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Thomas Occleve (or Hoccleve) (c. 1368 – 1426), English poet, was born probably in 1368/9, for, writing in 1421/2 he says he was fifty-three years old (Dialog, i. 246).

Portrait of Chaucer from Occleve's Regiment of Princes (1412)

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They represented for the 15th century the literature of their time, keeping alive the innovations to vernacular poetics originally made by their "maister" Geoffrey Chaucer, to whom Hoccleve (known interchangeably as Occleve) pays an affectionate tribute in no fewer than three passages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).

Contemporary scholarship

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

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Thomas Occleve or Hoccleve (c. 13671426) was an English poet and civil servant. Occleve and John Lydgate are usually seen as the leading English poets of the early 15th century.

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Quotations are cited from Frederick Furnivall and Israel Gollancz's three-volume edition of Hoccleve's Works (Early English Text Society, 1892-1925).

  • If that thise men that lovers hem pretende,
    To women weren feythfull good and trewe,
    And dreden hem to deceyven or offende,
    Women, to love hem, wolde nat eschewe;
    But every day hath man an herte newe:
    Yt, upon oon, abide can no while.
    What fore ys it, swich a wight to be-gile?
    • If those men who to be lovers pretend
      Behaved more faithfully and did not lie,
      And dreaded to deceive or to offend,
      Then women might not choose to pass them by.
      But each man's heart's a fickle butterfly
      Which can alight on one just a short while.
      Can it be wrong in this case to beguile?
    • "The Letter of Cupid", line 267; vol. 1, p. 83; translation from Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler (eds.) Poems of Cupid, God of Love (Leiden: Brill, 1990) p. 191.

La Male Regle (c. 1405)

Quotations in modern spelling are cited from Henry Morley (ed.) Shorter English Poems (London: Cassell, 1883).

  • For the more paart, youthe is rebel,
    Un-to reson & hatith her doctryne.
    • As for the moré part Youth is rebél
      Unto Reasón, and hateth her doctrine.
    • Line 65; vol. 1, p. 27; translation p. 58.
  • O yowthe allas why wilt thow nat enclyne,
    And un-to reuled reform bowe thee?
    Syn resoun is the verray streighte lyne
    Þat ledith folk un-to felicitee.
    • O Youth, alas, why wilt thou not incline
      And unto ruled Reason bowé thee,
      Syn Reason is the verray staighté line
      That leadeth folk unto felicitee.
    • Line 69; vol. 1, p. 27.
  • Many a servant un-to his lord seith,
    "Þat al the world spekith of him honour,"
    Whan the contrarie of þat is sooth, in feith.
    • Many a servant unto his Lord saith
      That all the world speaketh of him honóur,
      When the contrary of that is sooth in faith.
    • Line 217; vol. 1, p. 32; translation p. 60.

Regement of Princes (c. 1412)

  • O maister deere and Fadir reverent,
    Mi maister Chaucer, flour of eloquence,
    Mirour of fructuous entendement,
    O, universel fadir in science!
    Allas! þat þou thyn excellent prudence
    In þi bed mortel mightist naght by-qwethe;
    What eiled deth? allas! whi wolde he sle the?
    • O master dear and reverend father, my master Chaucer, flower of eloquence, mirror of fruitful wisdom, O universal father of knowledge! Alas, that on thy mortal bed thou mightest not bequeath thine excellent prudence! What aileth Death? Alas, why would he slay thee?
    • Line 1961; vol. 3, p. 71; translation from Roger Sherman Loomis and Rudolph Willard (eds.) Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948) p. 351.
  • With bookës of his ornat endytyng,
    That is to al þis land enlumynyng.
    • With books of his ornate writing
      That is to all this land illuminating.
    • Line 1973; vol. 3, p. 71; translation from Terry Jones et al. Who Murdered Chaucer? (London: Methuen, 2004) p. 4.
  • And fadir Chaucer fayn wolde han me taght;
    But I was dul and lernèd lite or naght.
    Allas! my worthi maister honorable,
    This landës verray tresor and richesse.
    • And father, Chaucer, fain would have me taught;
      But I was dull, and little learned or naught.
      Alas! my worthy master honouráble,
      This landés very treasure and richéssė.
    • Line 2078; vol. 3, pp. 75-6; modernized-spelling version from Henry S. Pancoast (ed.) English Prose and Verse from Beowulf to Stevenson (New York: H. Holt, 1915) pp. 81-2.
  • Who was hiër in philosophie
    To Aristotle, in our tonge, but thow?
    • Also, who was higher in Philosophy To Aristotle, in our tongue, but thou?
    • Line 2087; vol. 3, p. 76; translation from George Carver (ed.) The Catholic Tradition in English Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1928) p. 16.
  • The firste fyndere of our faire langage.
    • The first finder of our fair language.
    • Line 4978; vol. 3, p. 179; modernized-spelling version from Geoffrey Hughes A History of English Words (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) p. 126.

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