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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIV. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century. II

§ 1. Caxton as Editor

ALTHOUGH the introduction of printing brought about no sudden renascence, it accelerated and strengthened, under the direction of Caxton, the drift of the current of our fifteenth century literature; and this places our first printer in a position wholly different from that of his more mechanical successors. Caxton was quick to discern the direction in which taste was tending and, himself helping to direct that taste, he ignored the old metrical romances, favourites for long, preferring to satisfy the chivalric-romantic fashion of the times by prose translations from French works of already established repute. That romances of the kind of The Four Sons of Aymon, or Paris and Vienne, were destined to disappearance early in the next century in no way neutralises their importance as a step in English literature. They handed on material not disdained by Spenser, they formed a link between medieval and modern romance, and from among them has survived an immortal work, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.

We might have supposed Caxton’s publication of Chaucer to have been epoch-making, had it not had to wait for long before kindling any fresh torch; but there is no evidence that it roused in others the enthusiasm felt by its editor. In truth, the men of that age, who had but just emerged from a long and sordid war, were not, and could not be, poetical; and, save for the poems of Chaucer and Lydgate, Caxton held firm to prose.

His publications, excluding church service-books and practical manuals, fall into three groups: didactic works, romances and chronicles. Of the last—large and, doubtless, costly—three proved sufficient; of romances, he issued ten or eleven, probably for the courtly class of readers; while, of moral and didactic works, for the most part small and cheap, he provided no less than twenty-nine, not counting Reynard the Fox, and The Golden Legend, which partake of the entertaining element at least equally with the instructive. As several of these books and tracts went into two editions, they were, evidently, in considerable demand with the general public; but the tinge of utility is upon them, and they have not the literary interest of the larger works.

As has been observed already, the greater part of Caxton’s output was translated. Tudor prose, like that of the earlier period, was chiefly fashioned on French models, to which we owe nearly all the prose masterpieces of the epoch, and a proportionate debt of gratitude. But Caxton found another quarry in fifteenth century prose, and in the case of both English and French material he acted as editor, translating with the same freedom as his predecessors, and “embellishing the old English” of Trevisa or of The Golden Legend.

Caxton had lived so long abroad that he probably found more difficulty than other writers in selecting the most suitable words to employ; and it is difficult to believe that one hand alone turned out so large a mass of literature as he did, any more than it manipulated the printing-press unaided. Nevertheless, his translations must, like his press, be reckoned as having the stamp of his authority, though others, probably, helped. A comparison of his editions of The Golden Legend, Polychronicron and The Knight of the Tower with the original English versions leaves the older prose easily first. Again and again, the modern reader will find the word rejected by Caxton more familiar than its substitute; again and again, Caxton’s curtailments, inversions, or expansions merely spoil a piece of more vigorous narrative. This is particularly evident in The Knight of the Tower, which Caxton seems to have translated entirely afresh, unaware of the older version, whose superiority is remarkable. And in his original and interesting prefaces we may, perhaps, see how it was he went wrong. He appears to have been desirous of avoiding the colloquially simple manner of earlier writers, and to have felt his way towards the paragraph, working out, in those prefaces for which he had no French exemplar, a somewhat involved style. He is fond of relative sentences, and sometimes piles them on the top of each other without finishing the earlier ones: “Which thing when Gotard had advertised of and that he bare so away the bread, but he wist not to whom ne whither, whereof he marvelled and so did all his household.” He mixes direct and indirect speech; he uses the redundant which: “I fynde many of the sayd bookes, whyche writers have abrydged it and many thynges left out.” Only when he has plain statements to convey, as in his continuation of the Chronicle, or an anecdote to relate, such as the tale of the dean and the poor parson in the epilogue to Aesop, does he become direct; but then he is, sometimes, almost as vigorous as Latimer himself. In this power of writing with a naïve vivacity, while deliberately striving after a more ornate manner, Caxton belongs to his age. He provides, as it were, a choice of styles for his readers.

The mannerisms of the Middle Ages are still noticeable in Caxton’s work: in his irrepressible moralising, his quotations from old authority, his conventional excuse for writing a book (to keep himself from idleness, which is the nurse of sin), his arrant inaccuracy as to names, his profession of incapacity “to smattre me in suche translacions”; but his definite claim to have embellished the older authors, his quiet pride in his own authorship and the interest taken therein by his noble patrons, his conscious appreciation of language, are of the new world, not of the old. The days of anonymous compiling are over; and, henceforth, not the substance, alone, but its form will challenge attention. Prose is no longer to be merely the vehicle of information, but conscious literature.