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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 12. William of Shoreham

The literary activity of the south-east of England during this time was less remarkable than that of the west and north; nevertheless, three writers of some importance, William of Shoreham, Dan Michel of Northgate and Adam Davy, call for mention here. Of these writers two were clerics; the third held the position of “marshall” in Stratford-at-Bow.

William of Shoreham’s works are contained in a single manuscript (Add. MS. 17,376) now in the British Museum; and, curiously enough, though the seven poems treat of the favourite themes of the medieval homilist, they take the form of lyrical measures. The first deals with the seven sacraments; the second is a translation of the well-known Latin Psalms printed in the Lay Folk’s Mass Book, of which there are other metrical versions in Middle English; the third is a commentary on the ten commandments; and the fourth a dissertation on the seven deadly sins. Then comes a lyric on the joys of the Virgin, and, after that, a hymn to Mary, indicated, by the colophon, to be a translation from Robert Grosseteste. Last of all, is a long poem on the evidences of Christianity, the mystery of the Trinity, the Creation, the war in heaven and the temptation of Adam and Eve. Here the manuscript breaks off, but, from internal evidence, it is clear that the poet intended also to treat of the redemption.

Though he is handicapped by the form of verse chosen, the author shows a good deal of artistic feeling in his treatment of these well-worn themes. His favourite stanzas consists of seven or six lines, the former riming abcbded, the latter aabccb; but he uses, also, alternately riming lines of varying length and the quatrain abab. His poems are characterised by the tender melancholy which pervades much English religious verse; he dwells on the transitoriness of earthly life, the waning strength of man and the means by which he may obtain eternal life and he pleads with his readers for their repentance and reformation.

From a reference in the colophon to Simon, archbishop of Canterbury, we may conclude that the present manuscript dates from the beginning of the reign of Edward III. From other colophons we learn that the poems were composed by William of Shoreham, vicar of Chart, near Leeds, in Kent.