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Home » » Write a note on the English or Scottish English Chaucerians

Two centuries were to pass before England could produce a poet worthy to rank with Chaucer. Nothing testifies more clearly to his genius than the inability of succeeding generations to equal or even to understand him. And this is the more striking in that every poet paid him homage. Yet when they thought to imitate him they reached but the lowest step that on which Chaucer stood when he was at the level of his century; never could they approach him when he moved to higher fights. Moreover the evolution of the language, made full recognition of his accurate and musical versification increasingly difficult. When the final syllabic became mute, Chaucer's metre, wrongly read, ill transcribed, and, later, badly printed, appeared syllabically uneven and accentually irregular; and this led his successors to think that their own versification might be haphazard.

Thomas Hoccleve: 

The decline was immediate, and apparent even in those such as Hoccleve and Lydgate, who knew Chaucer and acclaimed him master. They were chiefly translators or imitators. Thomas Hoccleve (1370-1450) wrote, in 1411-12, for the Prince of Wales afterwards Henry V his 'Regement of Princes', based on the ‘Lation De Regimine Principum' which had been originally written for the instruction of Philippe le Bel. The dissertations, intermixed with examples, are written in smooth and fairly correct verse, but the didacticism is more reminiscent of Gower than of Chaucer.

John Lydgate: 

John Lydgate (1370-1451)

has the distinction of being the most voluminous poet of the fifteenth century: indeed, of the whole of the Middle Ages-in England. About 140,000 lines of his are extant. This Benedictine monk of Bury St Edmunds ‘was an indefatigable compiler. His longest poems are his ‘Stories of Thebes and Troy-Book', retold two notable French romances; his 'Fall of Princes’. from the Latin of Boccaccio; ‘The Temple of Glass’, a heavy allegorical love story ‘The Pilgrimage’ of Man’, translated from ‘Guillaume De Guileville : Some Lives of Saints’, etc. Their retrogression is striking. He takes his subjects back to the state in which they were before Chaucer gave them new life by his humour and his art. Under Lydgate verse decays: his accents are placed at random: he says himself:

"And trouthe of metre I sette also a syde... I took none hede nouther of shorte nor longe." 

Yet in his days he was very popular: unrepelled by his prolixity and by the conventionality of his verse, his readers were grateful to him for narrating so many tales, and for telling them with a certain liveliness.

Anonymous Chaucerians: 

More attractive than the preceding are a certain number of short poems whose authors are unknown, or little known, and which were for long ascribed to Chaucer himself and included in some editions of his works. Careful study of language and metre has shown that they belong to the fifteenth or even sixteenth century. One of these is 'The Cuckoo and The Nightingale’ written by Sir Thomas Clanvowe (1403). It is a graceful disputation between the two birds. a debate between love and saddened wisdom, similar to that of the ‘Owl and the Nightingale’ of the thirteenth century. Based on the Prologue to ‘The Legende of Good Women' is the charming allegory of ‘The Flower and the Lea’, whose unknown author was apparently a gentle woman. Its disjoined metre is not Chaucer's, but nothing can be more graceful, more dewy fresh, than the scene of this morality, wherein is shown the superiority of the Leaf, symbol of work, of a serious, useful life, over the Flower, a type of idie frivolity. There is nothing here of Chaucer's substance, reality, and humour, but something lighter, daintier, more airy; it is the prettiest thing produced in the fifteenth century.

Less freshly coloured, yet with more wit and sense of character, is ‘The Court of Love’, which of all these poems Chaucer might the most justly claim for his were it not for its 'aureate', rhetorical style. It tells how 'Philogenet... of Cambridge, clerke' loses his way in the palace of Cytherea, learns there the laws of the place, enters the service of the fair lady Rosial, and, after a time of trial, wins her grace. This little poem is now said to belong to the sixteenth century.

Stephen Hawes: 

We must turn back and see that the terrible Wars of the Roses, which lasted from 1454 to 1485, not only suspended all literary activity, but caused poetry, instead of rising refreshed when the convulsion was over, to lie for a long while sick with a strange languor. This is evident in the work of Stephen Hawes (1475-1523) another allegorist. Yet. if he is too much attracted to the past, he is for that very reason, a feeble forerunner of Spenser. When the Wars of the Roses destroyed the flower of England's chivalry, they thrust the old courtly poetry into the dreamlike past; it had become almost as unreal as the scenes and characters of allegory. As a consequence chivalry now assumed the charm of distance, the melancholy of regret, two of the elements of romanticism. It is this vague, romantic atmosphere alone which gives any value to Hawes's platitudes and unmusical verses, to his ‘Example of Vertu... (1503-4), and to his 'Passetyme of Pleasure’, or the ‘History of Graunde Amoure and La Bel Pucel (1503-6).

The two last writers in verse who precede the Renaissance Barclay and Skelton show novelty in choice of subject and manner.

Alexander Barclay and John Skelton:

Alexander Barclay (1475. 1552), in his ‘Shyp of Folys' (1509) translated the ‘Narranschiff of the Alsatian, Sebastian Brant’: he also introduced the classical eclogue to his countrymen, basing his pastorals’ on those of Mantuan, a famous 1 atin poet of the Renaissance. .

John Skelton (1460-1529) was an eccentric poet, somewhat difficult to define. A good scholar, tutor to the future Henry VIII, and parson of Diss in Norfolk. he writes frequently like a satirical buffoon, using short. uneven lines, several of which rhyme together a sort of doggerel. Many of his works are lost: the most interesting of those extant are: ‘The Bowge of Court' (or Courtrations), ‘The Boke of Colyn Cloute', 'The Garland of Laurell’ and Why come ye nat to Court? His satires are often characterised by the coarsest abuse and the worst indecencies. He is, however, capable at times of grace and tenderness, as in his ‘Boke of Phylyp Sparowe', an elegy on the death of a sparrow, inspired by Catullus. but its few sweet lines are drowned in a flood of fooling. In this odd work there is everything save that thirst for beauty which the Renaissance was to bring.

Scottish Chaucerians: 

Scottish Poetry from 1400 to 1516. It is pleasant in the fifteenth century to turn from English to Scottish poetry. The tradition of allegory and the influence of Chaucer still reigned supreme. But the poets of Scotland retained a sense of artistry and of sure rhythm, as well as a vitality, which form a happy contrast to English looseness and languor.

The patriotism which made Barbour write his ‘Bruce’ is no longer dominant. 'The Bruce’ has but one parallel in the Wallace’ attributed to Henry the Minstrel (or Blind Harry), written about 1461. The fabulous element is far more pronounced than in 'The Bruce’, but where Barbour is prosaic Harry is platitudinous. The former's octave syllabic line is replaced by ten-syllable couplets, the only result being a clumsy protraction of the line. It is not poetry. It heightens, by contrast the brilliance and over-ornate ness of other Scottish verses of the period.

The King's Quair: 

The first of the Scottish poets to be inspired by Chaucer was a king: James I (1394-1437). Doubts have been thrown on his literary claims, but have not seriously shaken the tradition that the King's Quair (or book) is the personal expression of a romantic episode in his life. At the age of eleven he and the ship which was taking him to France were captured by the English, who held him prisoner for nineteen years, Towards the end of that time he fell in love with Joan Beaufort, niece of Henry IV, and married her in 1424, The poem is a description of his love; it is full of reminiscences of Chaucer, especially of The Knight's Tale. The king describes in delightful fashion how the first sight of the young girl. ‘beautiful enough to madden the world’. came to him in prison to enchant him with love. He inserts in his poem the traditional ‘dream’, instead of enclosing his poem in it. and his freshness. sincerity, passion, and music give a rare charm to the narrative. 

Robert Henreyson: 

A more original outlook is found in Robert Henryson (1425-1506). schoolmaster of Dunfermline. who was quite independent even in his imitations of Chaucer. to whose ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ he wrote a sequel. This Testament of Cresseid describes her wretched end when, smitten with leprosy. she dies. after Troilus. without recognising her. has given her alms as to a beggar. Moral though the ending is it is touched with deep pity. Henryson laments her fate even in recounting it; and his stanzas are as harmonious as his master’s. He was influenced also by Aesop. and wrote several fables, one of which, ‘The Town Mouse and the Field Mouse’, is full of sly humour. Henreyson shows a lively sympathy with the animals, whose deeds he recounts with gay realism. We owe to him also the pastoral of ‘Robene and Makyne’, through which seems to blow an upland wind. Of all the Scottish poems of his time Henrevson's savour most of his native soil.

William Dunbar: 

But it is William Dunbar (1463-1530) who is 5 justly reputed to rank first in this remarkable group. At one time a Franciscan, later unfrocked, he became a kind of poet laureate in the gay court of James IV of Scotland. About a hundred of his poems are extant and they show a surprising diversity of subject and metre. This fertility bears no resemblance to Lydgate's prolixity, for Dunbar was an artist, and even a great artist. Not that he showed much originality either in thought or feeling; he often kept within the medieval framework; but he possessed to an extraordinary degree virtuosity of style and metre. No one hitherto had put so many colours into his pictures; above all, no one had ever written with such a metrical swing and raciness. It matters not that he has little to say to heart or mind; he dazzles the eye and charms the ear. Brilliancy is the most striking characteristic of his official allegories, such as ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’, symbolising the union of England and Scotland in the marriage (1503) of James IV with Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII or 'The Golden Targe’, a love poem whose glowing descriptions are more applicable to kingdoms in the Arabian Nights than to scenes in misty Scotland. His metrical ‘tour-de-force’ is perhaps his ‘Dance o the Sevin Deidly Synnis’, where in eleven twelvelined stanzas he whirls the sins round in a satanic dance. There is equal impetus in his religious poem ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak ‘wherein he exults over the victory of Easter. The same verve is apparent in his ‘flytings or ‘scolding matches’, where he shows an incomparable .  command of the vocabulary of abuse; in his court satires, and in the fabliau of The Two Mariit Women ard the Wedo' written in alliterative verse, and in language carried to the bounds of decency and beyond. His stile is at times reminiscent of flamboyant architecture; but so far from being overwhelmed by his wealth of language he carries it with ease; his mere impetuosity sweeps him into lyricism. 

Gavin Douglas: 

A poet of almost equal vigour, Gavin Douglas (1475-1522), bishop of Dunkeld, intimately connected with Scotland's history, revealed himself as a humanist and a precursor of the Renaissance. He - began in the traditional style with an allegory. ‘The Police of Honour' 501). after the manner of Chaucer's Hous of Fame: and ‘King Hart’, with its blend of humour and melancholy in which he shows marked anal\tical skill. But the work by which he is best known is his translation of the Aeneid into the Scottish tongue (1521-23), the first Version in the vernacular to appear in Great Britain, for that printed by Gaxton was a translation not from Virgil but from a French romance based on his work. Douglas translated direct from the Latin, shaping the lines into heroic couplets which have freshness and sometimes brilliance. A vivid touch of originality is given by the prologues which he adds to each book of ‘The Aeneid’. These prologues are personal; in them he talks of himself, of Scotland and the season, with a wealth of description approaching exuberance and at that time unequalled. His vocabulary he gathered from many fields, learned and popular, modern and archaic. Of all his contemporaries he is the most difficult to understand. Few Englishmen and not many of his own countrymen can re d him without a glossary. In short, he stood on the threshold of Renaissance but never crossed it.


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