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

VIII. The English Chaucerians

§ 2. Occleve

The inseparable companion in literature of Lydgate is Thomas Occleve or Hoccleve; whether this companionship extended to life we do not know, though they may, perhaps, have had a common friend in Chaucer, whose portrait adorns one of Occleve’s MSS., and of whom he speaks with personal warmth. This portrait is one chief reason which we have for gratitude to Occleve; but it is not the only one. In the first place, we have from him what seems to be at least possibly autograph writing, a contribution to our knowledge of the actual language and metre of the work which (though one cannot but wish it came from Chaucer himself) would, if certain, be of the greatest value. In the second place, he has added, by some autobiographical confidences which make him (in a very weak and washed out way, it is true) a sort of English and crimeless Villon, to the actual picture of his times that we have in Lydgate’s Lickpenny. His surname is supposed, as that of his fellow Lydgate is known, to be a place-name, and the nearest form is that of Hockliffe or Hocclyve in Bedfordshire. But both Ock- and Hock- are common prefixes all over the south and the midlands, while -cleve and -cliff are equally common suffixes. In a Dialogue, he appears to assign his fifty-third year to the twelve-month just before Henry V’s death in 1442: so that he must have been born about 1368. In another poem, some ten years earlier, the De Regimine Principum, he says that he had been “twenty years and four” in the office of the Privy Seal, which gives us another date—say 1387—for his entrance there at the very probable age of nineteen or so. He is also mentioned as actually a clerk in a document apparently of that year. He thought of taking orders, but did not: though, in 1399, he received a pension of £10 till he should receive a benefice (without cure of souls) of double the value. Various entries of payments of this pension exist, and also of office expenses. In 1406, he wrote the curious poem above referred to, La Male Règle, in which he begs for payment and confesses a long course of mild dissipation. His salary was very small: under £4, apparently. He seems at one time to have lived at Chester’s inn in the Strand, and to have married about 1411, being then over forty. About five years later, he was out of his mind for a time. In 1409, his pension had been increased to £13. 6s. 8d. Not till 1424 did he get a benefice—at least, a “corrody” or charge on a monastery—but we do not know the amount. And how long he enjoyed this we also do not know. Tradition, rather than any positive authority, extends his life as long as Lydgate’s or (if he was born earlier) a little longer, and puts his death also at about 1450. But it is difficult to say how much of this is due to the curious and intangible fellowship which has established itself between the two poets. This fellowship, however, did not, at the time, carry Occleve into the position assigned to Lydgate by subsequent versifiers; nor did it assure him equal attention from the early printers. We are, indeed, even yet, in considerable uncertainty as to the extent of his work that is in existence: some of what he probably wrote having not yet been printed, while some of the things printed as his are doubtful. This uncertainty, however, does not extend to a fairly large body of work. The most important piece of this is De Regimine Principum or Regiment of Princes, addressed to Henry prince of Wales, and extending in all to some 5500 verses. Not more than 3500 of these contain the actual advice, which is on a par with the contents of several other poems mentioned in this chapter—partly political, partly ethical, partly religious, and based on a blending of Aristotle with Solomon. The introduction of 2000 verses, however (the greater part of which consists of a dialogue between the poet and a beggar), is less commonplace and much more interesting, containing more biographical mater, the address to Chaucer, a quaint wail over the troubles of the scribe and other curious things. Next to this in importance come two verse-stories from Gesta Romanorum, The Emperor Jereslaus’s Wife and Jonathas; the rather piquant Male Règle with the confessions above referred to; a Complaint and Dialogue, also largely autobiographical; and a really fine Ars Sciendi Mori, the most dignified, and the most poetical, thing that Occleve has left us. We have also a number of shorter poems, from ballades upwards, some of which are datable, and the dating of one of which at about 1446 by Trywhitt, as relating to prince Edward to Lancaster, is the nearest approach to warrant for the extension of the poet’s life to the middle of the century.

There is no doubt that Occleve—like Pepys and some other, but not all, talkers about themselves—has found himself none the worse off for having committed to paper numerous things which any one but a garrulous, egotistic and not very strong-minded person would have omitted. Nor can it exactly be counted to him as a literary merit that he does not seem to have been at all an unamiable person. Nor, lastly, is his wisdom in abstaining from extremely long poems more than a negative virtue. Yet all these things do undoubtedly, in this way and that, make the reading of Occleve less toilsome than that of Lydgate; though the latter can, on rare occasions, write better than Occleve ever does, though he is immeasurably Occleve’s superior in learning and industry and though (again at his best) he is slightly his superior in versification. Though lesser in every other sense, one merit Occleve may claim—that he has some idea how to tell a story. Neither Jereslaus nor Jonathas is lacking in this respect; and though, of course, they are not original, neither is anything of Lydgate’s in this kind that we know of. In aureateness or heavily pompous diction, there is not much to choose, though Lydgate knows a little better how to make use of his ornaments. Prosodically, the chief difference seems to be that Occleve has the actual number of syllables that should be in a verse rather more clearly before him, though he is, perhaps, Lydgate’s inferior in communicating to them anything like poetic rhythm. He generally uses rime royal, but, like almost all these poets, varies it, occasionally, with octaves. Neither couplet seems to have had strong attraction for him.

Of the poems not yet notices, that to Sir John Oldcastle, written about 1415 and some five hundred lines long, has certain historical interest and something of the actuality which Occleve often manages to communicate. Every now and then, too, it stumbles on a vigorous line, as in

  • The fiend is your chief: and our Head is god.
  • Indeed, Occleve, seldom good at a sustained passage or even stanza, does, sometimes, hit off good single lines. This piece is in octaves; The Letter of Cupid to Lovers is of about the same length and also of some merit. It is imitated, of course—in this case from Christine de Pisan. The Mother of God, once assigned to Chaucer, is rather better than The Complaint of the Virgin: but the latter is certainly translated and the former probably so. A curious contrast, but one quite in Occleve’s usual manner, to the serious and woful ballades to which we are accustomed, is to be found in that to Sir Henry Sommer, chancellor of the exchequer, in reference to a club dinner to be held by a certain society called the “Court of Good Company,” and, apparently, to be mainly provided by the said Sir Henry. To the same person are addressed a poetical petition for the payment of arrears of salary, and a punning roundel, “Somer, that rypest mannes sustenance.” These are, in fact, the things which make Occleve, no matter what his technical shortcomings, refreshing, for it is certainly, in verse even more than in prose, better to read about good fellowship or even about personal troubles than to be compelled to peruse commonplaces on serious subjects, put without any freshness in expression and manner. Even Wordsworth might, in such a case, have preferred “personal talk.”