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Feb 23, 2011

Fifteenth Century Literature

With Chaucer English literature made a brilliant beginning, but it was only a beginning, and after his death we enter upon a long barren period i.e. one and a half century.

The poor quality and general lifelessness of the 15th century verse is suggested by the fact that the greater part of it is initiative. The poets tried their best to follow the footstep of Chaucer but had failed. The best known are Thomas Occleve (1370?-1450?) and John Lydgate (1370?-1451). Occleve wrote a long poem “The Governial Of Princess”, in Chaucer’s seven line stanza (ababbcc) and in the prologue, in which he tells us much about himself, describes his gried on Chaucer’s death and signs his master’s pieces. In “A Regiment Of Princess,” his attention to the fashions of the period, Lydgate’s longer productions being the “Storie Of Thebes”” (designed as a new Canterbury Tales”), the “Troy Boke” and the “Falls Of Princes”-the last based on a French paraphrase of a Latin work by Boccaccio.

The best poetry of the 15th century was written in Scotland. James I of Scotland (1394-1437) tells in his “King’s Quair,” his love for the lady Jane Beaufort (the Duke of Somerset’s daughter). In William Dunbar (1465?-1530?) graceful allegorical poem, The Thistle And The Rose, composed to commemorate the marriage of James IV of Scotland and Margarete, daughter of Henry VII of England. But his best known ballad is Dance of the seven deadly sins. There is a combination of vigour, broad humour and homely pathos which belongs wholly to the character of the poet and his native soil. Robert Henryson (1430-1505?) who followed Chaucerian models in testament of Cresseide and also Robin and Makyne a story which anticipates Burn’s Duncan Gray. Gowin Douglas (1474-1522), whose Political of honor is full of Chaucer, while his original prologues to the successive books of the translation Aeneid bears a stamp of his own mind and style.
During the 15th century prose made some leeway. Many remarkable works were produced. The learned Reginald (1390?-1460?) wrote two prose works—Repressor Of Overmuch Blaming Of The Clergy, and Boke Of Faith. His works are rugged and obscure but his vocabulary was excessive and bordered on the land of the tautology and redundancy. The political treatise of Sir John Fortescue (1394?-1476?) The Difference Between An Absolute And A Limited Monarchy and William Caxton’s (1422?-1491?) Recuryell Of The Histories Of Troye and The Game And The Plays Of Chess, remarks a good example. The best known among prose writers of the century is Thomas Malory (d. 1471?). His Morte D’Arthur is a compilation. The book is written with a uniform dignity and fervor. The style has a transparent clarity and a poetic sensitivity. The dialogue and narrative is full of flour and life.

Thus we find that the 15th century is a great era of preparation. H.S. Bennet writes, “the break up of the old memorial system, the decline of chivalry, the isolation caused by the hundred years war, the rise of middle class, the increasing ability to read and write English—things such as these helped to make the century a notable one, albeit puzzling, full of divided aims and lacking in much that encourage great literature.

1 comment:

  1. If fifteenth-century literature is considered en bloc, fiction and non-fiction, world wide, we are looking at an almost unopened subject. Almost devoid on a single resume. A work on say, 'English romances of the Regency period' might elicit some interest. But incunabula in total evoke only studies of printers, typography, rarity, paper quality, and so on. Even collectors generally assume their LITERARY CONTENTS to be very dull, and so look to trivia such as rare printing cities. They are bookish, not literary, with more interest in the woodcut initials than learning to read Latin or search for fascinating topics among an ocean of boring theology.
    And many of the near 30,000 editions were written in earler centuries. I could not name a single work which categorises this half-century of printing by subject, content, and merit!

    John Barton

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