Trenchant, very assertive, raising the most troubling and divisive issues, deft, nimble, striking, wryly self-reflexive, politically dexterous, excessive, threatening -- these words and paraphrases describe the poet who as emerged from an unChaucer and developed through a wannabe to become a more than: Thomas Hoccleve. They come from just a sampling of the healthy quantity of criticism in the 1990s and 2000s that turned around Hoccleve's reputation from a poor stylist and afterthought to a poet whose verse and life are well-connected to various key historical developments. Anthony Hasler and Larry Scanlon began this latest era, and Seth Lerer, Derek Pearsall, John Burrow, Judith Ferster, and Paul Strohm among others continued the conversation. In the past three years Charles Blyth for the TEAMS series and John Burrow for the Early English Text Society brought out two editions of Hoccleve's poetry. An additional EETS facsimile edition of autograph poetry is due out any day. 2001 saw two book-length studies from Ethan Knapp and Nicholas Perkins, the first books devoted to Hoccleve since 1968. 2002 presented us with the first PMLA article fully on the poet.
Of the most recent studies, Knapp's book, The Bureaucratic Muse, is most likely to lead to some new directions not only in Hoccleve studies but also in fifteenth- and perhaps even fourteenth-century literary criticism. Hoccleve's life and poetry, Knapp argues, need to be taken together "as products of an emerging lay bureaucracy at Westminster." Knapp bravely takes what still (or is it just more recently?) feels like the polar opposite to poetry -- bureaucracy -- and describes another context for Hoccleve's literature, the rapidly developing bureaucratic institutions of the time. Prior to this, critics tended to focus on the courts, whether Ricardian or Lancastrian, as the best places to understand the production and consumption of late-medieval English poetry. Anticipating and then explicitly drawing on New Historicist tendencies, their desire was to show how poetry and prose somehow "spoke to" a king or, failing that central focus, a king's immediate circle. Debate seemed to hover around the extent to which Hoccleve was (consciously or unwittingly) a Lancastrian toady or someone resistant to royal interests. Such high historical and political stakes raised the significance of his poetry in ways that literary types can usually only crave. Knapp's book begins to explode this upward focus on a particular context and suggests that Hoccleve's often weary literary fingers might reach in many historically significant and different directions.
As Nicholas Perkins' title suggests, Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes: Counsel and Constraint, one principal thrust of Perkins' book is towards examining the most immediate possible effects of Hoccleve's longest and most popular poem on its named intended patron, Henry, Prince of Wales, some two or three years before he acceded to the throne as Henry V. While Perkins indicates later in his book that the audience for the poem, which survives after all in over forty manuscripts, was undoubtedly broader than the king and royal circle, he concentrates in the main on a more restricted group of (potential) readers.
The subtitle, Counsel and Constraint, misrepresents his project somewhat, which is in fact broader in scope than just the Regiment's counseling effects and comes to different conclusions than it suggests. Perkins looks at the poem in the context of the regulation of and contestation over language in the public realm. After a review of recent descriptions of royal and ecclesiastical attempts to control language and literature, he extends these discussions to include what happened in schoolrooms, households, guilds, and parliament. He looks particularly closely at petitions to parliament to show how Hoccleve criticizes social and political inequities and injustices. He also examines how Hoccleve made use of his Latin sources, particularly Jacobus de Cessolis' De ludo scaccorum, in composing the Regiment, and he reconsiders the well-known illuminations in the two earliest manuscripts, a book presentation scene and the pointing Chaucer. A strength of the book is that he doesn't just concentrate on the "good bits" in the poem, the autobiographical descriptions, the appeal to the prince, and so on, but for the first time looks closely at the body of the Regiment. In now familiar but useful fashion, he assesses the Kantorowiczian body metaphors in the poem, and he reflects on what he calls the work's "afterlife": the images, manuscript contexts, provenance, and glosses.
Though he refers most directly to James Simpson's 1990 study of satire in the Piers Plowman-tradition for the idea of "constraint" in his title, one can't help thinking also of another study he mentions, Nicholas Watson's 1995 article, and Watson's contention that literary production after Arundel's Constitutions of 1407-1409 was likewise "constrained." It has always been difficult to reconcile Watson's broad assertion with the production of nearly all the Chaucer manuscripts, Hoccleve's writings, Lydgate's works, the writing down of the dramas, and so on and so on, and indeed Perkins comes to quite a different conclusion. Where previous Hoccleve critics have seen political compliance, he goes the furthest in arguing that the Regiment contains "powerful and disturbing messages...generated by design" (4). His conclusion is that Hoccleve's work has a "quality of redirection" among different modes of advice and criticism: "These plural voices both dramatize and overcome the constraints imposed by law, tradition and self-preservation. They create the space for an advisory discourse to emerge based on public dialogue, in which the meaning of political language and power is subject to interpretation and realignment" (193).
So Perkins' principal focus on royal readers is somewhat familiar. And my main problem with the book was its desire to retell discussions already covered. In fact, theses and other important points, which should be the author's own, are frequently footnoted. In places it reads as though some of his advisors and readers could have been more generous and critical, pushing him to go beyond their own conclusions. However, the book is solid and adds to the growing body of work that addresses Mirrors for Princes literature.
Hoccleve has benefited from critical revenge against those who dared call him and his contemporaries dull, the slightly later interest in self-referentiality and its complications, and the turn away from questions of artistic quality to historical relevance. It seems he will continue to bear critical scrutiny in a number of areas. Looking further into his "actual audience," in Paul Strohm's words and as Perkins begins to do, should reveal more of how works addressed to kings and princes appealed to others. This work may perhaps then link him up with his contemporary, John Lydgate, where even Knapp's work makes similarities between these two poets difficult to see. It seems fair to say that Hoccleve is moving away from Chaucer to a Langland tradition, one more intimately concerned with immediate social issues, and such connections also hold potential for future study. Critics have already begun to look at Hoccleve's attitudes towards women. Masculinity studies don't seem far behind. Cognitive focuses on the physical aspects of psychology seem potentially viable alternatives to Lacanian psychoanalysis in describing his mentalities, particularly because cognitivism might align well with medieval science. Why autobiography at that time? This still sounds like a relevant question. Features such as poetics, prosody, even style deserve continued attention. In the end Hoccleve's work in diverse genres and that he employed, to adapt a phrase from Perkins' book, "audacious combinations" within each genre indicate many possible avenues for further historical consideration: bureaucracy but also urbanism, religious experience, economics, patronage, and more.