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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

§ 4. The Example of Virtue

The Example of Virtue is written in the seven-line Chaucerian stanza, except the description of the arming of the hero, where decasyllabic couplets are used, and it is divided into fourteen chapters. It tell how Youth, conducted by Discretion, sailed over the sea of Vainglory and reached a fair island ruled by four ladies, Nature, Fortune, Courage and Wisdom. Youth and Discretion, admitted by the warder Humility into the ladies’ castle, visited them in turn. Fortune was great and glorious, but unstable. Courage was powerful and famous, but Death was stronger. Wisdom had the greatest attraction for Youth, who entered her service and received much instruction. Nature possessed great loveliness, but behind her was the grim visage of Death. Youth and Discretion were present at a disputation in which each of the four ladies urged her claims to be considered the highest in worth. The umpire Justice bade them cease disputing and combine to secure man’s happiness.

Wisdom advised Youth to marry Cleanness. To be worthy of her, he must be led by Discretion, and must not give way to frailty or vainglory. Youth then passed into a wilderness, moonless and sunless. There, he triumphed over the temptations of Sensuality, a fair lady mounted on a goat, and of Pride, a pleasant old lady on an elephant. After emerging from the maze of worldly fashion, he met Wisdom, who, with Discretion, brought him to a stream crossed by a bridge as narrow as the ridge of a house. Passing over, he arrived in the land of Great Grace, where lived the king of Love and his daughter Cleanness. Before Youth could win his bride, he must overcome a marsh-infesting dragon with three heads, the world, the flesh and the devil. For this conflict he was armed with “the whole armour of God,” described by St. Paul.

After a hard-won victory, Youth, now sixty years of age, was renamed Virtue, and was married to Cleanness by St. Jerome, while, all around, were troops of allegorical ladies—Prayer, Penitence, Charity, Mercy; fathers of the church and saints such as Bede and Ambrose; and the heavenly hosts with Michael and Gabriel. St. Edmund the martyr-king and Edward the Confessor led the bride to the marriage feast. Finally, after Virtue had been shown the sufferings of the lost in hell, all the company ascended to heaven. The poem ends with a prayer that the union of the Red Rose and the White may grow in all purity and virtue; and with Hawes’s usual address to Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate.

In choice of theme, in method of exposition and in mode of expression, Hawes has a limited range. He repeatedly insists that every poet should be a teacher; and he always presses his own lessons home, especially the lesson to eschew sloth. In his two long poems, he has the same didactic aim—to portray a man’s struggle to attain his ideal: moral purity in The Example of Virtue, worldly glory in The Passetyme of Pleasure, the former being fuller of moralising than the latter. The Passetyme, which was composed after The Example, exhibits greater skill in treatment and possesses more human interest. Both poems belong to the same type of allegory, and are worked out on similar lines. They have a number of incidents in common, as crossing seas to reach the loved one, and killing a foe with three heads. Several of the personified abstractions are the same in both, as Fortune, Justice, Sapience or Wisdom, Grace, Perseverance, Peace, Mercy, Charity, Contrition. In all these poems, Hawes has certain pet ideas, which he puts forward again and again with little variation in phraseology: as eulogies of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate; apologies for rude diction and want of poetic power; declarations that poets keep alive the memory of the great, and conceal moral instruction under “cloudy figures.”

This sameness renders it unnecessary to examine all Hawes’s poems in detail. We shall be able to appreciate the quality of his work even though we restrict ourselves, for the most part, to The Passetyme of Pleasure. It is an allegory of human life, couched in the form of a chivalrous romance, with the addition of a strong dash of scholastic learning and theology, and is in the line of such works as the Roman de la Rose, the allegories of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate, Dunbar’s Goldyn Targe and Dance of the Sevin Deidlie Synnis, Douglas’s King Hart, Sackville’s Induction, Googe’s Cupido Conquered and Spenser’s Faerie Queene. What Hawes did was to make a new departure, and, in working out his didactic allegory, emphasise the element of chivalrous romance. This suited his age, for, after the collapse of the feudal baronage in the wars of the Roses, came a revival of chivalry, though rather of the outward show than of the inward reality, of courtiers and carpet knights rather than of chivalrous warriors. Later, it blazed out in the Field of Cloth of Gold. The attempted revival in Henry VII’s day explains the passage in The Passetyme, chap. XXVI, where Graund Amour is admonished to renew the flower of chivalry now long decayed, and in the dissertation of king Melizius, chap. XXVIII, on the true meaning of the chivalrous idea. Caxton, too, in The Order of Chivalry, recommends the reading of Froissart, and of tales about king Arthur’s knights, as likely to resuscitate chivalry. Hawes, however, with all his advocacy of knighthood, insists more on the trivium and quadrivium, less on the training that produced the men pictured in Chaucer’s knight and squire

The long and complicated allegory of The Passetyme is managed with much success. The personified abstractions are selected and fitted in with no little dexterity. But it need cause no surprise that we feel the details tiresome and obscure: it may be that often details which seem obscure are pictorial and not didactic. In the construction of the poem there are curious slips; in fact, the design seems to have been altered while it was being worked out. Graund Amour, chap. IV, is shown an arras picturing his journey and adventures till he wins his lady. What he sees does not exactly coincide with what afterwards happens. The arras does not show the meeting of the lovers in the tower of Music, chap. XVIII. More than once, after the hero saw the arras, he is represented as doubtful of his ultimate success, e.g. chap. XVII. Perhaps Hawes discovered—his readers certainly discover—that the foreknowledge of the final result removes the feeling of suspense and spoils the interest of the story. Again, Graund Amour and La Bel Pucell come to a perfect understanding in the garden and plight their troth, chap. XIX. Yet, later, chaps. XXIX ff., the garden scene is entirely ignored; and the conventional plan that makes Venus the intermediary to persuade the lady to take pity on her lover is employed. Nor is the allegory always consistent; but that is a trifle, for even in The Pilgrim’s Progress lynx-eyed critics have detected inconsistencies. In The Passetyme, inconsistency often arises from the exigency of the narrative. We recognise the aptness of the allegory when the perfect knight has as his companions the knights Truth, Courtesy, Fidelity, Justice, Fortitude, Nurture and such like: that is, possesses the qualities symbolised by those knights. Soon, however, they bid him farewell, not because he has lost those traits of character, but because the narrative requires that he shall fight his battles alone. The greyhounds Grace and Governance are, in spite of their names, conventional figures: when stirring events are in progress they drop into the background. Sometimes an abstraction which has been already employed in one connection, is reintroduced in another, and even an incongruous connection. Envy, for example, is one of the giant’s seven heads and is cut off by Graund Amour; but it reappears as one of the contrivers of the metal monster. Like other allegories, The Passetyme is marred by the fact that the characters talk and debate too much, and act too little. And it must be admitted that the personification of the seven sciences makes dreary reading nowadays. Hawes himself found it difficult to turn his expositions of learning into musical form. His stanzas on the noun substantive, chap. V, must surely be among the most unpoetical passages of all metrical writing. Four lines will be sufficient to quote:

  • The Latyn worde whyche that is referred
  • Unto a thynge whych is substancyall,
  • For a nowne substantyve is wel averred,
  • And wyth a gender is declynall.