John Heywood Poetry: British Analysis
John Heywood’s contemporaries knew him mainly as a writer of witty epigrams: John Florio, William Camden, and Gabriel Harvey comment on his skill in using this literary form. One of Heywood’s epigrams opens with the question “Art thou Heywood with the mad merry wit?” and this wit emerges in the wordplay of which Heywood is so fond. His poems abound with puns and verbal quibbles and in this way he anticipates euphuism; in fact, John Lyly’s work uses many of the proverbs that Heywood collected in his A Dialogue of Proverbs.
In addition to wordplay, there is a minor substratum of lyricism in Heywood that antedates the sonnets and lyrics of later Renaissance poetry. “Green Willow” most obviously illustrates this strain in Heywood, introducing the typical despondent Petrarchan lover and using alliteration to lend smoothness to the lines. Alliteration also became a hallmark of euphuism.
Another important aspect of Heywood’s work is his comic realism and bawdy humor. He constantly provides a dramatic context for his poems, and this context, be it the mock-heroic descriptions of warfare in The Spider and the Fly or the fast-paced marital arguments of A Dialogue of Proverbs, usually provides comic overtones to his work. When describing people—the old wife in A Dialogue of Proverbs, for example—he focuses on their imperfections to provide comedy. This comic realism, along with the bawdry found in many of Heywood’s poems, has prompted critics to place him in the Chaucerian tradition of English poetry, a tradition carried on through the Renaissance by poets such as John Skelton.
A Dialogue of Proverbs
Heywood’s first poetry to appear in print was A Dialogue of Proverbs, an attempt to bring together “the number of the effectual proverbs in the English tongue” within a dramatic context. That context is a dialogue between the narrator and a young friend concerning the latter’s marriage: He must choose between marrying a beautiful but destitute young woman and an ugly and old but wealthy widow. Collecting proverbs was by no means an innovation in the sixteenth century. William Caxton’s The dictes or sayengis of the philosophres (1477), Desiderius Erasmus’s Adagia (1500; Proverbs or Adages, 1622), and Nicholas Udall’s Apophthegmes (1542), to name just a few, are all collections of proverbial lore. That Heywood worked specifically with English proverbs and attempted to provide a plot for them shows him to be a poet concerned with exploring the possibilities of the English language while giving a dramatic framework to his poem. Heywood was, after all, a playwright as well as a poet.
The strengths of A Dialogue of Proverbs are twofold—dramatic and verbal—and its weaknesses emerge in Heywood’s inability to sustain the high standards that his best writing achieves. The dramatic structure of the work is complex, and such complexity does much to alleviate the tedium that a dialogue consisting mainly of proverbs might produce. Thus, after listening to his friend’s dilemma and debating with him his marriage choices (part 1, chapters 1-6), the narrator proposes to tell the young man about two unions he has known: one a marriage of young people for love and one a December-May marriage between a rich woman and a poor young man. The first story takes up the rest of part 1 and chronicles the various ways the couple try to rise above their poverty; it ends when the wife and husband must part to make their separate ways in the world. The history of the December-May match takes up part 2 and shows the gradual deterioration of a marriage undertaken on the young man’s part only for money. The introduction of these two stories within the frame of the debate between the narrator and his friend shows Heywood’s fondness for elaborate plot structure.
He also delights in providing detailed descriptions of the secondary characters of the narrator’s two stories, and often these descriptions are humorous. When the poor young wife goes to her aunt’s house to beg forgiveness for her rash marriage, she meets another “kinswoman,” Alice, whose “dissimulation” frightens the young wife. Alice is described in broadly humorous terms: “She is lost with an apple, and won with a nut;/ Her tongue is no edge tool, but yet it will cut./ Her cheeks are purple ruddy like a horse plum;/ And the big part of her body is her bum.” While the wife is begging at her aunt’s house, her husband is trying his luck with his family. After being refused aid by one uncle, he goes to another only to find him out and his wife leery of indigent relatives: “She was within, but he was yet abroad./ And straight as she saw me she swelled like a toad,/ Pattering the devil’s Pater noster to herself:/ God never made a more crabbed elf!”
Unfortunately, descriptions such as these are the high points of the work and are by no means common. Much of part 2 is devoted to arguments between the old woman and her young husband, and while some of these are humorous, others are simply weighted down with proverbs. In addition, there are some strange lapses in dramatic structure for a poet who is also a playwright. Halfway through part 2, the December-May couple invite the young couple described in part 1 to dine with them. During the dinner, the two husbands think to solve their emotional and financial problems by changing wives: As the young man in the December-May marriage begins to “cast a loving eye” on the young wife, her husband casts a loving look “to his plate,” bought with the old wife’s money. This comic dramatic situation, suggestive of a fabliau, is never developed by Heywood, and the young couple passes out of part 2 with no effect on the story. It seems odd that Heywood went to the trouble of developing this dramatic situation only to leave it unresolved.
A similar ambiguity surrounds the narrator. In many ways, his presence lends drama—and occasionally dramatic irony—to the work. His steadiness contrasts with his young friend’s impulsiveness: After hearing the tale of the first two lovers, the young man would immediately hasten off to marry the old wealthy woman before even hearing about the December-May marriage. When he finally agrees to listen to the story of the second couple, he is so impatient that he will scarcely let the narrator pause for supper. Within the stories he tells, the narrator’s role as confidant to both the young husband and the old wife provides humor as both come to him to complain of their marriage: “Out of doors went she herewith; and hereupon/ In at...
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