Thomas Hoccleve Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Hoccleve c. 1367-c. 1426

English poet.

The medieval English poet Thomas Hoccleve is often grouped together with John Lydgate and others as one of the “English Chaucerians,” followers of the first major English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Hoccleve was best known by early critics for his association with authors of greater renown, such as the more widely read poet Lydgate. However, the passage of time has improved Hoccleve's reputation. His penchant for autobiographical detail and his political verse—both of which distinguish him from Chaucer—have won him the interest of modern scholars. Some critics consider Hoccleve to be the earliest English autobiographer, and he is also noted for producing the first English version of the Fürstenspiegel, or advice to monarchs, in verse.

Biographical Information

Despite Hoccleve's autobiographical inclination, not much is known of his early years. Based on his name, some biographers believe his family may have come from the village of Hockliffe, in Bedfordshire. Scholars place his birth year as somewhere between 1366 and 1369; leading Hoccleve scholar J. A. Burrow proposes 1367 as the most likely date, with later dates only a remote possibility. The facts of Hoccleve's education are unknown; it assumed that he was not a university graduate. However, in 1387 Hoccleve began working as a clerk in the office of the Privy Seal in Westminster, a position that would have required a knowledge of French and Latin, indicating some degree of formal education. In a career in the office of the Privy Seal that lasted for nearly forty years, he was responsible for issuing authenticated royal documents and correspondence, and for authorizing the activities of the Chancery and Exchequer in matters ranging from minor purchases to the issuance of pardons. In 1394 King Richard II granted Hoccleve a corrody, a type of pension, giving him the right to free room and board at the Priory of Hayling on the Isle of Wight; Burrow suggests that Hoccleve likely accepted a cash payment in lieu of the accommodations, as was common. At some time in the late fourteenth century Hoccleve met Chaucer; the means of their acquaintance is unknown, and in fact the acquaintance itself has at times been disputed. Most of the evidence for Hoccleve's relationship with Chaucer, whom he considered his poetic mentor, comes from Hoccleve's own poems. Hoccleve also describes himself as poor in his poetry, reflecting the financial struggles of the court during the reign of King Henry IV, who took the crown from Richard II in 1399. Hoccleve's first work for which a date is known with certainty is “Letter of Cupid,” which was published in 1402. A translation and adaptation of the popular French poet Christine de Pisan's 1399 Epistre au Dieu d'Amours, the poem was one of Hoccleve's most popular works. His next major poem is the strongly autobiographical “La Male Regle” (“The Ill-Regulated Youth,” 1406), in which Hoccleve complains of the hardships of his life, many of which, he confesses, he brought on himself. Despite the exaggerations of the poem, scholars have generally agreed that Hoccleve likely did describe his physical ailments, financial strains, and moral failings accurately. Hoccleve married around 1410 or 1411, indicating that he had changed his mind about former plans to enter the priesthood. Nothing at all is known of his wife, although Hoccleve asserts in his poetry that he loved her. Following his marriage he began work on De Regimine Principum (Regement of Princes, 1411-12), which he presented to the future Henry V, then Prince Hal, with the hope of winning the favor of the heir to the throne. Consisting of advice to the prince on the proper conduct of a monarch, the poem was Hoccleve's most successful and widely read work. The prologue includes a lengthy dialogue between Hoccleve and a beggar, and an address to Chaucer. Several surviving copies of the poem include a portrait of Chaucer that Hoccleve commissioned to be included in the work. Hoccleve continued to write poems for Henry V, but there is no indication that his financial status improved, although he continued to draw a small annuity. At some point following the publication of the Regement, Hoccleve suffered from a period of mental illness, perhaps depression. The illness probably began sometime around 1414; Burrow and others have noted that between 1414 and 1417 Hoccleve did not go to the Exchequer to collect his annuity, suggesting the period of his malady. Hoccleve mentions his illness in his “Complaint,” one of the works that makes up his Series, a collection of works written primarily between 1419 and 1422. Henry VI ascended to the throne in 1422, and Hoccleve's annuity was continued, although by 1423 he was probably no longer working in the Privy Seal office. Nonetheless, at that time he was likely working on the comprehensive Formulary, a painstakingly detailed guide to the workings of the office, written to assist his successors. He was also granted another corrody in 1424, having petitioned Henry V's younger brother, Humphrey of Gloucester. Records relating to this corrody in Southwick, Hampshire, provide evidence of the date of Hoccleve's death. The documents indicate that a payment was made to Hoccleve in March 1426 but by May of that year the pension was granted to someone else, suggesting that Hoccleve had died in the interim.

Major Works

Hoccleve wrote in a number of genres popular in his day. His first major work, the “Letter of Cupid,” is an example of courtly poetry in the manner of the lines of the Roman de la Rose. It contains a dream vision, complex allegory, and wit typical of the courtly style. The original poem by Christine de Pisan was a defense of women, often considered an early example of proto-feminist literature. In Hoccleve's translation, however, the humor becomes ambiguous; scholars have long been uncertain whether Hoccleve was faithfully delivering Pisan's message to an English audience or slyly mocking her. Hoccleve's most important work, the Regement of Princes, was also written for a courtly audience. Effectively an instruction manual for a prince, the Regement was one of the earliest English examples of the genre, which increased in popularity during the medieval era and the early Renaissance. The work follows the pattern of the well-known Secreta Secretorum, an eighth-century work often incorrectly attributed to Aristotle. The Regement lists the virtues important to a monarch, exemplified in legends and historical events. Hoccleve instructed Prince Henry in dignity, justice, mercy, generosity, peace, and similar topics; he used the sections on liberality and prudence to remind the prince to pay his annuity. The Regement is preceded by a prologue considered by many scholars to be at least as interesting as the Regement itself. Like the earlier “La Male Regle,” the prologue is highly autobiographical, offering the poet a forum for voicing his grievances and for repeating his debt to Chaucer. In fact, the very form of the poem is Chaucerian, consisting mainly of rhyme royal stanzas (ababbcc), which had been popularized by the earlier poet. Several of Hoccleve's poems were at one time attributed to Chaucer, including the “Letter of Cupid” and such short religious poems as “Mother of God” (before 1426) and “Prologue and a Miracle of the Blessed Virgin” (before 1426). Another of his religious poems, “Learn to Die,” which is included in the Series, is the first poetic treatment of the so-called ars moriendi (art of dying) theme in English. Hoccleve also addressed more explicitly political subjects in his shorter verse, most often ballads praising the king, written for a court audience. An exception is the “Address to Sir John Oldcastle” (1415), in which he accused the Lollard knight of heresy and urged him to return to the Church. He also wrote works in the minor genre of the “begging” poem, which, like Chaucer's Complaint to His Purse, were designed to solicit money from his benefactors. Hoccleve wrote little of the narrative poetry at which his mentor had excelled, apart from the anecdotes included in the Regement. The Series, however, does include two poetic narratives drawn from a highly popular collection of stories entitled Gesta Romanorum: “The Tale of Jerelaus' Wife” and “The Tale of Jonathas and Fellicula.” Later scholars have also considered Hoccleve's highly personal work in the context of autobiography, a genre that did not exist in the Middle Ages but one whose conventions Hoccleve nonetheless sometimes observed.

Critical Reception

Hoccleve was widely read in his day, but the larger lights of Medieval literature quickly relegated him to the status of a minor poet in later centuries. Early criticism of Hoccleve tended to focus on his relationships with other poets, both personal and literary. He claimed Chaucer among his acquaintances, referring often to him in his poetry and relying on Chaucerian forms and themes for his own writing; thus scholarship has often grouped Hoccleve among the minor “sons of Chaucer.” In this context, Hoccleve is frequently paired with John Lydgate, who wrote successfully in many of the genres attempted by Hoccleve. Lydgate, a cleric, was better educated than Hoccleve and much more influential. Because both were deeply influenced by Chaucer, comparisons between the two often serve to demonstrate their different understanding of their mentor. As Derek Pearsall has noted, when placed next to Lydgate, the Chaucerian vernacular style of Hoccleve stands out all the more, as does Hoccleve's adoption of a Chaucerian narrative persona and sense of irony. Jerome Mitchell has also suggested that Hoccleve's rhetorical style and diction owe a great deal to Chaucer's influence. More recent criticism, however, has attempted to bring Hoccleve out from under Chaucer's shadow, arguing that Hoccleve typically wrote in forms Chaucer showed little interest in. In particular, as J. A. Burrow has suggested, Chaucer did not often address political themes explicitly, nor did he revel in autobiographical detail in the manner of Hoccleve. Hoccleve's unusual level of self-disclosure has been of particular interest to scholars, such as Malcolm Richardson, who has emphasized the accuracy with which Hoccleve described the life of a clerk in the office of the Privy Seal. However, some critics have questioned the extent to which Hoccleve truly revealed the details of his life. D. C. Greetham has contended that the persona Hoccleve presented served mainly as a literary device. Hoccleve's uncertain view of women has also continued to interest critics. While earlier critics tended to view Hoccleve's “Letter of Cupid” as a straightforward rendering of Christine de Pisan's feminist view, later scholars such as Karen A. Winstead have held that the tone and style of Hoccleve's work suggest that he was satirizing rather than merely translating the French original. The historical turn in literary studies has also brought increased attention to Hoccleve, particularly his Regement of Princes. Larry Scanlon, for instance, has stressed the role of poems such as the Regement in shaping contemporary beliefs about kingship and authority.