- Alchemical Lydgate
We are moving—slowly—beyond the old slurs against John Lydgate as the apotheosis of dullness in fifteenth-century England. Leaving aside the massive poems that will never be read in full by college classes and admitting that his devotional poetry may remain in latter days a specialized taste, we could agree that his shorter secular poetry deserves a wider audience. Still, it may be a surprise that any reader would find Lydgate magical, even in his own time. At least one fifteenth-century reader-poet found Lydgate positively mystical and transformed Lydgate’s Churl and Bird into an overtly alchemical poem. This version survives in an important alchemical manuscript, British Library MS Harley 2407, among the smears and stains of surrounding recipes actively pursued.1 In early modern England the same version appears in one of the major alchemical collections in early print, Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum (hereafter TCB).2 To this day some scholars continue to accept the alchemical Churl and Bird as an anonymous work in the tradition of hermetic poetry rather than a transmuted moral fable by England’s Lancastrian laureate.
This error may contain deeper truths. First, the evidence suggests that the transformed Lydgate surviving in Harley 2407 may have been accomplished by the most famous adept of a century in England [End Page 429] that was far less dull than its moralists intended—poet and alchemist George Ripley. Nine rhyme-royal stanzas inserted within Churl and Bird in that manuscript develop fully a latent alchemical reading of that poem. Furthermore, the usual assumptions about moralizing laureate poetry in late medieval England and its reception in early Tudor England are challenged by a tradition of alchemical poetry (with curious links to the Romance of Alexander), which remains virtually unknown to medieval scholars despite its important role in early modern literature. Gold itself as a signifier of literary authority comes into quite a different focus when we recognize that an occult aureate literature parallels that of Geoffrey Chaucer and Lydgate in late Middle English: collected by antiquarians and enshrined in early print, widely influential among early modern figures as different as John Dee, Ralph Rabbards, and John Donne.
Churl and Bird (hereafter CB) is a short poem—fifty-five rhyme royal stanzas in the standard edition—that tells the tale of a peasant who captures a bird in his garden and brings the bird in a “praty litel cage” (81) into his house.3 There the bird announces that she cannot sing in prison but offers to perform upon command for the churl in his garden if he frees her. The churl then threatens to eat the bird. After noting that she would make a very small meal, the bird offers three “great wisdoms” in return for her freedom. The churl agrees and releases the bird. The bird duly offers her three wisdoms in the form of prohibitions: do not believe every tale, do not desire things beyond reach, and do not grieve over lost treasure. Then, trilling a song of liberation, the bird confides that the churl had been a fool to let her go, since she had a magical stone—a jagounce—in her body. The fortunate owner of the stone receives a long list of benefits from this jewel, but, the bird concludes, it is useless to discuss the lapidary with a churl. The churl laments his loss. The bird responds that he has forgotten already the three wisdoms she gave him: he believed a tale that was clearly impossible—how could a little bird carry a big gem in her body? Consequently, he grieved over [End Page 430] lost treasure, and he desired what he could never have. And since wisdom is so clearly thrown away on a churl, the bird will no longer sing for him either. The “verba auctoris” summarize the bird’s wisdom once more for the (near-churlish?) reader:
Beeth nat to sorewfful for noon aduersite, Coveitith no thyng that may nat bee And remembrith, wheer that euer ye gon, A cherlis cherl is alwey woo begon.(368–71)
The poem enjoyed a fair circulation in the fifteenth century, judging by the...