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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

§ 7. Thomas Norton

Of Thomas Norton, who dates his own Ordinall of Alchemy at 1477, a little more is known or supposed to be known. Asmole’s statement that “from the first word of his Proeme and the Initial Letters of the six following chapters (discovered by acromonosyllables and syllabic acrostics) we may collect the author’s name and place of residence,” which has sometimes been quoted without the parenthesis, is thus misleading, for you must take the first syllables, not the first letters, to make

  • Thomas Norton of Bristo.
  • And the identification of the master whom he tells us he sought at the age of twenty-eight and from whom he learnt alchemy, is conjectural, though it was, most probably, Ripley.

    He is generally supposed to have been the son of a Norton who was a very prominent citizen of Bristol, being bailiff in 1392, sheriff in 1410, mayor in 1413 and M.P. pretty continuously from 1399 to 1421; while the alchemist himself is thought to have sat for the city in 1436. Whether all these dates are not rather far from 1477 is a point merely to be suggested.

    The Ordinall is written in exceedingly irregular heroic couplets, often shortening themselves to octosyllables,

  • He was, and what he knew of schoole
  • And therein he was but a fool
  • and sometimes extending themselves of their constituent lines after the fashion of
  • Physicians and Appoticaries faut [make mistakes in] appetite and will.
  • Indeed, if Ascham was really thinking of The Ordinall when, in The Scholemaster, he ranks “Th. Norton, of Bristow” with Chaucer, Surrey, Wyatt and Phaer as having made the best that could be made of the bad business of riming verse, it merely shows how entirely insensible he was to true English prosody. Still, Norton is not quite uninteresting, because he shows, even more than Lydgate, how many hares at one time the versifiers of this period were hunting when they seemed to be copying Chaucer’s couplet. Indeed, in some respects he is the earliest writer to exhibit the blend of which Spenser nearly made a very great success in the February of The Shepheards Calender, and, in a less degree, in May and September—this blend, however, being, in Norton’s case, no doubt, not at all consciously aimed at, but a mere succession of hits and misses at the couplet itself. He sometimes achieves very passable Tusserian anapaestics,

  • Her name is Magnesia, few people her knowe,
  • She is found in high places as well as in low,
  • extending himself in the very next line almost to a complete fourteener,
  • Plato knew her property and called her by her name,
  • and in a line or two contracting to
  • That is to say what this may be.
  • The matter is less clearly put than in Ripley; and, though neither can be called a poet, the master is rather less far from being one than the scholar. But Nortan’s greater discursiveness may make his work more attractive to some readers, and the story of Dalton and Delves in his second chapter reads like a true anecdote.