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  • The Emergence of the Literary in John Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady
  • Robert J. Meyer-Lee

The best-known lines in John Lydgate’s Life of Our Lady—a highly ambitious, six-book, 5,932-line mixture of Marian adoration, instruction, and narrative—are doubtless the ones he directs not at the Virgin but at his recently deceased poetic forbearer. The 28-line passage begins thus:

And eke my maister Chauser is ygrave, The noble Rethor, poete of Brytayne, That worthy was the laurer to haue Of poetrye, and the palme atteyne; That made firste to distille and rayne The golde dewe dropes of speche and eloquence Into our tunge thurgh his excellence,

And fonde the floures firste of Retoryke, Our Rude speche only to enlumyne; That in our tunge, was neuere noon hym like.


It has often been observed about these and similar lines in Lydgate’s corpus how singularly focused they are on Chaucer’s stylistic and rhetorical accomplishments, to the exclusion of all other qualities.2 Thomas Hoccleve’s roughly contemporary eulogies of Chaucer—composed around 1411—are comparatively less hyperbolic in respect to this quality and include, for example, a nod to Chaucer as “heir in philosophie / To Aristotle.”3 Many [End Page 322] reasons have been offered for the narrowness of Lydgate’s praise, one of the most evident being that he celebrates his predecessor for precisely the formal tendencies that frequently characterize his own writing—the excessive rhetorical ornamentation and Latinate diction that he collectively terms aureate.4 In so doing, he calls attention to those tendencies as they are exemplified in this very passage. Moreover, as argued in different ways by Rita Copeland and Lois Ebin, Lydgate’s conception of “Retoryke” here and elsewhere (and especially in the Fall of Princes) represents a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of Ciceronian rhetoric as, specifically, poetic eloquence.5 With this paean to Chaucer, then, Lydgate claims that his own “poetrye”—as reflexively exemplified by this passage’s aureation—possesses a special discursive value. The very narrowness of his praise of Chaucer represents his attempt to delineate this discursive quality, something like what we now call the literary, and to provide for it both a description and an illustration.

Moments such as these are crucial to any literary tradition, for in signaling consciousness about the literary (whatever may constitute the idea), they provide the notional center around which a tradition may be imagined, either by the authors themselves (as in this case) or by subsequent readers and writers. Yet these moments are not at all inherent in, or even necessarily very typical of, literary composition. They arise out of specific historical circumstances and thus have particular cultural and political implications, among others. Stephen Greenblatt has drawn our attention to the historical importance of “the status of the literary, its position in shifting and contested cultural systems”—that is, to how distinct versions of the literary arise and the uses to which they are put within specific historical contexts. Greenblatt’s further observation that “literary history is always the history of the possibility of literature” implies, to me, that authors’ articulations of this possibility, especially when these articulations are self-exemplifying, form a special sort of historical evidence, along with the contingencies that enable them and the effects they incur.6 How and [End Page 323] why Lydgate’s articulations of the “possibility of literature” emerge among “shifting and contested cultural systems” in the Life of Our Lady—which cannot be dated with confidence but was most likely composed sometime between 1409 and 14227—is the topic of this article.

My focus on this poem recognizes that one of the innovations of fifteenth-century English poets, as their critical recuperation over the last two decades has emphasized, is their explicit celebration of a vernacular literary per se, an idea that appears more inchoately and with less confidence in the productions of their Ricardian predecessors, but which in the fifteenth century surfaces as a signal feature of proto-high-culture English verse.8 This article explores the form of and motivations behind this characteristic of this period’s verse by examining one of its origins...