Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Thomas Arnold
Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1368c. 1426)
[Thomas Occleve, or Hoccleve (the name is spelt both ways in the MSS. of his works), was born between 1365 and 1370. He is thought to have been of north-country parentage, deriving his name from the village of Hocclough in Northumberland. One of his minor poems, addressed to Richard duke of York, cannot well have been written before 1448, since the young prince Edward (born in 1441) and his French tutor Picard are mentioned in it. Occleve must therefore have lived to a great age, but the precise year of his death is unknown. His principal poem, De Regimine Principum, was written in 1411 or 1412. The ascertainable dates of his minor poems, of which only a portion has been printed, range between 1400 and 1448.]
THE PRINCIPAL work of Thomas Occleve is the poem De Regimine Principum, a free version of the Latin treatise written under that title by Aegidius or Giles, a native of Rome and a disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he dedicated to Philip le Hardi, son of St. Louis. This poem is in the rhyme royal, and contains between five and six thousand lines. Nearly a third part of it is taken up with a Prelude or proem, which is considerably more interesting than the work itself. A slight analysis of this proem will bring Occleve before us, both as a man and a writer, more clearly than anything else could.
After a restless night, spent in painful and fruitless musing on the insecurity of all things here below, the poet goes forth into the fields near his lodging in the Strand. A poor old man meets him, and plies him with questions as to the reason of his dejection. After naming various causes of trouble, he says
If thou fele the in any of thise ygreved,
Or elles what, tel on in Goddes name;
Thou seest, al day the begger is releved,
That syt and beggith, crookyd, blynd, and lame;
And whi? for he ne lettith for no shame
His harmes and his povert to bewreye
To folke, as thei goon bi hym bi the weye.
The old man goes on to warn him against indulgence in too prolonged and solitary meditations. By these, he says, men are sometimes led on to deny the faith, as happened in the case of a heretic not longe agoo, who denied that after consecration the eucharistic bread was Christs body. For this he was burnt, though the prince (Henry) tried hard to save him, and promised to obtain his full pardon and the means of living from the king, if he would return to the faith.1 He speaks also of the folly of extravagance in dress,that costly and outragious array, which will ruin England if it is not stopped,on the thoughtlessness and wantonness of youth, and so on. The author, much consoled and edified, tells his mentor who he is, and how he lives. He is a writer to the Privy Seal,2 and has an annuity of twenty marks a year in the Exchequer, granted him by Henry IV. But his misfortune is that he can never depend on this being paid regularly, so that he is sometimes in danger of starving. If this be so now, what will be his plight when he is grown old, and has no other resource but the annuity? Herein lies the secret cause of his dejection. The old man, after counselling a religious resignation to the divine will, questions him still further, and finding that he is a literary man, and had known Chaucer, advises him to compose some new work and present it to the Prince, who will perhaps graciously accept it and relieve the author from his distress:
But he laments that the honour of English tounge is deed, with whom he might have taken counsel; then follows the celebrated passage on Chaucer, which will be found among our extracts.5 The poet returns home, takes parchment, and writes a dedication of his work to the Prince of Wales, Shaksperes Prince Hal. It is founded, he says, on Aristotles boke of governaunce (the supposed correspondence between Aristotle and Alexander which made so deep an impression on the mediæval mind), and the work of Aegidius above mentioned; he has also studied the work of Jacobus de Cessolis (Casali) called The Chess-moralized;6 and the fruits of these studies he now presents to the Prince. The poem is not interesting. The various aspects under which his duty presents, or ought to present, itself to the mind of a ruler are considered successively under the heads of justice, good faith, temperance, mercy, prudence, deliberation, and so forth.
Other poems ascribed to Occleve arethe story of Gerelaus emperor of Rome and his virtuous empress, and that of Jonathas and the three jewels. Both these are from the Gesta Romanorum: they have never been printed, but the story of Jonathas was modernised by Browne and introduced into the Shepherds Pipe (1614). Some of his minor poems were edited in 1798 by a Mr. Mason. The longest of them, La male régle de T. Hoccleve, exhibits a picture of the jovial and riotous life led by the poet in his younger days, which is in complete accordance with that presented in the proem to the De Regimine.