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.