A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
ENGLISH POETRY FROM CHAUCER TO SKELTON

WITH the deaths of Chaucer, Gower, and Langland a blight fell on English poetry. The long minority of Henry VI, and the disastrous French wars, followed by the ruinous Wars of the Roses, deprived courtly poets of their natural patrons. There were literary and linguistic reasons also. Chaucer and Gower had well-nigh exhausted mediaeval themes, and no fresh ideas came from Italy to revive or replace them. The language too was changing: final -e though still written was ceasing to be pronounced; the rules for its elision were forgotten; and the English accent was beginning to prevail in French words like 'virtúé,' 'liquór,' 'coráge'; so that many of Chaucer's smooth pentameters were scanned as rough tetrameters, and poets who scanned them so took a similar licence. In a word, Chaucer's metrical secret was lost because poets continued to spell as he had spelt when they no longer spoke as he had spoken. Scholars have defended Lydgate's scansion; it is more than he did himself: "I took none hede," he says, "neither of short nor long." Finally, prose was beginning to annex the provinces of Chronicle and Romance, which had hitherto belonged to verse; when Malory wrote his Morte d'Arthur about 1470 he wrote it in prose.

In the first part of the century, however, verse was still used for romance. Chaucer's parody had not quite killed the fashion or the fashionable metre; the finest of all the fifteenth-century romances, Thomas Chestre Sir Launfal, is in the sixain of Sir Thopas doubled. It comes from a Breton lay by Marie de France, which had already been Englished as Lamwell. "Matter of Britain" also supplied the themes of Henry Lonlich Merlin, and Holy Grail. John Lydgate (c. 1370- 1450) used "matter of Rome" for his long-winded Troy Book and Story of Thebes. Versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice story might be referred to either class, for they came from Greek legend through Breton lays.

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