A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

3

The early sixteenth century

No literary personality of the early sixteenth century stands out more impressively than Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). He wrote his best-known book, Utopia, in Latin, but it was translated into English in 1551. Interpretation of the book has led to controversy. It cannot be treated as a straightforward representation of an imaginary perfect state. C.S. Lewis has observed that ‘if it were intended as a serious treatise it would be very confused indeed.’1 Lewis regards it as the playful product of intellectual high spirits, closer to satires like Gulliver’s Travels than to serious philosophical works like Plato’s Republic. For More’s imaginary state is sustained by slave labour, there is no private property, there is tedious uniformity of dress, attachment to home and to family is decried, euthanasia is recommended, divorce is by mutual consent, gold and silver are used to make chamber pots. These practices do not represent the values that More stood for. William Roper (1496-1578), his son-in-law and devoted disciple, left a delightful picture of More in his Life of Sir Thomas More. More emerges in it as a man eminently able to enjoy life yet profoundly aware of its transitoriness, a man whose joy was in simple things like love of his family and the pleasures of reading, yet who long sensed the inevitability of an ultimate clash between service to Henry and his religious faith. The picture reinforces Erasmus’s exclamation: ‘What did nature ever create milder, sweeter or happier than the character of Thomas More?’2

More’s Life of Richard III is a knowledgeable historical study which

1C.S. Lewis, English Literature in theSixteenth Century, Clarendon Press, 1954.

2Letter to Robert Fisher, 5 December 1499, quoted in J. Huizinga, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Phaidon, 1952.

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