"Leisure to Make Rhymes": St. Thomas More as English Poet

Article excerpt

Part One

SCHOLAR, LAWYER, HUMANIST, WIT, Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII, martyr and canonized saint, Thomas More was also probably the most prolific writer of English literature in the early Tudor period, as the now completed Yale Edition of his writings attests. (1) His reputation as an author has of course been chiefly associated with his Latin masterpiece, Utopia (1516), (2) one of the seminal works of the Western literary tradition, which has provided both a name and a model for the numerous ideal commonwealths that have been imagined, and on occasion attempted in practice, from that day up to the present. His History of King Richard III, (3) written (c. 1514) in both English and Latin versions in order to reach More's two principal audiences of fellow countrymen and continental humanists, marks the beginning of modern historical writing in England; though unfinished and unpublished in More's lifetime, it found its way into the sixteenth-century chronicles and served as the principal source for Shakespeare's play. More's early classical studies resulted not only in his Latin epigrams, many translated from Greek originals, but in the translations undertaken with Erasmus of some works of Lucian, (4) the master of Greek dialogue who proved to be a fruitful stimulus for the original work of both great humanists, in particular for the Utopia and for Erasmus's Encomium Moriae (The Praise of Folly), (5) the title of which is a punning tribute to his friend.

Much of the literary activity of More's mature years, which were largely absorbed by affairs of state, was concerned with the controversies of the early Reformation, beginning with his Latin Responsio (1523) to Martin Luther's attacks on Henry VIII's treatise on the sacraments. (6) The best of this work is certainly the first written in English, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529; 1531), (7) in which More employs his favorite literary form to discredit the religious innovations entering England from the continent. Described by C. S. Lewis as perhaps the best specimen of Platonic dialogue ever produced in English, (8) this work was followed in rapid succession by a series of polemical works in which the literary dimension is less in evidence: The Supplication of Souls (1529); The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532; 1533), a massive two-part sequel to the Dialogue; The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight (1532); The Debellation of Salem and Bizance (1532); The Answer to a Poisoned Book (1533). (9) A more meditative focus, which had already shown itself in the materials translated and adapted as The Life of Pico (c. 1505) and in the unfinished meditation on the Last Things (c. 1522), (10) was given greater opportunity for expression in the Treatise on the Passion (1533-34), (11) written after More's retirement from public life, and particularly in the important works written after he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in April 1534. His greatest English work, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, (12) is a classic of prison literature, revealing in fictional form the profound significance of Christian faith in the face of suffering and persecution. More's final work, the Latin DeTristitia Christi (The Sadness of Christ), (13) which survives in a holograph manuscript smuggled from his cell, is a series of very personal meditations on Christ's agony before the Passion, and provides an intimate picture of More's own mind as he faced impending execution. Not to be omitted from a consideration of More's literary works are his letters, (14) in Latin and English, which range from defenses of Christian humanism and the great correspondence with Erasmus, the primary figure of that movement and More's "other self," through various letters concerned with political and diplomatic matters to the moving letters to his own family, particularly those written during his imprisonment, (15) which give primary witness to that integrity of conscience that brought More to the block and made him "a man for all seasons. …