Part 4 out of 13
might see his lady again. At last night came, and worn out in
heart and mind he leaned his head #against the cold rough stone
Chapter XXIX THE DEATH OF THE POET KING
AS Prince James slept he dreamed that a sudden great light shone
into his prison, making bright all the room. A voice cried, "I
bring thee comfort and healing, be not afraid." Then the light
passed as suddenly as it had come and the Prince went forth from
his prison, no man saying him nay.
"And hastily by both the arms twain
I was araiséd up into the air,
Caught in a cloud of crystal clear and fair."
And so through "air and water and hot fire" he was carried,
seeing and hearing many wonders, till he awoke to find himself
still kneeling by his window.
Was it all a dream, Prince James asked himself, even the vision
of the lovely lady in the garden? At that thought his heart grew
heavy. Then, as if to comfort him, a dove flew in at his window
carrying in her mouth a sprig of gilliflowers. Upon the stalk in
golden letters were written the words, "Awake! Awake! lover, I
bring thee glad news."
And so the story had a happy ending, for Prince James knew that
the lovely lady of the garden loved him. "And if you think," he
says, "that I have written a great deal about a very little
thing, I say this to you:--
"Who that from hell hath creepéd once to heaven
Would after one thank for joy not make six or seven,
And every wight his own sweet or sore
Has most in mind: I can say you no more."
Then, in an outburst of joy, he thanks and blesses everything
that has led up to this happy day, which has brought him under
"Love's yoke which easy is and sure." Even his exile and his
prison he thanks.
"And thankéd be the fair castle wall
Whereas I whilcome looked forth and leant."
The King's Quair reminds us very much of Chaucer's work. All
through it there are lines which might have been written by
Chaucer, and in the last verse James speaks of Gower and Chaucer
as his "masters dear." Of Gower I have said nothing in this
book, because there is not room to tell of every one, and he is
not so important as some or so interesting as others. So I leave
you to learn about him later. It is to Chaucer, too, much more
than to Gower that James owes his music. And if he is grave like
Gower rather than merry like Chaucer, we must remember that for
nineteen years he had lived a captive, so that it was natural his
verse should be somber as his life had been. And though there is
no laughter in this poem, it shows a power of feeling joy as well
as sorrow, which makes us sad when we remember how long the poet
was shut away from common human life.
The King's Quair is written in verses of seven lines. Chaucer
used this kind of verse, but because King James used it too, and
used it so well, it came to be called the Rhyme Royal.
King James's story had a happy ending. A story with a happy
ending must end of course with a wedding, and so did this one.
The King of England, now Henry VI, was only a child. But those
who ruled for him were quite pleased when they heard that Prince
James had fallen in love with the beautiful lady of the garden,
for she was the King's cousin, Lady Jane Beaufort. They set
James free and willingly consented that he should marry his lady,
for in this way they hoped to bind England and Scotland together,
and put an end to wars between the two countries. So there was a
very grand wedding in London when the lovely lady of the garden
became Queen of Scotland. And then these two, a King and Queen,
yet happy as any simple lovers journeyed northward to their
They were received with great rejoicing and crowned at Scone.
But the new King soon found, that during the long years he had
been kept a prisoner in England his kingdom had fallen into wild
disorder. Sternly he set himself to bring order out of disorder,
and the wilfull, lawless nobles soon found to their surprise that
the gentle poet had a will of iron and a hand of steel, and that
he could wield a sword and scepter as skillfully as his pen.
James I righted much that was wrong. In doing it he made for
himself many enemies. But of all that he did or tried to do in
the twelve years that he ruled you will read in history books.
Here I will only tell you of his sad death.
In 1436 James decided to spend Christmas at Perth, a town he
loved. As he neared the river Forth, which he had to cross on
his way, an aged woman came to him crying in a loud voice, "My
Lord King, if ye cross this water ye shall never return again in
Now the King had read a prophecy in which it was said that a King
of Scotland should be slain that same year. So wondering what
this woman might mean, he sent a knight to speak with the woman.
But the knight could make nothing of her, and returning to the
King he said, "Sir, take no heed of yon woman's words, for she is
old and foolish, and wots not what she sayeth." So the King rode
Christmas went by quietly and peacefully, and the New Year came,
and still the King lingered in Perth. The winter days passed
pleasantly in reading, walking, and tennis-playing; the evenings
in chess-playing, music, and story-telling.
But one night, as James was chatting and laughing with the Queen
and her ladies before going to bed, a great noise was heard. The
sound of many feet, the clatter of armor mingled with wild cries
was borne to the quiet room, and through the high windows flashed
the light of many torches.
At once the King guessed that he was betrayed. The Queen and her
ladies ran hastily to the door to shut it. But the locks had
been broken and the bolts carried away, so that it could not be
In vain James looked round. Way of escape there was none.
Alone, unarmed, he could neither guard the ladies nor save
himself. Crying to them to keep fast the door as best they
might, he sprang to the window, hoping by his great strength to
wrench the iron bars from their places and escape that way. But,
alas, they were so strongly set in the stone that he could not
move them, "for which cause the King was ugly astonied."*
*The Dethe of the Kynge of Scottis.
Then turning to the fire James seized the tongs, "and under his
feet he mightily brast up a blank of the chamber,"* and leaping
down into the vault beneath he let the plank fall again into its
place. By this vault the King might have escaped, for until
three days before there had been a hole leading from it to the
open air. But as he played tennis his balls often rolled into
this hole and were lost. So he had ordered it to be built up.
There was nothing, then, for the King to do but wait. Meanwhile
the noise grew louder and louder, the traitors came nearer and
nearer. One brave lady named Catherine Douglas, hoping to keep
them out, and so save the King, thrust her arm through the iron
loops on the door where the great bolt should have been. But
against the savage force without, her frail, white arm was
useless. The door was burst open. Wounded and bleeding,
Catherine Douglas was thrown aside and the wild horde stormed
into the room.
It was not long ere the King's hiding-place was found, and one of
the traitors leaped down beside him with a great knife in his
hand. "And the King, doubting him for his life, caught him
mightily by the shoulders, and with full great violence cast him
under his feet. For the King was of his person and stature a man
right manly strong."*
Seeing this, another traitor leaped down to help his fellow.
"And the King caught him manly by the neck, both under him that
all a long month after men might see how strongly the King had
holden them by the throats."*
Fiercely the King struggled with his enemies, trying to wrench
their knives from them so that he might defend himself. But it
was in vain. Seeing him grow weary a third traitor, the King's
greatest enemy, Robert Grahame, leaped down too into the vault,
"with a horrible and mortal weapon in his hand, and therewithal
he smote him through the body, and therewithal the good King fell
And thus the poet King died with sixteen wounds in his brave
heart and many more in his body. So at the long last our story
has a sad ending. But we have to remember that for twelve years
King James had a happy life, and that as he had loved his lady at
the first so he loved her to the end, and was true to her.
Besides The King's Quair, there are a few other short poems which
some people think King James wrote. They are very different from
the Quair, being more like the ballads of the people, and most
people think now that James did not write them. But because they
are different is no real reason for thinking that they are not
his. For James was quite clever enough, we may believe, to write
in more than one way.
Besides these doubtful poems, there is one other poem of three
verses about which no one has any doubt. I will give you one
verse here, for it seems in tune with the King's own life and
"Be not our proud in thy prosperite,
Be not o'er proud in thy prosperity,
For as it cumis, sa will it pass away;
For as it comes, so will it pass away;
Thy tym to compt is short, thou may weille se
Thy time to count is short, thou mayst well see
For of green gres soyn cumis walowit hay,
For of green grass soon cometh withered hay,
Labour is trewth, quhill licht is of the day.
Labour in truth, while light is of the day.
Trust maist in God, for he best gyd thee can,
Trust most in God, for he best guide thee can,
And for ilk inch he wil thee quyt a span."
And for each inch he will thee requite a span.
BOOKS TO READ
An illustration of this chapter may be read in The Fair Maid of
Perth, by Sir Walter Scott; The King's Tragedy (poetry), by D. G.
Rossetti in his Poetical Works. The best version of The King's
Quair in the ancient text is by W. W. Skeat.
Chapter XXX DUNBAR--THE WEDDING OF THE THISTLE AND THE ROSE
THE fifteenth century, the century in which King James I reigned
and died, has been called the "Golden Age of Scottish Poetry,"
because of the number of poets who lived and wrote then. And so,
although I am only going to speak of one other Scottish poet at
present, you must remember that there were at this time many
more. But of them all William Dunbar is counted the greatest.
And although I do not think you will care to read his poems for a
very long time to come, I write about him here both because he
was a great poet and because with one of his poems, The Thistle
and the Rose, he takes us back, as it were, over the Border into
England once more.
William Dunbar was perhaps born in 1460 and began his life when
James III began his reign. He was of noble family, but there is
little to know about his life, and as with Chaucer, what we learn
about the man himself we learn chiefly from his writing. We
know, however, that he went to the University of St. Andrews, and
that it was intended that he should go into the Church. In those
days in Scotland there were only two things a gentleman might be
- either he must be a soldier or a priest. Dunbar's friends,
perhaps seeing that he was fond of books, thought it best to make
him a priest. But indeed he had made a better soldier. For a
time, however, although he was quite unsuited for such a life, he
became a friar. As a preaching friar he wandered far.
"For in every town and place
Of all England from Berwick to Calais,
I have in my habit made good cheer.
In friar's weed full fairly have I fleichet,*
In it have I in pulpit gone and preached,
In Dernton kirk and eke in Canterbury,
In it I passed at Dover o'er the ferry
Through Picardy, and there the people teached."
Dunbar himself knew that he had no calling to be a friar or
preacher. He confesses that
"As long as I did bear the friar's style
In me, God wot, was many wrink and wile,
In me was falseness every wight to flatter,
Which might be banished by no holy water;
I was aye ready all men to beguile."
So after a time we find him no longer a friar, but a courtier.
Soon we find him, like Chaucer, being sent on business to the
Continent for his King, James IV. Like Chaucer he receives
pensions; like Chaucer, too, he knows sometimes what it is to be
poor, and he has left more than one poem in which he prays the
King to remember his old and faithful servant and not leave him
in want. We find him also begging the King for a Church living,
for although he had no mind to be a friar, he wanted a living,
perhaps merely that he might be sure of a home in his old age.
But for some reason the King never gave him what he asked.
We have nearly ninety poems of Dunbar, none of them very long.
But although he is a far better poet than Barbour, or even
perhaps than James I, he is not for you so interesting in the
meantime. First, his language is very hard to understand. One
reason for this is that he knows so many words and uses them all.
"He language had at large," says one of his fellow poets and
countrymen.* And so, although his thought is always clear, it is
not always easy to follow it through his strange words. Second,
his charm as a poet lies not so much in what he tells, not so
much in his story, as in the way that he tells it. And so, even
if you are already beginning to care for words and the way in
which they are used, you may not yet care so much that you can
enjoy poetry written in a tongue which, to us is almost a foreign
tongue. But if some day you care enough about it to master this
old-world poet, you will find that there is a wonderful variety
in his poems. He can be glad and sad, tender and fierce.
Sometimes he seems to smile gently upon the sins and sorrows of
his day, at other times he pours forth upon them words of savage
scorn, grim and terrible. But when we take all his work
together, we find that we have such a picture of the times in
which he lived as perhaps only Chaucer besides has given us.
*Sir David Lyndsay.
For us the most interesting poem is The Thistle and the Rose.
This was written when Margaret, the daughter of King Henry VII of
England, came to be the wife of King James IV of Scotland.
Dunbar was the "Rhymer of Scotland," that is the poet-laureate of
his day, and so, as was natural, he made a poem upon this great
event. For a poet-laureate is the King's poet, and it is his
duty to make poems on all the great things that may happen to the
King. For this he receives a certain amount of money and a cask
of wine every year. But it is the honor and not the reward which
is now prized.
Dunbar begins by telling us that he lay dreaming one May morning.
You will find when you come to read much of the poetry of those
days, that poets were very fond of making use of a dream by which
to tell a story. It was then a May morning when Dunbar lay
"When March was with varying winds past,
And April had, with her silver showers,
Tane leave of nature with an orient blast;
And pleasant May, that mother is of flowers,
Had made the birds to begin their hours*
Among the tender arbours red white,
Whose harmony to hear it was delight."
*Orisons - morning prayers.
Then it seemed that May, in the form of a beautiful lady, stood
beside his bed. She called to him, "Sluggard, awake anon for
shame, and in mine honor go write something."
"'What,' quoth I, ' shall I wuprise at morrow?'
For in this May few birdies heard I sing.
'They have more cause to weep and plain their sorrow,
Thy air it is not wholesome or benign!'"
"Nevertheless rise," said May. And so the lazy poet rose and
followed the lady into a lovely garden. Here he saw many
wonderful and beautiful sights. He saw all the birds, and
beasts, and flowers in the world pass before Dame Nature.
"Then calléd she all flowers that grew in field,
Discerning all their fashions and properties;
Upon the awful Thistle she beheld,
And saw him keepéd* by a bush of spears;
Considering him so able for the wars,
A radiant crown of rubies she him gave,
And said, 'In field go forth, and fend the lave.**
And, since thou art a king, be thou discreet,
Herb without virtue hold thou not of such price
As herb of virtue and of odour sweet;
And let no nettle vile, and full of vice,
Mate him to the goodly fleur-de-lis,
Nor let no wild weed full of churlishness
Compare her to the lily's nobleness.
Nor hold thou no other flower in such dainty
As the fresh Rose, of colour red and white;
For if thou dost, hurt is thine honesty
Considering that no flower is so perfect,
So full of virtue, pleasance and delight,
So full of blissful angelic beauty,
Imperial birth, honour and dignity.'"
**Rest = others.
By the Thistle, of course, Dunbar means James IV, and by the Rose
the Princess Margaret.
Then to the Rose Dame Nature spoke, and crowned her with "a
costly crown with shining rubies bright." When that was done all
the flowers rejoiced, crying out, "Hail be thou, richest Rose."
Then all the birds - the thrush, the lark, the nightingale--cried
"Hail," and "the common voice uprose of birdies small" till all
the garden rang with joy.
"Then all the birdies sang with such a shout,
That I anon awoke where that I lay,
And with a start I turnéd me about
To see this court: but all were went away:
Then up I leanéd, half yet in fear,
And thus I wrote, as ye have heard to forrow,*
Of lusty May upon the nineth morrow."
*Before = already.
Thus did Dunbar sing of the wedding of the Thistle and the Rose.
It was a marriage by which the two peoples hoped once more to
bring a lasting peace between the two countries. And although
the hope was not at once fulfilled, it was a hundred years later.
For upon the death of Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland, the great-
grandson of Margaret Tudor and James Stuart, received the crown
of England also, thus joining the two rival countries. Then came
the true marriage of the Thistle and the Rose.
Meanwhile, as long as Henry VII remained upon the throne, there
was peace between the two peoples. But when Henry VIII began to
rule, his brother-in-law of Scotland soon found cause to quarrel
with him. Then once again the Thistle and the Rose met, not in
peace, but in war. On the red field of Flodden once again the
blood of a Scottish King stained the grass. Once again Scotland
was plunged in tears.
After "that most dolent day"* we hear no more of Dunbar. It is
thought by some that he, as many another knight, courtier and
priest, laid down his life fighting for his King, and that he
fell on Flodden field. By others it is thought that he lived to
return to Scotland, and that the Queen gave to him one of the now
many vacant Church livings, and that there he spent his last days
in quietness and peace.
*Sir David Lyndsay.
This may have been so. For although Dunbar makes no mention of
Flodden in his poems, it is possible that he may have done so in
some that are lost. But where this great poet lies taking his
last rest we do not know. It may be he was laid in some quiet
country churchyard. It may be he met death suddenly amid the din
and horror of battle.
BOOKS TO READ
In illustration of this chapter may be read "Edinburgh after
Flodden" in Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, by W. E. Aytoun. The
best edition of the Poems of Dunbar in the original is edited by
Chapter XXXI AT THE SIGN OF THE RED PALE
IF the fifteenth century has been called the Golden Age of
Scottish poetry, it was also the dullest age in English
literature. During the fifteenth century few books were written
in England. One reason for this was that in England it was a
time of foreign and of civil war. The century opened in war with
Wales, it continued in war with France. Then for thirty years
the wars of the Roses laid desolate the land. They ended at
length in 1485 with Bosworth field, by which Henry VII became
But in spite of all the wars and strife, the making of books did
not quite cease. And if only a few books were written, it was
because it was a time of rebirth and new life as well as a time
of war and death. For it was in the fifteenth century that
printing was discovered. Then it was that the listening time was
really done. Men began to use their eyes rather than their ears.
They saw as they had never before seen.
Books began to grow many and cheap. More and more people learned
to read, and this helped to settle our language into a form that
was to last. French still, although it was no longer the
language of the court or of the people, had an influence on our
speech. People traveled little, and in different parts of the
country different dialects, which were almost like different
languages, were spoken. We have seen that the "Inglis" of
Scotland differed from Chaucer's English, and the language of the
north of England differed from it just as much. But when printed
books increased in number quickly, when every man could see for
himself what the printed words looked like, these differences
began to die out. Then our English, as a literary language, was
It was Caxton, you remember, who was the first English printer.
We have already heard of him when following the Arthur story as
the printer of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. But Caxton was not only
a printer, he was author, editor, printer, publisher and
bookseller all in one.
William Caxton, as he himself tells us, was born in Kent in the
Weald. But exactly where or when we do not know, although it may
have been about the year 1420. Neither do we know who or what
his father was. Some people think that he may have been a mercer
or cloth merchant, because later Caxton was apprenticed to one of
the richest cloth merchants of London. In those days no man was
allowed to begin business for himself until he had served for a
number of years as an apprentice. When he had served his time,
and then only, was he admitted into the company and allowed to
trade for himself. As the Mercers' Company was one of the
wealthiest and most powerful of the merchant companies, they were
very careful of whom they admitted as apprentices. Therefore it
would seem that really Caxton's family was "of great repute of
old, and genteel-like," as an old manuscript says.*
*Harleian MS., 5910.
Caxton's master died before he had finished his apprenticeship,
so he had to find a new master, and very soon he left England and
went to Bruges. There he remained for thirty-five years.
In those days there was much trade between England and Flanders
(Belgium we now call the country) in wool and cloth, and there
was a little colony of English merchants in Bruges. There Caxton
steadily rose in importance until he became "Governor of the
English Nation beyond the seas." As Governor he had great power,
and ruled over his merchant adventurers as if he had been a king.
But even with all his other work, with his trading and ruling to
attend to, Caxton found time to read and write, and he began to
translate from the French a book of stories called the Recuyell*
of the Histories of Troy. This is a book full of the stories of
Greek heroes and of the ancient town of Troy.
*Collection, from the French word recueillir, to gather.
Caxton was not very well pleased with his work, however--he "fell
into despair of it," he says--and for two years he put it aside
and wrote no more.
In 1468 Princess Margaret, the sister of King Edward IV, married
the Duke of Burgundy and came to live in Flanders, for in those
days Flanders was under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy.
Princess Margaret soon heard of the Englishman William Caxton who
had made his home in Bruges. She liked him and encouraged him to
go on with his writing, and after a time he gave up his post of
Governor of the English and entered the service of the Princess.
We do not know what post Caxton held in the household of the
Princess, but it was one of honor we may feel sure.
It was at the bidding of the Princess, whose "dreadful command I
durst in no wise disobey," that Caxton finished the translation
of his book of stories. And as at this time there were no
stories written in English prose (poetry only being still used
for stories), the book was a great success. The Duchess was
delighted and rewarded Caxton well, and besides that so many
other people wished to read it that he soon grew tired of making
copies. It was then that he decided to learn the new and
wonderful art of printing, which was already known in Flanders.
So it came about that the first book ever printed in English was
not printed in England, but somewhere on the continent. It was
printed some time before 1477, perhaps in 1474.
If in manuscript the book had been a success, it was now much
more of one. And we may believe that it was this success that
made Caxton leave Bruges and go home to England in order to begin
life anew as a printer there.
Many a time, as Governor of the English Nation over the seas, he
had sent forth richly laden vessels. But had he known it, none
was so richly laden as that which now sailed homeward bearing a
At Westminster, within the precincts of the Abbey, Caxton found a
house and set up his printing-press. And there, not far from the
great west door of the Abbey he, already an elderly man, began
his new busy life. His house came to be known as the house of
the Red Pale from the sign that he set up. It was probably a
shield with a red line down the middle of it, called in heraldry
a pale. And from here Caxton sent out the first printed
advertisement known in England. "If it please any man spiritual
or temporal," he says, to buy a certain book, "let him come to
Westminster in to the Almonry at the Red Pale and he shall have
them good cheap." The advertisement ended with some Latin words
which we might translate, "Please do not pull down the
The first book that Caxton is known to have printed in England
was called The Dictes* and Sayings of the Philosophers. This was
also a translation from French, not, however, of Caxton's own
writing. It was translated by Earl Rivers, who asked Caxton to
revise it, which he did, adding a chapter and writing a prologue.
*Another word for sayings, from the French dire, to say.
To the people of Caxton's day printing seemed a marvelous thing.
So marvelous did it seem that some of them thought it could only
be done by the help of evil spirits. It is strange to think that
in those days, when anything new and wonderful was discovered,
people at once thought that it must be the work of evil spirits.
That it might be the work of good spirits never seemed to occur
Printing, indeed, was a wonderful thing. For now, instead of
taking weeks and months to make one copy of a book, a man could
make dozens or even hundreds at once. And this made books so
cheap that many more people could buy them, and so people were
encouraged both to read and write. Instead of gathering together
to hear one man read out of a book, each man could buy a copy for
himself. At the end of one of his books Caxton begs folk to
notice "that it is not written with pen and ink as other books
be, to the end that every man may have them at once. For all the
books of this story, called the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy
thus imprinted as ye see here were begun on one day and also
finished in one day." We who live in a world of books can hardly
grasp what that meant to the people of Caxton's time.
For fourteen years Caxton lived a busy life, translating,
editing, and printing. Besides that he must have led a busy
social life, for he was a favorite with Edward IV, and with his
successors Richard III and Henry VII too. Great nobles visited
his workshop, sent him gifts, and eagerly bought and read his
books. The wealthy merchants, his old companions in trade, were
glad still to claim him as a friend. Great ladies courted,
flattered, and encouraged him. He married, too, and had
children, though we known nothing of his home life. Altogether
his days were full and busy, and we may believe that he was
But at length Caxton's useful, busy life came to an end. On the
last day of it he was still translating a book from French. He
finished it only a few hours before he died. We know this,
although we do not know the exact date of his death. For his
pupil and follower, who carried on his work afterwards, says on
the title-page of this book that it was "finished at the last day
of his life."
Caxton was buried in the church near which he had worked--St.
Margaret's, Westminster. He was laid to rest with some ceremony
as a man of importance, for in the account-books of the parish we
find these entries:--
"At burying of William Caxton for four torches 6s. 8d.
For the bell at same burying 6d."
This was much more than was usually spent at the burial of
ordinary people in those days.
Among the many books which Caxton printed we must not forget Sir
Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which we spoke of out of its
place in following the story of Arthur in Chapter VIII. Perhaps
you would like to turn back and read it over again now.
As we have said, Caxton was not merely a printer. He was an
author too. But although he translated books both from French
and Dutch, it is perhaps to his delightful prefaces more than to
anything else that he owes his title of author. Yet it must be
owned that sometimes they are not all quite his own, but parts
are taken wholesale from other men's works or are translated from
the French. We are apt to look upon a preface as something dull
which may be left unread. But when you come to read Caxton's
books, you may perhaps like his prefaces as much as anything else
about them. In one he tells of his difficulties about the
language, because different people spoke it so differently. He
tells how once he began to translate a book, but "when I saw the
fair and strange terms therein, I doubted that it should not
please some gentlemen which late blamed me, saying that in my
translation I had over curious terms, which could not be
understood by common people, and desired me to use old and homely
terms in my translations. And fain would I satisfy every man.
And so to do I took an old book and read therein, and certainly
the English was so rude and broad that I could not well
understand it. . . . And certainly our language now used varieth
far from that which was used and spoken when I was born. . . .
And that common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth from
another. In-so-much that in my days it happened that certain
merchants were in a ship in Thames, for to have sailed over the
sea into Zealand. For lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and
went to land for to refresh them.
"And one of them, named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house
and asked for meat. And especially he asked for eggs. And the
good wife answered that she could speak no French. And the
merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would
have had eggs, and she understood him not.
"And then at last another said that he would have eyren. Then
the good wife said that she understood him well. So what should
a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? Certainly it is
hard to please every man by cause of diversity and change of
language. . . .
"And some honest and great clerks have been with me, and desired
me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus
between plain, rude, and curious I stand abashed. But in my
judgement the common terms that be daily used, be lighter to be
understood than the old and ancient English."
In another book Caxton tells us that he knows his own "simpleness
and unperfectness" in both French and English. "For in France
was I never, and was born and learned my English in Kent, in the
Weald, where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as
in any place in England."
So you see our English was by no means yet settled. But
printing, perhaps, did more than anything else to settle it.
We know that Caxton printed at least one hundred and two editions
of books. And you will be surprised to hear that of all these
only two or three were books of poetry. Here we have a sure sign
that the singing time was nearly over. I do not mean that we are
to have no more singers, for most of our greatest are still to
come. But from this time prose had shaken off its fetters. It
was no longer to be used only for sermons, for prayers, for
teaching. It was to take its place beside poetry as a means of
enjoyment - as literature. Literature, then, was no longer the
affair of the market-place and the banqueting-hall, but of a
man's own fireside and quiet study. It was no longer the affair
of the crowd, but of each man to himself alone.
The chief poems which Caxton printed were Chaucer's. In one
place he calls Chaucer "The worshipful father and first founder
and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our English." Here, I
think, he shows that he was trying to follow the advice of "those
honest and great clerks" who told him he should write "the most
curious terms" that he could find. But certainly he admired
Chaucer very greatly. In the preface to his second edition of
the Canterbury Tales he says, "Great thank, laud and honour ought
to be given unto the clerks, poets" and others who have written
"noble books." "Among whom especially before all others, we
ought to give a singular laud unto that noble and great
philosopher, Geoffrey Chaucer." Then Caxton goes on to tell us
how hard he had found it to get a correct copy of Chaucer's
poems, "For I find many of the said books which writers have
abridged it, and many things left out: and in some places have
set verses that he never made nor set in his book."
This shows us how quickly stories became changed in the days when
everything was copied by hand. When Caxton wrote these words
Chaucer had not been dead more than about eighty years, yet
already it was not easy to find a good copy of his works.
And if stories changed, the language changed just as quickly.
Caxton tells us that the language was changing so fast that he
found it hard to read books written at the time he was born. His
own language is very Frenchy, perhaps because he translated so
many of his books from French. He not only uses words which are
almost French, but arranges his sentences in a French manner. He
often, too drops the e in the, just as in French the e or a in le
and la is dropped before a vowel. This you will often find in
old English books. "The abbey" becomes thabbay, "The English"
thenglish. Caxton writes, too, thensygnementys for "the
teaching." Here we have the dropped e and also the French word
enseignement used instead of "teaching." But these were only
last struggles of a foreign tongue. The triumphant English we
now possess was already taking form.
But it was not by printing alone that in the fifteenth century
men's eyes were opened to new wonder. They were also opened to
the wonder of a new world far over the sea. For the fifteenth
century was the age of discovery, and of all the world's first
great sailors. It was the time when America and the western
isles were discovered, when the Cape of Good Hope was first
rounded, and the new way to India found. So with the whole world
urged to action by the knowledge of these new lands, with
imagination wakened by the tales of marvels to be seen there,
with a new desire to see and do stirring in men's minds, it was
not wonderful that there should be little new writing. The
fifteenth century was the age of new action and new worlds. The
new thought was to follow.
Chapter XXXII ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF THE THEATER
MANY of you have, no doubt, been to the theater. You have seen
pantomimes and Peter Pan, perhaps; perhaps, too, a play of
Shakespeare, - a comedy, it may be, which made you laugh, or even
a tragedy which made you want to cry, or at least left you sad.
Some of you, too, have been to "Pageants," and some may even have
been to an oratorio, which last may have been sung in a church.
But did you ever wonder how plays and theaters came to be? Did
you ever think that there was a time when in all the length and
breadth of the land there was no theater, when there were no
plays either merry or sad? Yet it was so. But at a very early
time the people of England began to act. And, strange as it may
seem to us now, the earliest plays were acted by monks and took
place in church. And it is from these very early monkish plays
that the theater with its different kinds of plays, that pageants
and even oratorios have sprung.
In this chapter I am going to talk about these beginnings of the
English theater and of its literature. All plays taken together
are called the drama, and the writers of them are called
dramatists, from a Greek word dran, to act or do. For dramas are
written not to be read merely, but also to be acted.
To trace the English drama from its beginnings we must go a long
way back from the reigns of Henry VII and of Henry VIII, down to
which the life of Dunbar has brought us. We must go back to the
days when the priests were the only learned people in the land,
when the monasteries were the only schools.
If we would picture to ourselves what these first English plays
were like, we must not think of a brilliantly lighted theater
pranked out and fine with red and gold and white such as we know.
We must think rather of some dim old church. Stately pillars
rise around us, and the outline of the arches is lost in the high
twilight of the roof. Behind the quaintly dressed players gleams
the great crucifix with its strange, sad figure and outstretched
arms which, under the flickering light of the high altar candles,
seems to stir to life. And beyond the circle of light, in the
soft darkness of the nave, the silent people kneel or stand to
It was in such solemn surroundings that our first plays were
played. And the stories that were acted were Bible stories.
There was no thought of irreverence in such acting. On the
contrary, these plays were performed "to exort the mindes of
common people to good devotion and holesome doctrine."
You remember when Caedmon sang, he made his songs of the stories
of Genesis and Exodus. And in this way, in those bookless days,
the people were taught the Bible stories. But you know that what
we learn by our ears is much harder to remember than what we
learn by our eyes. If we are only told a thing we may easily
forget it. But if we have seen it, or seen a picture of it, we
remember it much more easily. In those far-off days, however,
there were as few pictures as there were books in England. And
so the priests and monks fell upon the plan of acting the Bible
stories and the stories of the saints, so that the people might
see and better understand.
These plays which the monks made were called Mystery or Miracle
plays. I cannot tell you the exact date of our first Miracle
plays, but the earliest that we know of certainly was acted at
the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century. It
is not unreasonable to suppose, however, that there had been
still earlier plays of which we know nothing. For the Miracle
plays did not spring all at once to life, they began gradually,
and the beginnings can be traced as far back as the ninth
century. In an old book of rules for Winchester Cathedral,
written about 959, there are directions given for showing the
death and resurrection of Christ in dumb show chiefly, with just
a few Latin sentences to explain it. By degrees these plays grew
longer and fuller, until in them the whole story of man from the
Creation to the Day of Judgment was acted in what was called a
cycle or circle of short acts or plays.
But although these plays were looked upon as an act of religion,
they were not all solemn. At times, above the grave tones of the
monks or the solemn chanting of the choir, laughter rang out.
For some of the characters were meant to be funny, and the
watching crowd knew and greeted them as such even before they
spoke, just as we know and greet the jester or the clown.
The demons were generally funny, and Noah's wife, who argued
about going into the ark. The shepherds, also, watching their
flocks by night, were almost sure to make the people laugh.
But there were solemn moments, too, when the people reverently
listened to the grave words of God the Father, or to those,
tender and loving, of Mary, the Virgin Mother. And when the
shepherds neared the manger where lay the wondrous Babe, all
jesting ceased. Here there was nothing but tender, if simple and
In those early days Latin was the tongue of the Church, and the
Miracle plays were at first said in Latin. But as the common
folk could not understand what was said, the plays were chiefly
shown in dumb show. Soon, however, Latin was given up, and the
plays were acted in English. Then by degrees the churches grew
too small to hold the great crowds of people who wished to see
the plays, and so they were acted outside the church door in the
churchyard, on a stage built level with the steps. The church,
then, could be made to represent heaven, where God and the angels
dwelt. The stage itself was the world, and below it was hell,
from out of which came smoke and sometimes flames, and whence
might be heard groans and cries and the clanking of chains.
But the playing of Mysteries and Miracles at the church doors had
soon to be given up. For the people, in their excitement, forgot
the respect due to the dead. They trampled upon the graves and
destroyed the tombs in their eagerness to see. And when the play
was over the graveyard was a sorry sight with trodden grass and
broken headstones. So by degrees it came about that these plays
lost their connection with the churches, and were no more played
in or near them. They were, instead, played in some open space
about the town, such as the market-place. Then, too, the players
ceased to be monks and priests, and the acting was taken up by
the people themselves. It was then that the playing came into
the hands of the trade guilds.
Nowadays we hear a great deal about "trades unions." But in
those far-off days such things were unknown. Each trade,
however, had its own guild by which the members of it were bound
together. Each guild had its patron saint, and after a time the
members of a guild began to act a play on their saint's day in
his honor. Later still the guilds all worked together, and all
acted their plays on one day. This was Corpus Christi Day, a
feast founded by Pope Urban IV in 1264. As this feast was in
summer, it was a very good time to act the plays, for the weather
was warm and the days were long. The plays often began very
early in the morning as soon as it was light, and lasted all day.
The Miracles were now acted on a movable stage. This stage was
called a pageant, and the play which was acted on it was also in
time called a pageant. The stage was made in two stories. The
upper part was open all round, and upon this the acting took
place. The under part was curtained all round, and here the
actors dressed. From here, too, they came out, and when they had
finished their parts they went back again within the curtains.
The movable stages were, of course, not very large, so sometimes
more than one was needed for a play. At other times the players
overflowed, as it were, into the audience. "Here Herod rages on
the pageant and in the street also" is one stage direction. The
devils, too, often ran among the people, partly to amuse them and
partly to frighten and show them what might happen if they
remained wicked. At the Creation, animals of all kinds which had
been kept chained up were let loose suddenly, and ran among the
people, while pigeons set free from cages flew over their heads.
Indeed, everything seems to have been done to make the people
feel the plays as real as possible.
The pageants were on wheels, and as soon as a play was over at
the first appointed place, the stage was dragged by men to the
next place and the play again began. In an old MS. we are told,
"The places where they played them was in every streete. They
begane first at the abay gates, and when the first pagiante was
played, it was wheeled to the highe crosse befor the mayor, and
soe to every streete. And soe every streete had a pagiant
playinge before them at one time, till all the pagiantes for the
daye appoynted weare played. And when one pagiante was neare
ended worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe they
mighte come in place thereof, exceedinge orderly. And all the
streetes have theire pagiantes afore them all at one time
*Harleian MS., 1948.
Thus, if a man kept his place all a long summer's day, he might
see pass before him pageant after pageant until he had seen the
whole story of the world, from the Creation to the Day of
In time nearly every town of any size in England had its own
cycle of plays, but only four of these have come down to us.
These are the York, the Chester, the Wakefield, and the Coventry
cycles. Perhaps the most interesting of them all are the
Wakefield plays. They are also called the Townley plays, from
the name of the family who possessed the manuscript for a long
Year after year the same guild acted the same play. And it
really seemed as if the pageant was in many cases chosen to suit
the trade of the players. The water-drawers of Chester, for
instance, acted the Flood. In York the shipwrights acted the
building of the ark, the fishmongers the Flood, and the gold-
beaters and money-workers the three Kings out of the East.
The members of each guild tried to make their pageant as fine as
they could. Indeed, they were expected to do so, for in 1394 we
find the Mayor of York ordering the craftsmen "to bring forth
their pageants in order and course by good players, well arrayed
and openly speaking, upon pain of losing of 100 shillings, to be
paid to the chamber without any pardon."*
*Thomas Sharp, Dissertation on the Pageants.
So, in order to supply everything that was needful, each member
of a guild paid what was called "pageant silver." Accounts of
how this money was spent were carefully kept. A few of these
have come down to us, and some of the items and prices paid sound
very funny now.
"Paid for setting the world of fire 5d.
For making and mending of the black souls hose 6d.
For a pair of new hose and mending of the old for the white souls 18d.
Paid for mending Pilate's hat 4d."
The actors, too, were paid. Here are some of the prices:--
"To Fawson for hanging Judas 4d.
Paid to Fawson for cock crowing 4d.
Some got much more than others. Pilate, for instance, who was an
important character, got 4s., while two angels only got 8d.
between them. But while the rehearsing and acting were going on
the players received their food, and when it was all over they
wound up with a great supper.
Chapter XXXIII HOW THE SHEPHERDS WATCHED THEIR FLOCKS
IN this chapter I am going to give you a part of one of the
Townley plays to show you what the beginnings of our drama were
Although our forefathers tried to make the pageants as real as
possible, they had, of course, no scenery, but acted on a little
bare platform. They never thought either that the stories they
acted had taken place long ago and in lands far away, where dress
and manners and even climate were all very different from what
they were in England.
For instance, in the Shepherd's play, of which I am going to
tell, the first shepherd comes in shivering with cold. For
though he is acting in summer he must make believe that it is
Christmas-time, for on Christmas Day Christ was born. And
Christmas-time in England, he knows, is cold. What it may be in
far-off Palestine he neither knows nor cares.
"Lord, what these weathers are cold! and I am ill happed;
I am near hand dulled so long have I napped;
My legs they fold, my fingers are chapped,
It is not as I would, for I am all lapped
In storm and tempest,
Now in the east, now in the west,
Woe is him has never rest
Mid-day or morrow."
In this strain the shepherd grumbles until the second comes. He,
too, complains of the cold.
"The frost so hideous, they water mine een,
Now is dry, now is wet,
Now is snow, now is sleet,
When my shoon freeze to my feet,
It is not all easy."
So they talk until the third shepherd comes. He, too, grumbles.
"Was never syne Noah's floods such floods seen;
Winds and rains so rude, and storms so keen."
The first two ask the third shepherd where the sheep are. "Sir,"
"This same day at morn
I left them i the corn
When they rang lauds.
They had pasture good they cannot go wrong."
That is all right, say the others, and so they settle to sing a
song, when a neighbor named Mak comes along. They greet the
newcomer with jests. But the second shepherd is suspicious of
"Thus late as thou goes,
What will men suppose?
And thou hast no ill nose
For stealing of sheep."
"I am true as steel," says Mak. "All men wot it. But a sickness
I feel that holds me full hot," and so, he says, he is obliged to
walk about at night for coolness.
The shepherds are all very weary and want to sleep. But just to
make things quite safe, they bid Mak lie down between them so
that he cannot move without awaking them. Mak lies down as he is
bid, but he does not sleep, and as soon as the others are all
snoring he softly rises and "borrows" a sheep.
Quickly he goes home with it and knocks at his cottage door.
"How, Gill, art thou in? Get us a light."
"Who makes such din this time of night?" answers his wife from
When she hears that it is Mak she unbars the door, but when she
sees what her husband brings she is afraid.
"By the naked neck thou art like to hang," she says.
"I have often escaped before," replies Mak.
"But so long goes the pot to the water, men say, at last comes it
home broken," cries Gill.
But the question is, now that they have the sheep, how is it to
be his from the shepherds. For Mak feels sure that they will
suspect him when they find out that a sheep is missing.
Gill has a plan. She will swaddle the sheep like a new-born baby
and lay it in the cradle. This being done, Mak returns to the
shepherds, whom he finds still sleeping, and lies down again
beside them. Presently they all awake and rouse Mak, who still
pretends to sleep. He, after some talk, goes home, and the
shepherds go off to seek and count their sheep, agreeing to meet
again at the "crooked thorn."
Soon the shepherds find that one sheep is missing, and suspecting
Mak of having stolen it they follow him home. They find him
sitting by the cradle singing a lullaby to the new-born baby,
while Gill lies in bed groaning and pretending to be very ill.
Mak greets the shepherds in a friendly way, but bids them speak
softly and not walk about, as his wife is ill and the baby
But the shepherds will not be put off with words. They search
the house, but can find nothing.
"All work we in vain as well may we go.
I can find no flesh
Hard or nesh,*
Salt or fresh,
But two toom** platters."
Meanwhile, Gill from her bed cries out at them, calling them
thieves. "Ye come to rob us. I swear if ever I you beguiled,
that I eat this child that lies in this cradle."
The shepherds at length begin to be sorry that they have been so
unjust as to suspect Mak. They wish to make friends again. But
Mak will not be friends. "Farewell, all three, and glad I am to
see you go," he cries.
So the shepherds go a little sadly. "Fair winds may there be,
but love there is none this year," says one.
"Gave ye the child anything?" says another.
"I trow not a farthing."
"Then back will I go," says the third shepherd, "abide ye there."
And back he goes full of his kindly thought. "Mak," he says,
"with your leave let me give your bairn but sixpence."
But Mak still pretends to be sulky, and will not let him come
near the child. By this time all the shepherds have come back.
One wants to kiss the baby, and bends over the cradle. Suddenly
he starts back. What a nose! The deceit is found out and the
shepherds are very angry. Yet even in their anger they can
hardly help laughing. Mak and Gill, however, are ready of wit.
They will not own to the theft. It is a changeling child, they
"He was taken with an elf,
I saw it myself,
When the clock struck twelve was he foreshapen,"
But the shepherds will not be deceived a second time. They
resolve to punish Mak, but let him off after having tossed him in
a blanket until they are tired and he is sore and sorry for
This sheepstealing scene shows how those who wrote the play tried
to catch the interest of the people. For every one who saw this
scene could understand it. Sheepstealing was a very common crime
in England in those days, and was often punished by death.
Probably every one who saw the play knew of such cases, and the
writers used this scene as a link between the everyday life,
which was near at hand and easy to understand, and the story of
the birth of Christ, which was so far off and hard to understand.
And it is now, when the shepherds are resting from their hard
work of beating Mak, that they hear the angels sing "Glory to God
in the highest." From this point on all the jesting ceases, and
in its rough way the play is reverent and loving.
The angel speaks.
"Rise, herdmen, quickly, for now is he born
That shall take from the fiend what Adam was lorn;
That demon to spoil this night is he born,
God is made your friend now at this morn.
At Bethlehem go see,
There lies that fre*
In a crib full poorly
Betwixt two beasties."
The shepherds hear the words of the angel, and looking upward see
the guiding star. Wondering at the music, talking of the
prophecies of David and Isaiah, they hasten to Bethlehem and find
the lowly stable. Here, with a mixture of awe and tenderness,
the shepherds greet the Holy Child. It is half as if they spoke
to the God they feared, half as if they played with some little
helpless baby who was their very own. They mingle simple things
of everyday life with their awe. They give him gifts, but their
simple minds can imagine no other than those they might give to
their own children.
The first shepherd greets the child with words:--
"Hail, comely and clean! Hail, young child!
Hail, maker as methinks of a maiden so mild.
Thou hast warred, I ween, the demon so wild."
Then he gives as his gift a bob of cherries.
The second shepherd speaks:--
"Hail! sovereign saviour! for thee have we sought.
Hail, noble child and flower that all thing hast wrought.
Hail, full of favour, that made all of nought.
Hail! I kneel and I cower! A bird have I brought
To my bairn.
Hail, little tiny mop,
Of our creed thou art crop,*
I would drink to thy health,
Little Day Star!"
The third shepherd speaks:--
Hail! darling dear full of Godhead!
I pray thee be near when that I have need!
Hail! sweet is thy cheer! My heart would bleed
To see thee sit here in so poor weed
With no pennies.
Hail! put forth thy dall.*
I bring thee but a ball:
Have and play thee with all
And go to the tennis."
And so the pageant of the shepherds comes to an end, and they
return home rejoicing.
This play gives us a good idea of how the Miracles wound
themselves about the lives of the people. It gives us a good
idea of the rudeness of the times when such jesting with what we
hold as sacred seemed not amiss. It gives, too, the first gleam
of what we might call true comedy in English.
Chapter XXXIV THE STORY OF EVERYMAN
A LITTLE later than the Miracle and Mystery plays came another
sort of play called the Moralities. In these, instead or
representing real people, the actors represented thoughts,
feelings and deeds, good and bad. Truth, for instance, would be
shown as a beautiful lady; Lying as an ugly old man, and so on.
These plays were meant to teach just as the Miracles were meant
to teach. But instead of teaching the Bible stories, they were
made to show men the ugliness of sin and the beauty of goodness.
When we go to the theater now we only think of being amused, and
it is strange to remember that all acting was at first meant to
The very first of our Moralities seems to have been a play of the
Lord's Prayer. It was acted in the reign of Edward III or some
time after 1327. But that has long been lost, and we know
nothing of it but its name. There are several other Moralities,
however, which have come down to us of a later date, the earliest
being of the fifteenth century, and of them perhaps the most
interesting is Everyman.
But we cannot claim Everyman altogether as English literature,
for it is translated from, or at least founded upon, a Dutch
play. Yet it is the best of all the Moralities which have come
down to us, and may have been translated into English about 1480.
In its own time it must have been thought well of, or no one
would have troubled to translate it. But, however popular it was
long ago, for hundreds of years it had lain almost forgotten,
unread except by a very few, and never acted at all, until some
one drew it from its dark hiding-place and once more put it upon
the stage. Since then, during the last few years, it has been
acted often. And as, happily, the actors have tried to perform
it in the simple fashion in which it must have been done long
ago, we can get from it a very good idea of the plays which
pleased our forefathers. On the title-page of Everyman we read:
"Here beginneth a treatise how the high Father of heaven sendeth
Death to summon every creature to come to give a count of their
lives in this world, and is in the manner of a moral play." So
in the play we learn how Death comes to Everyman and bids him
But Everyman is gay and young. He loves life, he has many
friends, the world to him is beautiful, he cannot leave it. So
he prays Death to let him stay, offers him gold and riches if he
will but put off the matter until another day.
But Death is stern. "Thee availeth not to cry, weep and pray,"
he says, "but haste thee lightly that thou wert gone the
Then seeing that go he must, Everyman thinks that at least he
will have company on the journey. So he turns to his friends.
But, alas, none will go with him. One by one they leave him.
Then Everyman cries in despair:--
"O to whom shall I make my moan
For to go with me in that heavy journey?
First Fellowship said he would with me gone;
His words were very pleasant and gay,
But afterward he left me alone.
Then spake I to my kinsmen all in despair,
And also they gave me words fair;
They lacked no fair speaking,
But all forsake me in the ending."
So at last Everyman turns him to his Good Deeds--his Good Deeds,
whom he had almost forgotten and who lies bound and in prison by
reason of his sins. And Good Deeds consents to go with him on
the dread journey. With him come others, too, among them
Knowledge and Strength. But at the last these, too, turn back.
Only Good Deeds is true, only Good Deeds stands by him to the end
with comforting words. And so the play ends; the body of
Everyman is laid in the grave, but we know that his soul goes
home to God.
This play is meant to picture the life of every man or woman, and
to show how unhappy we may be in the end if we have not tried to
be good in this world.
"This moral men may have in mind,
The hearers take it of worth old and young,
And forsake Pride, for he deceiveth you in the end,
And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion,
They all at the last do Everyman forsake,
Save his Good Deeds; these doth he take.
And beware, - an they be small,
Before God he hath no help at all.
None excuse may be there for Everyman."
BOOKS TO READ
Everyman: A Morality (Everyman's Library).
Chapter XXXV HOW A POET COMFORTED A GIRL
PERHAPS the best Morality of which we know the author's name is
Magnificence, by John Skelton. But, especially after Everyman,
it is dull reading for little people, and it is not in order to
speak of this play that I write about Skelton.
John Skelton lived in the stormy times of Henry VIII, and he is
called sometimes our first poet-laureate. But he was not poet-
laureate as we now understand it, he was not the King's poet.
The title only meant that he had taken a degree in grammar and
Latin verse, and had been given a laurel wreath by the university
which gave the degree. It was in this way that Skelton was made
laureate, first by Oxford, then by Louvain in Belgium, and
thirdly by Cambridge, so that in his day he was considered a
learned man and a great poet. He was a friend of Caxton and
helped him with one of his books. "I pray, maister Skelton, late
created poet-laureate in the university of Oxenford," says
Caxton, "to oversee and correct this said book."
John Skelton, like so many other literary men of those days, was
a priest. He studied, perhaps, both at Oxford and at Cambridge,
and became tutor to Prince, afterwards King, Henry VIII. We do
not know if he had an easy time with his royal pupil or not, but
in one of his poems he tells us that "The honour of England I
learned to spell" and "acquainted him with the Muses nine."
The days of Henry VIII were troublous times for thinking people.
The King was a tyrant, and the people of England were finding it
harder than ever to bow to a tyrant while the world was awakening
to new thought, and new desires for freedom, both in religion and
The Reformation had begun. The teaching of Piers Ploughman, the
preaching of Wyclif, had long since almost been forgotten, but it
had never altogether died out. The evils in the Church and in
high places were as bad as ever, and Skelton, himself a priest,
preached against them. He attacked other, even though he himself
sinned against the laws of priesthood. For he was married, and
in those days marriage was forbidden to clergymen, and his life
was not so fair as it might have been.
At first Wolsey, the great Cardinal and friend of Henry VIII, was
Skelton's friend too. But Skelton's tongue was mocking and
bitter. "He was a sharp satirist, but with more railing and
scoffery than became a poet-laureate,"* said one. The Cardinal
became an enemy, and the railing tongue was turned against him.
In a poem called Colin Cloute Skelton pointed out the evils of
his day and at the same time pointed the finger of scorn at
Wolsey. Colin Cloute, like Piers Ploughman, was meant to mean
the simple good Englishman.
"Thus I Colin Cloute,
As I go about,
And wandering as I walk,
There the people talk.
Men say, for silver and gold
Mitres are bought and sold."
"Laymen say indeed,
How they (the priests) take no heed
Their silly sheep to feed,
But pluck away and pull
The fleeces of their wool."
But he adds:--
"Of no good bishop speak I,
Nor good priest I decry,
Good friar, nor good chanon,*
Good nun, nor good canon,
Good monk, nor good clerk,
Nor yet no good work:
But my recounting is
Of them that do amiss."
*Same as canon.
Yet, although Skelton said he would not decry any good man or any
good work, his spirit was a mocking one. He was fond of harsh
jests and rude laughter, and no person or thing was too high or
too holy to escape his sharp wit. "He was doubtless a pleasant
conceited fellow, and of a very sharp wit," says a writer about
sixty years later, "exceeding bold, and would nip to the very
quick when he once set hold."*
And being bold as bitter, and having set hold with hatred upon
Wolsey, he in another poem called Why come ye not to Court? and
in still another called Speake, Parrot, wrote directly against
the Cardinal. Yet although Skelton railed against the Cardinal
and against the evils in the Church, he was no Protestant. He
believed in the Church of Rome, and would have been sorry to
think that he had helped the "heretics."
Wolsey was still powerful, and he made up his mind to silence his
enemy, so Skelton found himself more than once in prison, and at
last to escape the Cardinal's anger he was forced to take
sanctuary in Westminster. There he remained until he died a few
months before his great enemy fell from power.
As many of Skelton's poems were thus about quarrels over religion
and politics, much of the interest in them has died. Yet, as he
"For although my rhyme is ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rust and moth eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith."
And it is well to remember the name of Colin Cloute at least,
because a later and much greater poet borrowed that name for one
of his own poems, as you shall hear.
But the poem which keeps most interest for us is one which
perhaps at the time it was written was thought least important.
It is called The Book of Philip Sparrow. And this poem shows us
that Skelton was not always bitter and biting. For it is neither
bitter nor coarse, but is a dainty and tender lament written for
a schoolgirl whose sparrow had been killed by a cat. It is
written in the same short lines as Colin Cloute and others of
Skelton's poems--"Breathless rhymes"* they have been called.
These short lines remind us somewhat of the old Anglo-Saxon short
half-lines, except that they rime. They are called after their
What chiefly makes The Book of Philip Sparrow interesting is that
it is the original of our nursery rime Who Killed Cock Robin? It
is written in the form of a dirge, and many people were shocked
at that, for they said that it was but another form of mockery
that this jesting priest had chosen with which to divert himself.
But I think that little Jane Scoupe at school in the nunnery at
Carowe would dry her eyes and smile when she read it. She must
have been pleased that the famous poet, who had been the King's
tutor and friend and who had been both the friend and enemy of
the great Cardinal, should trouble to write such a long poem all
about her sparrow.
Here are a few quotations from it:--
"Pla ce bo,*
Who is there who?
Di le sci,
Fa re my my,
Wherefore and why why?
For the soul of Philip Sparrow
That was late slain at Carowe
Among the nuns black,
For that sweet soul's sake,
And for all sparrows' souls,
Set in our bead rolls,
Pater Noster qui,
With an Ave Mari,
And with the corner of a creed,
The more shall be your need.
*Placebo is the first word of the first chant in the
service for the dead. Skelton has here made it into three
words. The chant is called the Placebo from the first
. . . .
I wept and I wailed,
The tears down hailed,
But nothing it availed
To call Philip again,
That Gib our cat hath slain.
Gib, I say, our cat
Worried her on that
Which I loved best.
It cannot be expressed
My sorrowful heaviness
And all without redress.
. . . .
It had a velvet cap,
And would sit upon my lap,
And seek after small worms,
And sometimes white bread-crumbs.
. . . .
Sometimes he would gasp
When he saw a wasp,
A fly or a gnat
He would fly at that;
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant;
Lord, how he would fly
After the butterfly.
And when I said Phip, Phip
Then he would leap and skip,
And take me by the lip.
Alas it will me slo,*
That Philip is gone me fro.
. . . .
For it would come and go,
And fly so to and fro;
And on me it would leap
When I was asleep,
And his feathers shake,
Wherewith he would make
Me often for to wake.
. . . .
That vengeance I ask and cry,
By way of exclamation,
On all the whole nation
Of cats wild and tame.
God send them sorrow and shame!
That cat especially
That slew so cruelly
My little pretty sparrow
That I brought up at Carowe.
O cat of churlish kind,
The fiend was in thy mind,
When thou my bird untwined.*
I would thou hadst been blind.
The leopards savage,
The lions in their rage,
Might catch thee in their paws
And gnaw thee in their jaws.
*Tore to pieces.
. . . .
These villainous false cats,
Were made for mice and rats,
And not for birdies small.
. . . .
Alas, mine heart is slayeth
My Philip's doleful death,
When I remember it,
How prettily it would sit,
Many times and oft,
Upon my finger aloft.
. . . .
To weep with me, look that ye come,
All manner of birds of your kind;
So none be left behind,
To mourning look that ye fall
With dolorous songs funeral,
Some to sing, and some to say,
Some to weep, and some to pray,
Every bird in his lay.
The goldfinch and the wagtail;
The gangling jay to rail,
The flecked pie to chatter
Of the dolorous matter;
The robin redbreast,
He shall be the priest,
The requiem mass to sing,
With help of the red sparrow,
And the chattering swallow,
This hearse for to hallow;
The lark with his lung too,
The chaffinch and the martinet also;
. . . .
The lusty chanting nightingale,
The popinjay to tell her tale,
That peepeth oft in the glass,
Shall read the Gospel at mass;
The mavis with her whistle
Shall read there the Epistle,
But with a large and a long
To keep just plain song.
. . . .
The peacock so proud,
Because his voice is loud,
And hath a glorious tail
He shall sing the grayle;*
The owl that is so foul
Must help us to howl.
*Gradual = the part of the mass between Epistle and Gospel.
. . . .
At the Placebo
We may not forgo
The chanting of the daw
The stork also,
That maketh her nest
In chimnies to rest.
. . . .
The ostrich that will eat
A horseshoe so great,
In the stead of meat,
Such fervent heat
His stomach doth gnaw.
He cannot well fly
Nor sing tunably.
. . . .
The best that we can
To make him our bellman,
And let him ring the bells,
He can do nothing else.
Chanticlere our cock
Must tell what is of the clock
By the astrology
That he hath naturally
Conceived and caught,
And was never taught.
. . . .
To Jupiter I call
Of heaven imperial
That Philip may fly
Above the starry sky
To greet the pretty wren
That is our Lady's hen,
Amen, amen, amen.
Chapter XXXVI THE RENAISSANCE
RENAISSANCE means rebirth, and to make you understand something
of what the word means in our literature I must take you a long
way. You have been told that the fifteenth century was a dull
time in English literature, but that it was also a time of new
action and new life, for the discovery of new worlds and the
discovery of printing had opened men's eyes and minds to new
wonders. There was a third event which added to this new life by
bringing new thought and new learning to England. That was the
taking of Constantinople by the Turks.
It seems difficult to understand how the taking of Constantinople
could have any effect on our literature. I will try to explain,
but in order to do so clearly I must go back to the time of the
All of you have read English history, and there you read of the
Romans. You know what a clever and conquering people they were,
and how they subdued all the wild tribes who lived in the
countries around them. Besides conquering all the barbarians
around them, the Romans conquered another people who were not
barbarians, but who were in some ways more civilized than
themselves. These were the Greeks. They had a great literature,
they were more learned and quite as skilled in the arts of peace
as the Romans. Yet in 146 B.C., long before the Romans came to
our little island, Greece became a Roman province.
Nearly five hundred years later there sat upon the throne an
Emperor named Constantine. And he, although Rome was still
pagan, became a Christian. He was, besides, a great and powerful
ruler. His court was brilliant, glittering with all the golden
splendor of those far-off times. But although Rome was still
pagan, Greece, a Roman province, had become Christian. And in
this Christian province Constantine made up his mind to build a
In those days the boundaries of Greece stretched far further than
they do now, and it was upon the shores of the Bosphorus that
Constantine built his new capital. There was already an ancient
town there named Byzantium, but he transformed it into a new and
splendid city. The Emperor willed it to be called New Rome, but
instead the people called it the city of Constantine, and we know
it now as Constantinople.
When Constantinople was founded it was a Roman city. All the
rulers were Roman, all the high posts were filled by Romans, and
Latin was the speech of the people. But in Constantinople it
happened as it had happened in England after the Conquest. In
England, for a time after the Conquest, the rulers were French
and the language was French, but gradually all that passed away,
and the language and the rulers became English once more. So it
was in Constantinople. By degrees it became a Greek city, the
rulers became Greek, and Greek was the language spoken.
In building a second capital Constantine had weakened his Empire.
Soon it was split in two, and there arose a western and an
eastern Empire. As time went on the Western Empire with Rome at
its head declined and fell, while the Eastern Empire with
Constantinople as its capital grew great. But it grew into a
Greek Empire. Even very clever people cannot tell the exact date
at which the Roman Empire came to an end and the Greek or
Byzantine Empire, as it is called, began. So we need not trouble
about that. All that is needful for us to understand now it that
Constantinople was a Christian city, a Greek city, and a
treasure-house of Greek learning and literature.
Thus Constantinople was the Christian outpost of Europe. For
hundred of year the Byzantine Empire stood as a barrier against
the Saracen hosts of Asia. It might have stood still longer, but
sad to say, this barrier was first broken down by the Christians
themselves. For in 1204 the armies of the fourth Crusade, which
had gathered to fight the heathen, turned their swords, to their
shame be it said, against the Christian people of the Greek
Empire. Constantinople was taken, plundered, and destroyed by
these "pious brigands,"* and the last of the Byzantine Emperors
was first blinded and then flung from a high tower, so that his
body fell shattered to pieces on the paving-stones of his own
*George Finlay, History of Greece.
Baldwin, Count of Flanders, one of the great leaders of the
Crusade, was then crowned by his followers and acknowledged
Emperor of the East. But the once great Empire was now broken
up, and out of it three lesser Empires, as well as many smaller
states, were formed.
Baldwin did not long rule as Emperor of the East, and the Greeks
after a time succeeded in regaining Constantinople from the
western Christians. But although for nearly two hundred years
longer they kept it, the Empire was dying and lifeless. And by
degrees, as the power of Greece grew less, the power of Turkey
grew greater. At length in 1453 the Sultan Mohammed II attacked
Constantinople. Then the Cross, which for a thousand years and
more had stood upon the ramparts of Christendom, went down before
Constantine XI, the last of the Greek Emperors, knelt in the
great church of St. Sophia to receive for the last time the Holy
Sacrament. Then mounting his horse he rode forth to battle.
Fighting for his kingdom and his faith he fell, and over his dead
body the young Sultan and his soldiers rode into the ruined city.
Then in the church, where but a few hours before the fallen
Emperor had knelt and prayed to Christ, the Sultan bowed himself
in thanks and praise to Allah and Mohammed.
And now we come to the point where the taking of Constantinople
and the fall of the Greek Empire touches our literature.
In Constantinople the ancient learning and literature of the
Greeks had lived on year after year. The city was full of
scholars who knew, and loved, and studied the Greek authors. But
now, before the terror of the Turk, driven forth by the fear of
slavery and disgrace, these Greek scholars fled. They fled to
Italy. And although in their flight they had to leave goods and
wealth behind, the came laden with precious manuscripts from the
libraries of Constantinople.
These fugitive Greeks brought to the Italians a learning which
was to them new and strange. Soon all over Europe the news of
the New Learning spread. Then across the Alps scholars thronged
from every country in Europe to listen and to learn.
I do not think I can quite make you understand what this New
Learning was. It was indeed but the old learning of Greece. Yet
there was in it something that can never grow old, for it was
human. It made men turn away from idle dreaming and begin to
learn that the world we live in is real. They began to realize
that there was something more than a past and a future. There
was the present. So, instead of giving all their time to vague
wonderings of what might be, of what never had been, and what
never could be, they began to take an interest in life as it was
and in man as he was. They began to see that human life with all
its joys and sorrows was, after all, the most interesting thing
It was a New Birth, and men called it so. For that is the
meaning of Renaissance. Many things besides the fall of
Constantinople helped towards this New Birth. The discovery of
new worlds by daring sailors like Columbus and Cabot, and the
discovery of printing were among them. But the touchstone of the
New Learning was the knowledge of Greek, which had been to the
greater part of Europe a lost tongue. On this side of the Alps
there was not a school or college in which it could be learned.
So to Italy, where the Greek scholars had found a refuge, those
who wished to learn flocked.
Among them were some Oxford scholars. Chief of these were three,
whose names you will learn to know well when you come to read
more about this time. They were William Grocyn, "the most
upright and best of all Britons,"* Thomas Linacre, and John
Colet. These men, returning from Italy full of the New Learning,
began to teach Greek at Oxford. And it is strange now to think
that there were many then who were bitterly against such
teaching. The students even formed themselves into two parties,
for and against. They were called Greeks and Trojans, and
between these two parties man a fierce fight took place, for the
quarrel did not end in words, but often in blows.
The New Learning, however, conquered. And so keenly did men feel
the human interests of such things as were now taught, that we
have come to call grammar, rhetoric, poetry, Greek and Latin the
Humanities, and the professor who teaches these thing the
professor of Humanity.
Chapter XXXVII THE LAND OF NOWHERE
WHILE the New Learning was stirring England, and Greek was being
for the first time taught in Oxford, a young student of fourteen
came to the University there. This student was named Thomas
More. He was the son of a lawyer who became a judge, and as a
little boy he had been a page in the household of Morton, the
Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Archbishop was quick to see that the boy was clever. "This
child here waiting at the table, whoever will live to see it,
will prove a marvellous man,"* he would say. And so he persuaded
More's father to send the boy to Oxford to study law.
*William Roper, The Mirrour of Virtue.
Thomas remained only two years at Oxford, for old Sir John,
fearing he was learning too much Greek and literature and not
enough law, called his son home and sent him to study law in
London. It must have been a disappointment to the boy to be
taken from the clever friends he had made in Oxford, and from the
books and studies that he loved, to be set instead to read dry
law-books. But Thomas More was most sunny-tempered. Nothing
made him sulky or cross. So now he settled down quietly to his
new life, and in a very short time became a famous and learned
In was after More left Oxford that he met the man who became his
dearest friend. This was Desiderius Erasmus, a learned Dutchman.
He was eleven years older than More and he could speak no
English, but that did not prevent them becoming friends, as they
both could speak Latin easily and well. They had much in common.
Erasmus was of the same lively, merry wit as More, they both
loved literature and the Greek learning, and so the two became
fast friends. And it helps us to understand the power which
Latin still held over our literature, and indeed over all the
literature of Europe, when we remember that these two friends
spoke to each other and wrote and jested in Latin as easily as
they might have done in English. Erasmus was one of the most
famous men of his time. He was one who did much in his day to
free men's minds, one who helped men to think for themselves. So
although he had directly perhaps little to do with English
literature, it is well to remember him as the friend of More.
"My affection for the man is so great," wrote Erasmus once, "that
if he bade me dance a hornpipe, I should do at once what he bid
Although More was so merry and witty, religion got a strong hold
upon him, and at one time he thought of becoming a monk. But his
friends persuaded him to give up that idea, and after a time he
decided to marry. He chose his wife in a somewhat quaint manner.
Among his friends there was a gentleman who had three daughters.
More liked the second one best, "for that he thought her the
fairest and best favoured."* But he married the eldest because
it seemed to him "that it would be both great grief and some
shame also to the oldest to see her younger sister preferred
before her in marriage. He then, of a certain pity, framed his
fancy toward her, and soon after married her."*
Although he chose his wife so quaintly More's home was a very
happy one. He loved nothing better than to live a simple family
life with his wife and children round him. After six years his
wife died, but he quickly married again. And although his second
wife was "a simple ignorant woman and somewhat worldly too," with
a sharp tongue and short temper, she was kind to her step-
children and the home was still a happy one.
More was a great public man, but he was first a father and head
of his own house. He says: "While I spend almost all the day
abroad amongst others, and the residue at home among mine own, I
leave to myself, I mean to my book, no time. For when I come
home, I must commen with my wife, chatter with my children, and
talk with my servants. All the which things I reckon and account
among business, forasmuch as they must of necessity be done, and
done must they needs be unless a man will be stranger in his own
home. And in any wise a man must so fashion and order his
conditions and so appoint and dispose himself, that he be merry,
jocund and pleasant among them, whom either Nature hath provided
or chance hath made, or he himself hath chosen to be the fellows
and companions of his life, so that with too much gentle
behaviour and familiarity he do not mar them, and by too much
sufferance of his servants make them his masters."
At a time, too, when education was thought little necessary for
girls, More taught his daughters as carefully as his sons. His
eldest daughter Margaret (Mog, as he loved to call her) was so
clever that learned men praised and rewarded her. When his
children married they did not leave home, but came with their
husbands and wives to live at Chelsea in the beautiful home More
had built there. So the family was never divided, and More
gathered a "school" of children and grandchildren round him.
More soon became a great man. Henry VII, indeed, did not love
him, so More did not rise to power while he lived. But Henry VII
died and his son Henry VIII ruled. The great Chancellor,
Cardinal Wolsey, became More's friend, and presently he was sent
on business for the King to Bruges.
It was while More was about the King's business in Belgium that
he wrote the greater part of the book by which he is best
remembered. This book is called Utopia. The name means
"nowhere," from two Greek words, "ou," no, and "topos," a place.
The Utopia, like so many other books of which we have read, was
the outcome of the times in which the writer lived. When More
looked round upon the England that he knew he saw many things
that were wrong. He was a man loyal to his King, yet he could
not pretend to think that the King ruled only for the good of his
people and not for his own pleasure. There was evil, misery, and
suffering in all the land. More longed to make people see that
things were wrong; he longed to set the wrong right. So to teach
men how to do this he invented a land of Nowhere in which there
was no evil or injustice, in which every one was happy and good.
He wrote so well about that make-believe land that from then till
now every one who read Utopia sees the beauty of More's idea.
But every one, too, thinks that this land where everything is
right is an impossible land. Thus More gave a new word to our
language, and when we think some idea beautiful but impossible we
call it "Utopian."
As it was the times that made More write his book, so it was the
times that gave him the form of it.
In those days, as you know, men's minds were stirred by the
discovery of new lands and chiefly by the discovery of America.
And although it was Columbus who first discovered America, he did
not give his name to the new country. It was, instead, named
after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo wrote a
book about his voyages, and it was from this book that More got
some of his ideas for the Utopia.
More makes believe that one day in Antwerp he saw a man "well
stricken in age, with a black sun-burned face, a long beard, and
a cloak cast homely about his shoulders, whom by his favour and
apparel forthwith I judged to be a mariner."
This man was called Raphael Hythlodaye and had been with Amerigo
Vespucci in the three last of his voyages, "saving that in the
last voyage he came not home again with him." For on that voyage
Hythlodaye asked to be left behind. And after Amerigo had gone
home he, with five friends, set forth upon a further voyage of
discovery. In their travels they saw many marvelous and fearful
things, and at length came to the wonderful land of Nowhere.
"But what he told us that he saw, in every country where he came,
it were very long to declare."
More asked many questions of this great traveler. "But as for
monsters, because they be no news, of them we were nothing
inquisitive. . . .. But to find citizens ruled by good and
wholesome laws, that is an exceeding rare and hard thing!"
The whole story of the Utopia is told in the form of talks
between Hythlodaye, More, and his friend Peter Giles. And More
mixes what is real and what is imaginary so quaintly that it is
not wonderful that many of the people of his own day thought that
Utopia was a real place. Peter Giles, for instance, was a real
man and a friend of More, while Hythlodaye was imaginary, his