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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.

IX. Stephen Hawes

§ 1. The Passetyme of Pleasure

IN the closing years of the fifteenth century and the opening years of the sixteenth, the English language was still in that stage of transition in which it had been for about a century. The final -e, influential for much that is good in Chaucer and for much that is bad in his successors, had now fallen into disuse in the spoken language and accentuation, especially of words borrowed from foreign tongues, was unstable. These, and other linguistic developments, beginning at different times in different localities and proceeding with varying rapidity, made it a matter of considerable difficulty for the men of Henry VII’s reign to understand the speech of another shire than their own, or the English of an older age.

In literature, too, the age was, in England, an age of transition; for with the end of other currents of medieval activity came the end of what had been the main stream of medieval literature. Popular poetry and morality plays flourished, history written in English made tentative efforts, but the court poetry of the Chaucerian tradition came to a stop in Stephen Hawes, who, amid the men of the new age, stands out as a survivor of the past, one born an age too late. He felt his solitariness, and in his most important work, The Passetyme of Pleasure, chap. XIV, he lamented that he remained the only faithful votary of true poetry. And, if we bear in mind his idea of poetry as essentially allegorical and didactic, we must allow that he had good cause for his lament. When we omit Skelton as standing apart in a niche of his own, we see that, though many songs and ballads of unknown authorship and—if one view be correct—those Chaucerian poems, The Flower and the Leaf, The Assembly of Ladies, The Court of Love, belong to this period, Hawes occupies a position of peculiar isolation. In this dearth of poets, it need not surprise us that a Frenchman, the blind Bernard André of Toulouse, author of Les Douze Triomphes de Henry VII, a poem in which the labours of Hercules form a framework for the king’s exploits, was created poet laureate by Henry VII, who preferred French literature to any other.

Hawes is supposed to have been born in the county of Suffolk, where the name was common. The date of his birth is uncertain. In The Passetyme, he more than once identifies himself with the hero, who, in one passage, is said to be thirty-one years old. The poem was written, according to Wynkyn de Worde, in 1505–6; and, if Hawes himself was then thirty-one years of age, we get 1474–5 as the date of his birth—an inference quite consistent with our other information. He was educated at Oxford and afterwards visited several foreign universities. His acquirements, linguistic and literary, recommended him to Henry VII, whose household he entered as groom of the chamber. Anthony à Wood states that the king’s favour was gained by Hawes’s facetious discourse and prodigious memory: he could repeat most of the English poets, especially Lydgate. Entries in the public records show that, in 1506, Hawes was paid ten shillings for “a ballet that he gave to the king’s grace.” From Henry VIII’s accounts we learn that in January, 1521 “Mr Hawse” was paid £6. 13s. 4d. for a play. The play is unknown, but the writer may be Stephen Hawes. He died before 1530, for he is mentioned as dead in a poem belonging to that year, written by Thomas Feylde, The Controversy between a Lover and a Jay:

  • Yonge Steven Hawse, whose soul God pardon,
  • Treated of love so clerkely and well,
  • To rede his workes is myne affeccyon,
  • Whiche he compyled of La bell Pusell,
  • Remembrynge storyes fruytfull and delectable.
  • Besides The Passetyme, Hawes wrote The Example of Virtue, in 1503–4, as we learn from Wynkyn de Worde’s edition; The Conversion of Swearers, before 1509; A Joyful Meditation to all England of the Coronation of Henry the Eighth, 1509; and The Comfort of Lovers, date unknown. No manuscript of any of these seems to have been preserved. Of other works attributed to Hawes, only one merits notice. Bale mentions a Templum Chrystallinum, and Warton regards Lydgate’s Temple of Glass as by Hawes, though admitting himself puzzled because Hawes includes it in his list of Lydgate’s poems, given in The Passetyme, chap. XIV. Hawes’s writings bear out Bale’s remark that his whole life quasi virtutis exemplum fuit.

    With the exception of the Gobelive episode, which is in decasyllabic couplets, The Passetyme is in rime royal and contains about 5800 lines, divided into forty-five chapters. The hero, Graund Amour, is the narrator. Having entered on the way of the active life, he met Lady Fame. She described the excellences of La Bel Pucell, with whom he fell in love. He set off to the tower of Doctrine, where he saw an arras portraying his future life, and began his instruction under Lady Grammar. Here Hawes inserts a denunciation of the sloth and gluttony of his contemporaries. Then Graund Amour visited Logic, and, next, Rhetoric. Rhetoric, or the art of poetry, is elaborately discussed under the divisions of invention, disposition, elocution, pronunciation and memory. Hawes praises the old poets, defends allegory, attacks ignorance and sloth and finally eulogises Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate.

    After listening to Arithmetic, Graund Amour went to Music, with whom was La Bel Pucell. He had the ineffable happiness of dancing with her, but lacked courage to tell his love. Advised by Counsel, he visited the lady in her garden. A “disputation” followed, in which the commonplaces of medieval love-making are presented with freshness and vivacity. Graund Amour won his lady, but her friends carried her off to a distant land. Before setting out for it, the hero was instructed by Geometry and Astronomy. At the tower of Chivalry, he was trained in arms by Minerva and knighted by Melizius. Then he met a foolish dwarf, whose first words: “when Icham in Kent Icham at home” showed his origin. He was Godfrey Gobelive, a despiser of women. Graund Amour and he came to a “parliament” held by Venus, who despatched a letter urging La Bel Pucell to be kind.

    Graund Amour now encountered a giant twelve feet high, with three heads, which he, at last, cut off. Three ladies hailed him victor, and Perseverance brought a gracious message from La Bel Pucell. Then he had to fight a seven-headed giant, fifteen feet high, wielding an axe seven yards long, whom, after a fierce conflict, he overthrew. Passing through a dismal wilderness, he caught a glimpse of La Bel Pucell’s palace on an island infested by the fire-breathing monster, Privy Malice. Blinded by its fire and smoke, torn by its claws, Graund Amour was preserved by an unguent given him by Pallas. The monster burst asunder, and La Bel Pucell’s palace became visible. The lovers were married by Lex Ecclesiae, and lived manyn years in happiness. But age glided in, and with him Police and Avarice. Death at last summoned Graund Amour away. Then follows a pageant of allegorical personages—Fame, Time and Eternity. In conclusion Hawes apologises for his ignorance; prays that bad printing may not spoil his scansion; and expresses his hope of imitating the moral writings of Lydgate.

    Much of the contents of the other poems is found in The Passetyme is only slightly varied form.