Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Thomas Arnold
John Lydgate (c. 1370c. 1451)
[John Lydgate was born at the village of Lydgate near Newmarket in Suffolk, about 1370. His death probably occurred about 1440. Apparently the latest date discoverable in any of his poems is 1433, in which year he wrote a sort of city poem, celebrating the pageants, processions, and other rejoicings in the city of London on the occasion of the solemn entry of Henry VI. He was a monk in the Benedictine monastery of Bury St. Edmunds. Among his numerous writings three stand out prominently: the Storie of Thebes, written when he was nearly fifty; the Troye Book, begun under Henry IV, and finished about 1420; and the Falls of Princes, written between 1422 and 1433.]
LYDGATE seems to have been stimulated to write partly by the example and renown of Chaucer, partly by a predilection for the French poets of that dayChristine de Pisan, Machault, Granson, &c.and the desire to emulate them. He was a monk of that monastery of St. Edmund king and martyr, at Bury, into the interior life of which Jocelyn de Brakelonde, much helped by his modern editor,1 has enabled us to look so clearly. But Abbot Hubert and Abbot Samson had laboured and gone to their account more than two centuries before, and though his rule remained the same, the conditions of life were much changed in the interval, even for a monk of Bury. In particular, the dazzling and distracting images of Literature besieged his cell, and haunted his thoughts, with a persistency unknown at the earlier period. Then the vernacular literatures were in their infancy, and sober Latin was the ordinary dress of a cultivated mans thought; now, in France and Italy, and in England, numerous works, bearing the imprint of the newest spirit of the day, decked also with sallies of wit and beautiful imagery which came directly from the heart and brain, through the familiar mother-tongue, were circulating amongst and influencing all who could think and feel. Lydgate, who by his own account had little vocation for the cloister, whose boyhood had been mischievous,2 his youth lazy and riotous,3 and his early manhood disedifying,4 for a long time cared little about St. Edmund and the special duties of the monastic life. He had an intense admiration for Chaucer, and his first large work seems to have been The Storie of Thebes, which he represents as a new Canterbury tale, told by himself soon after his joining the company of pilgrims at Canterbury. It is founded on the Thebaid of Statius and the Teseide of Boccaccio, and written in the ten-syllable rhyming couplet which Chaucer had used with such effect in The Knightes Tale. The prologue is spirited, but when the body of the poem is reached the attention soon flags. Chaucer versifies with facility, and also with power; Lydgate has the facility without the power. His next considerable work, on the story of Troy, was undertaken about A.D. 1412, at the request of Prince Henry, afterwards Henry V., and finished in 1420. The prince desired that the noble storye of Troye should be as well known in England as elsewhere, and as well written in English
As in the Latyn and the Frenshe it is.
Troy was then regarded as the antiqua mater of every European nation. It would therefore seem very fitting, that since Wace and his English translators, following Geoffrey of Monmouth, had given in the vernacular the story of the original Trojan settlement of England under Brutus the great-grandson of Aeneas, the moving vicissitudes of the city to which Brutus and Aeneas belonged should also now be told in English. This poem is in five books, and written, like The Storie of Thebes, in the ten-syllable couplet. It is founded on the Latin prose history of Troy by Guido di Colonna, a Sicilian jurist of the thirteenth century. The austere old layman wrote many things to the disadvantage of the fair sex which are painful to the politeness of the monk, who declares that he translates them unwillingly, and would give their author, were he alive, a bitter penance for his crabbed language. In the third book, where the story of Troilus and Cressida is introduced, Lydgate seizes the opportunity of paying an ardent tribute of praise, love, and admiration to his maister Chaucer, who had chosen that subject for a poem.
The versification of Lydgate, in this Troy-book and in The Storie of Thebes, as well as in his numerous shorter pieces, is extremely rough. If the structure of the lines is attentively considered, it will be seen that he did not regard them as consisting of ten syllables and five feet, or at least that he did not generally so regard them, but rather as made up of two halves or counterbalancing members, each containing two accents. Remembering this, the reader can get through a long passage by Lydgate or Barclay with some degree of comfort; though, if he were to read the same passage with the expectation of meeting always the due number of syllables, his ear would be continually disappointed and annoyed. This vicious mode of versification was probably a legacy from the alliterative poets, whose popularity, especially in the North of England, was so great that their peculiar rhythm long survived after rhyme and measure had outwardly carried the day. Not to mention Layamons Brut, where we see a curious mixture of rhyme and alliteration,the former, as the poem proceeds, gradually edging out the latter,romances and other pieces of much later date can be pointed out, in which not only rhyme and measure but even the stanza form is adopted (for instance, in the Anters of Arthur, published by the Camden Society, 1842), yet still alliteration is carefully practised, and the syllabic lawlessness which the alliterator held to be his privilege, maintained. In the South of England, where the influences of French and Italian literature were more powerful, alliteration was repudiated; thus we find Chaucer making his Persone say,
I am a sotherne man,
I cannot geste, rom, ram, ruf, by my letter.
To geste meant to write in alliterative style, because of the great number of romances or gestes so written which were then in circulation.
Lydgates last notable work was The Falls of Princes, founded on a French version of the Latin treatise by Boccaccio, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. It is dedicated to Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, brother to Henry V, whom he speaks of as dead, and mentions his having written his Troy-book at his desire. The subject of this vast poem, which is in nine books, and was printed in folio in 1558, may be gathered from the old title-page, which runs, The Tragedies gathered by Jhon Bochas of all such Princes as fell from theyr Estates throughe the Mutability of Fortune since the creation of Adam until his time; wherin may be seen what vices bring menne to destruccion, wyth notable warninges howe the like may be avoyded. Translated into English by John Lidgate, Monke of Burye. The Monks Tale of Chaucer proceeds on the same lines; and a company of Marian or Elizabethan poets, Sackville, Baldwin, Ferrers, &c., working out the same idea, but with a more distinct ethical purpose, produced that stupendous but forgotten work, the Myrrour for Magistrates. In this work Lydgate adopted the seven-line stanza so much employed by Chaucer, and also seems to have taken more pains than before to emulate the rhythmic excellence of his masters work. Hence the Falls of Princes is, of his three principal poems, by far the most readable. In the beginning of the eighth book he complains of age and poverty; and one of the minor poems, written while he was employed on this work, is in the form of a letter to the Duke of Gloucester, saying that his purs was falle in great rerage (arrears), and asking for money.
In his old age the genius loci, and the saintly memories which clung round the monastery, appear to have influenced the poet more than in his youth. We find him composing a metrical Life of St. Edmund, which still reposes in MS., and writing the Legend of St. Alban for the monks of that famous monastery.
Of his minor poems a large and not uninteresting selection was edited some forty years ago for the Percy Society by Mr. Halliwell. They are mostly written in an octave stanza, not the ottava rima, but one in which the second rhyme embraces the second, fourth, fifth and seventh lines, whilst the third rhyme connects the sixth and eighth. A considerable number are in the rhyme royal, or seven-line stanza. Two or three of them are satirical, not to say cynical; several are descriptive; but the majority are either versions of French or Latin fabliaux, or moralizing pieces based on proverbs and old saws. There is much that is vivid and forcible in the picture of the manners and humours of London and Westminster given in London Lickpenny. Pur le Roy may remind us of the effusions of Elkanah Settle the city poet, unmercifully ridiculed by Pope in the Dunciad. If it may certainly be attributed to Lydgate, it proves that he was living in 1433, in which year occurred the visit of Henry VI to London after his coronation, when the citizens received him with extraordinary demonstrations of joy and loyalty. The pageants, dresses, uniforms, speeches, &c., are described by the poet with a wearisome minuteness. It is unlikely that Lydgate lived long after writing this poem, but the exact year of his death has never been ascertained. It happened while he was engaged in translating into rhyme royal a French version of the supposed work of Aristotle, addressed to Alexander, which is variously entitled On the Government of Princes, The Secret of Secrets, and The Philosophers Stone. At the head of one of the MSS. of this work5 (which has never been printed) there is a small picture of Lydgate: he is represented as an old man, dressed in the black habit of the Benedictines, and tendering, bare-headed and on his knees, his book to some august personage above him, who is meant either for Henry VI or St. Edmund the patron of his monastery.