Andrea Denny-Brown

title.none: Scanlon and Simpson, eds, John Lydgate (Andrea Denny-Brown)

identifier.other: baj9928.0611.007 06.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andrea Denny-Brown, University of California, Riverside,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Scanlon, Larry, and James Simpson. John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. 314. $60.00 0-268-04115-6. ISBN: $30.00 0-028-04116-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.11.07

Scanlon, Larry, and James Simpson. John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. 314. $60.00 0-268-04115-6. ISBN: $30.00 0-028-04116-4.

Reviewed by:

Andrea Denny-Brown
University of California, Riverside

Larry Scanlon and James Simpson's John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England is an important collection of eleven essays devoted to recovering Lydgate's work from centuries of critical neglect and distain. Part of a resurgence of critical interest in Lydgate's poetry that includes Simpson's earlier Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2002), Maura Nolan's John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Nigel Mortimer's John Lydgate's "Fall of Princes": Narrative Tragedy in Its Literary and Political Contexts (Oxford University Press, 2005), not to mention notable recent articles by Paul Strohm, Claire Sponsler, and others, Scanlon and Simpson's collection makes resolutely clear that, as C. David Benson puts it in his essay for the volume, "Lydgate's critical time seems to have come round at last" (148).

Scanlon and Simpson set the tone for this volume by opening with a survey of critical constructions of Lydgate as "Minor Poet" and "Chaucer's foil" (1, 2), from sixteenth century bibliographers and Victorian philology to modern and post-modern literary and cultural criticism. After aptly stating the fundamental reason such a collection should exist--that "Lydgate's poetry (and prose) remains, quite simply, the largest, most underexplored area of Middle English studies" (6)--they propose two basic functions of the book: "to take Lydgate seriously as a major poet" and to offer articles "on the basis of readiness to think well beyond the worn clichés of Lydgate criticism" (6). The editors acknowledge that each of these proposed elements--Lydgate's status as a major poet and new critical perspectives that explore that status--are problematic in that they both are indebted in some way to the same critical traditions of "major authors" and canonical texts that have largely worked to Lydgate's disadvantage. In a fascinating way, their justifications in this regard reveal much about the collection to come: first, they point out the negligible current status of the "death of the author," stating that Lydgate must be associated with a clear corpus to be properly distinguished from Chaucer; and second, they suggest that Lydgate's oeuvre is already "necessarily 'field focused'" in its inherently public, institutional concerns (7). It is in the complicated notions of and relations between "author" and "public" that much of this volume resides.

One should say that in recuperating Lydgate from his critical death, so to speak, this volume also seems to recuperate the contentious idea of the author itself. For it is in that always slippery concept of "authorial intention" that many of the contributors to this volume locate Lydgate's strength as a (major) poet. Phillipa Hardman's skillful opening essay, "Lydgate's Uneasy Syntax," suggests that Lydgate's "apparently imperfect syntax" (20), which critics have repeatedly derided on both grammatical and aesthetic grounds, is often "a deliberate choice intended to produce a particular effect" (20). She takes as an example the much-maligned opening lines of Lydgate's Siege of Thebes, arguing that many of Lydgate's questionable habits of versification--including his penchant for amplification, his abrupt switches in tense and syntax, and his over-use of conjunctions--occur in opening passages, and that they manifest a conscious focus on historical and syntactical connectedness and fluidity that "actively resists the limits inherent in normal syntax and verse structure" (23). The notion of Lydgate creating a deliberate, unique, and resistant poetics of his own nicely counters the recycled critical commonplaces about his syntactically-negligent rambling and his inferior "imitations" of Chaucer's aesthetic style, and it continues as a theme throughout this volume. In addressing Lydgate's authorial self-styling, for example, Robert J. Meyer-Lee's article, "Lydgate's Laureate Pose," argues that Lydgate's often-criticized thematic choices are "necessary and strategic" (39) for his shaping of his laureate identity. Likewise, Larry Scanlon's article, "Lydgate's Poetics: Laureation and Domesticity in the Temple of Glass" discusses a recognizable poetics of continuity and domestication in Lydgate's laureate stance, one that illuminates in new ways the transformative potential of an aesthetic rooted in an imitative relationship with its literary predecessors. In the final article of the collection, Ruth Nisse's "'Was it not Routhe to Se?' Lydgate and the Styles of Martyrdom," this kind of laureate self-fashioning is said to give way in Lydgate's later poems to the poet's self-representation as a virgin-martyr.

Especially evocative in this volume is the relation between Lydgate's intention and his patrons and audiences--particularly the "poet as propagandist" stamp that has clung so determinedly to Lydgate through the ages. Scott-Morgan Straker's "Propaganda, Intentionality, and the Lancastrian Lydgate" addresses the theme most directly, arguing that it is in neglecting "Lydgate's conscious control" (100) that critics have misunderstood and mislabeled Lydgate's political poems and so-called Lancastrian propagandism. Indeed, part of Straker's purpose in this article is to point out the need for intentionality to be recognized "as an interpretive category in discussions of Lydgate's political discourse" and "as a factor in textual meaning" (105). James Simpson's article on Lydgate's Churl and the Bird also probes the poet's relation with his political patrons in terms of poetic intention. Like Hardman's earlier essay on Lydgate's intentional syntax, here Simpson fundamentally questions critical assumptions that certain textual resistances apparent in Lydgate's political poems are examples of "failed intention" (132) on the poet's part to achieve his ostensibly propagandistic ends. Instead, we as readers should "relocate [Lydgate's] intention" (133) to properly understand these gaps and fissures as what they are: examples of cogent opposition to official policy and subtle resistance to Lancastrian attempts to control court poets. In a similar way Jennifer Summit's article "'Stable in study': Lydgate's Fall of Princes and Duke Humphrey's Library" asks us to shift our understanding of literary intentions regarding late medieval and early modern thinkers. She reexamines the relationship between the poet and one of his most progressive patrons, arguing against the critical assumptions that the forward-thinking, "humanist" benefactor and the backward, "medievalizing" poet came to their commissioned project with opposed purposes.

The articles dealing with Lydgate's use of form and genre offer some of the most concrete examples of a new and improved critical understanding of Lydgate. In "The Performance of the Literary: Lydgate's Mummings," a version of which is also included in her book, Maura B. Nolan argues that Lydgate's use of the mumming form is ground-breaking in its creation of not only a new idiom but also "a genuine innovation, both literary and dramatic" in its distinct approaches to royal and mercantile audiences (171). While explaining Lydgate's careful use of literary history and literary topoi according to his different audiences and their forms of cultural knowledge, Nolan restates a critical position articulated in her own book that in investigating the historicity of poetic texts we as scholars need to be careful not to neglect their poetic standing--"that our engagement with their 'writtenness' or 'literariness' does not undermine their status as artifacts of practice" (192). Fiona Somerset's essay also offers a slightly more nuanced critical approach to Lydgate's texts; she shows a certain sensitivity to the intentionalist thrust of some of the earlier essays, for example, and is careful to state that literary meaning can derive "both within and beyond the realm of [the writers'] own intentions to convey some specific message" (259). Yet at the same time her essay on Lydgate's St. Edmund and St. Fremund shows that what appears to be "some sort of failed, disunified attempt at mixing genres between saint's legend and epic" (261) actually appears to be a more conscious effort on Lydgate's part to find the most appropriate genre and ideology for the problematic figure of Henry VI as his limited capabilities began to become apparent.

Even in the few articles in this volume that are less overtly committed to challenging the "worn clichés of Lydgate criticism," Lydgate is shown to be less generally inattentive, clumsy, and incompetent than usually allowed. C. David Benson's article, "Civic Lydgate: The Poet and London," sees in Lydgate's London poems a poet whose voice is that of "the official, public voice of London" (154), and whose purpose is to present the city "as it ought to be, not as it is" (163). Yet this stance also carries a subtle inherent criticism of the status quo; as Benson poses, "why present an ideal unless to challenge reality?" (163). Likewise, while in one breath Rita Copeland's republished essay on "Lydgate, Hawes, and the Science of Rhetoric in the Late Middle Ages" appears to reiterate the more traditional critical narrative about Lydgate's support of Lancastrian agenda, in the other it reveals Lydgate's surprisingly lively role in the late medieval changes of the presentation of rhetoric.

In the end Scanlon and Simpson's volume succeeds in what it sets out to do--it offers a wide array of new readings of Lydgate, challenging in exciting ways certain critical "givens" regarding his lack of literary aesthetic and innovation, his link to the Lancastrian court, and his creative eclipse by Chaucer. The book is also a fascinating succession of critical exercises around the notion of recuperating a "Major Author" in a changing critical climate: bringing a poet from the margins to the center without falling into interpretive tyranny; tiptoeing the notion of authorial "intention" back into the collective discourse; and proffering arguments that straddle both aesthetic purpose and new historicist notions of power.