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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Thomas Hoccleve. Detail from Arundel MS 38 f. 37 British Library

Life of Thomas Hoccleve (1368-1450?)

THOMAS HOCCLEVE (or OCCLEVE), English poet, was born probably in 1368/9, for, writing in 1421/2 he says he was fifty-three years old.1 He ranks, like his more voluminous and better known contemporary Lydgate, among those poets who have a historical rather than intrinsic importance in English literature. Their work rarely if ever rises above mediocrity; in neither is there even any clear evidence of a poetic temperament. Yet they represented for the 15th century the literature of their time, and kept alive, however faintly, the torch handed on to them by their "maister" Chaucer, to whom Occleve pays an affectionate tribute in three passages in the De Regimine Principum.

What is known of Occleve's life has to be gathered mainly from his works. At eighteen or nineteen he obtained a clerkship in the Privy Seal Office, which he retained on and off, in spite of much grumbling, for about thirty-five years. He had hoped for a benefice, but none came; and in 1399 he received instead a small annuity, which was not always paid as regularly as he would have wished. "The Letter to Cupid," his first poem to which we can affix a date, was translated from L'Epistre au Dieu d'Amours of Christine de Pisan in 1402, evidently as a sort of antidote to the moral of Troilus and Cressida, to some MSS. of which we find it attached. "La Male Regle," one of his most readable poems, written about 1406, gives some interesting glimpses of his "misruly" youth. But about 1410 he settled down to married life, and the composition of moral and religious poems.

His longest work, The Regiment of Princes or De Regimine Principum, written for Prince Hal shortly before his accession, is a tedious homily on the virtues and vices, imitated from Aegidius de Colonna's work of the same name, from the suppositious epistle of Aristotle, known as the Secreta secretorum, and the work of Jacques de Cessoles (fl. 1300) englished later by Caxton as The Game and Playe of Chesse. It is relieved by a proem, about a third of the whole, containing some further reminiscences of London tavern and club life, in the form of dialogue between the poet and a beggar. On the accession of Henry V, Hccleve turned his muse to the service of orthodoxy and the Church, and one of his poems is a remonstrance addressed to Oldcastle, calling upon him to "rise up, a manly knight, out of the slough of heresy."

Then a long illness was followed for a time, as he tells us, by insanity. His "Dialog with a Friend," written after his recovery, gives a naïve and pathetic picture of the poor poet, now fifty-three, with sight and mind impaired, but with hopes still left of writing a tale he owes his good patron, Humphrey of Gloucester, and of translating a small Latin treatise, Scite Mori, before he dies. His hopes were fulfilled in his moralized tales of "Jereslaus' Wife" and of "Jonathas," both from the Gesta Romanorum, which, with his "Learn to die," belong to his old age. After finally retiring from his Privy Seal clerkship, he was granted in 1424 sustenance for life in the priory of Southwick, Hants, on which, with his former annuity, he appears to have lived till about the middle of the century. A "Balade to my gracious Lord of Yorke" probably dates from 1448 or later.

The main interest for us in Hoccleve's poems is that they are characteristic of his time. His hymns to the Virgin, balades to patrons, complaints to the king and the king's treasurer, versified homilies and moral tales, with warnings to heretics like Oldcastle, are illustrative of the blight that had fallen upon poetry on the death of Chaucer. The nearest approach to the realistic touch of his master is to be found in Hoccleve's "Male Regle." But these pictures of 15th-century London are without even the occasional flash of humour that lightens up Lydgate's London Lack-penny. Yet Hoccleve has at least the negative virtue of knowing the limits of his powers. He says simply what he means, and does not affect what he does not feel. A Londoner, to whom the country was evidently a bore, he has not afflicted us with artificial May mornings; and it is doubtful whether a single reference to nature can be found among his poems. He has yet another distinction among his contemporaries: he wrote no allegory. Whether we ascribe it to his lack of "engine," or to the influence of Chaucer when in his later years he had discovered the limitations of this poetic form, we cannot but be grateful to the poet who has spared us. As a metrist Hoccleve is also modest of his powers. He confesses that "Fader Chaucer fayn wolde han me taught, But I was dul and learned lite or naught"; and it is true that the scansion of his verses seems occasionally to require, in French fashion, an accent on an unstressed syllable. Yet his seven-line (or rime royale) and eight-line stanzas, to which he limited himself, are perhaps more frequently reminiscent of Chaucer's rhythm than are those of Lydgate.

1 (Dialog, i. 246)

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XIX.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 967.

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