John Lydgate Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

John Lydgate (LIHD-gayt) wrote only one significant piece of prose, The Serpent of Division. Scholars are uncertain as to its exact date of composition, but Walter Schirmer, in his John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the Fifteenth Century (1961), suggested the year 1422. Drawing on Lucan’s Pharsalia (c. 80 c.e.) and Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Historiale, Lydgate here presents the first comprehensive account of the rise and fall of Julius Caesar ever written in English. As in other writings, Lydgate uses this story as an exemplum, a story used to teach morality. Here Lydgate’s lesson had to do with civil war.

Certain of Lydgate’s poems are very intimately connected with later English dramatic forms, especially the masque. His “mummings” were meant to accompany short pantomimes or the presentation of tableaux vivantes. For example, in 1424, Mumming at Bishopswood was presented at an outdoor gathering of London’s civic officials. A narrator presented the verses while a dancer portrayed the Goddess of Spring with various gestures and dance steps. The lesson of the poem is conveyed through allegory, where immaterial entities are personified. Here Spring represents civil concord, and Lydgate argues that just as the joy, freshness, and prosperity of Spring replace the heaviness and trouble of winter, so too the various estates, the nobles, the clergy, and the commoners, should throw off their discord and work together in their God-given roles. Success in these “mummings” probably helped prepare Lydgate for his part in the preparation of the public celebrations for the coronation of Henry VI in 1429, and for the triumphant entry into London of the same king with his new queen, Margaret, in 1445.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

John Lydgate was one of the most prolific writers in English, with 145,000 lines of verse to his credit. To match this, one would have to write eight lines a day, every day, for about fifty years. Furthermore, almost every known medieval poetic genre is represented in the Lydgate canon.

For hundreds of years, the English literary public regarded Lydgate’s achievement as equal to that of Geoffrey Chaucer or John Gower. Indeed, the three writers were generally grouped together into a conventional triad of outstanding English poets. George Ashby’s praise in 1470 is typical:

Maisters Gower, Chaucer & Lydgate,Primier poetes of this nacion,Embelysshing oure Englisshe tendure algateFirste finders to oure consolacion.

Furthermore, Lydgate was the glass through which his contemporaries understood and appreciated Chaucer, whom they considered a rhetorician, not a realist, the writer who finally formed English into a suitable vehicle for poetry, philosophy, and learning. In the end, perhaps Lydgate’s greatest achievement was to consolidate this new status for his native tongue. Wholehearted monk, sometime administrator, and laureate versifier for kings and princes, Lydgate wrote poetry representative of his times and proper for someone of his position: sometimes prolix, often dull, but everywhere sincere, decorous, well crafted, and worthy of remembrance.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Cooney, Helen, ed. Nation, Court, and Culture: New Essays on Fifteenth-Century English Poetry. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 2001. This collection of essays on poets of the fifteenth century discusses Lydgate as well as Thomas Hoccleye and John Skeleton.

Cooper, Lisa H., and Andrea Denny-Brown, eds. Poetry and Material Culture in the Fifteenth Century: Lydgate Matters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. This work reevaluates Lydgate’s work in the light of medieval material culture. Describes how poetry spoke to the increased relevance of material goods and possessions to late medieval identity and literary taste.

Ebin, Lois A. John Lydgate. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This concise yet thorough book-length study serves as a useful introduction to the Lydgate canon and contains chapters on his courtly poems, moral and didactic poems, and religious poems. Includes a chronology of Lydgate’s life and complete notes, including a list of secondary sources, references, and an index.

Mortimer, Nigel. John Lydgate’s “Fall of Princes”: Narrative Tragedy in Its Literary and Political Contexts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An extended discussion of the poem that features accounts of nearly five hundred mythological and historical figures who fell from fame into obscurity.

Nolan, Maura. John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Argues that Lydgate, who wrote for an elite London readership, helped develop English public culture. Provides a new interpretation of Lydgate’s relationship to Chaucer.

Pearsall, Derek Albert. John Lydgate (1371-1449). Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria Press, 1997. A bibliography of works by and about Lydgate with a brief biographical sketch.

Scanlon, Larry, and James Simpson, eds. John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. This collection of essays examines topics such as Lydgate’s syntax and his lives of saints as well as specific works, such as The Temple of Glass.