John Lydgate 1370(?)-1450(?)
English poet, translator, and prose writer.
Lydgate was one of the most popular and prolific English poets of the fifteenth century. His works, many of which were commissioned by prominent personages, include poems written in the Chaucerian manner, such as the Complaint of the Black Knight (1400?) and the allegory The Temple of Glass (1403?). His translations include the Troy Book, (1412-20), The Fall of Princes, (1431-39), and The Siege of Thebes (1420?). He also wrote fables, devotional, philosophic, and occasional poems, and a prose work, The Serpent of Division (1422), about Caesar's wars and death. Lydgate's reputation has largely been overshadowed by Geoffrey Chaucer, and most modern critics fault his prolixity and prosaic style. Lydgate does however have admirers, including the poet Thomas Gray, who praised the carefulness of his phraseology and the smoothness of his verse.
Although many details of his life remain unclear, critics are reasonably certain that Lydgate was born at Lydgate, Suffolk, around 1370 to a family of peasant stock. When he was fifteen, he entered the Benedictine abbey at Bury to begin a career in the priesthood. In 1389 Lydgate became a subdeacon, and in 1393 he was raised to the order of deacon. He was ordained a priest in 1397. As an initiate, Lydgate was schooled in Latin grammar, theology, logic, rhetoric, and writing. He may have also studied at both Oxford and Cambridge between 1406 and 1408, and it is probable that he traveled in France and Italy. He is thought to have opened a school for sons of the nobility in the monastery of Bury, and he most likely began writing poetry around 1400. However, most of his major works were composed between 1412 and 1440, when he was associated with the monastery as well as the royal court. His verses were much in request by noble lords and ladies (he wrote many of his poems on commission), and he composed a ballad for the coronation of Henry VI. From 1423 to 1434 Lydgate was prior of Hatfield Broadoak, but is said not to have busied himself much with his duties there. He took up residence in Paris from 1426 to 1429, where he joined the retinue of the duke of Bedford. In 1434, after spending time in London, Windsor, and Hatfield, Lydgate returned to Bury, where he remained the rest of his life. He continued to receive commissions and grants for his writings by various patrons until his death in 1450.
Lydgate was a learned and industrious poet who wrote verse on various subjects. Much of his work has been lost, but he is thought to have composed some 251 poems. Many of his poems are of significant length, such as the extant Fall of Princes, which runs 36,000 lines. His earliest poems, written in approximately 1400, include The Flower of Courtesy, Bycorne and Chichevache, and Complaint of the Black Knight, the last of which was once ascribed to Chaucer. This and a number of other works by Lydgate were imitations of his great predecessor. Lydgate's long allegorical love poem Temple of Glass, for example, is modeled on Chaucer's House of Fame. In his 4716-line Siege of Thebes, which is regarded by many to be his best work, Lydgate represents himself as having been invited to join the pilgrims from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on their return journey. The work includes a prologue modeled on Chaucer's and then tells of the foundation of Thebes, the struggle between the brothers Ethiocles and Polymetes for supremacy, and the siege and destruction of Troy.
A number of Lydgate's works are actually lengthy translations from Latin and French. His Troy Book is based on a Latin work by Guido della Colonna, and Fall of Princes paraphrases Laurent de Premierfait's Des Cas des Nobles Hommes et Femmes. Lydgate also wrote a number of devotional works, notably Life of Our Lady (1409 or 1434[?]) and Dance of Death (1426-29). He also composed beast fables, such as “The Horse, the Sheep, and the Goose” and “The Churl and the Bird,” and a number of short, popular poems. Lydgate's only prose tract, The Serpent of Division, was among the first political pamphlets in English history and the most comprehensive discussion of Julius Caesar in Middle English literature.
Although Lydgate was admired by his contemporaries, in later centuries his reputation has suffered. The general consensus has been that although he wrote a great deal (twice as much as William Shakespeare and three times as much as Chaucer), the quality of his work is lacking. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, Lydgate's rhetorical skill was highly regarded. George Ashby, writing in 1470, called Chaucer, John Gower, and Lydgate the three “masters” of poetry in England; Lydgate continued to be associated with these two great poets until the early seventeenth century. When the popularity of Middle English literature faded, however, so too did interest in Lydgate's work. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was barely any mention of Lydgate by other writers. The notable exception was Thomas Gray. In a 1760 essay, in which he approached Lydgate from a historical point of view, he found the monk to be an able versifier. Other critics have not been so kind. In his 1802 Biographia poetica, Joseph Ritson called Lydgate a “voluminous, prosaic, and driveling monk” and lambasted his “stupid and fatiguing productions, which by no means deserve the name of poetry.” This damning criticism severely damaged Lydgate's reputation, which has not yet fully recovered. Many critics still maintain that his poetry is dull and rhythmically uneven. However, in the mid-twentieth century critics began to revisit Lydgate's work. While most acknowledge that some of his writing is dull and verbose, others have identified certain strengths in his literary output. The first substantial work of modern criticism on Lydgate was by the German scholar W. F. Schirmer, who, in John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the Fifteenth Century, attempted to place Lydgate in historical context. Schirmer and others since have also paid careful attention to Lydgate's prosody, showing that there is more method to his meter than is immediately apparent. Since the 1960s, a number of scholars have written on Lydgate, discussing such issues as his “medievalism,” his choice of images, and how his background as a monk informs his work. Of all Lydgate's poems, commentators have paid most attention to The Siege of Thebes, probably because it is self-consciously imitative of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Indeed, a great deal of Lydgate scholarship surrounds the monk's indebtedness to and imitation of Chaucer. Even those who still find little that is worthy in Lydgate's poetry view him as important because of the light he sheds on the work of his acknowledged master—the towering literary figure of the Middle Ages, Chaucer.