Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
William Caxton (c. 1415–1491)
[Caxton, the exact year of whose birth is uncertain, but may safely be placed between 1411 and 1422, was born and spent his earliest years in the Weald of Kent. He was apprenticed to Robert Large, a mercer of repute in London, who was Lord Mayor in 1440. On the death of his master shortly after, Caxton went to Bruges, carrying on the business of a mercer there, and acting subsequently (in 1465) as Governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers, who pushed the interests of English traders in the Low Countries, and to whom Edward IV. had granted a charter. In this capacity he was employed in the endeavour to arrange a commercial treaty, which did not succeed until the accession of Charles the Bold as Duke of Burgundy, and his marriage to Margaret, the sister of Edward IV., in 1468. This coincided with the date when Caxton was beginning to occupy his leisure with literary pursuits. He was already engaged in translating into English a French version of the tales of Troy, called Le Recueil des Histoires de Troye, and his attempt obtained the patronage of the Duchess, into whose service he entered. In the succeeding years he was employed in further translations, and in preparing for the more important business of his life by learning the infant art of printing. This he transferred to England in 1476, when he set up his printing-press at Westminster. He had already followed up the translation of the Troy Tales by the Game and Play of Chess, also from the French, and he now issued the first book printed in England, The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, a translation made by Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers. From this time he showed marvellous activity in two spheres of labour—translations from the French, of which he made no fewer than twenty-one, and printed copies of his own or others’ work, of which seventy-one specimens seem to have come from his press down to the time of his death in 1491.]  1
THE MOST important part of Caxton’s work was undoubtedly that which he achieved by the introduction of printing into England, which indirectly had an enormous influence upon the future of our literature. This, however, scarcely falls within the scope of the present volume, which is concerned rather with his place in the development of English prose. “I was born,” he says himself, “and learned mine English in Kent, in the Weald, where, I doubt not, is spoken as broad and rude English as in any place of England.” But he was sent, by the care of his parents to one of the schools, which had during the previous generation undergone a great change, and where a written English was taught to the scholars in place of the French which had previously formed the foundation of education for the better class. When he began his translations, Caxton was met at the very outset with a difficulty of choice. Was he to attempt to build up from the common vernacular a written language, or was he to help in the construction of what was virtually a new tongue upon a broader and more literary basis? The objection to the first was that the vernacular varied infinitely, as between different parts of the country. He was urged, he tells us, “to use old and homely terms in my translations.” But when he attempted, on the model of old books, to obey the advice, he found that these terms were so rude and broad that he could not himself understand them. “It was more like to Dutch than English; I could not reduce, nor bring it to be understood.” Not only did it vary between one county and another, but it was in such a state of fluctuation and wavering that no certainty of its fixed form could be attained. Between the choice of the “rude, plain, and curious terms,” Caxton, in his own words, “stood abashed.” The difficulty that thus faced Caxton was one upon which hung a most critical question for the future of our language; and it is fortunate that the general taste of the literary patrons of his time, under whose guidance he worked, pointed clearly in the direction of a more elaborate and eclectic style. All his own inclinations evidently pointed the same way. The associate of the nobles of his day, familiar with courts, accustomed to the pomp and pageantry of chivalry, he found his chief model in the French style, of which he professes profound admiration. He tells us how, when he was about to begin his translation of the Recueil des Histoires de Troye, he took a French book in which he had great pleasure, “For the fair language of the French, which was in prose so well and compendiously set and written, which methought I understood the sentence and substance of every matter.” To spread abroad a taste for a similar style in England—one which would be as readily and easily understood by all his countrymen, as the rude vernacular was, in separate dialects, by the men of each county—this was Caxton’s ambition, and for the way in which he accomplished his task he deserves quite as much gratitude as for the energy and enterprise with which he planted in England that art which was to revolutionise the place of literature amongst the nations. He saw the growth of a new language, “honourably enlarged and adorned,” begun even in the days of his boyhood, when Henry V. was king; he saw the gratitude due to Chaucer for having first set a model of “ornate writing.” “Before that (Chaucer) by his labour, embellished, ornated, and made fair our English, in this realm was had rude speech and incongruous, as yet appeareth by old books.” He saw the skill with which Chaucer “comprehended his matter in short, quick, and high sentences,” and he devoted himself, with a literary taste and discernment which perhaps have been unduly cast into the shade by his material triumphs in the printer’s art, to help in spreading abroad the style which Chaucer’s genius had begun. Caxton cannot be said to have creative power or literary invention of his own. But it is a mistake to conceive of him as only a diligent and humble translator, content to spread abroad the work of others, and without discernment or judgment of his own. His own translations, if we may give the name to his free paraphrase of French books of romance and chivalry, and to his compilations from the tales then floating about Europe, are unambitious and of no great interest in matter. They are filled with the usual tedious moralisings, and show no great power of selection or force of narrative. But they have the essential element of literary power in a style of admirable clearness, in a certain easy and polished grace of language, and in a bold adoption of words of foreign origin, which were fitted to enrich the storehouse of English, and to give to our tongue the most valuable quality of facility and variety of expression. It is for this that Caxton deserves not only the praise due to a pioneer in his craft, but also that due to a weighty contributor to the development of our literary style.  2

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