Like his more prolific and better known contemporary John Lydgate, he has an historical importance to English literature. Their work, rarely considered to rise above mediocrity by scholars before the 1970s, is now thought to provide a wealth of insight into the literate culture of London during the Lancastrian regime. They represented for the 15th century the literature of their time, keeping alive the innovations to vernacular poetics originally made by their "maister" Geoffrey Chaucer, to whom Hoccleve (known interchangeably as Occleve) pays an affectionate tribute in no fewer than three passages throughout his De Regimine Principum - a vernacular poem which survives in as many copies as some of the most popular works of literature at the time (including but not limited to Langland's Piers Plowman and some sections of Chaucer's own Canterbury Tales.)
What is known of Hoccleve's life is gathered mainly from his works and from the records of the turn-of-the-15th Century English bureaucracy. At eighteen or nineteen he obtained a clerkship in the Privy Seal Office, which he retained on and off, in spite of much grumbling, for about thirty-five years. He had hoped for a benefice, but none came; and in 1399 he received instead a small annuity, which was not always paid as regularly as he would have wished. "The Letter to Cupid," his first poem to which we can affix a date, was translated from L'Epistre au Dieu d'Amours of Christine de Pisan in 1402, evidently as a sort of antidote to the moral of Troilus and Criseyde, to some manuscripts of which we find it attached. "La Male Regie," one of his most fluid and lively poems, written about 1406, gives some interesting glimpses of the "misrule" of his youth.
About 1410 he settled down to married life, and the composition of moral and religious poems. His best-known work, The Regement of Princes or De Regimine Principum, written for Henry V of England shortly before his accession, is an elaborate homily on the virtues and vices, adapted from Aegidius de Colonna's work of the same name, from the supposititious epistle of Aristotle, known as the Secreta secretorum, and the work of Jacques de Cessoles (fl. 1300) anglicized later by Caxton as The Game and Playe of Chesse. The work comments a great deal on Henry V's lineage, focusing on John of Gaunt to cement the House of Lancaster's claim to England's throne. Many of his lesser-known works follows a similar ideal, since the Lancastrian court was particularly needy in its wants for legitimization. Its incipit is a poem encompassing about a third of the whole, containing some further reminiscences of London tavern and club life, in the form of dialogue between the poet and a beggar. In this work, Hoccleve coined the word "magutavent".
On the accession of Henry V Hoccleve turned his muse to the service of orthodoxy and the Church, and one of his poems is a remonstrance addressed to Oldcastle, calling upon him to "rise up, a manly knight, out of the slough of heresy." Then a long illness was followed for a time, as he tells us, by insanity. His "Dialog with a Friend," written after his recovery, gives a pathetic picture of the poor poet, now fifty-three, with sight and mind impaired, but with hopes still left of writing a tale he owes his good patron, Humphrey of Gloucester, and of translating a small Latin treatise, Scite Mori, before he dies.
His hopes were fulfilled in his moralized tales of Jereslau's Wife and of Jonathas, both from the Gesta Romanorum, which, with his 'Learn to die', belong to his old age. After finally retiring from his privy seal clerkship, he was granted in 1424 sustenance for life in the priory of Southwick, Hampshire, on which, with his former annuity, he appears to have lived till about the middle of the century. "A Balade to my gracious Lord of Yorke" probably dates from 1448 or later.
The main interest for us in Occleve's poems is that they are characteristic of his time. His hymns to the Virgin, balades to patrons, complaints to the king and the kings treasurer, versified homilies and moral tales, with warnings to heretics like Oldcastle, are illustrative of the blight that had fallen upon poetry on the death of Chaucer. The nearest approach to the realistic touch of his master is to be found in Occleve's Male Regle. Compared to Lydgate and his humorous 'London Lickpenny', these pictures of 15th-century London are quite a bit more serious and ruminating about a civil-servant's place in an unstable Lancastrian bureaucracy.
Yet Occleve knew the limits of his powers. He seems to say what he means simply, and does not affect what he seems not to feel. As a metrist Occleve takes on a posture that he is modest of his powers. He confesses that "Fader Chaucer fayn wolde han me taught, But I was dul and learned lite or naught"; and it is true that the scansion of his verses seems occasionally to require, in French fashion, an accent on an unstressed syllable. Yet his seven-line (or rime royale) and eight-line stanzas, to which he limited himself, are perhaps more frequently reminiscent of Chaucer's rhythm than are those of Lydgate. Prof. David Lawton's ELH article from 1987 entitled Dullness in the Fifteenth Century is the seminal piece of scholarship on this self-effacing posture typical of the 15th century.
A poem, Ad beatam Virginem, generally known as the Mother of God, and once attributed to Chaucer, is copied among Occleve's works in manuscript Phillipps 8151 (Cheltenham), and may thus be regarded as his work. Occleve found an admirer in the 17th century in William Browne, who included his Jonathas in the Shepheard's Pipe (1614). Browne added a eulogy of the old poet, whose works he intended to publish in their entirety (Works, ed. WC Hazlitt, 1869, ii. f96-198). In 1796 George Mason printed Six Poems by Thomas Hoccleve never before printed ...; De Regimine Principum was printed for the Roxburghe Club in 1860, and by the Early English Text Society in 1897. See Frederick James Furnivall's introduction to Hoccleve's Works; I. The Minor Poems, in the Phillipps manuscript 8131, and the Durham manuscript III. p (Early English Text Society, 1892).
Furnivall's edition of Hoccleve's complete works is still largely the standard of current scholarship and was reprinted in the 1970s, though Michael Seymour's Selections from Hoccleve, published by Clarendon Press (a division of Oxford U.P.) in 1981, provides an excellent sampling of the poet's major and minor works for the reader just trying to get the sense of Hoccleve's work. J.A. Burrow's 1999 EETS edition of Thomas Hoccleve's Complaint and Dialogue is fast becoming the standard edition of these two excerpts from the Hoccleve's later works (now collectively known as The Series), as is Charles Blyth's TEAMS Middle English Text Series edition of The Regiment of Princes from the same year - particularly because of its spelling modernizations which enables ease of use in the classroom. These three recent editions all feature excellent introductions which can give the reader a more thorough sense of the significant of this until recently under-appreciated late-medieval poet.
Nicholas Perkins, Fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford, is author of "Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes: Counsel and Constraint", a critique discussing the purpose of Hoccleve's most important work.
appended and edited: June 2006
Quotations are cited from Frederick Furnivall and Israel Gollancz's three-volume edition of Hoccleve's Works (Early English Text Society, 1892-1925).
Quotations in modern spelling are cited from Henry Morley (ed.) Shorter English Poems (London: Cassell, 1883).