History of English Literature: Part-6

the 15th century was a barren period in English literary history it was nearly 200 years after Chaucer’s death before any poet came whose name can be written in the same line with his he was followed at once by a number of imitators who caught the trick of his language in verse but lacked the genius to make any fine use of them the manner of a true poet may be learned but his style in the high sense of the word remains his own secret some of the poems which have been attributed to Chaucer and printed in editions of his works as the court of love the flower and the leaf the cuckoo and the nightingale are now regarded by many scholars as the work of later writers if not chose as they are of Chaucer’s school and the first two at least are very pretty poems after the fashion of his minor pieces such as the book of the Duchess and the Parliament of fowls among his professed disciples was Thomas oak leaves a dull rhymer who in his govern a love princes a didactic poem translated from the Latin about 1413 drew or caused to be drawn on the margin of his manuscript a colored portrait of his master dear and father Reverend this Landis very treasure and reshef death by thy death has harm irreparable unto us done her vengeance des spoiled hath this land of the sweetness of rhetoric another verse afire of the same generation with John Woodgate a Benedictine monk of the abbey of Puri st. Edmund’s in Suffolk a very prolix writer who composed among other things the story of seeds as an addition to the Canterbury Tales his ballad of London lick penny recounting the adventures of a countryman who goes to the law-courts at Westminster in search of justice but for lack of money I could not speed is of interest for the glimpse that it gives us of London street life Chaucer’s influence wrought more fruitfully in Scotland whether it was carried by James the first who had been captured by the English when a boy of 11 and brought up at Windsor as a prisoner of state there he wrote during the reign of Henry the fist 14 13 to 14 22 a poem in six cantos entitled the Kings coup hare Kings book in Chaucer’s seven line stanza which had been employed by Lydgate in his Falls of princes from boccaccio and which was afterward called the Reem Royale for its use by King James the King’s Co hair tells how the poet on a May morning looks from the window of his prison chamber into the castle garden full of alleys Hawthorn hedges and fair arbors set with the sharp green sweet juniper he was listening to the little sweet nightingale when suddenly casting down his eyes he saw a lady walking in the garden and at once his heart became her thrall the incident is precisely like pala Mons first sighting of Emily in Chaucer’s Nights tale and almost in the very words of Palamon the poet addresses his lady ah sweet are you a worldly creature or heavenly thing in likeness of nature or are ye very nature the goddess but have two painted with your heavenly hand this garden full of flowers as they stand then after a vision in the taste of the age in which the royal prisoners transported in turn to the courts of Venus Minerva and fortune and received their instructions in the duties belonging to love service he wakes from sleep and a white turtle dove brings to his window a spray of red ghillie flowers whose leaves are inscribed in golden letters with a message of encouragement James the first may be reckoned among the English poets he mentions Chaucer Gower and Lydgate as his masters his education was English and so was the dialect of his poem although the unique manuscript of it is in the Scotch spelling the King’s Co hair is somewhat over laden with ornament and with the fashionable allegorical devices but it is upon the whole a rich and tender love song the best specimen of court poetry between the time of Chaucer and the time of Spencer the lady who walked in the garden on that May morning was Jane Beaufort niece to Henry the fourth she was married to her poet after his release from captivity and became Queen of Scotland in 1420 for 12 years later James was murdered by Sir Robert Graham and his Highlanders and his wife who strove to defend him was wounded by the assassins the story of the murder has been told of late by DG resetti in his ballad the Kings tragedy the whole life of this princely singer was like his poem in the very spirit of romance the effect of all this imitation of Chaucer was to fix a standard of literary style and to confirm the authority of the East Midlands in which he had written though the poets of the fifteenth century were not overburdened with genius they had at least a definite model to follow as in the 14th century metrical romances continued to be translated from the French homilies and Saints legends and rhyming chronicles were still manufactured but the poems of aqua Eve and Lydgate and James the first had helped to polish and refine the tongue and to prolong the caesarian tradition the literary English never again slipped back into the chaos of dialects which had prevailed before Chaucer in the history of every literature the development of prose is later than that of verse the latter being by its very form artificial is cultivated as a fine art and its records preserved in an early stage of society when prose is simply the talk of men and not thought worthy of being written and kept English prose labored under the added disadvantage of competing with Latin which is the cosmopolitan tongue and the medium of communication between scholars of all countries Latin was the language of the church and in the Middle Ages churchmen and scholar were convertible terms the word clerk meant either priest or scholar two of the canterbury tales are in prose as is also the testament of love formally ascribed to Chaucer and the style of all of these is so feeble wandering and unformed that it is hard to believe that they were written by the same man who wrote the Knight’s Tale and the story of Griselda the voyage and travail of serve John Mandeville the forerunner of that great library of oriental travel which has enriched our modern literature was written according to its author first in Latin then in French and lastly in the year 1356 translated into English for the poof of lords and knights and other noble and worthy men that cannot latin but little the author professed to have spent over 30 years in eastern travel to have penetrated as far as farther India and the Isles had been about in India to have been in the service of the Sultan of Babylon in his wars against the Bedouins zand another time in the employ of the great khan of tartary but there is no copy of the latin version of his travels extant the french seems to be much later than 1356 and the english manuscript to belong to the early years of the 15th century and to have been made by another hand recent investigations make it probable that Mandeville borrowed his descriptions of the remoter eaves from many sources and particularly from the narrative of oder ik a minor right friar of Lombardi who wrote about 1330 some doubt is even cast upon the existence of any such person as Mandeville whoever wrote the book that passes under his name however would seem to have visited the Holy Land and the part of the voyage that described Palestine and the Levant is fairly close to the truth the rest of the work so far as it is not taken from the tales of other travelers is a diverting tissue of fables about Griffin’s that fly away with yokes of oxen tribes of one-legged Ethiopians who shelter themselves from the Sun by using their monstrous feet as umbrellas etc during the 15th century English prose was gradually being brought into a shape fitting it for more serious uses in the controversy between the church and the Lollards Latin was still mainly employed but Wycliffe had written some of his tracks in English and in 1449 Reginald peacock Bishop of st. Asaph’s contributed in English to the same controversy the repressor of overmuch blaming of the clergy Sir John Fortescue who was Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1442 to 1460 wrote during the reign of Edward the force a book on the difference between absolute and Limited monarchy which may be regarded as the first treatise on political philosophy and constitutional law in that language but these works hardly belong to pure literature and our remarkable only as early though not very good examples of English prose in a barren time the 15th century was an era of decay and change the middle age was dying church and state were slowly disintegrating under the new intellectual influences that were working secretly underground in England the civil wars of the red and white roses were breaking up the old feudal society by decimating and brushing the baronage thus preparing the way for the centralized monarchy of the tutors toward the close of that century and early in the next happened the four great events or series of events which freed and widened men’s minds and in a succession of shocks overthrew the medieval system of life and thought these were the invention of printing the Renaissance or revival of classical learning the discovery of America and the Protestant Reformation William Caxton the first English printer learned the art in Cologne in 1476 he set up his press and sign a red pole in the almond rillette Westminster just before the introduction of printing the demand for manuscript copies had grown very active stimulated perhaps by the coming into general use of linen paper instead of the more costly parchment the scriptorium of the monasteries were the places where the transcribing and illuminating of manuscripts went on professional copyists resorting to Westminster Abbey for example to make their copies of books belonging to the monastic library Caxton’s choice of a spot was therefore significant his new art for multiplying copies began to supersede the old method of transcription at the very headquarters of the manuscript makers the first book that bears his westminster imprint was the dicta sand sayings of the philosophers translated from the French by Anthony Woodville Lord rivers a brother-in-law of Edward the fourth the list of books printed by Caxton is interesting as showing the taste of the time as he naturally selected what was most in-demand the list shows that manuals of devotion and chivalry were still in chief request books like the order of chivalry face of arms and the golden legend which lasts Caxton translated himself as well as Reynard the Fox and a French version of the Aeneid he also printed with continuations of his own revisions of several early chronicles and editions of Chaucer Gower and Lydgate a translation of Cicero on friendships made directly from the Latin by Thomas tipped oft Earl of Worcester was printed by Caxton but no addition of a class author in the original

 

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