Thomas Hoccleve's Series and English Verse in Early Fifteenth-Century London

By Larsen, Vickie; Pendell, John | Philological Quarterly, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Thomas Hoccleve's Series and English Verse in Early Fifteenth-Century London


Larsen, Vickie, Pendell, John, Philological Quarterly


IN HER LAST BOOK, THE QUEEN'S DUMBSHOWS, Claire Sponsler describes the emergence of a civic and mercantile literary sphere in early fifteenth-century London. Examining John Lydgate's occasional dramatic pieces, created predominantly for London's municipal elites, Sponsler illustrates the function of spectacle and literary performance among London's civic leaders and guildhalls in asserting their increasing influence relative to the court in Westminster. Attending carefully to the contexts of Lydgate's dramatic works, to their "situatedness," Sponsler makes a case for the importance of the rising fortunes and aspirations of mercantile-class readers in the diffusion of literary culture in London. (1) Sponsler's study draws attention to a civic elite who, at times, emulate the textual and literary interests of the nobility, while also creating a market for serious literature separate from and often in opposition to the literary patronage of the court.

The Queen's Dumbshows inspires and informs our own consideration of Thomas Hoccleve, Lydgate's contemporary and fellow London poet. Hoccleve was a creature of the court and the monarchy in his working life as a clerk of the Privy Seal and, evidently, as his poetic output illustrates, he wrote almost exclusively within an aristocratic patronage system. (2) Nonetheless, he participates in an early fifteenth-century expansion of the literary field to include what Anne Middleton describes as "public poetry." (3) Middleton traces the emergence of this new type of poetry to the late fourteenth century, the generation preceding Hoccleve, and she characterizes it as verse that takes up "public ethical themes" by manifesting "attitudes, which constitute the foundations of a secular and civic piety." (4) Beyond its interests, Middleton sees public poetry as characterized by a distinctive poetic voice that is "neither courtly, nor spiritual, nor popular" and by the use of an "I" voice that is "like his audience, a layman of good will, one worker among others, with a talent to be used for the common good." (5) The eponymous first-person narrators that Hoccleve employs in several of his major poetic pieces often function as public-minded internal critics within the royal and aristocratic milieu in which they work. In his final work, The Series, Hoccleve uses a speaker who is a poet and translator for a courtly audience to call into question the narrow and frivolous nature of courtly literary culture by opposing it to the speakers own very different vision of what a poet can be and create, and what transformative work English poetry might make possible for serious readers.

Hoccleve wrote The Series between 1419 and 1421 when he was in his early fifties and had been a London poet for roughly twenty years. The Series is a frame narrative, a collection of four texts translated into English verse by a poet/translator introduced as "Thomas" and "Hoccleve" in the verse prologue which is a continuous narrative poem divided into two parts: "My Compleinte" and "A Dialoge." (6) The narrator (to whom we will refer as "Thomas"), a figure the reader might know from Hoccleve's earlier works, La Male Regie and The Regiment of Princes, has here become a fragmented and tortured person, wracked by anxiety, freely admitting to a bout of mental illness, and at the same time still confident he can produce an ambitious and lengthy, if final, poetic project in English. Much of the scholarship on The Series has focused on the function of this intriguing first-person narrator in the prologue poems. (7) The set of texts framed by this two-part prologue--two historical romances from the Gesta Romanorum ("Fabula de Quadam Imperatrice" and "Fabula de Quadam Muliere Mala," conventionally known as "Jereslauss Wife" and "The Tale of Jonathas" respectively); a treatise on the art of dying ("Ars Utillissima Sciendi Mori" from Henry Suso's Horologium Sapientiae); and a brief sermon on All Saints' Day ("De Caelesti Jerusalem")--form a jarringly incoherent collection. …

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