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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 5. Barclay’s Eclogues

Barclay’s Eclogues, published about 1514, as we gather from several historical allusions, had a rather strange fate. Written by him in his youth, probably at different times, they were mislaid and lost for many years, until one day the author, then thirty-eight years of age, turning over some old books, lighted upon them unexpectedly. He looked them over, added some new touches and showed them to some friends, at whose request they were published. As the first specimens of English pastoral poetry they would possess some historical importance, even if there were nothing else to recommend them. But they are interesting enough in themselves to deserve our attention. The last of the five was, undoubtedly, written first, then, probably, followed the fourth and, finally, the three others, forming together a special group, were composed. The matter for the fifth and fourth was taken from Mantuan, for the others from Aeneas Sylvius.

Johannes Baptista Spagnuoli, called Mantuanus, was, next to Petrarch, the most famous Italian writer of new Latin eclogues. In England, where, at that time, the Greek idyllic poet Theocritus was still quite unknown, Mantuan was valued even more than Vergil and was read in grammar schools to Shakespeare’s time. This explains why Barclay followed him rather than the Roman poet, whom, nevertheless, he knew quite well, as is proved by some reminiscences from the Bucolics.

The argument of the fifth Eclogue, called The Cytezen and Uplondyshman, is as follows. Amyntas, a shepherd, who, after a life of doubtful reputation and success in London, has been compelled to retire to the country, and Faustus, another shepherd, his poor but always contented comrade, who comes to town only on market days and prefers a simple village life, lie together in the warm straw on a cold winter day. They begin to talk “of the dyversyte of rurall husbondes, and men of the cyte.” Faustus accuses and blames the townspeople, Amyntas the peasants. Amyntas, who counts himself the better man, begins with a description of winter with its disadvantages and pleasures. For poor people it is very bad, says Faustus, asserting that, whereas peasants have to suffer in winter for their improvidence, townspeople, luckier and wiser, live in abundance. Amyntas opposes him. Townsfolk are even more foolish than shepherds, only they are favoured by fortune. When Faustus suddenly turns ambitious and wants to become a great man, Amyntas reproves him and tells a story showing how God himself ordained the difference of ranks among men. One day, when Adam was afield and Eve sat at home among her children, God demanded to see them. Ashamed of there being so many, Eve hides some of them under hay and straw, in the chimney and in other unsavoury places. The others she shows to the Lord, who is very kind to them and presents them with various gifts. The eldest he makes an emperor, the second a king, the third a duke and so on. Full of joy, Eve now fetches the rest. But they look so dirty and are otherwise so disagreeable, that the Lord is disgusted and condemns them to live in drudgery and endless servitude. Thus began the difference of honour and bondage, of town and village.

Faustus, highly indignant, suspects that the story has been invented by malicious townspeople out of scorn for poor shepherds, and tells another story, showing that many well known people, from Abel to Jesus Christ, have been shepherds and that the Lord always held shepherds in particular favour. Then he denounces the town as the home of all wickedness and cause of all evils. Sometimes he is interrupted by Amyntas, who wonders whence he got all his knowledge, and charges him with exaggeration. In the end, Faustus congratulates himself on living in the country, untouched by the vices of townspeople.

The story in the beginning is taken from Mantuan’s sixth Eclogue, that of Faustus from the seventh. Barclay’s translation is fairly good. He follows his model pretty closely, but shifts the names and sometimes makes the two speakers change their parts. As in The Ship of Fools, he is fond of making additions and amplifications. The chief interest is, of course, again moral and satirical. He tries to gain local colour by substituting English for classical names and by introducing situations taken from English town and country life. Thus, we have a lively description of football. He gives an admirable picture, full of striking realistic touches, of Eve amidst her children. In his characterisation of the two shepherds he is not always so successful.

In the fourth Eclogue, Codrus and Minalcas, treating of “the behavour of riche men agaynst poetes,” the substance is taken from Mantuan’s fifth Eclogue. This time, Barclay uses his source with much more freedom. Codrus, a well-to-do but stupid and stingy shepherd, perceiving Minalcas, a fellow of a poetic turn of mind but depressed by poverty, asks him why he has given up singing “swete balades.” Minalcas answers that “Enemie to muses is wretched poverty.” This Codrus declines to admit, but wishes to hear some old song; whereupon the other replies that a poet cannot thrive on idle flattery, and that he cannot look after his flock and write poetry at the same time. Everybody, retorts Codrus, ought to be content with his lot; for, if one man has the gift of riches, another has that of poetry; but he is by no means disposed to exchange the comforts of wealth for delight in song, and listens impatiently to the poet’s complaints. By vague promises, Minalcas, at last, is induced to give some stanzas “of fruitful clauses of noble Solomon.” As these are not to Codrus’s liking, he recites a rather long “wofull” elegy on the death of Sir Edward Howard, high admiral, son of the duke of Norfolk, Barclay’s patron, who lost his life in a daring attack on the French fleet before Brest, 25 April, 1513. It is written in the usual style of this kind of poetry and contains a fairly good allegoric description of Labour, “dreadfull of visage, a monster intreatable.” When Minalcas has finished, Codrus promises him some reward in the future; whereupon the disappointed poet swears at him and invokes on him the fate of Midas for his niggardliness.

The most interesting feature of the poem is the introduction of the two songs—a trick, however, used already by Mantuan in one of his eclogues. The style of the two songs is purely English.

In Barclay’s first three Eclogues, the form only is taken from Mantuan, the matter, as we have said above, from Aeneas Sylvius’s Tractatus de curialium miseriis, a treatise in which the ambitious churchman expresses his disappointments. Nevertheless, here also Barclay owes a good deal to Mantuan in characterisation as well as in detail.

In the first, Coridon, a young shepherd, who wants to try his luck at court, is warned against doing so by his companion Cornix, who proves to him “that all such courtiers do live in misery, which serve in the court for honour, laude or fame, and might or power.” A threatening storm compels the pair to break off their conversation.

In the second Eclogue it is taken up again. They speak of the court, and “what pleasure is there sene with the fyve wittes, beginning at the eyne.” In a long dialogue on the discomforts of courtiers, it is shown that whosoever hopes for pleasure at court is certain to be disappointed. Barclay follows his source very closely here; and, if in the first Eclogue we do not quite see what a simple shepherd wants to do at the court, in the second we are as much surprised as is good Coridon himself to hear Cronix quote classical authors.

The third Eclogue completes the conversation with an exceedingly vivid description of the courtiers’ undesirable and filthy dwellings. Bribery, in the case of influential officials and impudent servants, is mentioned, the evils of war and town life are dwelt upon, nepotism is blamed, and it is shown that court life spoils the character, and hinders a man from reading and studying. Coridon is convinced, at last, that he is much more comfortable in his present condition, and gives up his idea of going to court.

Whereas, in the translation of The Ship of Fools, Barclay often carefully tones down the strong language of the original, he is not so particular in his Eclogues. On the whole, their tone is that of renascence eclogues in general, i.e. satire on the times, under the veil of allegory. So we find it with Petrarch and Mantuan, so with Boccaccio and the other Italian writers of bucolic poetry, so in Spain and, later, in France in the case of Clément Marot, who, again, exercised a great influence on English pastoral poetry. But, besides these modern influences, we find throughout that of Vergil, who first introduced moral and satirical elements into bucolic poetry.

There are, also, some personal touches in Barclay’s Eclogues. In the first, he excepts with due loyalty the court of Henry VII, “which nowe departed late,” and that of Henry VIII, from all the miseries of which he is going to speak. There is, further, a moving passage describing how Barclay, on a fine May morning, visited Ely cathedral, where he laments the death of his patron, bishop Alcock. Another patron, bishop Morton, is mentioned in Eclogues III and IV. In the latter, he refers also to the “Dean of Powles,” Colet, as a good preacher.

In spite of their interest and in spite of the fact that Cawood appended them to his edition of The Ship of Fools, in 1570, Barclay’s Eclogues were soon forgotten. Spenser ignores them as he ignores other earlier attempts at pastoral poetry. In the dedication of The Shepheards Calender, 1579, we are simply told that the poet has chosen this poetical form “to furnish our tongue with this kinde, wherein it faulteth.” Spenser’s contemporaries, with whom pastoral poetry became fashionable under Italian influence, praised him as the father of the English eclogue, and had completely forgotten that, more than sixty years before, Barclay had sought for the first time to introduce the eclogue into English literature.

Barclay never wrote without a moral, didactic or satirical purpose, and his conception of literature was narrow. He was certainly not an original writer; but he was a steady and conscientious worker, who did some useful work as a translator of classical and other literature, and set out on some tracks never followed by English writers before him. In The Ship of Fools, and still more in his Eclogues, he handled his originals with remarkable freedom, and his attempts to meet the taste of his readers make these, his main works, exceedingly interesting as pictures of contemporary English life. As a scholar, he represents medieval, rather than renascence, ideals; as a man, he was modest and grateful to his friends and patrons; and his writings, as well as his will, prove him a kind-hearted friend of the poor.

Though Barclay was well known, there are few contemporary allusions to him. Bullein, perhaps a personal acquaintance, in his Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence, 1564, mentions him repeatedly; as does Bradshaw, in his Life of Saynt Werburghe, 1521. We find “preignaunt” Barclay there in the distinguished company of Chaucer and Lydgate and, what would assuredly have been to him a great annoyance, also in that of “inventive” Skelton, whom he seems to have greatly detested. As his book Contra Skeltonum, is, unfortunately, lost, we cannot tell whether he had any special reason for his aversion to Skelton. The mere difference of character can hardly account for the extremely sharp attack on Skelton in The Ship of Fools as well as in the Eclogues, the less so, as Barclay usually expresses personal dislike in a tame, and unmalicious way.