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Poem of the week: A Quiet Neighbour by John Heywood

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Wit, wordplay and affectionate teasing are at the fore in this subtle tribute to neighbourliness by the 16th-century Catholic intellectual and party animal John Heywood

A Quiet Neighbour, by the 16th-century playwright and poet John Heywood, is one of those "occasional" poems that refuses to stick to its time and place, though time and place are evoked with no little skill. Thomas Whythorne, who was "both hiz servant and skoller", thought Heywood equalled Geoffrey Chaucer for the quantity and quality of his work. While this is an overestimation, it's plain that Heywood's more-than-courtly achievement is a tribute to the influence of that great literary innovator. This week's poem, for example, is Chaucerian in its morally acute but genial observations of everyday human behaviour.

Heywood was no retiring man of letters. He was a singer, dancer, virginals-player and composer. He belonged to a family of prominent Catholic intellectuals, among them the printer John Rastell, the scholar and martyr Thomas More, and, to jump to a later generation, the poet John Donne. Although his long life ended sadly, with his flight from Protestant England and exile in Antwerp, during his earlier career Heywood's social charm and versatile talents probably shielded him from the worst of religious persecution even if, at one point, he narrowly escaped being hanged for plotting against Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Laughter, as one of the proverbs he collected might have said, was currency everywhere, and Heywood entertained alike the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. This week's poem reveals how adept he was at the witty wordplay so popular at the time. The whole is a nicely judged exercise in teasing but affectionate hyperbole, of a kind that very likely embellished Heywood's own conversations over a goblet or two of malmsey, amusing kings and courtiers alike at their own expense.

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