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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.

VIII. The English Chaucerians

§ 6. George Ripley

These are George Ripley (Called “Sir George merely as a priest) and Thomas Norton, both of whom, by their own testimony, wrote in the eighth decade of the fifteenth century, and who, by tradition though not certainly, were connected as master and pupil. Of neither is much known; and of Ripley scarcely anything except that he was an Augustinian and canon of Bridlington—the connection with Chaucer’s canon being again interesting. His principal English work, The Compound of Alchemy or the Twelve Gates, was, as the author tells us, written in the year 1471, and was printed 120 years later by Ralph Rabbards. Ashmole, who reprinted it (after, as he says, comparison with several MSS.) in his Theatrum Chemicum of 1652, included therein several minor verse-pamphlets on the same subject, attributed to the same author—the most interesting being an English preface, in octosyllabic rime royal of tolerable regularity, to his Medulla Alchemiae, written five years later than The Compound, and dedicated to archbishop Nevill. The Compound itself is spoken of by Warton (delusively enough, though he explains what he means or, at least, indicates his own laxness of speech) as “in the octave stanza.” As a matter of fact, it consists of a Titulus Operis and a dedication to Edward IV, both written in octaves, and of a body of text, prologue, preface and the twelve gates (“Calcination,” “Solution,” etc., up to “Projection”) in rime royal.

The first stanza of this preface is no ill example of the aureate language and of the hopelessly insubordinate metre common at this time:

  • O hygh ynccomprehensyble and gloryous Mageste,
  • Whose luminos bemes obtundyth our speculation,
  • One-hode in Substance, O Tryne-hode in Deite,
  • Of Hierarchicall Jubylestes the gratulant gloryfycation;
  • O pytewouse puryfyer of Soules and puer perpetuation;
  • O deviant fro danger, O drawer most deboner,
  • Fro thys envios valey of vanyte, O our Exalter!
  • It was common, however, to overflow in this manner at the beginning of a poem; and the bulk of Ripley’s text is more moderately phrased, though there is not much more to be said for the metre. Even the final distichs, which, in rime royal, undoubtedly did a great deal to help on the formal couplet, are exceedingly lax and, sometimes, as in

  • I am a master of that Art
  • I warrant us we shall have part,
  • (Ashmole, p. 157),
  • purely octosyllabic. The matter, allowing for the nature of the subject, is not ill set forth; and Ripley evidently had the true experimental spirit, for he records his failures carefully. Of less interest are the shorter pieces attributed to him besides the Medulla Preface—his Vision in about a score of fairly regular fourteeners, his Scroll, or the verses in it in irregular octosyllables, sometimes approaching “Skeltonics,” and one or two others in the same metre, extending instead of contracting itself.