John Lydgate, from Harleian MS 4826
JOHN LYDGATE, English poet, was born at the village of Lydgate, some 6 or 7 mi. from Newmarket. It is, however, with the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds that he is chiefly associated. Probably he was educated at the school attached to the monastery, and in his Testament he has drawn a lively picture of himself as a typical orchard-robbing boy, who had scant relish for matins, fought, and threw creed and paternoster at the cock.
He was ordained sub-deacon in 1389, deacon in 1393, and priest in 1397. These dates are valuable as enabling us to fix approximately the date of his birth, which must have occurred somewhere about 1370. Lydgate passed as a portent of learning, and, according to Bale, he pursued his studies not only at both the English universities but in France and Italy. Koeppel has thrown much doubt on this statement as regards Italy, but Lydgate knew France and visited Paris in an official capacity in 1426. Bale is also the authority for another assertion that figures in what has been aptly termed the poet's "traditional biography," viz. that Lydgate, on completing his own education, kept school for the sons of noblemen and gentlemen. This "traditional biography" prolongs his life to the year 1461, but it is quite improbable that he lived many years after 1446, when Abbot Curteys died and John Baret, treasurer of Bury, signed an extant receipt for a pension which he shared with Lydgate, and which continued to be paid till 1449. If it be true, as Bishop Alcock of Ely affirms, that Lydgate wrote a poem on the loss of France and Gascony, it seems necessary to suppose that he lived two years longer, and thus indications point to the year 1451, or thereabouts, as the date of his death.
Lydgate had a consuming passion for literature, and it was probably that he might indulge this taste more fully that in 1434 he retired from the priorate of Hatfield Broadoak (or Hatfield Regis), to which he had been appointed in June 1423. After 1390 — but whilst he was still a young man — he made the acquaintance of Geoffrey Chaucer, with whose son Thomas he was on terms of considerable intimacy. This friendship appears to have decided Lydgate's career, and in his Troy-book and elsewhere are reverent and touching tributes to his "master." The passages in question do not exaggerate his obligations to the "well of English." The themes of all his more ambitious poems can be traced to Chaucerian sources. The Story of Thebes, for instance, was doubtless suggested by the "romance" which Cressida and her companions are represented as reading when interrupted by Pandarus (Troilus and Cressida, II. xii-xvi). The Falls of Princes, again, is merely the Monk's Tale "writ large."
Lydgate is a most voluminous writer. The Falls of Princes alone comprises 7000 stanzas; and his authentic compositions reach the enormous total of 150,000 lines. Cursed with such immoderate fluency Lydgate could not sustain himself at the highest level of artistic excellence; and, though imbued with a sense of the essentials of poetry, and eager to prove himself in its various manifestations, he stinted himself of the self-discipline necessary to perfection of form. As the result the bulk of his composition is wholly or comparatively rough-hewn. That he was capable of better work than is suggested by his average accomplishment is shown by two allegorical poems — the Complaint of the Black Knight and the Temple of Glass (once attributed to Hawes). In these he reveals himself as a not unworthy successor of Chaucer, and the pity of it is that he should have squandered his powers in a futile attempt to create an entire literature.
For a couple of centuries Lydgate's reputation equalled, if it did not surpass, that of his master. This was in a sense only natural, since he was the real founder of the school of which Stephen Hawes was a distinguished ornament, and which "held the field" in English letters during the long and dreary interval between Chaucer and Spenser. One of the most obvious defects of this school is excessive attachment to polysyllabic terms. Lydgate is not quite so great a sinner in this respect as are some of his successors, but his tendency cannot be mistaken, and John Metham is amply justified in his censure,
Eke John Lydgate, sometime monk of Bury,
His books indited with terms of rhetoric
And half-changed Latin, with conceits of poetry.
Pedantry was an inevitable effect of the early Renaissance. French literature passed through the same phase, from which indeed it was later in emerging; and the ultimate consequence was the enrichment of both languages. It must be conceded as no small merit in Lydgate that, in an age of experiment he should have succeeded so often in hitting the right word. Thomas Warton remarks on his lucidity. Since his writings are read more easily than Chaucer's, the inference is plain — that he was more effectual as a maker of our present English. In spite of that, Lydgate is characteristically medieval — medieval in his prolixity, his platitude, his want of judgment and his want of taste; medieval also in his pessimism, his Mariolatry and his horror of death. These attributes jarred on the sensitive Ritson, who racked his brains for contumelious epithets such as "stupid and disgusting," "cart-loads of rubbish," &c.; and during the greater part of the 18th and 19th centuries Lydgate's reputation was at its lowest ebb. Recent criticism has been far more impartial, and almost too much respect has been paid to his attainments, especially in the matter of metre, though Lydgate himself, with offensive lightheartedness, admits his poor craftsmanship.
Lydgate's most doughty and learned apologist is Dr Schick, whose preface to the Temple of Glass embodies practically all that is known or conjectured concerning this author, including the chronological order of his works. With the exception of the Damage and Destruction in Realms — an account of Julius Caesar, his wars and his death — they are all in verse and extremely multifarious — narrative, devotional hagiological, philosophical and scientific, allegorical and moral, historical, satirical and occasional. The Troy-book, undertaken at the command of Henry V, then Prince of Wales, dates from 1412-1420; the Story of Thebes from 1420-1422; and the Falls of Princes towards 1430. His last work was Secreta Secretorum or Secrets of Old Philosophers, rhymed extracts from a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise.
Lydgate certainly possessed extraordinary versatility, which enabled him to turn from elaborate epics to quite popular poems like the Mumming at Hertford, A Ditty of Women's Horns and London Lickpenny. The humour of this last is especially bright and effective, but, unluckily for the author, the piece is believed to have been retouched by some other hand. The longer efforts partake of the nature of translations from sundry medieval compilations like those of Guido di Colonna and Boccaccio, which are in Latin.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XVII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 157.
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