Marginalia -- The Journal of the Medieval Reading Group at Cambridge


The Marginalization of John Lydgate

Lydgate can be best understood, not as a strictly medieval Chaucerian, but rather as a poet who immediately followed Chaucer and wrote during the period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The qualification may seem small, but it will allow us to evaluate Lydgate’s production according to its own merits instead of condemning him for repeatedly falling short of a goal at which he was not always aiming.

(Alan Renoir, The Poetry of John Lydgate, p. 31)

Many words first used by Chaucer are not again used by others until Lydgate has worn a place for them in the language. It is this that prompts one to think of Lydgate as being partly responsible for Chaucer’s impression of modernity […] Chaucer is so accessible because the linguistic journey back to him has been worn smooth by his successor.

(Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 51)

In terms of his critical reception, John Lydgate (1370?-1449?) has always been a marginalized figure. Initially praised for his aureate brilliance he was, up until the early nineteenth century, mentioned in the same breath as Chaucer and Gower as forming part of a late-medieval triumvirate of poetic excellence.1 However, since Joseph Ritson’s condemnation of Lydgate in his Bibliographica Poetica (1802) as a ‘voluminous, prosaick and driveling [sic] monk’, Lydgate has – despite the combined efforts of Schirmer, Renoir and Pearsall to salvage his reputation2 – plummeted from that exalted position which he previously occupied, through being the object of contempt, and finally into obscurity. Yet it is not so much Lydgate’s paradigm shift between critical extremes which will occupy this brief discussion, but rather Lydgate’s pivotal position as the poet who blurs the margins of the late-medieval and early-modern periods.

Indeed, the phrase ‘period of transition’ is an apt starting-point for any discussion of John Lydgate and his relation to early fifteenth-century poetics. Lydgate was writing throughout the era that sowed the seeds of English humanism – many of which were scattered under the guidance of Lydgate’s enlightened patron, Humphrey of Gloucester3 – an age that witnessed that initial ‘impression of modernity’ of which Pearsall speaks, and yet which is still considered by many academics to be a fallow period in terms of literature.

However, Weiss, Renoir, Pearsall and Simpson all produce individuated conceptions of humanism’s constitution, conceptions which, unsurprisingly, do not always correlate. Whilst I concur with the majority of their collective prescription, in order to avoid using the term as an amorphous panacea I propose the following – necessarily adumbrated – definition. Humanism may be said to incorporate the reappraisal of extant classical texts though a non-exegetical framework, id est they are to be evaluated for their intrinsic value and not for their ability to provide Scriptural revelation. In addition to such reappraisal humanism involves the active “discovery” or rediscovery of classical texts – for example via the searching of archives4 or by translation – and the imitation of classical styles of writing. Yet the humanist ethic far from excludes exegetical theology, indeed, the notion of the Dignity of Man, or rather of the Individual is formed around the central belief in Christ-as-avatar,5 and the shift in emphasis away from the objective metaphysics of Aristotelian scholasticism to the subjective ethical dilemmae faced by the individual Christian, as exhibited in texts such as Augustine’s Confessions (which was a major influence upon Petrarch and the early Italian humanists). Furthermore, intertwined with the concept of the Dignity of the Individual is the Dignity of the Poet, as Petrarch argues in his Invectiva contra medicum (‘Invective against a Physician’) of 1355:

the first theologians were poets. This is attested by the greatest philosophers, confirmed by the authority of saints, and indicated by the very name of poet […] these poets acquired some kind of knowledge of first cause and of the one God.

(Primos nempe theologos […] poetas et philosophorum maximi testantur et sanctorum confirmat autoritas et ipsum, si nescis, poete nomen indicat […] prime cause et unius Dei qualemcunque notitiam sortirentur.)6

As becomes increasingly evident via perusal of the texts which Duke Humphrey donated to Oxford,7 such humanist ideas, ethics and methodology were gradually finding their way into fifteenth-century English thought.

In the poetry of John Lydgate lies the truth of this much-maligned century; through a cursory examination of his works one may discover the ways in which he serves as the crucial link between Chaucer and Wyatt,8 the isthmus connecting the aureate age of amour courtois and the continental style of the early-modern. It almost comes as a shock then to find that Lydgate has been continuously dismissed as an insignificant drab by literary critics since the early nineteenth century up until very recently,9 and even latter-day academic studies tend to apologise for their ‘prolix’ subject. Yet Lydgate was considered ‘on a level with the greatest poets’10 not only in his own lifetime, but for three centuries following his death. As Pearsall points out, Lydgate provided a touchstone for later poets, a means of communicating with the Chaucerian lexicon, but he also, like Chaucer before him, provided legitimacy and legacy for the humanistic, Italianate styles which Wyatt et al would adapt. Through Lydgate we may prove that the Renaissance – if it can be said to have occurred at all – was part of a gradual, almost osmotic process rather than an epiphany, and like any nascence involved periods of procreation, conception and gestation prior to the birth.

Yet it is not only in Lydgate’s later works – as has been previously argued11 – but also in his shorter, ostensibly more medieval poems that we witness the beginnings of this process. In particular his courtly love poetry, such as A Ballade, of Her that hath All Virtues, The Complaint of the Black Knight and The Floure of Curtesye, betrays a (perhaps unconscious) shift away from French medievalism to Italianate modernism, whilst retaining an unmistakably English style throughout – largely due to its Chaucerian model, as Renoir posits, ‘the seeds of the Renaissance, which had been imported from Italy by Chaucer and his contemporaries germinated and grew slowly during the fifteenth century’.12 A Ballade, of her that Hath All Virtues (composed circa 1400-1402?) is one of Lydgate’s earliest court lyrics, yet even this most “traditional” of poems displays the stylistic progression that is usually associated with the later works:

Fresshe lusty beaute, ioyned with gentylesse,
Demure appert, glad chere with gouuernaunce,
Yche thing demenid by avysinesse,
Prudent of speeche, wisdam of dalyaunce,
Gentylesse, with womanly plesaunce,
Hevenly eyeghen, aungellyk of visage:
Al þis haþe nature sette in youre ymage,

Wyfly trouthe with Penelope,
And with Gresylde parfyct pacyence,
Lyche Polixcene fayrely on to se,
Of bounte, beaute, having þexcellence
Of qweene Alceste, and al þe diligence
Of fayre Dydo, pryncesse of Cartage:
Al þis haþe nature sett in youre ymage. (ll. 1-14)13

The most immediately obvious feature of the poem is its rhyme royal stanza form, which Chaucer himself invented but did not employ until following his visit to Italy in 1372; a detail which inevitably invites the question of whether or not Chaucer based his form upon existing Italian models that he encountered in Florence and Lombardy. Indeed, the rhyme royal as exhibited here by Lydgate (ababbcc), certainly echoes the Italian strambotto and ottava rima forms (both abababcc), with the former also being the most likely source for the sonnet.14 Thus through his employment of the Chaucerian stanza Lydgate may have been unwittingly popularizing a quasi-Italianate verse form which would appeal to later poets such as Thomas Wyatt, who had experienced the same ambassadorial role as Chaucer himself. Lydgate not only renders the ‘linguistic journey back’ to Chaucer more accessible, but also creates a kind of international poetic trade route back – and simultaneously forward – to Petrarch himself.15 We frequently find ourselves in this chronological confusum when examining fifteenth century poesis; the way forward is more often than not found by moving backwards – Wyatt filters the “modernity” of Petrarch through the poetry of Chaucer, whose own style is popularized by a successor (Lydgate) moving simultaneously forward toward Wyatt and back again to Petrarch. Lydgate repeatedly finds himself, or rather we see him retrospectively, at this marginal crux where the past, present and future of poetry can exist only via this co-dependent overlap.

We discover a similarly contrapuntal relationship between diction and content throughout the Ballade. Despite its comparatively modern Chaucerian verse form, the poem is still, formally, a ballade in the French medieval style, complete with a refrain at the end of each stanza and l’envoi at the poem’s finale.16 Lydgate also makes use of the medieval sonant –e, in accordance with his strict observation of Chaucerian verse.17 Yet the poem’s content often defies both the French form and the English lexis in its description of the beloved, and those classical figures with whom she is identified. The description, or rather the avoidance of it, of the donna angelicata is closer to the depictions of Petrarch’s Laura in the Canzoniere or the diaphanous Lady of the stilnovisti than it is to later French allegory (for which Lydgate has a slight distaste):

This type of description (or non-description) seems to have been, at least at such length and so systematically constructed, Lydgate’s own development, and he developed it probably because the more familiar type of female description was now outworn. This older technique of description was in the form of an inventory or catalogue of physical excellences. […] Lydgate rejects the realism which allegory in its decline was beginning to promote, and returns to the conceptualisation of experience from which allegory originally sprang.18

Lydgate, like Wyatt after him, certainly has little or no interest in catalogues of physical description – the effictio – opting instead for more abstract terms such as ‘gentylesse’, ‘gouuernaunce’ and ‘avysinesse’, although such terms do show a preference for ‘the recondite polysyllabic and generally Romance word’,19 unlike Wyatt’s terse, muscular verse. Descriptions such as ‘Hevenly eyeghen, aungellyk of vysage’, however, veer more towards the Italianate in their thoroughly uninformative depiction (compare for example the ‘angelica forma’ of Petrarch’s rime 90).20 Again, all these details tend to confirm Lydgate as the poet of process, flux, transition, in that he emphasizes the precursory “Renaissance” qualities of late-medieval verse, such as the notion of the ineffable paragone, whilst reminding us that both Petrarch and Chaucer – pioneering as they were in their respective vernaculars – were also very much of the Middle Ages. Lydgate replaces the ‘familiar type of female description’ with a new, but entirely recognizable, model of amplification which focuses its attention on abstract rather than physical attributes; one list simply replaces the other. The point here is that these minor amendments to the traditional style produce a cumulative effect, which, considered within the context of such a prolific and popular poet as Lydgate, offers a considerable alteration to the late-medieval/early-modern poetic orthodoxy – Lydgate may not have been a trailblazer like Chaucer, but his poetry acts as a constant reminder that styles were slowly transforming, margins gradually shifting.

The second verse of the Ballade continues this fusion of the familiar and the modern. The style is still based around the idea of amplification, but the subject of that amplification has altered; the list has changed again, but it remains a list nevertheless. This stanza – and the two which succeed it – inevitably open up the debate concerning Lydgate’s status as a proto-humanist,21 containing as they do multiple references to classical paragons of literary femininity. Although, as Renoir rightly observes, ‘mere classical name dropping is not enough to earn a poet his place among the Renaissance humanists’,22 it would be equally erroneous to aver that Lydgate was almost entirely ignorant of the works of antiquity. Collections of sententiae, adagia and florilegia were available to the reader of the Middle Ages, just as they were to his Renaissance counterpart,23 but in Lydgate we sense a deeper affinity between the author and his exempla than we would between a lesser poet in possession of a who’s-who of classical literature. There are various textual and biographical reasons behind this appreciation of Lydgate’s awareness of humanist texts. The first is his use of Homeric epithets; each example bears her own laudatory prefix: Penelope for example is the perfect example of ‘Wyfly trouthe’, an apt description for a woman who remained true to her absent husband through the continual deception of her suitors. Similarly, ‘fayre Dido’, another abandoned heroine whose fate was less happy than that of the wife of Odysseus, is associated with ‘diligence’ as a counterpart to Penelope. Fairness and diligence may seem like poetic platitudes, but when we recall that Dido’s success and unhappiness stemmed from her great beauty and dedication, they seem less so.24

The import of the figures in this stanza may, however, stem from Lydgate’s desire to establish a literary lineage which included Chaucer amongst its pantheon. Penelope is Homer’s heroine, Dido the central female character in Virgil’s Aeneid, whilst both ‘Polixcene’ (Polyxena) and ‘Alceste’ (Alcestis) feature in plays by Euripides – the tragedies Hecuba and Alcestis respectively (they are both ideal, tragic paragons of daughterly virtue, as a counterbalance to the two wives of the stanza).25 The figure that stands out is ‘Gresylde’ (Griselda), the representation of ‘parfyt pacyence’, who is not a character culled from antiquity, but nevertheless is considered on a par with her ancient precedents. ‘Gresylde’ first appears in the concluding novella of Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was subsequently translated by Petrarch, whose translation was itself translated by Chaucer (although he may have also known the Decameron).26 She may be seen to represent the continental influence upon English poetry in the early fifteenth century, uniting as she does three of the main literary figures of the day; Lydgate’s inclusion of her serves as a salute to the trio whose works would help to alter indelibly the literary landscape.27 No doubt Lydgate’s main concern is the establishment of Chaucer’s reputation, but the choice of this specific character leads one to suspect that he knew of her previous incarnations.28

Lydgate’s humanistic cachet is given further credibility by his life at the Abbey:

the library of Bury Saint Edmunds, Lydgate’s own monastery, owned an impressive collection of classical texts: Plautus, Terence, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Virgil, Statius, Seneca, Cicero, Macrobius, Caesar, Sallust, Valerius Maximus, Quintillian, Martianus Capella, Pliny, Dioscorides, Servius, Justin, Aethicus, Solinus, and Vitruvius.29

Lydgate’s prolific output surely signifies a voracious reader (although the one does not necessarily signify the other, Shakespeare after all had ‘small Latin and less Greek’), his life as a monk spent in pursuit of the vita contemplativa ensured that ‘Literature is closer to him than life’.30 From this perspective it may be extrapolated that Lydgate would have acquainted himself, at least cursorily, with many of the classical authors that filled Bury’s shelves.31 Furthermore, Lydgate’s patron, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was a renowned advocate of the new learning. Not only was Gloucester in possession of his own substantial library,32 but he also brought Italian scholars such as Tito Livio Frulovisi and Antonio Beccaria to England, and commissioned translations of both Aristotle’s Politics (from Leonardo Bruni himself) and Plato’s Republic – Lydgate therefore found himself on the margins of the first humanist circles in England, and we see this emergent in his poetry.33

Lydgate’s next step towards humanism would, at first glance, appear to be one of his most conventional works, but behind the allegorical façade of The Complaint of the Black Knight we discover a mind attuned to Chaucerian internationalism and, by extension, the physicality of continental poetics, although it is a mind which simultaneously acknowledges its debt to ‘the luxuriant vegetation of medieval thought’ of which Huizinga spoke:

But first, yf I shal make mensyoun
Of his persone, and pleynly him discrive,
He was in soothe, with-out excepcioun.
To speke of manhood oon the best on lyve –
Ther may no man ayein[es] trouthe stryve - ,
For of hys tyme, and of his age also,
He proued was, ther men shuld haue ado.

For oon the best ther of brede and lengthe
So wel ymade by good proporsioun,
Yf he had be in his delyuer strengthe;
But thoght and sekenesse wer occasioun,
That he thus lay in lamentacioun,
Gruffe on the grounde, in place desolate,
Soleby him-self, aw[h]aped and amate. (ll. 148-161)34

The structured rhyme of the Chaucerian stanza provides the poetry with the physicality needed to convey the knight’s person. Interestingly, we notice from examining the poem as a whole that Lydgate tends to yoke his stanzas together thematically – although not as a rule – with many stanzas enjambed together,35 so that throughout the poem the seven-line stanzas are punctuated by these fourteen-line pairings. This may be coincidental, yet both the following possibilities remain: that Lydgate encountered the sonnet in some form (as Chaucer had), and, more importantly, that these fourteen-line units may have been noticed by Wyatt. Lydgate was, after all, still immensely popular during Wyatt’s lifetime, and was still being published by Richard Tottell in 1554, only three years prior to the famous Miscellany, which contained the sonnets of both Wyatt and Surrey.36

Again we notice Lydgate’s characteristic non-description, although the figure of the knight seems somehow more tangible than the Lady of the Ballade, and he appears to possess a distinct shape which nevertheless hovers on the margin of the reader’s vision. Lydgate prepares us for a description, and pledges to ‘pleynly him discrive’, yet this plainness blurs into vague generality as soon as it is attempted. We are told that the knight was ‘oon the best on lyve’, which effectually tells us nothing; he is ‘wel ymade in good proporsioun’, which likewise gives little away. There is a form of negative amplification at work here; Lydgate gives us no description of his knight, and he does so repeatedly, in various ways. Yet there is reason for this; the knight is a literary construct, a product of the romance tradition. Lydgate is aware that his readers will have encountered similar figures in numerous contemporary works and so does not need to describe him; the very mention will conjure up an image in the reader’s mind, and Lydgate knows that he need not digress with a formulaic portrait. The knight’s presence, however, does emanate from this ‘good proporsioun’, and the mention of ‘brede and lengthe’ gives him dimensional existence. The figure of the knight is therefore spatial, not allegorical, or even strictly formulaic, and as such is bound up with the form that contains him – his physical presence arises out of the ‘brede and lengthe’ of the stanza form as part of a shared corpus. The almost ponderous consistency of the rhyme and metre gives the figure of the knight a heavy quality, a weight which, we sense, would not exist had the poem been constructed out of the comparative lightness of French octosyllabic couplets. The Chaucerian stanza has a shape all of its own, with a capacity for self-containment (‘Sole by him-self’) that we would later see in the English sonnet. Thus the description of the knight is featureless, yet his portrait still feels complete.

This physical element in Lydgate’s poetry – an element that he may have learned indirectly from the Italian model via Chaucer37 – which establishes itself through ostensible non-description and sensory experience, is a feature not lost on Alan Renoir:

Not only does Lydgate know how to write a lover’s complaint, but he also knows how to set the physical background […] the imagery [of The Complaint of the Black Knight] seems expressly to appeal most invitingly to the four senses of hearing (‘the briddes song’), touch (‘soyle…wonder softe’), sight (‘bowys grene’), and smell (‘floures’).38

Again this kind of vivid sensual experience harks back to the Rime sparse, and Petrarch’s mitigation and dispersal of Laura throughout the natural world39 via the sonnet as part of a process of scattering and re-memberment. This may have been a technique developed generally by poets of the later Middle Ages – if not by Petrarch himself – as a means of emphasizing the subjective physical experience as opposed to the objective physical catalogue, but it is a method which continues into the early-modern period, most noticeably in Wyatt’s sonnets.40 When Lydgate does introduce a catalogue of natural description it is not simply to show his poetic or amplificatory prowess but to achieve a cumulative sensory experience.

Indeed, the Knight’s ‘Compleynt’ draws together aspects of both Italian (Petrarchan) poetry, English (Chaucerian) medievalism and the subjective physical experience that features heavily in sixteenth century verse:

The thoght oppressed with inward sighes sore,
The peynful lyve, the body langwysshing,
The woful gost, the hert[e] rent and tore,
The petouse chere pale in compleyning,
The dedely face lyke asshes in shynyng,
The salt[e] teres that fro myn eyen falle,
Parcel declare grounde of my peynes alle.


Now hote as fire, now colde as asshes dede,
Now hote for colde, [now colde] for hete ageyn,
Now colde as ise, now as coles rede
For hete I bren, and thus betwyxe tweyn
I possed am, and al forcast in peyn,
So that my hete pleynly as I fele
Of greuouse colde ys cause euerydele. (ll. 218-224, 232-238)

The first stanza is far more Petrarchan in its balanced antitheses than the confusum of the second, but of course antithetical structures are common in the poetry of the Middle Ages, although perhaps even more so in the poetry of Lydgate, as Derek Pearsall confirms, ‘Lydgate’s mind, like a computer, operates thus on a binary system’.41 Yet it is the nature of Lydgate’s antitheses here that sets him apart from his contemporaries. The dichotomy between body and mind bears a definite Petarchan stamp as the binary constituents of the human whole become so confused within one another that they cannot be told apart in terms of cause and effect. The psychosomatic interrelation between ‘the body langwysshing’ and ‘The woful gost’ declares both an awareness of Aristotelian anima and a consciousness moving slowly towards the age of Cartesian dualism. The symbiotic, circular relationship between mental and corporal melancholy is perfectly contained within the structure of the Italianate Chaucerian stanza, which unites psyche and soma in anguish. The result of this osmotic marriage of body and mind is evident in the chaos42 of the second stanza, in which neither body nor mind can distinguish between the extremes that hold them in place. Of course this stanza is entirely dependent upon Chaucer’s Canticus Troili – itself a translation of Petrarch’s rime 132, ‘S’ amor non è’ – and in particular the closing line of Troilus’ lament (‘For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye’), but Lydgate’s delicately arranged confusion takes Chaucer’s complaint a step further. Again the poet is demonstrating amplification and repetition, and again it is not simply for show, but to create the subjective experience of the knight within the reader’s mind – the erratic movement between the binary oppositions allows the reader to experience a modicum of the disarray felt by the knight. Thus the stanza becomes a performative action. Yet the constraints of the form just about manage to hold the confusum in check – as in the sonnet form, the content here struggles against the form which imposes order upon it, just as the body contains the disordered mind, which in turn controls the body’s motility. The poem progresses through these antithetical extremes, as in the sonnet form.

However, The Complaint of the Black Knight remains a medieval poem – its title alone confirms this – but a medieval poem punctuated by elements of insidious modernity. It may contain aspects of early-modern subjectivity and traces of continental humanism, but its main source for both form and content is Chaucer (namely The Book of the Duchess, and, to a lesser extent, Troilus and Criseyde). There are also elements of “traditional” medieval poetics: the garden landscape (a la Romaunt de la Rose), the pleynt, and the aureate sensibility. It comes as no surprise then to find that the poem – and by extension the poet – has a somewhat marginalized critical heritage. Renoir considers Lydgate’s poetry, including the early courtly lyrics, to be ‘a reflection of the changes which were taking place around him’,43 whilst Schirmer argues that The Complaint is simply ‘another perambulation through the gardens of the French allegorical school in which the poet had so often wandered’.44 Pearsall will admit no elements of transitional poetics into Lydgate’s style, claiming him to be ‘perfectly representative of the Middle Ages’,45 whilst The Complaint of the Black Knight is considered to be simply ‘a tissue of borrowings’.46 Yet it is possible to agree with all of the above statements without admitting contradiction: Lydgate’s poetry, including The Complaint, is reflective of the literary transition to which he unconsciously contributed. The Complaint of the Black Knight is another perambulation through the French garden, but Lydgate adds features which were not there previously, he notices what was hitherto unseen. Finally, I agree that Lydgate is a consummate representation of the Middle Ages, but we have to reconsider our received definition of late-medieval poetics; to reiterate Renoir’s averral, the seeds of the Renaissance ‘had been imported from Italy by Chaucer and his contemporaries’, and were sown in part by Lydgate.

It has been argued, for example by Pearsall, that Lydgate’s importance lies mainly in his historical significance, and while he is a vital figure from the canonical perspective, this tends to consign him to a passive role, when his was anything but. Lydgate’s literary life exemplifies the vita activa, with his prolific output serving to clarify Chaucer’s legacy and consolidate both his maister’s and his own standing. Lydgate’s career, far from being worthwhile ‘only as a mark of changing fashions and attitudes’,47 or as the intersection of periodical margins, represents devotion to the progression of poetry. Even if his importance is dependent on that which preceded him and that which followed, this does not devalue his contribution – English poetic tradition evolves not only through those that set themselves apart, but by those who painstakingly establish connections. Unfortunately for poets such as Lydgate, history tends to be less grateful to those who fill in its gaps, as he himself well knew:

“But man alone, alas, the hard stounde,
Ful cruelly, by kyndes ordynaunce,
Constrayned is, and by statute bound,
And debarred from al suche plesaunce
What meneth this? What is this purueyaunce
Of God aboue, agayne al right of kynde,
Without[e] cause, so narowe man to bynde?”48

Lydgate, in this stanza from The Floure of Curtesye, is almost admitting his debt to Chaucer and the duty of the poet – he is ‘Constrayned’ by the ‘statute’ of another’s form, ‘bound’ so inextricably to another that the idea of ‘man alone’ in the first line of the stanza becomes tinged with irony (the inclusion of ‘alas’ here mourns not man’s isolation but his lack of it). However, the poem may bewail its dependent state but it does not shirk its duty or attempt to break its narrow bind; Lydgate questions his poetic status but he does not defy it. Lydgate helps to carry Chaucer through the fifteenth century and proceeds to lay the foundations for the sixteenth century’s appropriation of Italianate forms through his prolific promotion of the rhyme royal stanza. Furthermore, Lydgate introduces a greater level of Petrarchan subjectivity into the medieval courtly lyric without undermining its objective aureate style – no one period or style is sacrificed for the benefit of another. Indeed, Lydgate reminds us of the artificial nature of periodization, and that Petrarch was himself representative of the Middle Ages:

Lydgate shares these features with Chaucer, but he also shares them with the courtly poets of the thirteenth and fourteenth century on the Continent […] Nor did Lydgate discard Chaucer and the French tradition the day he discovered humanism.49

John Lydgate is the poet of transition; far from being an author whose sole concern is drab Gothic artifice, he is a poet concerned with gradual and natural poetic evolution. His devotion to the progression of poetry in the fifteenth century should not be underestimated or ignored; his retrieval from the margins of literary criticism is long overdue.

W.T. Rossiter, U. of Liverpool



1. As Renoir posits in his opening chapter (‘Opinions About Lydgate’), which effectively offers a brief critical heritage of Lydgate, citing the poets John Metham and Stephen Hawes amongst his early admirers.

2. See Walter F. Schirmer, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, trans. by Ann E. Keep (London: Methuen, 1961); Alan Renoir, The Poetry of John Lydgate (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul); Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970). These texts formed the core of modern re-evaluation of Lydgate’s poetry, but did not necessarily result in the widespread readmission of Lydgate into critical favour. Pearsall in particular tends to hinder his own reappraisal via his frequent use of caveats such as ‘it is not wise to make extravagant claims for Lydgate as a poet – and I hope that an enthusiasm for neglected causes will not have led me into folly’ (p. 298). Pearsall also tends to use Lydgate as a comparative means of praising Chaucer, a methodology espoused by both A. C. Spearing’s Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge: CUP, 1985; repr. 1990), and Seth Lerer in Chaucer and his Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). However, texts such as James Simpson’s 1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution, ed. by Jonathan Bate, The Oxford English Literary History: II (Oxford: OUP, 2002; repr. 2004) and Maura Nolan’s forthcoming reassessment, John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (to be published by CUP in September 2005), ought to revive the critical debate over Lydgate’s importance.

3. See Roberto Weiss, Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967) for an account of Gloucester’s influence upon English humanism, in particular see chapters 3 and 4. It has been claimed, for example by Pearsall, that Gloucester was ‘an erratic, unprincipled and attractively unsuccessful politician who dabbled in letters partly because he saw in them a way to prestige and profit’ (John Lydgate, p. 224). One might argue that the true motivation behind Gloucester’s patronage is irrelevant when considered in relation to its end product – the successful integration of humanist texts into fifteenth-century literary culture. Furthermore, the image of the unscrupulous politician who uses art for personal prestige surely reinforces Gloucester’s Italianate credentials – the patronage of the Medici was not entirely devoid of a desire for self-aggrandizement.

4. Such as Petrarch’s famous discovery of two of Cicero’s orations – one of them the Pro Archia – at Liége in 1333.

5. See Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 2 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970; repr. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).

6. Francesco Petrarca, ‘Invective against a Physician’, 137, in Invectives, trans. by David Marsh (London: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 2-179 (pp. 114-115).

7. See Duke Humfrey and English Humanism in the Fifteenth Century: Catalogue of an Exhibition held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, compiled by Tilly de la Mare and Richard Hunt (Oxford: Bodleian, 1970).

8. I refer to Wyatt throughout as being representative of the early-modern style, as his introduction of the sonnet form into England is often considered to be the point at which English Renaissance poetics begin in earnest. Such periodization is, of course, erroneous; Wyatt’s poetry is equally indebted to the medieval poetic tradition, as Huizinga rightly argues in The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, trans by F. Hopman (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955; repr. 1979): ‘Classicism did not come as a sudden revelation, it grew up among the luxuriant vegetation of medieval thought […] classical form may serve to express the old conceptions […] Traditional forms, on the other hand, may contain the spirit of the coming age.’ (pp. 307-318). See also Patricia Thomson, Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Background (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964).

9. One of the most virulent attacks was that of Thomas Lounsbury : ‘In his versification there is no harmony, no regular movement […] the dead past, so far from being able to bury its dead, is not even able to bury its bores’, Studies in Chaucer, 3 vols (London: Osgood and McIlvaine, 1892), III, p. 27. Note the deliberately paronamastic use of ‘bury’ as a reference to the abbey at Bury Saint Edmunds where Lydgate spent the majority of his life.

10. Renoir, p. 1.

11. For example by Renoir: ‘With the passage of the years, we shall see Lydgate partially turn away from Chaucer and the Middle Ages and look toward the Renaissance’, (p. 51).

12. Ibid., p. 40. Crucially, Renoir proceeds to argue that Lydgate did not ‘discard Chaucer and the French tradition the day he discovered humanism’ (p. 50).

13. John Lydgate, ‘ A Ballade of her that hath All Virtues’, in The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. Henry Noble McCracken, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1934; repr. 1961), II, pp. 379-380 (p. 379).

14. David Wallace argues for the ottava rima’s influence upon Chaucer’s creation of rhyme royal in ‘Chaucer’s Continental Inheritance: The early poems and Troilus and Criseyde’, in The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed. by Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (Cambridge: CUP, 1986; repr. 2003), pp. 19-37 (p. 25). Wallace’s argument is reinforced by Martin J. Duffell’s ‘ “the craft so long to lerne”: Chaucer’s Invention of the Iambic Pentameter’, Chaucer Review, 34 (2000), 269-288, in which he shows that Chaucerian pentameter – which materializes in conjunction with rhyme royal – is based upon the endecasillibi (hendecasyllables) of Boccaccio’s ottava rima. The strambotto as likely source for the sonnet is discussed in Michael R. G. Spiller’s essential study, The Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1992; repr. 2002), p. 85. See also E. H. Wilkins, ‘The Invention of the Sonnet’, Modern Philology, 13 (1915), 463-94 (pp. 478-80).

15. That is to say he moves backward, chronologically speaking, to Petrarch (d. 1374) and stylistically forward to the Petrarchism of the Henrician court.

16. See Susan Bianco, ‘A Black Monk in the Rose Garden: Lydgate and the Dit Amoreux Tradition’, Chaucer Review, 34 (1999), 60-68, for an illuminating discussion of Lydgate’s relation to the French medieval/allegorical style.

17. This helps to account for eighteenth/nineteenth century critics’ vitriolic attacks on Lydgate’s lack of metrical harmony: ‘Older critics like Saintsbury tended to dismiss Lydgate’s verse as metrically chaotic […] The standard view is that the decline of the sonant final –e after 1400 played havoc with Chaucer’s versification, which had made use of inflexional –e in a way that was already becoming archaic in his own day. The balance being lost, the artificial structure of the pentameter collapsed, and his successors fell back rough four-stress native patterns, Lydgate representing the transitional process of collapse […] Loss of final –e will explain many of these phenomena, but it will not do for Lydgate, who uses final –e in much the same way and under much the same way as Chaucer.’ (Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 61).

18. Pearsall, pp. 98-110.

19. Schirmer, p. 74.

20. See also Chaucer’s description of Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, I, 101-104: ‘So aungelik was hir natif beaute, / That lik a thing immortal semed she, / As doth an hevenyssh perfit creature’, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Oxford: OUP, 1987), pp. 471-585 (p. 474). Chaucer is here translating Boccaccio’s description of Criseida as it appears in Il Filostrato, I, 11: ‘Sì bella e sì angelica a vedere / Era, che non parea cosa mortale, Criseida nomata’ [‘so fair and so angelic to behold that she seemed not a mortal, Criseida by name’], in The Filostrato of Giovani Boccaccio, trans. by N. E. Griffin and A. B. Myrick (London: OUP, 1929), pp. 138-9. Boccaccio’s description in turn appears to have been influenced by Petrarch’s rime 90, ll. 9-11: ‘Non era l’andar suo cosa mortale / ma d’angelica forma, et le parole / sonavan altro che pur voce umana’ [‘Her walk was not that of a mortal thing but of some angelic form, and her words sounded different from a merely human voice’], in Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime sparse and Other Lyrics, trans. by Robert M. Durling (London: Harvard University Press, 1976), pp. 192-3. It is at such moments that one witnesses and understands Lydgate’s osmotic, intertextual reception and dissemination of an Italianate style.

21. Simpson, referring to the Troy Book, the Siege of Thebes and the Fall of Princes, argues that ‘these works are not so much proto-humanist, as humanist’ (p. 52).

22. Renoir, p. 72.

23. And as, of course, they are to the 21st century reader in the forms of e-florilegia (online databases and search engines providing citations), and dictionaries of quotations.

24. ‘Diligence’ may be interpreted as a reference to Dido’s success in tricking Iarbas through her determined creation of Carthage, whilst her fairness attracted those who feared her (Iarbas himself), and drove her to her death (Aeneas).

25. However, it is most likely that Lydgate would have known Polyxena primarily through Ovid, and Alcestis via Chaucer. Although Dante refers to Euripides in Purgatorio, XXII, 106 (‘Euripide v’è nosco’), his works were not widely known in the late-medieval period, at least not in the West. As F. L. Lucas avers in Euripides and His Influence (New York: Cooper, 1963), ‘for the learned of the West Euripides was for years the subordinate of his imitator Seneca’, (p. 92).

26. See De obedienta ac fide uxoria mythologia (from the Epistolae Seniles), and The Clerkes Tale, respectively. See J. Burke Severs, The Literary Relationships of Chaucer’s Clerkes Tale, Yale Studies in English, XCVI (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942).

27. And, somewhat ironically, shift the margins of critical taste to an extent which would ultimately prove detrimental to Lydgate’s poetical reputation, as Pearsall confirms in his essay ‘Chaucer and Lydgate’, in Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, ed. by Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), pp. 39-53: ‘it was Lydgate who helped to make the way broad for Chaucer’s poetry to be accessible to later readers, particularly by ensuring that the language of the poetry was more widely and serviceably current, and that it is Lydgate who is trampled underfoot in the flood of admirers who flock to the older poet’ (p. 40).

28. This idea is reinforced by the fact that Lydgate was not only a great Chaucer scholar, but a close friend of the Chaucer family (and as such had access to his MSS); see Renoir, pp. 56-57. Also, and this can only be conjectural, Pearsall reminds us that Laurent de Premierfait – whose French translation of Boccaccio’s De Casibus was Lydgate’s main source for his monumental Fall of Princes – had ‘already tried his hand at Boccaccio in translating a Latin version of the Decameron’ (John Lydgate, p. 232). The only surviving MS of Premierfait’s translation – entitled Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles – may be found in Glasgow University library, and was apparently presented to the Duke of Burgundy in the 1460s (after Lydgate’s death). However, even if this date is correct and there was no earlier version of the Decameron available in French, which is unlikely, the Latin version from which Premierfait was working would perhaps have been available to Lydgate. Also, it is important to bear in mind that Petrarch had circulated his version of the Griselda tale amongst his friends and admirers, which led to it becoming well-known not only in Italy but also in France via Petrarch’s links with Avignon and Vaucluse. Finally, included in the Catalogue of the Oxford MS exhibition is a copy of Petrarch’s Latin Vita Griseldis (article 57: MS. Lat. 39, fol. 1) which is contemporary with Lydgate and reinforces the notion of the tale’s circulation in England in its Petrarchan form.

29. Renoir, p. 41.

30. Pearsall, p. 17. This is, nevertheless, a somewhat cloistered view of Lydgate – as we know, Lydgate spent a great deal of time away from Bury, and so tempered the vita contemplativa with the vita activa.

31. Pearsall disagrees with Renoir over this matter, stating that Lydgate had in fact ‘read Ovid, and has a smattering of Virgil and Cicero, but the rest are mere names, known to him at second-hand from his immediate source-text, from anthologies or Latin grammars’ (p. 15). Whilst I am apt to disagree with Pearsall on this matter, I do not wholly discount his claim; one suspects that the truth lies somewhere in between Pearsall’s and Renoir’s opinions, which is typical of Lydgate as a whole.

32. Which later formed the basis of the library at Oxford, and amongst which could be found not only various writings by Petrarch but also a copy of the French Decameron referred to above (n.26, see also n. 7 and n.3).

33. See Renoir, pp. 40-45.

34. John Lydgate, ‘The Complaint of the Black Knight’, in The Minor Poems, pp. 382-410.

35. Stanza 1 ends in a comma, stanza 2 with a full stop. This kind of enjambment also occurs between stanzas 13-14, 19-20, 21-22, 28-29, 30-31, 36-37, 38-39, 48-49, 61-62, and 85-86. See Thomson’s Sir Thomas Wyatt and his Background: ‘The small group of rhyme royal stanzas, often without the ballade’s refrain, became following Chaucer, an extremely popular form, appropriate to a love complaint, compliment, moralization, or any passing occasion. It provides a medieval equivalent to the Renaissance sonnet – an equivalence to which some colour is lent by the ‘Canticus Troili’’ (p. 116).

36. As Renoir reminds us, ‘Lydgate’s works were among the very first pieces of English literature to go to the printing press and were still on the market as late as the second half of the sixteenth century’ (p. 2). It is unlikely that there would have been a seismic demographic shift between 1554 and 1557; the same audience who read Lydgate would have read the ‘songes and sonnets’ of Tottel’s Miscellany. Such a continuity in rezeptionästhetik, it can be argued, reinforces the concept that Lydgate’s mass production of the Italianate Chaucerian stanza – which may claim poetic consanguinity with the sonnet due to the ottava rima/strambotto connection – assisted in the sonnet’s favourable reception by imbuing the later form with a familiar novelty; the sonnet was new but not too new.

37. Petrarch, unlike the stilnovisti, used the sonnet form to incorporate the figure of his desire. Like both Lydgate and Wyatt he tends to eschew direct description, yet manages to give Laura a physical presence by scattering her body parts throughout his Rime sparse – the body of the sonnet acts as a surrogate for the body of the beloved, as the figure of the knight is created through the Chaucerian stanza in this instance. See Nancy J. Vickers, ‘The Body Re-membered: Petrarchan Lyric and the Strategies of Description’, in Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine to Descartes, ed. by John D. Lyons and Stephen G. Nichols Jr (London: University of New England Press), pp. 100-109. See also Giuseppe Mazzotta, ‘The Canzoniere and the Language of Self’, in The Worlds of Petrarch (London: Duke University Press, 1993; repr. 1999), pp. 58-79.

38. Renoir, p. 24.

39. She becomes, for example, both the laurel tree (‘lauro’), the wind (‘l’ aura’), and the dawn (‘l’aurora’).

40. ‘Nor does Wyatt ever catalogue beauties, preferring, with Jane Austen, to describe the effect of the beauty on the unwary […] The result of this plain technique is obvious. Weight is thrown not on to what Wyatt sees but on to what he feels about what he sees’ (Thomson, p. 131). Lydgate may not be as directly concerned with the subjective experience as Wyatt, but his poetry definitely shows the beginnings of a shift away from the aureate to the relative plainness of the early-modern. Lydgate, in addition to being the definitive poet aureate, is also in fact the poet who begins the transformation in poetic consciousness from the exalted to the real.

41. Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 113.

42. Chaos in the modern sense of super-order rather than disorder.

43. Renoir, p. 43.

44. Schirmer, p. 34.

45. Pearsall, p. 14.

46. Ibid, p. 85. Although all poetry may be considered, to an extent, to be such a tissue when considered in the light of Bloomian influence-anxiety and Barthesian notions of the text as a synthesis of interwoven citations and references.

47. Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 4.

48. ‘The Floure of Curtesye’, ll. 64-70, in The Minor Poems, pp. 410-418.

49. Renoir, p. 50.

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