Once the uncrowned poet laureate of England, John Lydgate was appreciated by kings, princes, and nobility. In more modern times, he is often disparaged by literary scholars. Critics have charged that his poetry is dull, long-winded, and poorly wrought. Not all these charges will stand scrutiny, however, and one could argue that Lydgate’s fall is due primarily to a shifting of tastes in poetry rather than to poor craftsmanship on his part.
It is true that Lydgate’s poetry consistently frustrates the modern reader, who expects poetry to be compressed and concise; Lydgate’s poems are generally voluminous. Instead of irony or ambiguity, Lydgate usually assumes a rather prosaic straightforwardness. On the other hand, instead of ordinary words in their natural order, Lydgate uses obscure terms in complicated syntax. Far from writing art for art’s sake, Lydgate consistently insists on teaching sound doctrine and morality. Finally, in place of a uniquely personal vision and style, Lydgate always writes as a conventional public poet.
If one reads Lydgate through “medieval spectacles,” however, these characteristics seem not only normal but praiseworthy as well. Lydgate saw himself as a rhetorician and thus felt it necessary to be both “sweet and useful” in his writing. Poetical art, to the medieval mind, was the application of rhetorical know-how to traditional themes and stories. Thus, he was first a craftsperson, not a prophet or seer. He would not have considered his personal emotions or insights worthy of remembrance.
It is ironic, therefore, that Lydgate the careful craftsperson has developed the reputation of being a poor versifier. If one assumes that his lines were supposed to be strictly iambic pentameter, this opinion may be justified. Fortunately, beginning with C. S. Lewis in 1939, certain scholars have suggested that Lydgate’s line was based on a slightly different model, one that blends the French tradition of decasyllabic verse with the native tradition of balanced half-lines, thus allowing a variable number of stresses and syllables. In the light of these scholarly studies, Lydgate’s verse seems consistently good.
Some critics argue that Lydgate is important as a poet of transition, since they find the seeds of Renaissance humanism in some of his work. Although it would be foolish to discount their insights completely, however, the more traditional reading is that Lydgate is a purely medieval writer.
Complaint of the Black Knight
Much of what can be said about John Lydgate’s art in the Complaint of the Black Knight can be applied very readily to the bulk of his writings. The poem, written about 1400, is a conventional love complaint, a very popular genre of the age, of ninety-seven Chaucerian stanzas (stanzas of seven pentameter lines rhyming ababbcc). It begins with the poet, sick at heart, journeying out into the May morning to find some succor for his pain. He encounters birds singing, beautiful trees and flowers, a clear river, and a fountain that provides him water to refresh his spirits. All of a sudden, the poet discovers an arbor in which a handsome knight, dressed in black, sits moaning as if sick. After hiding, the poet discreetly listens to the lover’s complaint.
The centerpiece of this poem is the highly artificial soliloquy that follows. Here the knight first confesses that he is tortured with overwhelming love; second, protests that his lady, because of false rumors about his conduct, disdains him; third, remonstrates with the God of Love, who, he claims, is unfair to honest lovers and rewards only the false; and fourth, offers his life to his lady: “My hert I send, and my spirit also,/ What so-ever she list with hem to do.” Moved to tears by this complaint, the poet prays to the rising Venus, asking that she will have pity on this true lover. He then prays that all lovers will be true and that they will enjoy one another’s embraces. Finally, he sends his poem off to his princess, hoping that this “little book” will speak eloquently of his pain in love.
The whole poem is borrowings, not only from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess (c. 1370), Lydgate’s main source, but also from many of the poems of the French allegorical school. Borrowing, however, is normal procedure for medieval poets, for, as Robert Payne has shown in his The Key of Remembrance (1963), they considered their primary task to be not poetic invention but rather the reordering and the embellishment of traditional truths or literary works. Lydgate here is true to his times, and he works as a craftsperson, not a seer. His main talent, then, lies squarely within the confines of rhetoric.
The landscape in the Complaint of the Black Knight, for example, is not constructed from personal observation or experience but is taken directly from conventional descriptions of nature that Lydgate found in “old books.” He tries to construct a locus amoenus, an idealized natural site fit for idealized lovers, both successful and frustrated. Thus, he uses all the details, the May morning, the flowers, the birds, the clear stream, that the sources stipulated. Moreover, Lydgate borrows not only descriptions of nature but also many other traditional themes, images, and literary postures, making the poem entirely conventional.
After selecting his genre, his themes, and his sources, Lydgate, working methodically, amplifying, contracting, or rearranging parts according to his own tastes, next fashions a fitting structure for them. Finally, he adds the embellishment, the literary “colors,” such as alliteration, antithesis, chiasmus, echoing, exclamation, parallelism, or repetition. Thus, in lines 232 to 233, the Knight describes his woes with an elaborate chiasmus, reminiscent of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382), book 1, 420: “Now hote as fire, now colde as asshes dede,/ Now hote for colde, now colde for hete ageyn.” In lines 400 to 403, Lydgate adapts an exclamation from Troilus and Criseyde, book 5, 1828-1832:
Lo her the fyne of loveres servise!Lo how that Love can his servantis quyte!Lo how he can his feythful men dispise,To sle the trwe men, and fals to respite!
Lydgate regularly protests that he has no literary “colors,” but this too is a conventional literary pose. On the contrary, one finds “colors” used carefully and continuously throughout the Lydgate corpus.
In fact, Lydgate is so much interested in the surface decoration of his poetry that he sometimes seems to neglect its deeper significance. The elaborate descriptions of nature in the literature of courtly love, for example, were meant to have a purpose beyond that of mere ornamentation; they were supposed to carry an allegorical meaning. In Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370), from which Lydgate borrowed some of his landscape, the fountain of Narcissus represents the Lady’s eyes, the garden represents the life at court, and the rose-plot is the mind of the lady wherein personified fears and hopes do battle. C. S. Lewis discusses these allegorical meanings at length in The Allegory of Love (1936), but he could not do the same for Lydgate’s version of the garden, for here the long description of the garden is not integrated with the rest of the poem. Once the Knight begins his soliloquy, Lydgate seemingly forgets the garden, whose description is thus solely a piece of rhetorical virtuosity. Indeed, that which is of most value in the poem is the part that is most intrinsically rhetorical: the formal complaint of the Knight. In Lewis’s words, “The slow building up and decoration, niche by niche, of a rhetorical structure, brings out what is best in the poet.”
In this context, Lydgate’s famous predilection for florid Latinate diction makes sense. The poet himself coined the term aureate to describe both a highly wrought style and an elevated diction. In Fall of Princes, he describes his task in the following way: “Writying of old, with letters aureat,/ Labour of poetis doth hihli magnefie.” The medium here fits the message, for Lydgate cannot resist twisting normal English word order. Moreover, the influence of Lydgate’s style on his successors was great indeed, for the use of “aureat lettres” came to dominate fifteenth century verse. It was not until the nineteenth century, when William Wordsworth began to attack “poetic diction,” that “aureate” came to have pejorative connotations.
Ballade at the Reverence of Our Lady, Qwene of Mercy
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