A short note on Stephen Hawes and his famous works

Among the  English Chaucerians, Stephen Hawes is also an important literary figure like John Lydgate, Thomas Hoccleve. He wrote towards the end of the 15th century and in the opening of the 16th, at a time when the courtly poetry of the Chaucerian tradition had become almost antiquated. In fact, Stephen Hawes is found the last exponent of that great tradition-its forlorn survivor in a newly developed literary environment. He is well characterized as one born in age too late.’ He is even found to feel his own literary loneliness in his well-known work in The Passetyme of Pleasure. He laments here that he alone has remained the faithful votary of true poetry.

Hawes, who was a scholar, with his education at Oxford, is the author of several works. His most important work, already mentioned, is The Pastime (Passetyme) of Pleasure (written about 1505-6), in which the theme is both allegorical and didactic. The work reveals his indebtedness to Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate and contains his frank admission of this. The poem is quite long, of about 5800 lines, divided into forty-five chapters, and written in rhyme royal. Hawes’s intention, like Gower’s and Lydgate’s, is didacticism. Of course, the poem has some personal touches. The author seems to have identified himself with the hero of the poem.

The next important work is The Example of Virtue, probably written much earlier (in 1503-04). This is also allegorical and didactic. The work presents a complete allegory of the life of man from his youth to age.

The Conversion of Swearess, written a little before 1509, is a noble work, of course from the technical standpoint, by Hawes. The author is also didactic here. The work contains an exhortation from Christ to Princes and Lords to cease swearing by his blood, wounds, head, and heart. The meter of the poem is found conceived in a novel manner. It increases from the words of one syllable to the lines of six syllables and then decreases, again, to the single syllable. This pattern is an early specimen of what is called shaped verses, found subsequently in the works of the metaphysical poets, like George Herbert.

Hawes’s other works include A Joyful Meditation to all England of the Coronation of Henry the Eighth (1509) and The Comfort of Lovers (date unknown). Both these works bear out his technical sophistry as also didactic note.

Hawes’s poetry, no doubt, reveals his limitations as a medieval poet. The characteristic marks of Middle English literature are clearly patent in his works. His writings abound in long digressions, debates, and dissertations. His poetry is essentially allegorical and moral. Of course, in his allegorical notes and moralistic symbolism, he may appear to anticipate faintly Spenser in his The Faerie Queene. The pattern of versification, followed by Hawes, as pointed out already, has novelty. His pattern is exclusively the Chaucerian stanza of seven lines with occasional variations. His couplets are quite popular, occasionally decasyllabic couplets, although they are not always as much balanced as Chaucer’s.

Also read: The Scottish Chaucerians and their important works