Barclay Alexander ca 14751552

Alexander Barclay is credited with being the first poet to write English pastorals. Little is known with certainty regarding Barclay's life, and many scholars turn to his writings to obtain information on his life and experiences. Some believe he was born in Scotland around 1475. He enjoyed a brief literary career, during which he produced poems, translations, and a French textbook. While many of his writings are translations, Barclay's writing style retained the character of the original work, encompassing his own ideas about English society. He was among the first writers to benefit from a wider circulation of his works as a result of the printing press. Consequently, Barclay had an important role in introducing Continental literature to the English public.

Barclay is typically seen as a transitional figure between late medieval and early Renaissance verse. He lived during the earliest part of the Tudor Dynasty (1485-1547), and his verse picks up on some of the newer elements of the early modern period; he believed he was writing something new. Scholarly appraisals of Barclay's works have been exceptionally critical about his poetic abilities. Some of his best known works are The Castell of Labour (1503), Ship of Fools (1509), and Certayne Eglogues (eclogues; printed in various parts from 1514, but reprinted in 1570 in complete form). The Castell of Labour is a medieval allegory, filled with personification, about the nature of working for a living and its problems. Ship of Fools, accompanied by an elaborate woodcut, refutes medieval notions of scholasticism, medicine, and witchcraft, and presents itself as a translation of a Latin poem by Jacob Locher. This may be the earliest example of the loose translation that was to become normative in English translation in the later Renaissance and the attempt to update the translated poem with contemporary English references.

Without question, Barclay's Certayne Eglogues merited the attention of his day and today. Written in couplets, the poems are a loose translation of Mantuan, with original interpolations. Pastoral poetry as a locus for political commentary under the veiled images of a pastoral world of shepherds thus became the norm for the Renaissance pastoral. Edmund Spenser is a direct inheritor of this tradition in his Shepheardes Calender.. In the prologue to Certayne Eglogues, Barclay notes that his poetry will consider topics such as courtly misery, the exploits of Venus, true love, false love, avarice and its effects, virtue praised, and war deplored, in addition to other matters. The emphasis on virtue is very important in Barclay's verse; he is an ardent moralist. In his fourth eclogue, the dialogue between Codrus (a rich person, relatively speaking) and Minalcas (a poor poet) considers that simply attaching one's self to a wealthy lord will bring happiness. In fact, Minalcas rejects the advice of his friend because wealthy patrons are less interested in poetry, more attuned to sensual pleasures, and more rooted in vice. Minaclas even rejects his wealthy friend Codrus on account of his own self-interest.

See also patronage.

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