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FROM THE DEATH OF CHAUCER TO THE ACCESSION
OF ELIZABETH (1400-1558)
1. THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
Fifteenth-century Literature. - Fifteenth-century literature was strikingly inferior to that of the fourteenth. No poet appeared who showed more than occasional traces of power. Chaucer's professed disciples, Lydgate and Occleve, failed utterly to give evidence of profit by study of their master. Some Scotch poets, notably William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, showed talent of a somewhat higher order; but they would scarcely deserve mention except in a rather barren period. With a single exception, Malory, no prose writer appeared who would be read with pleasure to-day; and in the case of Malory our interest is rather in his subject-matter and the use of his work by poets of later ages than in any great literary merit of his own.
A Period of Unrest. The century was marked by much unrest, yet was without any great movement or accomplishThe insurrection of the Percies and the religious persecutions under Henry IV; the war with France, begun by Henry V, and brought to an inglorious close under Henry VI; Jack Cade's rebellion, under the last-named sovereign; the Wars of the Roses, the civil conflict which distracted the country from 1455 to 1485: these events occupied the people with other things than literature.
War does, it is true, often bring out the best there is in a people, including fit record in prose and verse of their deeds; but England's wars and fightings in the fifteenth century were not of that sort. The Percies fought because the King did not live up to his pre-coronation promises to them; Henry V fought as a means of gaining wealth, and at the same time quieting his own dominions; the Wars of the Roses were the outcome of the disregard by Henry IV of the direct order of succession to the throne; Cade's rebellion, the result of restrictions of the franchise, was utterly lacking in heroic elements.
Importance of the Period. It must not, however, be assumed that this period is unimportant in English literature. A great number of those poems known as " popular' ballads (i.e., poems originating with the people, the folk), seem to have been committed to writing at this time, though many may have been composed earlier. An event of the greatest significance to literature took place about the middle of the century-the invention of printing from movable types. The invention reached England about a quarter of a century later; and before the year 1500 nearly 400 books had been printed. The use that subsequent writers made of Malory's great work on the legends of Arthur has been mentioned. Through the century also the drama was making slow but sure progress.
The "Popular" Ballad: (1) Definition. In taking up the ballads the first thing necessary is a definition. We are here not concerned with such poems as Tennyson's The Revenge (sub-title, "A Ballad of the Fleet"); or Kipling's Ballad of East and West; or Oliver Wendell Holmes's Ballad of the Oysterman; or any of the poems in the volume of Wordsworth and Coleridge called Lyrical Ballads. By "ballad "
in this book we mean a narrative poem of limited extent, unknown authorship, originally intended to be sung, and handed down among the folk by oral tradition. In the great collection of Professor Child are more than three hundred ballads, of which very few can be traced to a date earlier than 1400, and very few are believed to have originated after 1500.
The subjects of the ballads are as varied as the interests of the age that produced them. Many deal with the outlaws, particularly Robin Hood and his "merry men," who robbed the rich and befriended the poor. Many deal with various aspects of the supernatural; as Thomas Rymer, the hero of which was carried off by a fairy, or Kemp Owyne, telling a story of disenchantment by kissing. Great battles are the subjects of not a few, of which the most famous perhaps is The Battle of Otterburn. One of the best is Sir Patrick Spens, recounting the ready self-sacrifice of a Scotch sailor knight for his king. There is much more tragedy than comedy in the ballads, reflecting doubtless an age when love and hate were strong, when feuds were numerous, and when life was held not so dear.
(3) Style. As to style, the ballads are notably direct and simple. They often begin abruptly, apparently assuming among the auditors knowledge of events or stories unknown to-day. The narrative is often so condensed that much reading between the lines is necessary; and not seldom the ending is as abrupt as was the beginning of the story. Figures of speech are few, and the vocabulary is that of everyday conversation rather than of men of letters. Simple rhyme and stanza forms are the rule.
Still another characteristic that even the casual reader of a few ballads would observe is repetition. In all five stanzas
of Lord Randal, for example, the four lines are partly alike; the first line ends, "Lord Randal, my son "; the second, my handsome young man"; the third, "mother, make my bed soon"; the fourth, 'fain would lie down." The
three stanzas of Bonnie George Campbell end with the line
"But never cam he!"
(4) Communal Origin.
Even so brief a treatment of ballads as this should not end without an addition to the definition given above. Not only is the typical ballad of unknown authorship: the theory finding almost universal acceptance to-day is that it is of "communal origin." By this is meant that the ballad has its beginning in the communal dance," the meeting of the tribe; and that the form of it we possess is due to a singer, " a skilful recording secretary, one might say, who stands between us and the community." 1
Some modern writers - Coleridge, for example - have to some extent caught the trick of ballad writing; but The Ancient Mariner is clearly the work of one individual writing in a more or less literary language for distinctly educated readers. The gap, therefore, is wide between it and the genuine ballad, with its anonymous, collective authorship, and its uncultured audience.
The introduction of printing may on first thought sound like a contradiction of the statement above that the fifteenth century was marked by no great accomplishment in Eng
1 F. B. Gummere, Old English Ballads, page lxviii. Other writings of Professor Gummere necessary to any extended study of ballads are: The Beginnings of Poetry, The Popular Ballad, and volume II, chapter XVII, of the Cambridge History of English Literature. Professor Kittredge's introduction to The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Cambridge Edition, should also be read.
land. Since, however, the art was practised in seventy cities of eight other countries before the first press was set up in London, it does not seem necessary to modify our first statement. Nevertheless, the time when the first books in the English language were printed in England is worthy of note, as is the name of the first printer, William Caxton.
William Caxton (1422 ?-1490). - Caxton was born in Kent about 1422. At the age of sixteen or seventeen he was apprenticed to a London cloth merchant. A few years later he went to the continent, and subsequently became head of an English trading company at Bruges (Brūzh). Leaving this business he entered the service of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, and there began the series of translations which