowe’s The Boke of Cupide (1391). This May-time dream vision is dominated by a debate between a cuckoo, who slanders lovers, and a nightingale, who lauds them; the nightingale prevails, and the dream concludes with an assembly of birds. Composed in an unusual five-line stanza (aabba), this poem recalls such earlier works in the bird-debate tradition as the thirteenth century Owl and the Nightingale (c. 1250) and Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1380).

The allegorical tendency found in The Temple of Glass emerges again in a group of poems from the later fifteenth century, most of which were at one time or another apocryphally attributed to Chaucer. One of the finest of these, The Flower and the Leaf, depicts through the eyes of a female narrator an amusing incident involving the followers of the Leaf (the laurel) and the followers of the Flower (the daisy). Skillfully composed in 595 lines of rhyme royal, The Flower and the Leaf invests its lightly allegorized narrative with much charm of image and detail. Somewhat heavier in its allegorical machinery, the 756-line Assembly of Ladies features such characters as Perseverance, Diligence, Countenance, Largesse, Remembrance, and Loyalty. Less courtly and more didactic, the Court of Sapience, sometimes attributed to Stephen Hawes, confronts a traveler with a more scholastic variety of allegorical personifications—such as Peace, Mercy, Righteousness, Truth, and the seven arts. Hawes’s The Pastime of Pleasure, composed shortly before its publication in 1509, recounts the allegorical adventures of Graunde Amour on his road toward knightly perfection and the love of La Belle Pucel. Another early sixteenth century work, The Court of Love, far more skillfully narrates Philogenet’s visit with Alcestis and Admetus at the Court of Love and recounts his successful wooing of Rosiall; the action closes with a celebration and bird-songs of praise. Thoroughly Chaucerian in form and intention, these poems mark the end of the courtly tradition in medieval English literature.

The lyric

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The term “lyric” suggests to most modern readers a highly individualized expression of some personal feeling in concrete language treating a subject of the poet’s choice, yet this notion proves misleading in the case of the medieval English lyric. Although this body of poems indeed concerns itself with feelings, the individuality of the poet has been largely effaced; thus most of the surviving pieces are anonymous, not merely because the names of the authors are unknown (with a few exceptions, such as John Audelay and James Ryman), but in the nature of the expression. Moreover, the subjects, the basis on which these poems are usually classified, belong to a common cultural word hoard that also provides much of the standard...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the fifteenth century two forms of popular narrative overlapped as the metrical romance declined and the ballad rose to supplant it. Though the relationship between these genres remains unsettled, both were probably circulated orally, and the traveling minstrel performers may have provided a line of continuity between them. This context of oral performance helps to explain in both cases the frequent verbal and narrative formulas that overly sophisticated readers are likely to condemn as “trite” and “stereotyped.” At the same time, differences in subject matter and narrative technique clearly distinguish the two forms.

The first English romances appeared in the middle of the thirteenth century, at the very...

(The entire section is 688 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

David Fowler has argued that in the late Middle Ages, as the medieval minstrels were increasingly denied access to the courts of the higher nobility, the romance converged with the folk song to produce a shorter, simplified, less episodic narrative form that is now called the ballad. While the origins of balladry remain a controversial subject, it is certainly the case that the ballad is one of the few medieval forms that did not perish with the Renaissance and its aftermath, and as such it has a special claim to modern interest. The most thoroughly oral of the genres so far considered, the ballad could be defined as a short narrative poem, usually composed in two- or four-line stanzas, and distinguished by its concentration on a...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Other fifteenth century poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The prestige of the courtly tradition did not obscure the power that religious narrative continued to exercise over the popular imagination. Indeed, collections of saints’ lives of the type represented in the South English Legendary (thirteenth to fourteenth century) and the Golden Legend (c. 1260) enjoyed immense popularity throughout the century, although original composition in this vein was on the decline. Between 1443 and 1447, one of the most prolific of the religious versifiers, Osbern Bokenham, composed a group of thirteen saints’ lives under the title The Lives of Saints: Or, Legends of Holy Women. The versatile Lydgate several times turned his hand to this genre; even John Capgrave, a...

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The Scottish makars

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the fifteenth century in Scotland, an era concluding in military cataclysm as England crushed James IV and his Scottish forces at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513, one finds a burgeoning literature with several poets or “makars” of real greatness. John Barbour, in many respects the founder of the English-language poetic tradition in Scotland, had already sounded a patriotic note in The Bruce (c. 1375), an epic romance celebrating the deeds of Robert the Bruce, national liberator and victor at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). In 1423-1424, James I introduced a courtlier, more Chaucerian strain in The Kingis Quair (1423-1424; better known as The King’s Choir). Two other poems sometimes ascribed...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Boffey, Julia, comp. Fifteenth-Century English Dream Visions: An Anthology. Annotated edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. New editions of five dream visions. Introductory essays help to put each selection in context, and glossaries and annotations make the Middle English texts more accessible.

Boklund-Lagopoulou, Karin. “I Have a Yong Suster”: Popular Song and the Middle English Lyric. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002. Discusses how serious poets often drew inspiration from popular songs, such as comic ballads, folk songs, ballads about outlaws or historical figures, and ballads of the supernatural. Bibliographical...

(The entire section is 492 words.)