Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: November 2019

2 - Vice, Virtue, and Poetic Mediation in the Epistle of Cupid


In the last chapter, we witnessed the unexpected entrance that Hoccleve's early poem the Epistle of Cupid makes into the ‘Dialogue’ section of the Series. When calling Hoccleve to account for his earlier works, the Friend summons to mind not Hoccleve's long poem, the Regiment of Princes, but the shorter Epistle, written some two decades earlier, in 1402, and translated from Christine de Pizan's Epistre au dieu d'amours (1399). In this chapter we will examine the Epistle in greater detail, in order to better understand the way in which the Series and the Epistle operate inter-textually, and to consider Hoccleve's use of both poems to explore matters of political and ecclesiastical division, transnational exchange, literary taste, and specific instances of royal willfulness and betrayal.

Our examination of the Epistle will position us to reconsider the role that Hoccleve fashions for himself as a poet. Robert Meyer-Lee has argued that Hoccleve's choice to translate Christine de Pizan's Epistre au dieu d'amours, immediately following Henry IV's failed attempt to lure Christine de Pizan into his court, indicates a bid for favor on Hoccleve's part – a bid that, Meyer-Lee argues, Hoccleve mismanages by eschewing the moral authority of Christine's original, and redirecting the poem towards a more ambiguous and purposefully ‘crafty’ presentation. Rather than consider the poem a demonstration of Hoccleve's own poetic cupidity – his lusting after a position of poetic power and renown – I suggest in this chapter that in the Epistle Hoccleve takes the first step towards presenting the mediating power of poetry: its potential to mediate between otherwise contentious, even dangerous, social positions through the use of allusive language. Hoccleve cultivates, therein, the role of prudent intermediary, ‘middle man’ in the most virtuous sense – a role that he will then expand on, as we will see in the coming chapters, when repositioning the figure of Chaucer in the Regiment of Princes.

In the first section of this chapter, we will examine Hoccleve's use of the language of vice and virtue in the Epistle as a means to coded political commentary. In doing so, we will situate the Epistle within a broader English tradition that uses the ‘Cupid poem’ as a means of allusive commentary on the misuse of royal power.