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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alexander Barclay (1475?–1552)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
BARCLAY’S reputation rests upon his translation of the famous ‘Ship of Fools’ and his original ‘Eclogues.’ A controversy as to the land of his birth—an event which happened about the year 1475—has lasted from his century to our own. The decision in favor of Scotland rests upon the testimony of two witnesses: first, Dr. William Bullim, a younger contemporary of Barclay, who mentions him in ‘A Dialogue Both Pleasaunt and Pietifull Wherein is a Godlie Regement Against the Fever Pestilence with a Consolation and Comforte Against Death,’ which was published in 1564; and secondly, Barclay himself.  1
  Bullim groups the Muses at the foot of Parnassus, and gathers about them Greek and Latin poets, and such Englishmen as Chaucer, Gower, Skelton, and Barclay, the latter “with an hoopyng russet long coate, with a pretie hood in his necke, and five knottes upon his girdle, after Francis’s tricks. He was borne beyond the cold river of Twede. He lodged upon a sweetebed of chamomill under the sinamone-tree: about him many shepherdes and shepe, with pleasaunte pipes; greatly abhorring the life of Courtiers, Citizens, Usurers, and Banckruptes, etc., whose daies are miserable. And the estate of shepherdes and countrie people he accompted moste happie and sure.” Deprived of its poetic fancy, this passage means that Barclay was a monk of the order of St. Francis, that he was born north of the Tweed, that his verse was infused with such bitterness and tonic qualities as camomile possesses, and that he advocated the cause of the country people in his independent and admirable ‘Eclogues,’ another title for the first three of which is ‘Miseryes of Courtiers and Courtes of all Princes in General.’  2
  Barclay was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and upon his return to England after several years of residence abroad, he was made one of the priests of Saint Mary Ottery, an institution of devout practice and learning in Devonshire. Here in 1508 was finished ‘The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde translated out of Laten, Frenche, and Doche into Englysshe tonge by Alexander Barclay, Preste, and at that time chaplen in the sayd College.’  3
  After his work was completed Barclay went to London, where his poem was “imprentyd … in Fleet Street at the signe of Saynt George by Rycharde Pyreson to hys Coste and charge: ended the yere of our Saviour MDIX. the XIII. day of December.” That he became a Benedictine and lived at the monastery of the order at Ely is evident from his ‘Eclogues.’ Here he translated at the instance of Sir Giles Arlington, Knight, ‘The Myrrour of Good Maners,’ from a Latin elegiac poem which Dominic Mancini published in the year 1516.  4
  “It was about this period of his life,” says Mr. Jamieson in his admirable edition of the ‘Ship of Fools,’ “probably the period of the full bloom of his popularity, that the quiet life of the poet and priest was interrupted by the recognition of his eminence in the highest quarters, and by a request for his aid in maintaining the honor of the country on an occasion to which the eyes of all Europe were then directed. In a letter to Wolsey dated 10th April, 1520, Sir Nicholas Vaux—busied with the preparation for that meeting of Henry VIII. and Francis I. called the Field of the Cloth of Gold—begs the Cardinal to send them … Maistre Barkleye, the Black Monke and Poete, to devise histoires and convenient raisons to florisshe the buildings and banquet house withal.”  5
  He became a Franciscan, the habit of which order Bullim refers to; and “sure ’tis,” says Wood, “that living to see his monastery dissolv’d, in 1539, at the general dissolution by act of Henry VIII., he became vicar of Much Badew in Essex, and in 1546, the same year, of the Church of St. Matthew the Apostle at Wokey, in Somersetshire, and finally in 1552, the year in which he died, of that of All Saints, Lombard Street, London. In his younger days he was esteemed a good poet and orator, but when years came on, he spent his time mostly in pious matters, and in reading the histories of Saints.”  6
  ‘The Ship of Fools’ is the most important work associated with Barclay’s name. It was a translation of Sebastian Brant’s ‘Stultifera Navis,’ a book which had attracted universal attention on the Continent when it appeared in 1494. In his preface, Barclay admits that “it is not translated word by word according to the verses of my actor. For I have but only drawn into our mother tongue in rude language the sentences of the verses as near as the paucity of my wit will suffer me, sometime adding, sometime detracting and taking away such things as seemeth me necessary.” The classes and conditions of society that Barclay knew were as deserving of satire as those of Germany. He tells us that his work was undertaken “to cleanse the vanity and madness of foolish people, of whom over great number is in the Realm of England.”  7
  The diction of Barclay’s version is exceptionally fine. Jamieson calls it “a rich and unique exhibition of early art,” and says:—“Page after page, even in the antique spelling of Pynson’s edition, may be read by the ordinary reader of to-day without reference to a dictionary; and when reference is required, it will be found in nine cases out of ten that the archaism is Saxon, not Latin. This is all the more remarkable that it occurs in the case of a priest translating mainly from the Latin and French, and can only be explained with reference to his standpoint as a social reformer of the broadest type, and to his evident intention that his book should be an appeal to all classes, but especially to the mass of people for amendment of their follies.”  8
  As the original work belonged to the German satirist, the extract from the ‘Ship of Fools’ is placed under the essay entitled ‘Sebastian Brandt.’ His ‘Eclogues’ show Barclay at his best. They portray the manners and customs of the period, and are full of local proverbs and wise sayings. According to Warton, Barclay’s are the first ‘Eclogues’ that appeared in the English language. “They are like Petrarch’s,” he says, “and Mantuans of the moral and satirical kind; and contain but few touches of moral description and bucolic imagery.” Two shepherds meet to talk about the pleasures and crosses of rustic life and life at court. The hoary locks of the one show that he is old. His suit of Kendal green is threadbare, his rough boots are patched, and the torn side of his coat reveals a bottle never full and never empty. His wallet contains bread and cheese; he has a crook, and an oaten pipe. His name is Cornix, and he boasts that he has had worldly experience. The other shepherd, Coridon, having seen nothing, complains of country life. He grumbles at the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold; at beds on the flinty ground, and the dangers of sleeping where the wolves may creep in to devour the sheep; of his stiff rough hands, and his parched, wrinkled, and weather-beaten skin. He asks whether all men are so unhappy. Cornix, refreshing himself at intervals with his bottle and crusts, shows him the small amount of liberty at court, discourses upon the folly of ambition, lays bare the rapine, avarice, and covetousness of the worldly-minded, and demonstrates that the court is “painted fair without, but within it is ugly and vile.” He then gives the picture of a courtier’s life, which is cited below. He tells how the minstrels and singers, philosophers, poets, and orators are but the slaves of patronizing princes; how beautiful women deceive; describes to him, who has known nothing but a diet of bread and cheese, the delights of the table; dilates on the cups of silver and gold, and the crystal glass shining with red and yellow wine; the sewers bearing in roasted crane, gorgeous peacocks, and savory joints of beef and mutton; the carver wielding his dexterous knife; the puddings, the pasties, the fish fried in sweet oils and garnished with herbs; the costumes of the men and women in cloth of gold and silver and gay damask; the din of music, voices, laughter, and jests; and then paints a picture of the lords and ladies who plunge their knives into the meats and their hands into platters, spilling wine and gravy upon their equally gluttonous neighbors. He finishes by saying:—
  “Shepherds have not so wretched lives as they:
Though they live poorely on cruddes, chese, and whey,
On apples, plummes, and drinke cleree water deepe,
As it were lordes reigning among their sheepe.
The wretched lazar with clinking of his bell,
Hath life which doth the courtiers excell;
The caytif begger hath meate and libertie,
When courtiers hunger in harde captivitie.
The poore man beggeth nothing hurting his name,
As touching courters they dare not beg for shame.
And an olde proverb is sayde by men moste sage,
That oft yonge courters be beggars in their age.”
  The third ‘Eclogue’ begins with Coridon relating a dream that he went to court and saw the scullions standing
                      “about me thicke
With knives ready for to flay me quicke.”
This is a text for Cornix, who continues his tirade, and convinces Coridon of the misery of the court and his happier life, ending as follows:—
  “Than let all shepheardes, from hence to Salisbury
With easie riches, live well, laugh and be mery,
Pipe under shadowes, small riches hath most rest,
In greatest seas moste sorest is tempest,
The court is nought els but a tempesteous sea;
Avoyde the rockes. He rulèd after me.”
  The fourth ‘Eclogue’ is a dialogue on the rich man’s treatment of poets, by two shepherds, Codrus and Menalcas, musing in “shadowe on the green,” while their snowy flocks graze on the sweet meadow. This contains a fine allegorical description of ‘Labour.’  11
  The fifth ‘Eclogue’ is the ‘Cytezen and the Uplondyshman.’ Here the scene changes, and two shepherds, Faustus and Amyntas, discourse in a cottage while the snows of January whirl without. Amyntas has learned in London “to go so manerly.” Not a wrinkle may be found in his clothes, not a hair on his cloak, and he wears a brooch of tin high on his bonnet. He has been hostler, costermonger, and taverner, and sings the delights of the city. Faustus, the rustic, is contented with his lot. The ‘Cytezen and the Uplondyshman’ was printed from the original edition of Wynkyn de Worde, with a preface by F. W. Fairholt, Percy Society (Vol. xxii.).  12
  Other works ascribed to Barclay are:—‘The Figure of Our Holy Mother Church, Oppressed by the French King’; ‘The Lyfe of the Glorious Martyr Saynt George,’ translated (from Mantuan) by Alexander Barclay; ‘The Lyfe of the Blessed Martyr, Saynte Thomas’; ‘Contra Skeltonum,’ in which the quarrel he had with his contemporary poet, John Skelton, was doubtless continued.  13
  Estimates of Barclay may be found in ‘The Ship of Fools,’ edited by T. H. Jamieson (1874); ‘Sibbald’s Chronicle of Scottish Poetry,’ from the thirteenth century to the union of the crowns (1802); ‘The History of English Poetry,’ by Thomas Warton (1824); ‘The History of Scottish Poetry,’ by David Irving (1861); ‘Chips from a German Workshop,’ by F. Max Müller (1870); and the Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. iii. ch. iv.  14

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