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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

§ 6. His Medievalism

Living though Hawes did at the opening of a new age, and having studied abroad at the time when the study of the classics was reviving in western Europe, he still shows the characteristic marks of medievalism. His writings abound in long digressions, irrelevances, debates, appeals to authority, needless repetitions, prolix descriptions. One glaring instance of prolixity occurs in The Passetyme, chap. XLII, where the sum and substance of a seven-line stanza on Pride can be ade2quately expressed in the six words, “Why are dust and ashes proud?” Hawes also exhibits want of proportion. More than one-eighth of The Passetyme is devoted to the exposition of Rhetoric, with two digressions. Again, he jumbles together ideas and associations of various ages, and fails to appreciate the difference between his own age and classical times. Anything characteristic of an earlier age and not of his own, he transmutes, like other medieval writers, into something of his own days that seemed analogous. Thus, Plato is “the cunning and famous clerk”; Joshua is a “duke”; the centaur-king Melizius is the founder of feudal chivalry and is conversant with St. Paul’s epistles; Minerva and Pallas are spoken of as distinct—the former being instructor in arms at the court of Melizius, the latter being the goddess. Vergil, too, is the magician. Hawes employs the familiar medieval machinery—the May morning, Fortune and her wheel, the seven deadly sins, astronomical lore, and he firmly believes that all poetry is allegory. In his defence of poets, The Passetyme, chap. IX, he maintains that it is because the revilers of poetry cannot discover the moral under the allegory that they fail to appreciate poetry. Equally medieval is he in holding that poets should always have a lesson to teach. So strongly does he hold this, that to those who write without a moral he would almost deny the name of poet. He bewails the dearth of moral poets in his own day: most versifiers, he says, waste their time in “vaynful vanyte,” composing ballades of fervent love, “gests” and trifles without fruitfulness.

Hawes never outgrew those views of poetry and never thoroughly rid himself of the traditional conventions. Sometimes he forgets them, and then he is at his best. His style becomes animated or graceful; his diction shakes itself free from the load of aureate terms. At times his fine rhetoric—“aromatyke fume” he calls it—is very cumbrous and disfiguring: as in The Passetyme, chap. XXXVIII.

  • Her redolente wordes of swete influence
  • Degouted vapoure moost aromatyke,
  • And made conversyon of complacence;
  • Her depured and her lusty rethoryke
  • My courage reformed, that was so lunatyke.
  • He uses also the words “pulcritude,” “facundious,” “tenebrous,” “sugratife,” “exornate,” “perdurable” and “celestine.” He frequently runs riot in the rhetorical figure of epanaphora, as in The Passetyme, chap. XXI, where each line of one stanza beings “Where lacketh mesure,” while in another, “Without mesure wo worth” occurs seven times. In spite of pedantry, however, Hawes manages to write passages of poetic beauty and sweet tenderness. Such passages are found in the garden scene, where Graund Amour woos La Bel Pucell, The Passetyme, chap. XVIII. There, allegory disappears; and, though we meet with verbiage and stiffness, we cannot miss the beating of human hearts, the eager passion of the man, the coyness of the maid, coyness that ends in complete surrender. Allegory is again dropped in the episode of Godfrey Gobelive, The Passetyme, chaps. XXIX, XXXII. There, Hawes is a keen observer of contemporary life, which he describes at first hand. If the rest of the poem with its personified abstractions may be reckoned akin to the morality plays, this episode is in tone a comic interlude. It exhibits also a change then beginning among the abstractions of the moralities, a change destined to develop in comedy. Godfrey Gobelive and his ancestors, Davy Dronken-nole, Sym Sadle-gander, Peter Pratefast, are not allegorical shadows but living personalities. Such alliterative nicknames are parallel to the Tom Tosspot and Cuthbert Cutpurse of the moralities, to Tibet Talkapace and Davy Diceplayer of the comedies. So, too, Godfrey’s Kentish tongue, his Kentish home, his grandfather’s voyage up the Thames in search of a wife, which give a touch of reality to the narrative, find parallels in the moralities: e.g. in The World and the Child, where Folly describes his adventures in Holborn and Southwark. Godfrey has humour of the rough type seen in Gammer Gurton’s Needle: his great-grandmother, for example, is praised for cleanliness, because, when she had no dishclout, she wiped the dishes with her dog’s tail.