Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Churton Collins
Stephen Hawes (d. 1523)
[Of Stephen Hawes little is known beyond the facts that he was a native of Suffolk, that he was educated at Oxford, had travelled in France, and was Groom of the Privy Chamber to Henry VII. We can gather also that he was alive in January 152021, and that he was dead in 1530. He was the author of several minor poems which are treasured by collectors, but are of no literary value. It is a proof of the carelessness of those who have dealt with Hawes, that they have assigned to him The Temple of Glasse, though Hawes has himself expressly stated (Pastime of Pleasure, canto xiv.) that Lydgate was the author. Hawes great work is The Pastime of Pleasure, or the Historie of Graunde Amoure and La Belle Pucel, written in or about 1506, and first printed in 1509. It is an allegorical poem describing the education and history of one Grande Amoure, who learns in the Tower of Doctrine and in the Tower of Chivalry those accomplishments which are necessary to constitute a perfect knight worthy of a perfect loveLa Belle Pucel. His career through the world is then delineatedhis combats with monsters, his strange adventures, his marriage, his death, his fame. The poem is dedicated, with an elaborate apology for its deficiencies, to Henry VII, and terminates with another apology unto all Poets on the same grounds.]
HAWES belongs to the Provençal School. His model and master was, as he is constantly reiterating, Lydgate, though he was well acquainted with the works of Chaucer, whose comic vein he occasionally affects, with the verses of Gower, and with the narrative poetry of France and Italy. His poem is elaborately allegorical, though the allegory is not always easy to follow in detail, and is obviously much impeded with extraneous matter. The style has little of the fluency of Lydgate, and none of his vigour; none of the picturesqueness and brilliance which are characteristic of Chaucer and not less characteristic of Chaucers Scotch disciples who were Hawes contemporaries. The narrative, though by no means lacking incident, and by no means unenlivened with beauties both of sentiment and expression, too often stagnates in prolix discussions, and wants as a rule life and variety. The composition is often loose and feeble, the vocabulary is singularly limited, and bad taste is conspicuous in every canto. But Hawes, with all his faults, is a true poet. He has a sweet simplicity, a pensive gentle air, a subdued cheerfulness about him which have a strange charm at this distance of dissimilar time. Though the hand of the artist is not firm, and the colouring sometimes too sober, his pictures are very graphic. Take one out of many:
The way was troublous and ey nothyng playne,
Tyll at the last I came into a dale,
Beholdyng Phoebus declinying lowe and pale.
With my greyhoundes, in the fayre twylight
I sate me downe.
His verse is sometimes harsh, but it often breathes a plaintive music, and has a weirdly beautiful rhythm which falls on the ear like the echo of a vanished world, and seems to transport us back to the dim cloister of some old mediaeval abbey. One such stanza we give:
O mortall folke you may beholde and see
Howe I lye here, sometime a mighty knight,
The end of joye and all prosperite
Is death at last, thorough his course and mighte,
After the daye there cometh the darke nighte,
For though the daye be never so long,
At last the belle ringeth to evensong.
That couplet alone should suffice for immortality. We may claim also for this neglected poet complete originality at an age when English poetry at least had degenerated into mere translations, into feeble narratives, or into sickly imitations of Chaucer.
But there are two other interesting points connected with The Pastime of Pleasure. It marks with singular precision a great epoch in our literature. It is the last expiring echo of Mediaevalism; it is the first articulate prophecy of the Renaissance. It is the link between The Canterbury Tales and The Faery Queen. Hawes is in poetry what Philippe de Commines is in prose: he belongs to the old world and he breathes its atmospherehe belongs also to the new, for its first rays are falling on him. He connects the two. The weeds of a time sad and sombre indeed hang about him, but Hope is the refrain of his song.
Drive despaire away,
And live in hopë which shall do you good.
Joy cometh after when the payne is past;
Be ye pacient and sober in mode:
To wepe and waile, all is for you in waste.
Was never payne, but it had joy at last
In the fayre morrowe.
The dawn had broken, the morning he felt was near. Again, The Pastime of Pleasure was the precursor of The Faery Queen. The two poems are similar in allegorical purpose, similar in the development of their allegory. Some of the incidents, though not identical, are of the same character, and if it would be going too far to say that Spenser was a disciple of Hawes, it would not be going too far to say that Spenser had been a careful student of The Pastime of Pleasure, had been indebted to it for many a useful hint, many a slight preliminary sketch, many a pleasing effect of rhythm and cadence. We have dwelt with some minuteness on Hawes, because of the injustice which all his critics have so inexplicably done him. He is, says Scott, a bad imitator of Lydgate, ten times more tedious than his original. Even his name may be omitted, adds Campbell, without any treason to the cause of taste. Our extracts are, we may add, selected from The Pastime of Pleasure: his minor poems are best forgotten.