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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Figures of Love in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas

Brackets contain footnotes; numbers in parentheses refer to line numbers in John Norton Smith’s Oxford Press edition of Lydgate’s Poems.

John Lydgate’s Temple of Glas sketches a definition of love in a leisurely, discursive manner. Talking about love, especially complaining about love, seems far more important than love itself. The precise circumstances of the characters, including the dreamer/narrator remain elusive, and the plentiful use of flores rhetoricae (rhetorical flowers or figures), while they clearly mark the text as literary, often strike the modern reader more as obstacles than aids to understanding. Further, Lydgate is a leading practitioner (though by no means the first or last) of aureate diction, the use of words of Latin (or French) rather than Germanic origin (the sort once called Saxon). [1] Apart from the transformation in readers’ reception of poetic devices that once seemed elegant and artful yet which may now strike many as artificial and distracting, Lydgate’s mere volume of work is daunting. He wrote almost a hundred and fifty thousand lines, perhaps the largest oeuvre of any English poet.

One might expect scholarly influences in Lydgate who was educated at Bury St. Edmund’s where he is later thought to have founded a school of rhetoric for lay nobles. His learning impressed his own era, and his reputation remained high for several generations after his death. Stephen Hawes in The Pastime of Pleasure (1509) praises him as an “experte in poetry” and a “floure of eloquence” whose “termes eloquent” and “clowdy figures” are the very glories of his work. Fifty years later he is to John Bale the greatest writer of the age for his erudition and eloquence [2], yet he was already becoming a specialized taste. The straightforward and colloquial Skelton says in “Phillip Sparrowe” that he has difficulty finding “the sentence of [Lydgate’s] mynde” “he wryteth too haute.” [3]

Many readers have commented that much of the story is obscure. The relations between the dreamer and the male and female figures he observes are never clarified, nor do many specific details of their frustrations emerge. From the opening lines describing the speaker’s mood of depression, Lydgate lingers on the subjective, the lovers’ feelings rather than specific narrative events. Indeed, the powerful love-longing the characters experience is very closely paired with the impediments they encounter. Only when the blinding sun of desire is temporarily dimmed can the speaker really observe his surroundings. For the most part, the work proceeds through allusion and indirection. To J. Allen Mitchell, the work is “enigmatic” [4] For Schick, Lydgate’s poetry was at its best when most conventional. He admires the “vitiated” and “overwrought” initial description of the lady. [5]

When the dreamer first enters Venus’ temple, a remarkable transparent structure, “like ise ifrore,” “clere as eny crystal,” (20, 22) he observes on every wall, the “faire image” of celebrated lovers (45) “lifli” and “wonder fresh,” though “with compleynt” and “doleful chere.” (51-2) None is represented in an attitude of satisfaction and, though they decorate the Temple of Venus, several have little to do with romantic love. Nonetheless, standing at the opening of the poems, just after the dreamer’s passing through the mysterious wicket, this series of allusive portraits introduces and epitomizes his theme. Though they seem to be purely decorative and adventitious, their constellation in fact defines the topic of love in a precise if complex way. In a set piece of a hundred lines which seems to impede development since nothing happens, Lydgate provides a rich symbolic presentation of love in which the courtly plays only a limited part.

The figures themselves could be called courtly, though, in the sense that they provide prestigious ornamentation, catering to an educated elite, demonstrating the author’s mastery of his poetic craft (in which tropes, the “flowers of rhetoric,” play so great a part) as well as his familiarity with Classical literature. Of the twenty-two famous lovers depicted in the temple, eighteen derive from Classical Greece and Rome, lending the authority of both their sheer antiquity and the suggestive intertextuality of their associations with the poems of the ancients.

As artworks they signify beauty and link to a long tradition of ekphrasis. [6] Venus herself is represented anadyomene, rising from the sea, her initial appearance in the poem corresponding to her origin in myth. This is the first of many of the goddess’ transformations in Lydgate’s poems, but it is already conflicted, linking associations of danger and distress and the fear of pre-creation chaos with moist sexuality and pleasure. (53) [7]

Though called “sondri louers” (46) comparable to suitors before a court of love such as Eleanor of Aquitaine was said to have held in Poitiers, their situations are various indeed. Immediately following the list of lovers represented on the temple’s walls, one learns that they represent a great many others. Indeed, the temple precincts are said to be crowded with thousands of people who have come to present appeals to Venus (143–246). Behind this host is, of course, the poem’s readers and humanity in general, whose pains of love may be assumed to be mirrored in the Classical images.

Most indeed lament an unrequited affection, often with the most severe consequences. Fully seven of the characters die, their passion proving literally lethal. [8] Dido. Medea, Ariadne, and Phyllis were jilted, while Thisbe and Canacee encounter other obstacles. Most striking in deviance from any concept of romantic love are the victims of rape: the Sabine women, Lucretia, Daphne, Europa, Alkmene, and, most powerfully, Philomena. The authority of Venus for Lydgate extends even to aggressive and violent acts.

As for fulfillment in love, five faithful wives are mentioned, but of those five, Alcestis and Lucretia die, while Griselda is subjected to monstrous fraud. Penelope is the only real icon of marital satisfaction, while Philology is a special case which requires separate consideration. Iseult and Helen are adulterers, highly admired though tragic heroines of extra-marital love of the sort celebrated (and then condemned) by Andreas Capellanus. Only Penelope projects a remnant of a possibility of a happy marriage.

Philology, placed last among the figures, also suggests harmonious stability, but she is far too much an abstraction to be taken for anyone’s lived experience. Her appearance to cap Lydgate’s list implies the elusiveness, if not the impossibility, of a wholly successful love affair. In Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii Mercury is refused by Wisdom, Divination, and the Soul before successfully courting Philology. Though final knowledge, the future, and an essential ego may escape us, we have still books, we have still words. Though they prove only a mirror, a mirror is a marvelous tool. Since the reader encounters Philology while consuming Lydgate’s text, the case is made. Author and audience are at one. The fittest love is love of words, philology.

The only figure after that of Philology is Canacee. By this reference, Lydgates reinforces his point about reading, nodding, as he does on other occasions, to his debt to Master Chaucer, thus including modern as well as ancient literature and learning in his purview. Not only has Philology been “istellified” (136) for her “sapience.” She has also managed to capture the author as well as the reader in a self-reflective mirror. Love may be obscure in its origins and direction, it may prove unmanageable or shipwreck in a storm or suffer attack from pirates. The celibate monk Lydgate points in the end to the faithful wife Philology as the most worthy lover of all.

1. Orwell objected to such language in modern times in his “Politics and the English Language,” saying Latinate words are characteristic of “bad writers.” Even today learned authors, even in the sciences, and even when technical terms are not counted, far outpace popular ones in their use of words of Greek and Latin derivation. Theophrastus in On Diction uses the term hellenismos, later in Latin called latinitas, to mean correctness. Of course the classical authors were writing in Greek and Latin. Thus a more direct equivalent in English would have been the use of Germanic words descended from Old English. A good survey is available in John Cooper Mendenhall’s Aureate Terms: A Study in Literary Diction of the Fifteenth Century.

Appreciators of literary vituperation will relish Joseph Ritson’s devastating 1802 attack on Lydgate in his Bibliographica Poetica, calling him a “voluminous, prosaick, and driveling monk” whose “stupid and fatiguing productions ... by no means deserve the name of poetry ... are neither worth collecting ... nor even worthy of preservation.”

2. In the Scriptorum Illustrium Majoris Brytannie Quam nunc Angliam et Scotiam Vocant: Catalogus.

3. ll. 804 ff. It is plain that even in Skelton’s time Lydgate’s meaning was obscured by his style.

4. Mitchell edited the poem for the Medieval Institute edition.

5. Page cxxxv, Early English Text Society edition. Still, Schick considered the poems’ poetic value as a whole to be “very small, almost nil,” (xiv)

6. Books two and three of the Greek Anthology, for instance, are made up of ekphrastic poems. The Homeric description of the Shield of Achilles (Iliad, XVIII), Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “In the Spouter Inn” of Moby Dick are other examples.

7. She appears also as one of the lovers. (126-8)

8. Dido, Adonis, Iseult, Thisbe, Phyllis, Polyxena, and Lucretia.

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