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Little is known of his life beyond what is mentioned in his poems. He was b. about 1368; d. in 1450. The place of his birth and education is unknown. When about nineteen he became a clerk in the Privy-Seal Office, a position which he held for at least twenty-four years. It is recorded in the Patent Rolls (1399) that he received a pension of £10 a year. In his poem "La Male Règle", written in 1406, he confesses to having lived a life of pleasure and even of dissipation, but his marriage in 1411 seems to have caused a change in his career, and his poem "De Regimine Principum", written soon afterewards, bears witness to his reform. In 1424 he was granted a pension of £20 a year for life. His name and reputation have come down to us linked with those of Lydgate; the two poets were followers and enthusiastic admirers of Chaucer. It is most probable that Occleve knew Chaucer personally, as he has left three passages of verse about him, and, in the MS. Of the "De Regimine", a portrait of Chaucer (the only one we possess), which he says he had painted "to put other men in remembrance of his person". He was a true Chaucerian as far as love and admiration could make him, but he was unable to imitate worthily his master's skill in poetry. Occleve has left us a body of verse which has its own interest, but none of which, as poetry, can be placed much above mediocrity. Nevertheless, there are many things which give pleasure. There is his devoted love of Our Lady, which causes some of the poems he wrote in her honour (especially "The Moder of God") to be among his best efforts. There is his admiration of Chaucer, already spoken of, and there is also sound morality, and a good deal of "the social sense" in the matter of his poems. Though he had no humour, he could tell a story well, and in several poems he enlists our sympathy by the frank recognition of his weakness both as man and poet.
His work consists of: a long poem, "De Regimine Principum" (the Government of Princes), addressed to Prince Henry, afterwards Henry V; it is written in the seven-line stanza and contains much varied matter, religious, moral, social and political; two verse stories from the "Gesta Romanorum"; three other poems of some length, largely autobiographical, "La Male Règle", "A Complaint", and "A Diologue"; "Ars sciendi mori" (the Art of learning to die) a specimen of his work at its best, most of it in the seven-line stanza, but with an ending in prose; many other poems, chiefly Ballades, and mostly short, with the exception of "Cupid's Letter" and the interesting expostulation with Sir John Oldcastle concerning his heresy, "O Oldcastle, alas what ailed thee To slip into the snare of heresie?". All the above poems are contained in the Early English Text Society's edition of Occleve's works (London, 1892-7).
Furnivall in Dict. Nat. Biog., IX (reissued, London, 1908); Idem in Preface to E. Eng. Text Soc. Edition of Works (London, 1892-7); Saintsbury in Camb. Hist. of Eng. Literature, II (Cambridge, 1908).
K. M. Warren.