restricted access John Lydgate Reads The Clerk’s Tale
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John Lydgate Reads The Clerk’s Tale

Ille referre aliter saepe solebat idem

Ovid, Ars amatoria 2.128

Fifteenth-century England did not leave us its own version of the story of patient Griselda. Between the death of Chaucer and the Griselda revival of early modern England,1 all that remains of this heroine are precisely her remains: scattered references to, and verbal reminiscences of, The Clerk’s Tale.2 Yet these remains, too, have a story to narrate. As Richard Firth Green has recently demonstrated, paying close attention to the contexts in which Griselda’s tale was read and retold can yield valuable insights about the meaning—or meanings—of her troubled marriage to Walter.3

Particularly fascinated by Griselda, John Lydgate conjures her up in many of his writings, from such minor lyrics as “A Ballade on ane Ale-Seller”4 [End Page 209] to more ambitious productions such as the Troy Book5 and the Fall of Princes.6 In so doing, he provides a record both of the Tale’s reception and of the central role it played in his appropriation of Chaucerian poetics. A number of Lydgate’s allusions have been examined in the past,7 whereas others have gone unnoticed, especially in passages where Griselda is not mentioned by name, though also in some where she is. Previous work on Griselda has dealt almost exclusively with authors who rewrote her story rather than with authors who made other uses of it. Studies of Lydgate have considered his attitude to Griselda in a more general context; hence, they have confined their analysis to a few selected passages. As a result, the full scope of Lydgate’s engagement with The Clerk’s Tale remains undocumented and often misunderstood. The present study is the first to focus specifically and extensively on this important feature of Griselda’s fortunes and Lydgate’s poetry.

Two examples from the field of Lydgate scholarship ought to clarify [End Page 210] why a detailed approach to his use of The Clerk’s Tale is called for. Despite their contrasting evaluations of Lydgate, Seth Lerer and Larry Scanlon agree that his reading of the Tale is crucial to his self-definition as a poet. According to Lerer,

As one of the most popular of Chaucer’s fictions in the fifteenth century, [The Clerk’s Tale] provided more than story line or character for later imitators. It presented, too, a paradigm for a writer’s relationship to a deceased author and a living patron. Its Prologue bequeathed to an English readership a way of understanding poetic authority as forms of political sanction (laureate) and rhetorical finesse (aureate), while its Envoy dramatized the strategies for controlling . . . audience response. . . . [Lydgate] seems to live out the condition of the Clerk. He has mined the Clerk’s performance for its vocabulary of poetic praise, its subservient narrative stance, and its overall dramatic structure. . . . Like the Clerk, Lydgate presents vernacular translations of exemplary texts drawn from a humanist past. Like the Clerk, too, he must translate both over languages and over time. . . . While much of Lydgate’s career concerns itself with acting out these strategies, it is the Fall of Princes that develops fully and explicitly the stance of what I will call “writing like the Clerk.”8

Lerer then proceeds to argue that however closely Lydgate models his persona on Chaucer, the Lancastrian poet fails to grasp the complexity of his master’s literary and historical vision. Published in the early days of the movement to reappraise Lydgate, Lerer’s account soon found itself on the wrong side of the critical fence.9 Contesting this and similar accounts, Scanlon bases his analysis of Lydgate’s poetics on another poem that is rife with Chaucerian—and Clerkly—resonances: The Temple of Glass.10 “[I]mportant to Lydgate both as a bearer of vernacular authority [End Page 211] and as an example of female virtue,” Griselda, he argues, “effect[s] a conflation between female agency and poetic authority.” Rather than a narrow concern with fame, Scanlon identifies several discourses at work in this dream vision, all of which converge in the mediating figure of Griselda. “In...