Pre-Modern and Early Modern Paths to Becoming a Poet

"Right to the end of the sixteenth century there had always been a distinction made between a man's legal majority and what William Blades termed his 'civic' majority. No one could be admitted to the Freedom of the City [London] or Company [guild] until he had arrived at 'the full age of twenty four. Since therefore we are able to associate the end of a man's apprenticeship with the attainment of an age of twenty-four years, it is evident that in 1438 William Caxton, at the beginning of such an apprenticeship, was almost certainly between fourteen and seventeen years of age" (xxviii).

Crotch, W.J.B. The Prologues and Epilogues of William Caxton. London: E.E.T.S., 1928.

        This passage describes the typical early modern path to adult status among non-noble male Englishmen like William Caxton (1422-1491). Caxton was England's first printer and a merchant familiar with the court of the Yorkist king, Edward IV, and later with the court of the Tudor dynasty's founder, Henry VII. This constituted a significant change from the late medieval period.   The courtly poets of the fourteenth century and earlier, like Chaucer, usually sought court service positions, first as pages and then squires, and survived by taking "fees" or annual gifts for their service.  Chaucer was Richard II's agent (sometimes secretly) in France and Italy, customs inspector, construction superintendent, and forest-manager, apparently writing all his poetry on the side.  (See the notion of sprezzatura in Hoby's translation, The Courtier.)   Many of the life records we have for Chaucer occur in the household records of nobles like the king or his uncle, the duke of Lancaster, who retained him .   However, Chaucer was born the son of a vintner or wholesale wine importer, and in a later period he might have apprenticed himself in Vintry Ward and turned to writing only when his fortune had been made, perhaps in his late forties like Caxton. 

        In the fifteenth century, however, the new "city men" like Caxton often were guildsmen's sons who became wealthy enough to turn to writing by following their fathers through the apprentice system (apprentice, journeyman, master). Their parents often were literate as a requirement of doing business, and many may have owned books, though English literacy outside the few thousand London merchant households has been estimated to be as low as 5% for males (and near zero for women: see Sylvia Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 1300-1500).  Some of these guildsmen might even have been wealthy enough to give their sons an education at Oxford or (more commonly) Cambridge. Those college graduates might be spared the expected apprenticeship if they developed literary talents that would earn them a living as a nobleman's secretary or as a tutor to his children (see Spenser and Marvell). Nevertheless, it was a rare poet who managed to publish much before his mid-twenties, even though many of them died in what we would consider their "middle age" (30-50). Caxton began producing his translations around the age of forty-seven, and learned printing at forty-nine.  See the Career Biographical Notes for a quick comparison of our poets' birth, education, first major work, and death.

        Women's maturation, until the sixteenth century, was largely governed by the social expectation that their "career" was marriage and serial pregnancy interrupted only during periods when they nursed newborns.  Women of noble birth, like their male siblings, might be well-educated in languages and literature, and might turn their hand to poetry in their teenage years. Medieval women who wished to avoid marriage could become nuns or anchoresses (living in rooms along a cathedral's outer walls).  Serious literary work of any kind usually did not appear until after marriage and (usually) widowhood, or after they had freed themselves from their family home by means of a relative's generosity or an inheritance (see Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas for a nineteenth-century essay on that long-surviving tradition). The exception, until the Protestant Reformation ended the mystical tradition in England, was the case of women who experienced transcendent visions of a religious nature. Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich both began to live solitary lives and to compose autobiographical literature after such life-transforming events.  Julian may have been that rare exception to the statistics, a literate medieval woman, but Margery Kempe was illiterate, though she had memorized large portions of the Bible.  For this, she was suspected of Lollardy, a popular heresy based on biblical translation (forbidden by the Church for introducing variant readings into doctrine), and it is true that Lollard women were among the earliest known non-aristocratic, literate Englishwomen.  Some were renowned for their ability to recite whole books of forbidden English Bible translations to secret Lollard meetings, rather like the "book-people" in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451.  For more on this subject, see Margaret Aston's Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval England (London: Hambledon P, 1984), or read Margery Kempe's interrogation by the Archbishop of York, who attempts to force her to cease public preaching because she is a woman.

        Scholars still are exploring the manuscript evidence for additional Renaissance Englishwomen who may have been writers of privately circulated, manuscript-tradition literature, but so far Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645) appears to be one of the very few Renaissance women who published literature (Norton 1059-67). Her career, like Chaucer's, was dependent upon court patrons, in her case the countess of Cumberland, who housed and supported her. Aphra Behn (formerly Aphra Johnson?) became the first Englishwoman who supported herself by writing, but only after the end of her two-year marriage to the Dutch merchant, "Mr. Behn," and a year as a secret agent of Charles II, spying on the Dutch in Antwerp.

Becoming an author and perceptions of youth/age:

        Students writing papers and preparing for exams can make use of the authors' biographies and the order of composition of their works to make sense of the works' significance to their authors at the time of life in which they were written, the authors' gender and estate/class, and the authors' choice to seek public performance, printed publication, or manuscript circulation of the works.  Works produced early in an author's career may more directly challenge the social status quo or predecessor poets' works, though older poets sometimes return to their youthful rebellions with changed senses of their ambitions (Chaucer and Milton, for example).  Can you see signs in the text that the author's views of youth and age are under pressure from some source?  Look especially for extended meditations or startling images of the very young or very old, or of the passage, sometimes in compressed chronology, from youth to age.  King Lear comes most readily to mind as a text which would support such an analysis, but also consider "Miller's Tale" (young clerks vs. old carpenter with beautiful young wife), the Wife of Bath's GP portrait, her own prologue about aging, and her tale, Wyatt's "The Flee from Me" and Surrey's "So Cruel Prison How Could Betide," Marlowe's use of time-compression in Faustus, Shakespeare's sonnets on aging and the condition of youth vs. "devouring Time," Jonson's use of young Peregrin to parody the older Sir Politic Would-be" and his depiction of Volpone's and Corbaccio's old age vs. the young lovers, Marvell's and Donne's uses of the "carpe diem" motif,  Mary Astell's analysis of why people marry for the wrong reasons, and the earl of Rochester's satire of the "Disabled Debauchee." 

Becoming an author and perceptions of gender:

        Men and women face differing challenges as gender roles conflict with their authorial drives, causing them to seek outlets for their work by adopting "cross-dressing" pseudonyms, creating powerful characters of the "Other" gender, or openly challenging gender assumptions in their works.  However, the more open the challenges authors attempt, the more likely they are to have waited until they were older (and perhaps more independent economically) to assert them.   Can you see ways in which an author's age at the time of composition may have influenced her/his representation of gender in the work?  Consider, obviously, Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, but take careful note of his age at the time of composition and his numerous indications that the poems are more than a little self-mocking.  The Wife of Bath's meditation on aging, mentioned above, challenges readers to accept her appetites and her age as a violation of the conventions of love which we see represented in lyric poetry from Boccaccio to Wyatt and Surrey, to Sidney.  Does she have something in common, though, with Shakespeare's view of gender in the sonnets?  Remember that many of the most famous in the early set declare the speaker's love of a young man, and the so-called "Dark Lady" sequence meditates on the challenge of a female rival.  How old might Shakespeare have been when he wrote the poems--consider carefully the problem of when they were first mentioned ("his sugred Sonnets among his private friends," Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury, 1598) and when they finally were published (1609).  Look at what scholars say about the rest of his works produced between '98 and '09, including King Lear.  (Do you see how Lear can be read as a commentary on the sonnets and vice versa?)