A short biography of a medieval poet
1. John Lydgate wrote one of the first true epic poems in the English language. Lydgate’s Troy Book runs to a whopping 30,000 lines, making it one of the longest poems in the English literature (as well as one of the earliest Lydgate was born in around 1370 and died in about 1451). To put that in perspective, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, itself not exactly a short work, is just over 17,000 lines. In other words, Lydgate’s Troy Book is big. (Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is 35,000 lines long, and so beats Lydgate’s poem. And The Faerie Queene is a gargantuan epic.)
2. Lydgate’s Troy Book was commissioned by ‘Prince Hal’, the man who became King Henry V. Like many medieval poets, Lydgate had a royal patron and in this case it was the young Prince Henry, future King of England and victor at the Battle of Agincourt, who commissioned him to write his vast epic about Trojan history.
3. Indeed, Lydgate was a hugely prolific poet. Lydgate’s total poetic output amounts to a good 145,000 lines – so the Troy Book, colossal though it is, represents only about a fifth of his total oeuvre. It’s hardly a surprise that there is no definitive ‘collected works’ of John Lydgate in print!
4. Before he became a monk, he was not exactly a saint. Lydgate later admitted that he stole apples, got up late, and pretended to be ill to avoid having to do things – and, most bizarrely of all, that he ‘made mouths at people like a wanton ape’. He then joined the Benedictine Order and left his apple-scrumping and mouth-making days behind him.
5. A young John Lydgate was also a friend of one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s sons. It’s quite fitting that Chaucer’s son Thomas was friends with Lydgate, since Lydgate greatly admired Chaucer’s poetry. But like other medieval poets of the age – notably John Gower and the Pearl poet – Lydgate at his best offers a distinctive voice in medieval poetry, not simply Chauceresque homage or pastiche. However, the fact remains that he is largely unread outside of universities with medieval literature courses. Where to start with his prolific output? The Poetry Foundation website offers an excerpt from The Testament of John Lydgate – it’s as good a place as any.
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Image: John Lydgate, via Wikimedia Commons.